Spotlight on a Legend: The Cosworth DFV

It’s hard to get your head round just how much of an impact the Cosworth DFV has had on Formula 1. Without it though, an entire decade’s worth of wins and championships in the sport will have played out very differently.

Many teams even owe their entire existence to this engine, including Tyrrell and Minardi (the precursors to Mercedes and AlphaTauri respectively), as well as McLaren and Williams.

The Origin Story

In 1966, the FIA increased engine capacity from 1.5L to 3L. Introduced at very short notice, most teams were stuck making do with hastily bored and stroked versions of their existing 1500cc engines. Lotus was one such team; both their BRM and Coventry Climax 2L V8s were underpowered, and the experimental BRM 3L H16 engine barely worked at all. Meanwhile, Jack Brabham and his Brabham-Repco BT20 took both titles that year.

Lotus however, had a plan. Through the supremely successful campaigning of the Ford-Lotus Cortinas in touring car racing, they had acquired Ford factory support for the Formula 1 team, giving them some sway over the American giant’s motorsport decisions. Using this, they convinced Ford Europe to collaborate with Cosworth on a brand new F1 engine for the 1967 season.

The Lotus 49 was the first F1 car to use the DFV

The DFV had pace fresh out the box. Comfortably surpassing the Repco engine for performance, it won on debut at Zandvoort with Jim Clark behind the wheel. Clark took a further three wins at the British, American and Mexican rounds of the championship. But it wasn’t enough.

Lotus was infamous for building fast but fragile cars, something Clark’s team mate Graham Hill came to learn the hard way. Of the nine rounds Hill entered, seven would end in retirement. This ultimately blunted their performance allowing Denny Hulme to take the title, another for Brabham.

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Despite this, Lotus had shown their hand. The whole grid knew of their engine’s potential and it was only a matter of time until it was fully exploited. Ford knew this too, and became concerned about bad publicity. It could all too easily be spun that they were only successful because they were competing against inferior machinery. Intent to avoid this, Ford decided to openly market the engine through Cosworth, with Colin Chapman reluctantly agreeing.

What became available

Ford Europe had placed huge investment into the DFV’s development. They made a conscious decision not to rush it into service for the first year of the 3L formula. Instead, Cosworth were given the time they needed to properly develop the engine before their assault on the ’67 season. This went as far as developing the FVA, an Inline-4 variant and essentially a single bank of the F1 V8, for Formula 2.

Lessons learned campaigning the F2 spec FVA were directly applied to it’s DFV big brother

The availability of the DFV was a massive turning point for the sport. This was a lightweight, powerful and reliable engine (most of Lotus’ DNFs in ’67 were failures of their own gearbox and suspension), that anyone with aspirations of glory could just go out and buy. As well as this, the DFV was cheap, even by the standards of the day. For the equivalent of £130,000 today, you could by an F1 engine that easily had the capability to win races.

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The design also lent itself to being mounted as a stressed member. This meant that the engine could be bolted directly to the back of a monocoque chassis, then mount the rear suspension directly to the gearbox. The result: a lighter yet stiffer car compared to a conventional tubular frame.

Glory and Ground Effect

In 1968, five teams chose the Cosworth, the next year, 13. You can see a trend developing here. It was all the proof anyone needed that the DFV was the engine to have. This early demand meant that later entries to the sport had even easier access, since both engine and parts supply were even more readily-available.

McLaren’s beautiful 1968 M7A was another car to make full use of the DFV

This escalated to the point that during the 1970s, new entries could almost consider producing an F1 “kit car”. Buy a DFV, pair it to a Hewland FG400 gearbox, then bolt the whole affair into an aluminium chassis with the DFV a fully-stressed member. March, Matra and Wolf among many others found success in this method, all taking wins in their debut seasons as constructors.

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The introduction of ground effect aerodynamics in the late 70s only reinforced the Cosworth V8’s popularity in the F1 paddock. Its small size and comparatively acute 90° bank angle was a godsend for aerodynamicists at the time. This kept it out the way of the venturi tunnels that now swept under the bodies of the cars, maximising the downforce they created.

