Crunching engines

October 29, 2008

The story of the world’s last great financial crisis and its effect on motor racing can more or less be summed up in two words: Harry Miller.  Miller is perhaps the single greatest figure in the history of American single seater car production.  Together with his chief mechanic and engine guru Fred Offenhauser, his factory’s cars completely dominated the single seater scene on the other side of the Atlantic from the 1920s until the 1960s.

During the roaring 20s, 83% of the field at the Indianapolis 500 was made up of Miller cars, with the marque taking victories in 1922, 1923, 1926, 1928 and 1929.  The thirties proved similarly fruitful, with further wins in 1933 and 1934.  In the period between 1928 and 1938, every single winning car was powered by either a Miller or an Offenhauser engine.  By this point, though, Harry Miller was a spent force, having succumbed to bankruptcy following the Stock Market crash of October 1929.  Without a sideline in road car production to bolster his factory’s income, Miller was particularly vulnerable.  The USAC, well-aware of the parlous situation which may be facing what was still a sport in its infancy, reacted in 1930, opening up the formula to tempt more manufacturers to compete at Indy.

This ‘Junk Formula’ was particularly distasteful to a man of Miller’s purity of thought in producing thoroughbred racing cars.  Much of the field was made up of various old Miller chassis, cobbled together with bits and bobs from elsewhere.  Harry Hartz won the race in a Summers chassis – based, again, on one of Miller’s – with a Miller engine.  The same sort of revulsion was felt in Europe two decades later, as Enzo Ferrari decried the Garagistes – people like John Cooper or Tony Vandervell, cobbling together racing cars from their own chassis and someone else’s engine and then having the nerve to beat the Manufacturer teams’ cars.  More of this in a minute.

Because, in the interim, the market crash of 1929 had very little discernable effect on the fortunes of Grand Prix racing.  Indeed, for 1930, the only change to the formula was to alter the fuel regulation, allowing more exotic blends, increasing speed and expense.  At the time, Grand Prix racing was very much dominated by the big European car manufacturers.  Throughout the 1930s, a pitched battle between the great Italian and German marques was fought around the continent.  Financial concerns were very much secondary.  The Fascist governments in Italy and Germany were using dominance in the world’s newest, most cutting-edge sport as a propaganda exercise as much as a sporting one and no expense was spared.

69 years on, the sport is similarly dominated by manufacturer-owned teams.  However, the sport is now a global one, and the only people dictating anything are the concerned and puffy-looking middle aged suits in board rooms.  Formula 1 will not, in other words, be spared penury this time round.

The teams have already begun reacting to this.  Indeed, cost-cutting measures have been on the agenda for them all since the beginning of the century.  In the late 1990s, fields of just 18 or 19 cars were common.  The Concorde Agreement, upon which Formula 1 is run, states that should fields fall below 16 entries, teams will be obligated to run 3 car teams.  This prospect makes team managers nervous, so the 21st Century has so far been a tightrope walk.  The big teams’ priorities now include keeping a good size field, and so they will occasionally make concessionary scraps available for the bottom feeders.  The FIA, too, are concerned with the ongoing health of the sport’s blue riband event.  To this end, next season’s regulations will continue the recent trend towards cost-cutting and energy saving, with three-race engines and kinetic energy recovery systems compulsory on all cars.

In the past week, though, things have started to get a bit less savoury.  The FIA already raised eyebrows by allowing those people left behind by the Engine Freeze bring their power plants back up to spec in time for 2009.  The most notable effect of this so far has been the resurgence of Renault.  However, such an egalitarian move is not particularly in keeping with the meritocratic principles of Grand Prix racing’s history.  It’s nothing, however, on the next suggestion – standardised engines.  So far, Toyota and Ferrari have both darkly muttered about a pull out of Grand Prix racing if this is made statute, and I can hardly blame them.  Standardisation as a means of cost cutting is nothing new, of course.  This season’s welcome return to the banning of traction control systems was made possible, for instance, by the introduction of an FIA-issued ECU box.  An engine, however, is a rather more fundamental part of a racing car.  As well as being the thing that makes the car move, it’s worth remembering that it is also a stressed member of the chassis.

This brings us back to the Garagistes.  These pesky people eventually sounded the death knell for the majority of the manufacturer teams, which were still utterly dominant in the early days of the Formula 1 World Championship in the 1950s.  By the end of that decade, though, only Ferrari were really still able to take the fight to the people at the front of the field.  Mike Hawthorn’s title for Ferrari in 1958 was the last for a manufacturer team until Niki Lauda’s in 1975.  His successor as the Ferrari team leader, Jody Scheckter,  won a 1979 triumph which was then the last until Michael Schumacher heralded the rebirth of the manufacturer team era in 2000.  Indeed, it’s now the constructor teams who have been in the doldrums – the last garagiste to take the crown was Mika Hakkinen in a McLaren-Mercedes in 1999, and even then it must be remembered that McLaren are the official Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix team in all but name.

The constructor-era was built on technological innovation at first.  Brilliant men and their brilliant breakthroughs were the order of the day.  John Cooper’s masterstroke was to put the engine in the back, whilst Lotus’ presiding genius Colin Chapman made huge strides in chassis and monocoque design.  However, the single biggest step forward was taken in 1967, with the introduction of the Ford Cosworth DFV engine.  A three-litre V8, available (after an initial season of exclusivity at Lotus) for just £7,500, the DFV engine was more powerful than any unit ever seen in the sport.  Its first win came in its first outing, at Zandvoort, Holland in 1967.  Its last – and 155th – was taken at Detroit 16 years later.  In the years in between, Formula 1 wasn’t so much manufacturer teams versus constructor teams as Ferrari versus the Cosworth teams.  The Cosworth era was finally seen off by the Turbo revolution started by Renault in 1977.  Even so, it was not until 1983 when Nelson Piquet, driving a BMW-powered turbo Brabham, broke the Ford monopoly.

Here’s the thing, though.  Ubiquitous it may have been, but the DFV was never obligatory.  The reason for its popularity was its cost-effectiveness and its competitiveness.  The fact, too, that the majority of the cars had the same engine made little visual impact, as the 1970s saw the most exciting selection of designs throughout the field ever seen on a Grand Prix grid.  The reason for this was freedom.  Freedom to experiment and introduce a ground-effect car like the Lotus 79.  Freedom to design a 6-wheeled car like the Tyrrell P34.  Both cars, incidentally, powered by the DFV engine.  Such freedoms are not something available to designers or teams in the current era, and combined with the financial pinch, it could wreak havoc on the sport.

The solution is simple.  Junk Formula.  Giving people freedom to try different things is the only way to entice people to keep viewing competing in Formula 1 as a viable proposition.  Give people freedom to miss a race if they can’t make it, without fining them to the point of inevitable extinction.  Certain things – which history has proven to be expensive or dangerous sidelines – should be specifically outlawed.  But aside from that, let people run a V6 engine, or a V10, or a V12 if they want.  Let them put a mad airbox on.   Forget trying to make all the car companies stay in F1.  They won’t.  Even in a positive economy this would be the case, because only one of them can win at any one time.  In a depressed economy, it is even more vital to make Formula 1 open for business rather than a closed shop.  Libertarianism, rather than socialism, will be the key to a healthy Formula 1 World Championship.

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