Boom & Bust

No other decade matches the 1980s for visceral excitement, but it was a bloated era, a time of excess, and the repercussions continue to resonate today

Niki Lauda 1982

The turn of the 1980s was nothing like what that decade became, but a much greyer time of restraint and stagnation. The late 1970s economic gloom carried right on through to the new decade with falling GDP, industrial unrest and closing factories. Unemployment continued to rise and, although stricter monetary control had brought inflation under control, it was at the expense of even greater austerity for many. In Britain and America, in particular, the industrial base was crumbling as the centre of industrial gravity migrated to Asia. But then something extraordinary happened in Britain. Rather than solving those problems, it transcended them. Almost by accident, Britain became a commercial/financial economy rather than an industrial one. The ‘big bang’ of October 1986 led London to be transformed into a global financial powerhouse by deregulation and the concurrent advent of electronic – rather than face-to-face – share trading. And so the good times rolled and the ’80s finally got its identity, one of brash and conspicuous consumption, led by the effect on the economy of turbocharging the financial sector.

An uncannily similar process was unfolding in the F1 of the time – and at the root of it all was the actual turbocharger, the power-multiplying potency of which didn’t just apply to combustion chambers. It also had a profound impact upon the very structure of F1 and threatened to bring walls tumbling down. It was an instrument that arrived at the perfect time for the road car manufacturers to pierce the previously impenetrable shell of the specialist constructors. Ever since the late ’50s, F1 had been largely the preserve of these small, independent teams scattered around the south of England, buying in engines and components, adapting them to create ever more specialised machines that advanced the art and science of the racing car to a point well beyond the relevance or detailed understanding of the factories that had previously dipped into and out of Grand Prix racing. The lifeblood for these independents was the Cosworth DFV, a masterpiece of packaging and power, F1’s best engine available off the shelf, ready to mate up to the similarly ubiquitous Hewland gearbox.

Keith Duckworth’s understanding of the requirements of an F1 engine were better than anyone else’s (with the possible exception of Ferrari’s Mauro Forghieri) and, between 1968 and the late ’70s emergence of the turbo, his DFV became a formidable barrier to factory F1 participation. Introduced in 1967, it was available to all from ’68, the year that the final major manufacturer team – Honda – left.

But by the late ’70s, the manufacturers were beginning to sniff around F1 once more. Bernie Ecclestone had banded together the British specialists that comprised more than 70 per cent of the grid and had used the power derived from being their representative to electrify the sport commercially through television contracts. The sport’s global reach was growing fast and the world’s car producers began to wonder if they should not be getting onto the bandwagon. If only there was a way of ensuring success…

ENTER RENAULT AND its 1977 left-field gamble with the turbo (despite the regulation halving of the 3-litre permitted capacity for naturally aspirated engines). So revolutionary was the technology, so far divorced from the specialised knowledge that had made the Cosworth so formidable, it was the key that opened F1’s door to the manufacturers. The new technology wiped the slate of accumulated knowledge clean – and what’s more it demanded the sort of R&D budget that only a road car manufacturer could contemplate.

For the ’80s, attracted by the turbo, the factories returned. Joining Renault and Fiat (though Ferrari) in factory-based turbo F1 programmes would be Alfa Romeo, BMW, Honda and Porsche. The template had been fundamentally changed. The very cornerstones of F1 success had been redefined as the turbo whistled into the paddock, laid the old ways to waste and created mayhem. And opportunity. Oh, so much opportunity.

F1 budgets were peanuts to these manufacturers. So long as it could be justified by marketing. Make up a number, throw it to the wall, see if it sticks. McLaren’s Ron Dennis was the quickest to understand the full implications. He was the first to grasp that the growth Bernie was providing was only going to continue – and that he could leverage his team’s future on that growth.

