Features - Technical

JUNE 6, 1998

Formula 1 engines and chassis manufacturers


Until the 1940's, the sole reason for building a car to go Grand Prix racing was to advertise the quality of the production road cars bearing the same name.

Until the 1940's, the sole reason for building a car to go Grand Prix racing was to advertise the quality of the production road cars bearing the same name. Alfa-Romeo, Bugatti, Maserati, Mercedes and Ferrari all gained the mystique of their names by racing cars that bore a close relationship to products that could be purchased by anyone rich enough. It was possible to tour Europe behind an engine that was very similar to the one that had just won the Grand Prix the weekend before, and was often designed by the same person.

After the second World War, Grand Prix racing received an injection of technology from the aircraft research that had taken place and GP cars became more specialised, employing this new technology that had little relevance to road cars. However, the main participants: Mercedes, Ferrari, Maserati, BRM and Vanwall, all made the whole car i.e. chassis, engine and gearbox. It was not until the emergence of the small British constructors, Cooper, Lotus, Lola, Brabham and Tyrrell with their rear-engined cars, that the priority shifted from engine to chassis and it became possible to win GP's with what were known as a "kit car". Since that time only Ferrari has succeeded with a car and engine car built entirely in-house, and even they are now finding it hard to win a World Championship. Besides Ferrari (Fiat), only the major manufacturers have tried: Renault, Honda and Alfa-Romeo (Fiat). Only Honda and Renault remain in Formula1 and both have resorted to providing engines to established teams in order to gain success.

Why this has happened is really two questions:

1. Why do successful chassis builders not make their own engine?

2. Why do successful engine manufacturers not build their own chassis to carry their engines?

The first is easier to answer than the second and so I shall deal with this one to begin with.

The emergence of the British "kit car" constructors was made possible by the availability of just powerful enough Coventry Climax engines, and consolidated by the low-cost Ford-Cosworth DFV. The latter just happened to be the right shape for ground effect, enabling the V-8 to vanquish the Italian flat-12's of Ferrari and Alfa-Romeo of superior power. The background to this revolution in Formula1 was covered in my article on the British Motorsport Industry in volume (???). None of these constructors chose to expand into developing engines for their cars. Why should they? The Ford-Cosworth was readily available and relatively cheap (£7,500 when it first became possible for any team to purchase one in 1968). Only Williams later chose to invest in developing the engine in-house, to give themselves a small advantage over their competitors using the same engine.

By 1982 Renault had convinced everyone else that the turbocharged 1.5 litre engine was the way to go, even though they could not use their superior power to overcome the shortcomings of their chassis and beat the now obsolete Cosworth-powered cars. They had also shown what it took in terms of funding and resources to develop a turbo-engine. The engineering disciplines and culture were completely different from those needed to develop and race a Formula1 car, and the teams went scrambling off to the major motor manufacturers to try and persuade them to build turbo-engines for them. Ford (Cosworth), BMW, Porsche (funded by TAG) and Fiat (Ferrari) all joined battle with Renault. Suddenly engine budgets vied with those needed for the chassis and racing programme combined, and escalated out of the reach of organisations funded only by commercial sponsorship. Only the motor industry had reasons for funding the development of an engine; Marlborough, Camel etc. did not.

Engine technology is founded in thermodynamics, materials, the chemistry of fuels and lubricants, dynamic modelling and, with the emergence of turbo-charging, electronic control systems. All these disciplines are well represented within the motor industry by departments staffed with scientists and specialist engineers, and equipped with laboratories and extensive test facilities. The base technologies of racing engines and road car engines are the same, particularly since the requirement to reduce emissions became mandatory on road engines and combustion and control systems became dominant technologies.

For a while in the late 1980's and early 1990's, racing cars adopted several of the control systems that had been developed for road cars - traction-control, ABS, active suspension - but the moment passed when they were banned in 1994. The most significant transmission development, semi-automatic gear-changing, was developed by Ferrari which is of course part of a major manufacturer and was based on concepts being developed for road cars.

