The 1970s is informally referred to as the kit car era of Formula One. That was a time where most of the grid was running the Cosworth DFV V8 and a Heyland transaxle (gearbox, differential, and drive axle all in one). Only BRM and Ferrari weren’t running that combination in their cars. Over thirty years after the end of the kit car era, it looks as though we could be heading straight back to that. With the recent withdrawals of Honda, BMW, and Toyota, and the rumoured withdrawal of Renault, we could be headed back to kit car era.
All sighting the recent economic recession, Honda, BMW and Toyota have withdrawn their factory teams and backing over the last twelve months. Following the recent Crashgate scandal and a bailout loan from the French government, Renault could be the fourth factory team to leave F1 in the span of one year. That would leave Ferrari as the only full-factory team on the grid and Ferrari, Mercedes, and Cosworth as the only engine manufacturers in the sport.
In keeping with the kit car analogy, all the Cosworth engines will come with Xtrac and Ricardo Transmissions which brings us back to the kit car era. Currently, the Scuderia and Toro Rosso use Ferrari engines while McLaren, Brawn, and Force India use Mercedes engines. If Renault withdraws, then Red Bull will be without an engine supplier. Assuming that Sauber comes in to replace Renault/Toyota, we could see 7 teams running the Cosworth/XR package.
The kit car era was one of the most exciting periods of Formula One history. All the cars were fairly evenly matched which meant that victory was almost entirely in the driver’s hands. Given how the cars have evolved over the last thirty years, I don’t think that the racing in a near spec Formula One will be terribly good. Aerodynamics was first evolving then. Their idea of good aerodynamic design was building something they thought looked good and ran well on track. Now, computer design, modelling, and simulation programs and wind tunnels have taken the guess work out of car design and have made cars so aero-sensitive that they can’t follow or pass each other.
That’s where the problem with manufacturers leaving is. In the IndyCar Series, there are the Penske and Ganassi cars and the rest of the field. Those cars are the best developed within the ICS rules which itself is a spec-car series. Given the tight rules that F1 works in, the cars are all going to look relatively similar. Every good idea that someone comes up with is immediately copied by the rest of the grid. The only difference comes when teams spend hundreds of millions of dollars to buy another tenth from their car.
Different engines, especially when refuelling is banned, will make for a more exciting show. There could be powerful engines that don’t get the mileage so they have to run heavy. They would run slower off the start but get faster as the race progresses. Alternatively, less powerful engines with better mileage would start lighter so they would get a head start on the heavy cars. Though, less fuel onboard at the start would mean the car would be less sensitive to burning fuel and need fewer adjustments over the course of the race. That would make pitstops faster and make the drivers more comfortable with the changes being made to the car.
Of course, all this could be a temporary thing. Manufacturers and support first came in during the late 1970s and early 1980s. By the end of the 80s, the economy had gone south and so had manufacturer money. Factory teams popped up like weeds in the economic boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. With the most recent recession, the corporate money has vanished again. Given the cyclical nature of the economy and Formula One, it’s very likely we haven’t seen the end of factory teams in F1.