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The Way It Is/ The view from Cosworth about innovation and alternative or green fuels in racing

by Gordon Kirby
As everyone knows, this is the first racing season in forty years in which Cosworth doesn't have an engine on the Formula One grid. The day of the independent engine builder has gone from F1, replaced by the age of the manufacturer. Today, six major manufacturers--Ferrari, Renault, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Honda and Toyota--supply and otherwise control the entire F1 field.

Cosworth continues to supply Champ Car with its 2.6 liter turbo V-8s and the Atlantic series with is Mazda four-cylinder engines, but the company's greatest racing days appear to lay in the past. Its best hopes for the future in the sport are invested in a 3.6 liter twin turbo V-8 engine designed for the American and European Le Mans Series LMP1 category although Cosworth maintains a thriving engineering consulting business, supplying development ideas and components under non-disclosure agreements to manufacturers around the world outside F1. The company has also begun to diversify beyond motor racing.

"We've got a small diesel UAV engine we've been developing," explained Cosworth's chief engineer Bruce Wood. "There's been a surge of interest in that and it's been keeping us quite busy. We've also managed to get our foot in the door in quite a lot of niche market road vehicle stuff, which is also quite interesting. We've also got a few other racing jobs as well. We're doing consultancies with customers in a variety of formulas. So we're doing quite a variety of things here at the moment. Rumors of our demise were premature."

Wood designed the successful series of XD and XF turbo V-8 CART/Champ car engines and was also responsible for the IRL engine which raced briefly a few years ago with a Chevrolet badge. Wood continues to hope that Cosworth's ALMS engine will race at some point in the future. "The ALMS and ELMS are very attractive to us," Wood remarked. "Ideally, we'd like to partner with a manufacturer for a works effort, but we would also happily lease the engine to customer teams as a Judd/AER alternative."

Wood agrees with Honda's Robert Clarke and Porsche engineers Frank-Steffen Walliser and Thomas Laudenbach abouth the appeal of the two European and American sports car series. "The ALMS really is an attractive place to be these days, not least because of the variety it allows people," Wood observed. "Look at Mazda, for example. Their racing philosophy says they're only going to race what they sell and the ALMS is one of the few places they can actually go and race. They don't sell a V-8. They sell a four-cylinder turbo and that is what they race to fulfill their objectives.

"The fact that the ALMS embraces a large variety of engine types means manufacturers aren't forced to compromise some of their core values to go racing," Wood continued. "Honda for a long time has said they don't like the whole dumbing-down of technology that exists pretty much everywhere else in racing. But in the ALMS you can pretty much do what you like. I take my hat off to the ALMS. They seem to have it got it pretty good right now. I think they've done it very well."

Wood isn't unduly disturbed by the arguments that often erupt about fiddling with the equivalency formula, usually by increasing or decreasing the amount of air any given engine can take in. "It's not a perfect system of course," he remarked. "Right now probably the diesel-powered carsneed curtailing a little, but it was always going to be hard to get the balance right between making sure the diesel would not be disadvantaged and an unattractive proposition for someone to do and not handing them the race. Bringing the diesel in has been a great thing for motor racing. If they ended up with a small advantage then so be it for the general good of racing and I don't think the equivalency can be that far off since both gasoline and diesel cars have won outright in the opening races of this ALMS season. The introduction of the Audi R10 and now the battle with Peugeot are great things for motor racing in general. If they were achieved by giving them a tiny advantage, then so be it. I suspect there's a whole bunch of people who are interested in the Audi diesel that otherwise wouldn't have been the least bit interested in Le Mans.

"Now that Peugeot has arrived as well and made a huge commitment to the seires, they've got to be allowed their days in the sun," Wood added. "Maybe right now the advantage is a little too much, but give it a couple of years and they'll shift the restrictor sizes around and it'll all even up. Again, I think that's a sensible reality of life. I think they actually do a pretty good job of making it a fairly level playing field."