The engineering infrastructure needed for making engines and chassis are substantially different. Engines require fine tolerances and specialist material treatments and manufacturing processes. 90% of the testing is carried out on rigs and test stands involving complex test measurement equipment. Chassis are built to around one order lower tolerances, and 90% of their testing is on the track. Only recently have measurement systems become universal on chassis, and laboratory testing of components more common. Engine development is a science; chassis are still something of an art.

If any of the chassis builders should have built their own engine, it was Lotus. As manufacturers of a range of road cars, many with Lotus-designed and built engines, and an engineering consultancy organisation that designed and developed state-of-the-art road car engines for a number of major motor manufacturers, Lotus had the designers, engineers and facilities to do the job. In the early 1980's, they designed and built a number of prototype Formula1 turbo-charged engines under a contract to a major motor manufacturer. It was a radical and extremely advanced engine, but the company funding it decided not to develop it to race-worthiness, as the curtailing of turbo-chargers with boost limits had commenced.

It has been said that 90% of the Grand Prix engines designed never get built; and that 90% of those that get built are never raced. The Lotus designed engine was one of those statistics, and it convinced Lotus, if they ever needed convincing, that they could not afford to build and race an engine by themselves.

So, why do those who can afford to build and race Formula1 engines - the major motor manufacturers - not build chassis? One does of course, Fiat, through its subsidiary Ferrari. Another, Honda, is on the verge of deciding whether to take the plunge.

The objective for the chassis-building teams is to win at a profit. The profit is made from TV revenue and from commercial sponsors who are attracted by the TV coverage. Major car manufacturers go Formula1 racing to sell cars, by creating an appropriate technical and life-style image for their products. To gain the benefit of building both engine and chassis, at around twice the cost of the engine alone, they would need to present the car with their brand name and so dispense with tobacco and other, purely commercial sponsorship. For years Fiat could justify doing this with Ferrari, as it represented and marketed the Italian motor industry as a whole. Fiat, Lancia, and Alfa-Romeo are all Fiat brands. However, now even Fiat need Marlborough to carry some of the financial burden of engine, chassis and Michael Schumacher.

The marketing potential in funding the whole car is probably not twice that of funding just be engine. Funding for Formula1 comes from the manufacturers' marketing budgets, though scarce technical resources must be provided by their R&D divisions. Both sources must be justified. If the whole car is made by a major manufacturer, his reputation will stand or fall on the success of the car in racing. There are few winners. It was hard enough for Mercedes racing personnel to explain to their Board, year after year, why they were being beaten by Renault, but at least they could blame the chassis. The problem is, that when success comes, as it has for Mercedes, it is McLaren who is doing the winning. Remember the end of last year, when Coulthard's McLaren won and Hakkinen's Mercedes engine blew up. Marketing people want all the kudos when success finally comes, but that is only available if the whole of the car carries the brand name. It is a high-stakes gamble.

Can making the whole car be justified from a technical point of view? The technical gains of going Formula1 racing come from the development of technology and the training of engineers. The latter is indisputable, but must be weighed against tying up some of the company's best designers and engineers when they could be used to develop new technologies to help the company compete in the cut-throat market place for road cars. Much of the day-to-day R&D carried out, is into more efficient and cleaner engines i.e. combustion, control systems, friction and weight - just the same basic technologies as those needed for a Formula1 engine. The justification of using engineers to develop a racing engine is relatively easy to make, but for the chassis, it is much harder. Listing the key technologies, and their sources and relevance to road cars, illustrates the problem.

F1 chassis technology Source Road car relevance.

