Way back in the 60’s, two engine designers and builders, Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth, decided to combine their talents. Their first Cosworth Formula One engine went into the back of a Lotus 49 driven by Jim Clark in 1967. It won its first race and went right on winning for the next 20 years. Cosworth continued as a Formula One engine supplier right up until the end of the 2013 season.
For 2014 and beyond, the powers that be in Formula One decided the sport needed to be more eco-friendly and “relevant.”So they mandated an end to the old V8 engines and ushered in a new era based on 1.6 liter turbo charged engines coupled to ultra-sophisticated hybrid systems featuring 300 horsepower electric motors. The result is like driving a Prius, albeit one with rear wheel drive and 850 total horsepower under the hood!
For the past decade, the sport has been saying it needs to drastically reduce costs so the smaller teams can compete. But developing the new power units (we can’t just call them engines anymore) has proven to be incredibly expensive. The new hybrid engine power units are costing teams upwards of $50 million dollars a year. So much for keeping costs down.
The expense of putting together a new engine package proved too much for Cosworth. But that was before the British government gave the company a grant to construct a new, modern factory at its Northampton headquarters. According to MotorSport.com, the new facility will allow Cosworth to “deliver the next generation of automotive internal combustion engines.”
Does that mean Cosworth is back in the Formula One game? Reporter Mathias Brunner thinks so. He says that none other than Bernie Ecclestone is pushing Cosworth to make an F1 spec power unit that is more affordable than those available from Mercedes, Renault and Ferrari and may be backing the project with some of his own money. Why would Bernie be involved?
Because the pit lane is rife with rumors that as many as 3 of the current teams cannot afford to continue and will withdraw at the end of 2014. Formula One is contractually obligated to provide a minimum of 20 cars at every race or face the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in race sanctioning fees from promoters. If it loses 3 teams, there will be only 16 cars on the grid at Melbourne next March unless the remaining teams agree to field three cars instead of the normal two. So far, all of the teams except Ferrari are opposed to the idea.. Bernie has to find a way to keep the back markers in the game or face a financial disaster.
No one doubts Cosworth, with its 50 years of experience, can build a competitive engine. But the secret to success with the new technical regulations lies in mastering the complex computer software that controls the engine, turbocharger, energy recovery system, transmission, differential and drive-by-wire rear brakes that comprise the new power units. Renault has found it all but impossible to do so and even Ferrari has struggled mightily to master the new rules package.
But time is critically short. One does not just buy an engine and stuff it into any old chassis and go racing in Formula One. Today’s cars are virtually shrink wrapped around the power units with thousands of hours of wind tunnel time devoted to keeping all the components cool while reducing aerodynamic drag as much as possible. It usually takes a year to get it right, but there are only 4 months before the start of winter testing for the 2015 season. And Cosworth hasn’t even started developing its engine package yet.
Which means a Cosworth power unit couldn’t make it to the grid until 2016 at the earliest. Will the smaller teams be able to hang on that long? Former team owner Giancarlo Minardi says he was able to operate on an annual budget of $30 million dollars. Today, Ferrari reportedly spends $300 million dollars a year on its Formula One program. With the sport’s focus on being “relevant” regardless of cost, all of Bernie’s money and all of Bernie’s men may be too little, too late for Formula One as we know it to survive.