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The V8 era: Noisy but nice

Maurice Hamilton November 29, 2013
Mercedes HPP waved goodbye to its final V8 in September © Mercedes

The V8 era ended loudly last weekend when the Red Bull team revved the guts out of a Renault engine in the garage on race night at Interlagos. But, for many, this significant period in the F1 engine business actually finished on 12 September.

That's when the final nut was tightened and checks carried out on FF73, the 73rd unit of the 2013 season and the last in a long line of V8s prior to shipment from Mercedes AMG High Performance Powertrains at Brixworth. Job done, more than 400 members of staff gathered on the front lawn and stood, in vee formation, for a team photo with FF73 centre stage.

The occasion was also being recognised in differing ways at F1 engine shops in France, Italy and, down the road from Mercedes HPP, at Cosworth Engineering in Northampton.

Cosworth is significant in more ways than one, the end of the V8 marking the departure from F1 (hopefully for only a brief period) of the company responsible for introducing the V8 that set the standard in grand prix engine designs. There were various V8s before the Ford-Cosworth DFV but no other engine, either before or since, has smashed its way on a commercial basis into public recognition and the record books.

The art of the internal combustion high performance engine has come a long way since Jim Clark took the DFV and the Lotus 49 to victory first time out in the 1967 Dutch Grand Prix. The V8 developed 410bhp (delivered in a huge lump, judging by the way the back of the car would suddenly step out of line) and revved to 9,000rpm. That was quite some performance at the time and produced a beautiful mellow sound through the pair of chrome exhausts poking the air at the naked rear end of Colin Chapman's creation. There was no engine cover; not even a rear wing. Downforce in those days was seen as no more than the result of falling dead-dog drunk from a bar stool.

Now, of course, we know different - even if extreme libations at the bar continue to be potentially hazardous. The 3-litre V8 was finally crushed by the turbos after failing to survive resuscitation through an increase to 3.5-litres for, effectively, an F1 second division.

Then came the normally aspirated V12 and, for a longer period, the V10; configurations that were much enjoyed and appreciated, more so when the FIA got out the regulatory axe and chopped down F1 engines to eight cylinders for the start of 2006.

The introduction of the 2.4-litre V8 was seen as a means of reducing power and costs. Signs of a possible global recession were beginning to appear for those who cared to look. Naturally, that did not include anyone in F1 as they charged headlong into the continuing search for performance. Some, however, particularly those with an eye on team budgets, could see trouble looming. The preference in many quarters (Norbert Haug at Mercedes for example) was to cut revs on the V10 but, in the end, the V8 was seen as the answer. And a noisy answer, at that.

Renault's V8 bid farewell in a fit of flames and high revs at Interlagos © Sutton Images

Pneumatic valve springs (introduced by Renault in the mid-Eighties) had accelerated the process in every sense. The V8 would idle at 6,000rpm, a speed that would have our road cars revving their nuts off. The V8 was soon up to 20,000rpm. Had a 19,000rpm limit in 2007, followed by 18,000rpm in 2009, not been applied, engine boffins say V8s would have been screaming round Interlagos last weekend at 25,000rpm.

That's a phenomenal figure when you think about it. We're talking about 416 revolutions every second. I don't know about you, but my mind simply can't cope with that, particularly when you think of the potential mayhem being contained in that confined space when the piston reaches top dead-centre. And there's eight pistons, side-by-side, all going mental.

When Romain Grosjean's V8 blew up at Interlagos, that was as rare as Eddie Jordan talking sense; an explosion of hot air that served to remind us of the astonishing reliability achieved by the unsung heroes working at Brixworth, Maranello, Viry-Châtillon and Northampton.

I used the word 'art' earlier when referring to the skill of the engine craftsmen. There can be no other way of describing the internals of a F1 cylinder head; the most intricate jewel you will ever see in metal; created with a watchmaker's precision and love.

Those of us at the sharp end, either taking part in or spectating at a grand prix, have no idea of the different kind of stress being experienced by engine builders watching helplessly from the family sofa as their man leads the race, focuses on his driving and, rightly, does not give a thought to the mechanical miracle going on behind his shoulders.

Only when it blows up, do we talk about the engine. The fact that there has been remarkably little discussion is a fitting tribute to the men and women who have come to the end of one era and are once more relishing an even more difficult challenge to design and build the seemingly impossible.

Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

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A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live
Maurice Hamilton Close
Maurice Hamilton writes for ESPN F1. A veteran journalist in the paddock, Maurice Hamilton has been part of the Formula One scene since 1977 and was the Observer's motor racing correspondent for 20 years. He has written several books as well as commentating on Formula One for BBC Radio 5 Live