· Composite materials Aerospace No

· Composite structures (FEA) Aerospace Small

· Downforce aerodynamics F1 Small

· Fuels & lubricants Oil industry Yes

· Tyres Tyre industry Yes

· CFD analysis Aerospace Yes

· Drive-by-wire Road cars Yes

· Semi-auto. Gearbox Road cars/F1 Yes

· Sensors Aerospace/road cars Yes

· Data systems Electronics/computers Yes

· Data analysis F1/road cars Yes

· Vehicle dynamics Road cars Yes

· Brakes (carbon) Aerospace No

· Dampers Damper suppliers/F1 Small

What can a major road car manufacturer gain from employing its engineers and R&D funds in designing and developing a Formula1 chassis? Road cars use little in the way of composites and do not need high levels of downforce. The semi-automatic gear-changing and clutch control of a conventional gearbox was first used on road cars, although Formula1 has developed the technique to new levels of performance. Telemetry systems are not relevant to road car testing, though the analysis of vehicle dynamics is. Those technologies of greatest interest to road engineers i.e. tyres, brakes, dampers, fuels and lubricants, are all supplied by the relevant component industries that have grown up to support road car manufacturing, and are staffed by the same experts to whom Formula1 turns.

Refinement, style, durability and low costs are the technologies sought by road car chassis engineers, not ultimate grip and performance. The weight reduction technologies that may be applicable all exist and are available to road car designers, and they will be applied when they become cost-effective. Composites are still much too expensive for mass-production and are held back by re-cycling problems.

Why is Honda contemplating making its own chassis to carry its engine? Honda is a company that does its own thing. It believes that the value of developing its own technology outweighs, in the long term, the cost savings of buying technology from outside the company. The Formula1 cars it raced under its own name in the 1960's were innovative and interesting, even though Honda learnt that developing both engine and chassis was too much for it to take on at that time. Since then it has shown the way in Formula1 engine design, producing the definitive turbo-engine and being the first to realise that a high-revving V-10 could not only work, of but was the optimum design for a 3.0-3.5 litre engine. Now, if it is to come back to Formula1 racing whole-heartedly, it needs a new challenge. For Honda to promote its name it must compete with and beat the established king of road cars, whose name was made many years ago in Grand Prix racing i.e. Mercedes. Mercedes is their target and the time is ripe. With so many forms of international racing - Formula1, GT, Sports Cars,STC - becoming the battle ground of the German motor industry as it fights for global markets, Japan's motor industry must compete too. The ultimate victory would be to win the World Championship with a Honda-Honda.

2023 words.

There follows some additional material in response to the editor's queries:

Formula 1 engines and chassis manufacturers.

(Additional text)

" Peter Wright - 18th June 1998


It looked for a time as if Sauber might become an engine manufacturer under the Petronas banner, but these plans appear to be deferred due to the collapse of the Asian economies. Petronas is the Malaysian state oil company, and is one of the vehicles used by the Prime Minister of Malaysia to gain technology and a high-tech. image for his country. Involvement in Formula1 can contribute to achieving these ambitions and Petronas was tasked with sponsoring Sauber and gathering high performance engine technology. Ferrari has enormous mystique in the Asian countries, and so a technical tie-up with Ferrari to use their V-10 engine, albeit an earlier version than the one used by Ferrari themselves, was a good starting point and provided Ferrari with some much needed income.

Sauber recruited Osumo Goto, the ex-Honda engine expert from the McLaren days who subsequently worked with both McLaren and Ferrari, to head their engine division. The plan was for Goto to develop the Ferrari engine and expand into designing a Petronas engine when the infrastructure to do so was fully in place. It now appears that the cost of this plan is beyond the available funding from Malaysia, at least for the time being, and so Sauber continue to use Ferrari engines with Petronas on the cam-covers. How much Sauber develop and modify the engines is not clear, but it is interesting to speculate what would happen to the technical tie-up on the day that a Petronas engine beats a Ferrari on performanceÉ...

