If you’re a new fan or simply under the age of 40, you may not know that Ford are one of the most successful engine manufacturers in Formula 1 history, behind only Ferrari and Mercedes. It’s a shame that they left the sport in 2004, but even then, their departure made way for a new powerhouse in the sport – Red Bull Racing. Teams with Ford-powered engines have won 10 Constructors’ Championships, 13 Drivers’ Championships, and 174 Grand Prix victories. How did they manage this? It all started with a little thing called the Cosworth DFV engine.
The Outstanding Cosworth DFV Engine (1967-85)
In 1967, the DFV made its debut at Zandvoort, the third race of the season. Racing for Lotus in the 49, Graham Hill put it on pole a half second quicker than P2. While during the race Hill’s car faced mechanical issues, his teammate, Jim Clark, took home the DFV’s maiden win. Suffice it to say, it was a good debut.
Initially, Ford had no plans to sell the engine to other teams, but they had an epiphany – they didn’t really have much competition. The Ferrari engine was underpowered, the Maserati too unreliable, the BRM too complex and heavy, the Honda was overweight, even Dan Gurney’s Weslake motor while powerful, was also unreliable.
Ford reasoned that it would actually tarnish the name of Ford if they kept winning in the Lotus with only lesser engines opposing them. So, through Cosworth engineering, they sold the engine to French team, Matra, and what followed was nothing short of a golden age.
By 1969, the DFV was powering the top four teams and won all 11 races. Up until 1973, every single race was won by a DFV-powered car. It had essentially become the standard F1 engine with only fools going without. During the 1973 season, the only other engine manufacturers were Ferrari and BRM.
Ferrari had decided enough was enough and stopped the DFV’s winning streak in 1975 with Niki Lauda’s Ferrari 312T. Though, DFV-powered cars still won 8 of the 14 races that season. Keep in mind that this was a 9-year-old engine at this point.
The DFV would return to glory in 1978 with the Lotus 79 driven by Mario Andretti thanks to the advent of ground effect aerodynamics that gave the DFV a new lease on life.
DFV-powered cars would take home the championship in 1980 and 1981, but the sun was about to set on this glittering golden age.
The early 80s saw the onset of the turbo era as the now 15-year-old engine couldn’t hope to compete with incredible power of the new 1.5-litre turbocharged engines. The only place that the DFV still had an advantage was in reliability and on tight, twisty tracks like Monaco due to new engines suffering from terrible “turbo lag.” The DFV was simply old and outclassed by cars like the Honda-powered McLaren.
The last win for the DFV was in 1983 thanks to Michele Alboreto at the Detroit Grand Prix. The last person to use a DFV-powered car was none other than Martin Brundle in 1985. After that, the DFV was retired.
The Last Gasp of Glory (1987 – 1994)
From the ashes of the DFV block, Cosworth in partnership with Ford, created a 3.5-litre variant dubbed the DFZ, in 1987. But the DFZ was just a band-aid solution, so a further developed DFR was created in 1988. Again, this was just an interim engine. It wasn’t until 1989 that we got the real successor to the DFV, the HB.
The HB debuted at the 1989 French Grand Prix in the Benetton B189. Only one driver had the HB, Alessandro Nannini, who was running second in the race behind Alain Prost before retiring with a suspension failure. Not quite the fireball opening of the DFV.
Nannini was able to secure his first win that year at a rainy Japanese Grand Prix at the end of the 1989 season and followed up with a P2 in Australia. The team had managed a P4 in the Constructors’ with 39 points.
In 1990, Benetton was struggling against teams with the older DFR engines at the start of the season, but eventually found their footing. They eventually came third in the constructors’ championship behind McLaren and Ferrari. 1991 and 92 were similarly strong years with the team finishing fourth and third respectively. 1993 also saw the team finish third.
Benetton were not the only purchasers of the HB, but Ford had not become as ubiquitous to the sport as they were in the DFV-era.