Prioritizing the sculpted sidepods of ground effect cars like the Lotus 79 kept the DFV in favour

The engine’s closest rivals were the Ferrari and Alfa Romeo Flat-12s, whose wide and low design seriously compromised the underbody aerodynamics. This led Brabham to develop their infamous BT46B Fan Car, in a desperate attempt to claw back downforce.

Turbo Troubles

As the eighties rolled in, Cosworth’s near monopoly on the sport began to waver. Renault had shown the way forward in 1977, and turbocharging was gaining traction. By 1982, they were joined by Brabham-BMW, Toleman-Hart and Ferrari in the hunt for turbocharged torque.

These teams had a slight power advantage, this increasing at high altitude tracks. They could also increase boost pressure at will, allowing for blisteringly fast qualifying runs or to ease overtaking.

The 1977 Renault was the first turbocharged Formula 1 car and marked the beginning of the end for the DFV in F1

Cosworth’s retaliation was the DFY, a new variant of the DFV with a revised aspect ratio and updated valvetrain. Well-funded privateers such as McLaren and Williams also modified their V8s independently, producing lightened pistons and conrods. The result for either was around 520bhp. Still down on a turbo car, but the lighter weight and lower fuel loads required for the V8 countered this.

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In 1982, for the first time in years, the Cosworth had proper competition. Ultimately, reliability woes blunted the boosted challenge. The turbo cars were much harder on gearboxes and brakes. The turbochargers themselves were also highly suspect. Keke Rosberg’s Williams-Cosworth took the drivers crown, but it was Ferrari that secured the constructors honours.

In 1982, the turbo cars often led away, but struggled to last the distance

The following year would see Honda, Porsche and Alfa Romeo present turbo offerings. Piquet would take the driver’s crown with his Brabham-BMW, whilst Ferrari secured a second constructors title. The 16-year-old Cossie had one last victory in it, Michele Alboreto taking victory at Detroit in his Tyrrell. But it was clear the writing was on the wall.

1985 was the original DFV’s final race. Martin Brundle’s Tyrrell marked its swansong at the Austrian Grand Prix. Such had been the improvement of the turbocharged engines, the FIA decided to make them mandatory for the 1986 season onwards. The DFV and its DFY sibling were retired at last.

Life After Death

As it turned out, the DFV’s retirement wouldn’t last long. 1000bhp was child’s play during qualifying, but coming from such a small capacity engine in cars weighing no more than 500kg was a disaster in waiting, all at costs that made even the decadent world of F1 shudder. 3.5L naturally aspirated cars were reintroduced in 1987, with turbos banned outright in 1989.

This marked an unexpected return for the 20-year-old engine. Cosworth modified the DFY for reintroduction, increasing capacity to the 3.5L limit and modernising where necessary. Compared to what would come later, the new DFZ was incredibly basic, but that was just the point. It was a cheap option for cash-strapped teams to get through the end of the turbo era, while Ford and Cosworth worked on a clean sheet design.

Cars like Benetton’s B188 continued the DFV’s legacy on

Now, that should be the end of it, but as you may have worked out, this V8 has a habit of sticking around. Since 1987, Benetton represented Ford’s factory presence in F1, and knew the DFZ’s modest updates wouldn’t cut it. Using the engine’s basic architecture as a base, the team produced their own engine specifically for the new formula.

The new DFR debuted in 1988. With 620bhp available, it was easily the most powerful N/A car in the field, 30bhp more than the DFZ. Unfortunately, McLaren-Honda’s whitewash of the season put pay to any championship aspirations. 3rd overall was still a valiant effort, with Nannini and Boutsen reaching the podium seven times.

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The DFR was made available to interested customers the following year, replacing the DFZ altogether. However, no one could repeat it’s previous success. Benetton again led the Cosworth charge, but could only manage 4th in the constructors.

Age had finally caught up to the DF- series. While race proven, no amount of improvements could keep up with the new breed of engines. The lack of a pneumatic valvetrain was its biggest problem, preventing it from reaching the ever increasing engine speeds of its rivals. It finally retired in 1991, 24 years on from the original’s introduction, as Ford and Cosworth focused on their new HB engine.

So there you have it. I don’t think a single engine has done more for Formula 1. But that’s not all. The DFV became rather well travelled throughout it’s 25 year career. Keep an eye out for our follow-up article, where I will show you just how far reaching this little V8’s aspirations were.

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