TWR is a group on companies that works closely with major manufacturers e.g. Volvo in Europe, Holden in Australia, GM in the USA and Nissan in Japan. Involvement extends from running STC or GT engineering and racing programmes to the low-volume build of special versions of production cars. The group has ambitions to be racing engine designers and builders, in the Cosworth mould, and employ Geoff Goddard, the ex-chief designer of that company, to head their design office. Having worked on GM's IRL Aurora engine, as well as Volvo's STC motor, they of course want to gain the reputation that goes with building a Formula1 engine. The plan was to take over the design and development of Yamaha's F1 engine from John Judd's Engine Developments, but TWR's desire to take full technical responsibility for the engine, denying Yamaha the benefit of gaining technical experience from direct involvement, seemed to precipitate Yamaha's withdrawal from Formula1. Without a source of funding from a major manufacturer, TWR was unable to produce their own engine and was forced to join forces with Brian Hart to develop his V-10 and race it in 1998. When TWR does manage to field it's own F1 engine, fully designed and built in-house, I expect that it will have a major automobile manufacturer's name on it - just like Ford (Cosworth) and Mercedes (Ilmor).


TWR is not really a road car manufacturer, though they produce a large number of road cars. TWR has combined its racing and specialist road car expertise to offer major manufacturers a package of image enhancement. By running their racing programmes and, at the same time, assembling special versions of their road cars (and designing and developing them if they are so specialist that they bear little relevance to the road cars) a performance image is generated. The programmes for Volvo, Holden and Jaguar are/were typical of this.


Very difficult question as, because of the vastly increased TV income that the teams now receive, the spending has changed recently. However I would estimate that for a team in the top half of the grid, the budgets would be roughly:

Development Racing

Chassis $10-20m $20-30m

Engine $10-15m $15-25m


How a Honda-Honda will get on when and if they come back into Formula1 with their own team, will depend on the route they take. Whether they buy an existing team, or start from scratch is not the key issue as this would be more about rights under the Concorde Agreement and hence financial issues. What does matter is how much they do with their own personnel and engineering resources and how much they buy into existing (probably British) chassis and racing experience. If they buy an existing team, they will acquire a factory, engineering and manufacturing infrastructure, a racing team and its equipment, and existing staff. How many would stay, and how many Honda would want to retain depends on the team. Honda is quite capable of building and equipping a factory, but it takes time, especially the building of a 50% wind tunnel.

Honda has 3 basic choices:

1. It starts it's own team from scratch, staffed with Honda engineers. The experience gained benefits Honda 100%, but it must learn by experience and racing successes will be hard to come by until all the lessons have been learnt. It must start from base zero and progress faster than McLaren, Williams and Ferrari, in order to catch them up and overtake.

2. It starts it's own team, using a mixture of experienced Formula1 designers, engineers and technicians recruited from other teams, and Honda staff. They must forge them into a team, which sometimes proves difficult and takes time (watch BAR for an example of this), but they can assemble all the skills and experience and add to this the Honda expertise. Honda engineers will learn quickly by this approach. A new factory and facilities must be built.

3. It acquires an existing team, factory, facilities and staff. Rename it, add a Honda engine and enough funding, and there is no reason why it should not perform better than the team it used to be. With the further addition of Honda expertise and staff, it should develop into a top team, but it must still progress faster than McLaren, Williams and Ferrari in order to beat them. Honda will learn least by this approach, in the short term, but it is the least stressful approach.

What Honda will actually do, only they know. Whichever route they take it looks as if they will base the team in the UK, as, logistically, they already know that this works best from their experience with supplying works engines. My guess is that they will do either 2 or 3, depending on whether they can buy an existing team of sufficient merit. They probably can't, so 2 may be the best. The remains of the Tyrrell team, i.e. the bits that do not go to BAR, is a possibility, but most Formula1 teams are recruiting and there is a shortage of good, experienced engineers. I am sure that Japanese graduate engineers are just as good raw material as European.

It will be a hard task for Honda, which will only bring success with time and effort, but from which they will benefit technically. The hardest part is surviving the bad PR of learning on such a public stage. The previous times they have attempted this i.e. in the 1960's and with their first turbo in the 1980's, there was much less public focus on Formula1.


When a major manufacturer carries out a Formula1 engine programme, the Marketing Division funds it out of its budget, but the R&D Division must supply the engineers and facilities from it's own staff and laboratories. R&D does not have to find the money, but it must take staff and facilities off other, road car programmes.