From June 28, 1981, to Nov. 9, 1986, Cosworth engines powered 81 consecutive winners of Indy car races.
Last year, Ilmor Chevrolet engines were in the winning chassis of 14 of 15 Indy car races. A Judd engine won the other. Cosworth, for the first time since it was introduced in Indy cars in 1976, was blanked.
The perplexing engine question as the 1989 season approaches is this: Can the Cosworth make a comeback and become competitive with the Chevrolets?
Bobby Rahal, who won the 1987 CART Indy car championship with a Cosworth but then switched to a Judd for 1988, has switched back to Cosworth and believes it is possible for the once-dominant engine to reassert itself.
"I liken Cosworth to the story of awakening the sleeping giant," Rahal said. "For years, it didn't have to do much because it had no competition. Then along came Ilmor. Now it's back to the fight."
Ironically, Rahal switched teams--from the late Jim Trueman's Truesports to Maury Kraines' Kraco--last year because he wanted a Chevy engine. Truesports was committed to Judd, and it was rumored that Kraco might join the group of Ilmor Chevy engine users, which includes the teams of Roger Penske, Pat Patrick and Carl Haas-Paul Newman.
However, Ilmor executives decided to add only one new engine this year and it went to Haas-Newman after they signed Michael Andretti to join his father, Mario, on a two-driver team.
"Initially, I was disappointed not to get a Chevy," Rahal said. "But there were no promises made (by Kraines), and I'm a big boy, so I accepted it. Last year, I thought I had to make a change, Chevy or not, to a team that was associated with a major engine builder. The change from Truesports to Kraco was made based on that need.
"Now I think, frankly, that the change may work in my favor. With only two teams using the new short-stroke DFS, we'll be sharing the development information with only one other team (Dick Simon's with Arie Luyendyk as the driver). I don't think there is any question that Cosworth has the capabilities to compete head to head with Chevrolet. Michael (Andretti) showed its potential in the Marlboro Challenge at Miami."
Andretti, in his last ride as Kraco's driver, won the non-points race on Miami's Tamiami Park road course last November.
"Tests on the dyno show the engine as considerably stronger than last year's version," Rahal said. "It is very different, more than just the short stroke. I would say that literally 50% of it has changed."
Enough changes were made for Cosworth to change the designation of the engine from DFX, which scored the 81 consecutive wins, to DFS, for short stroke.
"There's a lot at stake between Cosworth and Ilmor, more than meets the eye," Rahal said. "There's a great intercity rivalry, too, that has to do with pride."
Cosworth's headquarters are in Northampton, England, where the engines are developed and manufactured, although they are distributed and maintained at their American headquarters in Torrance.
Ilmor's headquarters are in Brixworth, a Northampton suburb.
There is more, even in the derivation of their names, that is similar.
Cosworth was started in 1958 by Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth, hence the name Cosworth. Ilmor was formed in 1985 by Mario Illien and Paul Morgan, hence the name Ilmor.
Illien and Morgan were friends working at Cosworth when they decided to design and build their own engine. A transatlantic phone call to Penske led to financial backing from Penske's racing empire and General Motors, specifically the Chevrolet division.
The new engine was raced for the first time by Al Unser in April, 1986, at Phoenix. Ironically, Unser also drove the first Indy car Cosworth, a DFV, when it made its debut in 1975, also at Phoenix. "Having a huge corporation behind me is a good confidence builder," Rahal said. "We worked hard last year to develop the Judd engine, but there is no comparison with the way I feel this year. John Judd's first priority is Formula One and it fell on Truesports to do a tremendous amount of development with a budget that obviously didn't match Chevy or Cosworth."
Rahal, an avid golfer between races, is so serious about helping develop the new Kraco Cosworth-Lola that he skipped the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am to go testing. And he has canceled his plan to drive in the 24 Hours of LeMans in June because it might detract from his Indy car preparation. "I'm committed to making this team successful," he said. "I know (crew chief) Barry Green is, too. I told Maury Kraines that I knew the feel and thrill of winning Indy, and my commitment is to get him in Victory Circle so he can get the same feeling."