First Principles: Keith Duckworth biography reviewed

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Is Keith Duckworth the most important yet least-heralded person in Formula One history?

Perhaps I’m a bit biased in favour of my namesake, but what would have become of our favourite sport had he not created its most successful engine of all time: the Cosworth DFV?

The DFV’s importance lies not just in its success, but its ubiquity. At one race in 1969 a single Ferrari was the only car in the field not powered by Duckworth’s Double Four Valve. Take that away, and what else would have powered the F1 field?

There’s no question figures likes Bernie Ecclestone were important in other ways. But even his cars needed to be powered by something, and the first time one of his drivers tasted championship success it was with a Ford-Cosworth V8 in the back.

Norman Burr’s authorised biography of Duckworth explores the creation of the DFV in detail, as well as his time at Lotus and later Cosworth projects on power boats and motor bikes. Well researched and highly readable, if anything it quotes him a little too extensively, frequently interspersing the text with ‘Duckworthisms’ to an extent which gets a bit distracting.

As the DFV faced the onslaught of its turbo-powered rivals late in the seventies, Duckworth had a sense of where this was all heading, and in 1978 wrote persuasively of the need for F1 to become a fuel-flow formula. He was ignored at the time, and vindicated 36 years later by the 100kg/hour restriction which forms a key part of F1’s current V6 hybrid turbo regulations.

Today’s engine rules, of course, do not allow the kind of freedom of development Duckworth enjoyed five decades ago. “The only substitute for money is genius,” was one of his more enduring sayings – but is it a sentiment which still applies in today’s restrictive formula?

F1 Fanatic rating

Rating four out of five

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First Principles: The Official Biography of Keith Duckworth

Author: Norman Burr
Publisher: Veloce
Published: 2015
Pages: 352
Price: £35
ISBN: 9781845845285

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Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 11 comments on “First Principles: Keith Duckworth biography reviewed”

    1. Is Keith Duckworth the most important yet least-heralded person in Formula One history?

      Absolutely !
      It’s strange that almost everyone knows who Colin Chapman is, yet few people would have any idea who Keith Duckworth is, even amongst motorsport fans he’s relatively unkown.

      Back in the 90’s a friend of mine got his hands on an old DFV with multiple previous owners, after several months of searching for parts, making a few others and a great deal of effort he got it into nearly new condition and put it into a hillclimber he’d built. The power, response and driveability of that 20+ year old engine was unbelieveable, and compared to a modern racing engine it was a very simple and easy to work on.

      It’s amazing to think that such a small team were able to design what effectively became the foundation of all modern engines, and the engine of choice in F1 for over a decade until the introduction of turbo engines.

      1. I think that part of the reason why Duckworth was able to turn around the DFV and to produce a competitive engine was the fact that he already had much of the resources in place to do so. The DFV was designed as two Formula 2 FVA engines paired together with a common crankshaft, which in turn was a derivative of Ford’s 120E engines from the Cortina.

        The other advantage that Duckworth had was a relatively healthy budget, given that Ford were pumping a lot of money into motorsport at the time – to the point where I believe that Cosworth were probably the wealthiest engine builder in the field at the time.

        1. Just to clarify, I was talking about their team being small compared to engine manufacturers of today, obviously they were one of the bigger players back in the day.

    2. ” in 1978 wrote persuasively of the need for F1 to become a fuel-flow formula. He was ignored at the time, and vindicated 36 years later by the 100kg/hour restriction which forms a key part of F1’s current V6 hybrid turbo regulations.” – Rubbish, Duckworth wanted the fuel-flow for different reasons, he wanted to stay competitive against the coming turbo onslaugh… not to save the world, which is the reason f1 now has fuel-flow. how is he vindicated? and then even so, the vindication has made the sport worse if he is vindicated. i like most of Keith’s articles, but i believe this one was built on nostalgia. Duckworth practicly had a monopoly, and then that lasted for a long time, so it shaped f1 for a number of years . the more i look at the history of f1, the more i hate it, it has never been about competition, but rather about eras of domination, led by stupid rules and money, and only having certain people competing in certain eras wanting to be their at the top of f1 – it has never been a very competitive sport compared to other sports. and the more i hear about past legends, the more i disect the true story of money and power, and well, a pathetic sport. i will still love it, but i wont worship the likes of duckworth.

      1. the more i look at the history of f1, the more i hate it, it has never been about competition, but rather about eras of domination, led by stupid rules and money

        Just like real life then…

        1. I like real life :-)

      2. KPCART: What a mean spirited comment! You make it sound like he had no competition, yet he was so good at it that his engines punched well above their weight even after their sell by date. There is Cosworth DNA in almost every top flight racing engine today because of Duckworth’s engineering excellence and far from having a monopoly, from memory he competed variously against BRM, Matra, Ferrari, Renault, Alfa Romeo, Porsche, Honda, Brabham Repco, Lambourghini, Motori Moderni etc etc and beat them all. The most important attribute that Duckworth’s DFV brought to the market, and why he was so dominant for so long was the simple, yet elegant engineering solution of using the engine as a stressed member. DFV powered cars could thus run stiffer and lighter than their space framed opposition. The man is a groundbreaking engineering genius – the Newey of his day…

        1. Well said @baron, the Cosworth DFV was the ultimate example of succeeding against all comers, however I suspect the stressed member feature might have been requested by Colin Chapman and his team at Lotus rather than having been an engine designers concept.

    3. Hmmm I wonder if he’s been contacted by Honda yet?

    4. “The only substitute for money is genius,” – mantra of my life.

      1. I think it does still apply. the quality of some people in F1 is pretty mind blowing and it’s not all driven by money – do we think Rob Smedley is better paid at Williams than he was at Ferrari? I think his reasons for moving were more about the level of the role; I use him as an example because their step up in form *appears* as if it has been maintained and supported by him and his knowledge of process and strategy. the underlying team was always good and they have designed decent cars – like many teams, they need someone to tie it all together to release the potential.

        now, it’s another question entirely if this can be deemed ‘genius’.

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