Their next engine, the Cosworth EC, used exclusively by Benetton in the 1994 season under the name Ford Zetec-R, saw Michael Schumacher win his first ever Drivers’ Championship with eight wins and two second places totalling 103 points. Not to say that it was perfect, far from it. Schumacher and his teammates were all unhappy with the car and how difficult it was to drive, but Schumacher was able to tame this beast.
The EC was not intended for customer sale and was only used in 1994 due to it originally being a 3.5-litre engine which the FIA had essentially banned in 1995, limiting engines to 3.0 litres. It was a powerful engine; the only problem was that it was very expensive to run. The mechanics would have to perform a revision after only 350km, which to put that into perspective, isn’t even a whole race weekend.
The 1994 season would be the last championship Ford ever earned.
Stewart Grand Prix and Diminishing Returns (1995-1999)
In 1995, Sauber gained exclusive access to the 3.0 litre version of the EC engine used by Benetton in 1994. The team at Cosworth-Ford didn’t have time to create a new engine after the FIA’s ban on 3.5-litre engines, instead they adapted the EC to fit the new displacement limit. The “new” engine was dubbed the ECA, but unfortunately the engine didn’t work well with the Sauber C14.
The handling was called “erratic” and the aerodynamics were not efficient. The best result Sauber were able to reach was P3 at the Italian Grand Prix. Sauber landed 7th in the Constructors’ Championship.
1996 saw the same result for Sauber and by 1997, the team had switched to the Petronas SPE-01 V10. But it was at this time that the Stewart team had essentially become the Ford works team. The next few years would be even worse for Ford starting in 1997 when Stewart finished P9 in the Constructors – the best of all the Ford customers with only 2 points.
1998 saw three teams powered by the Ford Zetec-R (EC) and none of those teams did well. Stewart Grand Prix achieved the best results of the three with P8 in the Constructors’ and 5 points, Minardi in P10 with 0 points, and Tyrrell in P11 with 0 points.
Things were better in 1999 with the implementation of the CR-1. Stewart Ford managed a P4 in the Constructors’, a significant improvement, but it wouldn’t last.
Jaguar Racing and Departure (2000-2004)
Ford had bought the Stewart Grand Prix team and rebranded it to Jaguar Racing. While the Jaguar name was attached, Jaguar had little to do with the engineering as they still ran Cosworth-Ford engines. Alongside the launch of the Jaguar R1, Ford introduced the CR-2. The team failed to reach the same success as they had in 1999, and the 2000 season saw them drop to P9 in the Constructors’ with 4 points.
Things didn’t improve much in the following years with a P8 in 2001 and three P7’s thereafter.
Ford had tried everything to improve things, even bringing the legendary Niki Lauda on board. This actually led to more tension in the team with former American racing champion and successful team owner, Bobby Rahal, resigning due to the conflict between himself and Lauda.
By 2002, the Ford board of directors began to question the costs and benefits of running a Formula 1 team, especially as it didn’t feature Ford branding. As a result, funding for the team was reduced in 2003 and Lauda, along with 70 other staff, were made redundant.
Ford decided to sell the team at the end of 2004 with the stated reason being a greater focus on the World Rally Championships. While this may have been the end of Ford in F1, it set the stage for a new force in the sport – Red Bull Racing.
Red Bull purchased the team in mid-November and used the chassis and engine that would have been Jaguar’s 2005 challenger. It was a good debut for Red Bull having scored more points in a single season than Jaguar did in both 2003 and 2004. They may have still finished P7, but were running P6 for most of the season before the BAR Hondas snatched it right at the end. Overall, they scored 34 points compared to Jaguar’s 18 in 2003, and 10 in 2004.
While it may be sad to have watched such a giant fall, from its ashes another rose. It seems fitting then that Ford are set to return to the sport alongside Red Bull in 2026, almost poetic. Who knows, we might even see another DFV in future?