- Jim Clark at the engine's debut race, the 1967 Dutch Grand Prix.

9 Days in Summer: The Most Successful Racing Engine Ever

From Formula 1 to Le Mans, the Cosworth DFV conquered practically everything.

Back in 1965, the FIA decided to increase the displacement of F1 engines from 1.5 to 3 liters. What they didn’t know was that it would spawn arguably the greatest engine motorsport has ever seen.

Chapman's Dinner

This put Colin Chapman in a pinch. His Lotus cars were running Coventry Climax engines, and they refused to make an engine for the new regulations. Oh dear. Chapman then hit up his former engineer Keith Duckworth, who was starting a new company called Cosworth (you might have heard of it). He then told Chapman he could develop a competitive F1 engine… If he had £100,000 lying around. That £100,000 would be over £1.9 million today. He went to Ford and Aston Martin for help but was unsuccessful. After that, he looked for Walter Hayes, the head of PR at Ford of Britain, who had been a close working partner of Chapman in the past. A dinner was arranged between Chapman and Harley Copp (who was behind Ford’s NASCAR exploits in the 50s). The pair came up with a plan that was ultimately greenlit by Ford. A four-cylinder engine for Formula Two would first be made, followed by a V8, which had to be finished by May 1967.

Hitting the ground running

Hayes unveiled the project to the public in 1965, and the engine made its debut at the 1967 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. Graham Hill put his new Cosworthified car into pole position and led the first 10 laps of the race, before retiring thanks to a broken camshaft drive gear. Jim Clark, his teammate, then came in and picked up the pieces like Albon and Gasly couldn’t and won the race. The engine’s reliability wasn’t perfect, and Clark finished third in that year’s championship. Hill was 7th. Ford even made a short movie promoting the engine, which is where this post draws its title from.


James Hunt's McLaren M23 (with a DFV), being driven by his son Freddie.

James Hunt's McLaren M23 (with a DFV), being driven by his son Freddie.

At first, Ford had no plans to sell the DFV to teams other than Lotus. Hayes however, realized that competition was dwindling: the Ferrari engines were underpowered, the Maseratis unreliable, the Hondas overweight, and the BRMs were complicated and heavy! How dare Lotus keep winning against less and less competition! Hayes thought. In August of ‘67, just three months after the engine made its debut, it was announced that DFVs were for sale from Cosworth directly. Lotus, McLaren, Matra, Brabham, March, Surtees, Hesketh, Lola, Tyrell, Penske, Wolf, Williams and Ligier used the DFV at some point. In 1969 and 1973, every F1 race was won by it. Between 1967 and 1985, the DFV would win 155 races out of 262. That’s 59% of all F1 races in that period, which lasted nearly twenty years.

This was partially helped by the advent of ground effect, as flat-12 engines used by the likes of Ferrari would take up space from the Venturi tunnels that generated such massive downforce. The V8 didn’t have that issue. Mario Andretti, Alan Jones, Nelson Piquet and Keke Rosberg used DFV-powered cars to win the World Championship in 1978, 80, 81 and 82 respectively. However, the onset of turbocharging in the 1980s was too much for the mighty DFV, and it was last used in F1 by Martin Brundle at the 1985 Austrian Grand Prix. He failed to qualify.

Not done yet

The engine was not only good for Formula One, despite it being by far its most successful hunting ground. A Group C version, dubbed DFL, was developed. Displacement was bumped to 3.3L and... it was even more unreliable in endurance races than the already unreliable-for-endurance-racing DFV it was replacing. But that’s Group C. What if you uh, downtuned the engine for uh, C2? That’s exactly what happened in 1983. The DFL was used in a number of privateer entries in the World Sportscar Championship, and won its class five times at Le Mans between 1985 and 1990. It was also highly successful in Indycar racing, with a 2.6L turbo variant racing between 1976 and 1990 and winning 10 Indy 500s.

It’s quite fascinating to see a chain of events this big play out. The FIA deciding bigger engines were in order for F1 created a world-conquering powerhouse that took over F1, Indycar, Le Mans, and many, many more championships with its variants. We can safely say such a machine will never be created again.

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Comments (8)

  • How many F1 teams ran Cosworth engine and Hewland gearbox in the 70s & early 80s? Most except Ferrari I guess. Amazing to think Ford was backing Cosworth in F1 and Shelby in Le Mans at this time.

      12 days ago
    • And let's not forget their rally and touring efforts with the legendary Escort and Capri. Ford really was something special in those years or motorsport.

        12 days ago
    • It was astounding. Funny how these days one can't imagine more than 4 teams running a single engine manufacturer.

        12 days ago
  • My personal favourite variant was the DFX. It dominated Indycar, winning 81 races over a relatively short period of time.

      7 days ago
  • Great article Emilio! Very well documented. It was, and will be one of the greatest race engines ever designed. Its reliability, versatility and potential was impressive and was a watershed in the industry, hands down. Well done! Keep writing boy!

      11 days ago
  • hello

      7 days ago
  • I followed (and still follow) F1 and IndyCar during the years of this engine. While I was very knowledgeable of the teams and drivers of that era, I was less conscious of the manufacturers of the power trains.

    In not stuck in the past, but I’m hoping that IndyCar Racing will some day return to its glory days of CART. In the USA, CART was as highly respected as F1. Tony George’s creation of the IRL in 1996, resulting in the split, and eventual dissolution of CART, stands as one of the all time bad decisions in US racing. George’s objective of creating a series to develop American drivers on ovals was never attained. In fact, the reverse happened. Drivers from all over the world now compete on road and street courses that outnumber ovals.

    Admittedly, the Indy 500 still draws a quarter million spectators ( before COVID-19) but the other tracks are struggling with low attendance (with some exceptions). IndyCar is now stuck in a formula of a couple of engines, chassis and aero kits. All that can save them now is a return to the freewheeling days of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.

    A great article, which, as you can see, got my attention.

      4 days ago