Wood believes an air restrictor is a good way to maintain equivalencies between different engine types. "People can argue it can be artificially moved around, but if it's done with good sense and good care in good faith, then I think it's very manageable. Again, there's nothing worse than a complete runaway where somebody totally destroys the rest, and there's no quicker turn-off for a manufacturer than getting beaten every week. So I think it's only sensible having some mechanism were you can fairly trim them back a little bit after they've made the most of an advantage and an air restrictor works quite well in that respect.

"Some sanctioning bodies have used weight penalties with reasonable effect, but I would imagine if I was a race team I would probably rather deal with less power than somebody changing the overall dynamics of my vehicle by making me add twenty kilos here or there."

If Wood had a free hand to write the ideal rules for the future, what would they be? "That's probably a bigger question than I can answer!" he chuckled. "One of the things everyone's seen in racing over the years, and I guess one of the things that CART always used to say to us was, 'What should the rules be?' I think it's entirely misguided to ask a Cosworth or an Ilmor what a series rules should be. We were always trying to impress on CART: Don't come to us and ask, what rules do you want? You should go to the manufacturers--GM, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, BMW, and so on. Ask them what formula would excite them. Is it hybrid technology, or hydrogen fuel cells, or something else?

"You need to go find what's going to get the manufacturers excited and then ask how that can be achieved. I think that's probably the key to doing something successful in the future. I think you can go one better than that if you let them all bring their favorite toys to the party."

Wood is convinced manufacturer support is essential to big-time motor racing. "I think if you want real top level motor racing you've got to have manufacturers because it lacks something without them," he observed. "But equally, you don't want them to have so much power and influence like in Formula One where they've had to be hobbled for their own good.

"The best model of racing in my view was probably CART in the early and mid-nineties. You had all the big names and big sponsors in CART in those days. You had all the manufacturers there, but it wasn't like Formula One where the manufacturers totally dictate everything.

"I think anyone who can think of a formula that entices manufacturers to want to be there but is able to control them is probably onto a winner, and as I say, I think ALMS is the closest we have to that because it isn't alienating anybody from the beginning. It's enticing to manufacturers because they don't have to change their beliefs to go racing.

"I think the key to it is having something which doesn't dictate to the manufacturers what they've got to bring to the party. Let them bring what is important for their image and their marketing and then try and integrate it. I think that's the most important aspect."

Wood is skeptical of anyone being able to write a rulebook with a certain unit of energy as the basis of a formula so you could have electric cars versus diesels versus green gasoline-powered cars. "I must admit I've never sat down and thought about it," he said. "But I struggle to imagine how you could ever get to that position where you're not in danger of somebody making a breakthrough in the newer technologies because the rate of development of fuel cell technology and electric technology is going to be much higher than conventional gasoline piston engine technology which has been through all that so the development curve has flattened out.

"In the real world, I struggle to imagine that you wouldn't write a set of rules and would then discover that somebody had learned something new about the developing technologies that placed them ahead of everybody."

Nevertheless, Wood believes most, if not all, new or developing power sources should be part of the sport. "If motor racing is going to have any relevance in the future it should really be encouraged," he commented. "If it's going to have any relevance beyond being a Sunday afternoon sport, and maybe it doesn't need to. But it's one of the few sports in the past that has had some technological relevance and had some wider appeal than just Sunday afternoon sport. Whether it's important that that continues or not, I don't know. But I do believe the most likely way to go forward would be to go and ask the world's manufacturers what they would like to see.

"The only question about electric cars and hydrogen fuel cell cars is, will it take ten or twenty years? It's definitely coming. It's just a question of how long."

And as discussed before in recent columns the arrival of essentially noiseless power sources will in turn ask basic questions about the spectacle and appeal of racing. "I guess it begins to ask the question of how much of the motor racing experience is about the thrill of the noise," Wood ruminated. "If we're all racing electric cars, it's hard to imagine them making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up like a great racing engine. It probably invites a very big question of what is motor racing?"

Indeed, outside NASCAR, that is the question facing the rest of the sport come the second and third decades of the 21st century. The most successful non-NASCAR sanctioning body of the future will be the one that best solves this riddle.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2007 ~ All Rights Reserved

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