He’d started doing it by campaigning John Hogan for ever more Marlboro money, but the arrival of the car manufacturers put things on an altogether different scale. “Ron was so determined for McLaren not only to win but dominate,” recalled John Hogan in 2015, “and he realised the only way to do this was to outspend Ferrari. That was his simple philosophy and it was very successful. Every couple of years it was time to renegotiate the Marlboro deal and we’d have this long-running argument as he ramped up what he was asking for. I’d say, ‘Ron, are you calculating that number based on TV exposure or cost of engineering?’ and he’d say, ‘Both.’ But marketing numbers are not well quantified… with all the money coming in as a result of marketing justification for expansion, they cannot be controlled… But then when Honda joined with McLaren in ’88, they were outspending Marlboro three to one.”

Manufacturer money unleashed team spending on wind tunnels, materials technology, electronics, fuel, R&D, staff, facilities, all on a scale previously unknown. And there seemed no end to it. It just kept getting more – and more was never enough. In 1980 Williams won the world championship powered by DFVs, with 50 people and a budget of £2.2 million. By 1989 McLaren was employing 400 and spending £50 million to win the same title – and that was car manufacturer money, beyond the scale even of the tobacco companies. The expansion was far from over and would continue for another decade and a half. The value of traded shares in London has increased 1500 per cent since the ’86 big bang. F1 budgets have increased by about 15,000 per cent in the same time (from around £2 million to £300 million).

Just as electronics had uncorked the financial potential of the city traders, so they also released the turbo motor’s latent monstrous force. Electronic control of fuelling and ignition allowed these volatile beasts to be operated on the margins of detonation – and the power rewards of that were immense. The pre-electronics turbo F1 engine of the early ’80s was delivering perhaps 600bhp in race trim, 750 at 3-bar boost for qualifying. But compared to the 500bhp DFV, all the extra was doing was paying for the greater bulk, weight and cooling – and proving unreliable into the bargain. But with electronic control and the concurrent development of special fuels, the potential of the turbo went off the scale. By 1985, on more than 4-bar boost, the Renaults and BMWs were qualifying with something in excess of 1300bhp and maybe as much as 1500 (no one was really sure, as the dynos didn’t read that far), and racing with 850-900bhp. No normally aspirated 3-litre – with the contemporary 11,000-12,00rpm limitation of mechanical valve springs – was going to live with that.

It was the turbo era that best summed up the culture of excess, engines thrown away after one sacrificial super-boosted qualifying lap that turned metal molten.

McLaren MP44 engine F1

ASIDE FROM MAKING the mid ’80s perhaps the most viscerally exciting F1 era of all time, what these developments also did was take F1 out of the exclusive hands of the independents. These specialists were still there, of course, but now relied upon partnerships with road car manufacturers for competitive motive power. They could be thankful it had even played out that way – for the fear among the teams at the turn of the decade was that other manufacturers would follow Renault’s lead in establishing their own genuine factory teams and turbo-boost the specialists out of existence. Instead, most of the car manufacturers preferred just to supply the engines and so BMW partnered Brabham’s Nelson Piquet to the first turbo-powered F1 title, Porsche partnered McLaren, Honda’s first titles were with Williams and so on.

Even after the turbo had been legislated out of existence (with progressively tighter limits on boost pressure and fuel allowance before being banned outright from ’89), the manufacturers stayed around regardless. The turbo had been the instrument that had emboldened them to join in but now that they were here, getting global exposure for what to them was peanut money, they weren’t about to leave. Besides, even the enforced return to naturally aspirated engines allowed them to express their new-found racing engine mastery as the Renault innovation of pneumatically controlled valves (introduced on its turbo engine of ’86) was applied by them all to take the revs of the new normally-aspirated motors into a different stratosphere to the once-invincible DFV.

For all that F1 offered the manufacturers great value for money, for participants and the sport itself they represented an immense scale of investment and many dynasties were built upon their spend. They thereby brought an intrinsic power and influence to the sport and were courted by all. Initially Jean-Marie Balestre as the governing body’s president had enlisted their support in limiting the power of the Ecclestone-led independent teams. Subsequently, after a truce was reached between Balestre and Ecclestone, the teams courted the manufacturers as part of their competitive striving.

Following the plot of Animal Farm, Bernie Ecclestone then graduated from being the representative of the teams, keeping them from oppression, to instead representing his own interests in exploiting the vast commercial potential of the new manufacturer-supported F1, helped by his friend and fellow former rebel Max Mosley as Balestre’s replacement for FIA president. As this sub-plot developed, certain team owners saw themselves in the role of the oppressed – even though they’d become vastly richer as part of Ecclestone’s cast than they’d ever have done left to their own devices. Ron Dennis, Frank Williams and Ken Tyrrell felt that Ecclestone had effectively stolen the sport from the teams. They reached this conclusion in the late ’90s when an attempted floatation of the sport required the books to be open to anyone’s scrutiny for the first time and they discovered how vast the cake had become and how small their slice of it was.

Those two hard points of reality – the power of the manufacturers and the adversarial relationship between the teams, governing body and commercial rights holder – have defined the sport ever since. They are effectively the hangover from the excess of the ’80s, the price that had to be paid for the riches the sport has enjoyed as a result of the turbo-initiated manufacturer investment. Just as banking deregulation in the ’80s wider world brought vast riches, so it incubated a virus that would come to have its day of sub-prime loan reckoning. The same was true of the turbo in F1.

SO IN THE last two decades we’ve had an F1 systemically inflexible, locked into a culture of internal dispute, because the interests of the four power groupings (governing body, manufacturers, participants, commercial rights holder) cannot be aligned. It’s played out in many ways over the years as alliances and interests have shifted: governing body against manufacturers, teams against governing body, commercial rights holders against teams, team against team, commercial rights holder against governing body.

But regardless of the prevailing dispute, F1 has suffered. It has not been able to simultaneously address its many challenges. Instead, as one group or the other has prevailed, only one issue at a time is ever tackled, invariably mutually exclusive to resolution of the others. So we have had attempts at enlivening the show that have led to a technical and competitive dumbing down, an initiative to first reduce (for safety) then increase (for drama) the speeds of the cars, an attempt at making the cars more overtaking-friendly (by simplifying the bodywork) negated a few seasons later by an initiative to reduce lap times (partly by allowing more bodywork complexity). A hybrid engine formula has been introduced (largely through the political pressure of the manufacturers) that the fans and more than half the teams hate. Technical limitations have been introduced as an attempt at cost control, even as the top budgets have increased regardless because no one has the political power to control the competitively driven spend. The top teams, with a combined chassis/engine deployment of more than 1000 people, have far too big a spend to comply with restrictions appropriate to the smaller teams. The commercial equation has become imbalanced as costs have risen, while income has peaked and begun to fall. Circuit promoters struggle to turn a profit because of the fees F1 imposes to feed both its shareholders and stakeholders. It all costs vastly more than is needed to provide a show that is both entertaining and technically interesting, yet is limited in both those endeavours.

Even as F1 under its new ownership tries to plot a better-managed, less reactive, course it seems already to have accepted compromise in its post-2020 engine formula. The fans are screaming for a return to loud and lairy engines and to the sort of renegade spirit that led them to fall in love with F1, yet instead there is a plan for continuing with the hybrids. Because, in order to more fully control the sport, Liberty Media feels it must present a united front with the FIA (thus avoiding much of the instability arising from constantly shifting allegiances) – and the FIA in turn insists that it must not be out of step with the wishes of the car manufacturers. Even though these wishes are clearly in conflict with those of a sizeable proportion of the sport’s fan base.   

This all stems from the inflexibility of size and vested interest. Success has made the sport vastly bigger and less manoeuvrable than it was before the turbocharger took on the role of a Trojan horse loaded with dollars.