F1 considers going back to the future on gearboxes

F1 has opened applications to produce a standardised gearbox for all its teams to use between 2021 and 2024. This move would see teams run share a common design, made by one company rather than having various suppliers at play, with the main aim of lowering costs.


The recent proposal for F1 teams to use standard gearbox internals may be a cost-saving measure but you could also say it's a throwback to the days when entire gearboxes were off-the-shelf components delivered to the workshop door.

When James Hunt won the World Championship in 1976, his McLaren M23 ran exactly the same Hewland FG400 gearbox as Lotus, Tyrrell and most of the leading contenders, the one exception being Ferrari with a unit that was not only of their own manufacture but also, uniquely, transverse. Even the all-French Matra would have a version of the British gearbox mated to their V12 engine.

Mechanics from back in the day grimace when they recall working on gearboxes that frequently tended to fail under heavy-fisted treatment by drivers wrestling the manual gearshift in the heat of competition.

"There would be nothing more depressing," recalls one former McLaren man, "than spending a day preparing the 'box, getting everything balanced and perfect, and then it comes back a stinking pile of junk. The stench of gearbox oil was worse than anything you can imagine, particularly at the end of a day's testing in somewhere hot like Argentina. You'd get back to your room in the early hours and you would stink of the stuff."

Mechanics could remove the back of a gearbox in seconds and change ratios in the pit lane, often between practice sessions. The bonus associated with standard parts -- and also a sign of the open cameraderie of the time -- would be lending ratios to a rival in trouble, as McLaren did for Lotus one year when far from home at Watkins Glen.

The downside for drivers would be having the result of their brutal handiwork exposed. Derek Daly recalls his first race driving a Tyrrell with a new, lighter gearshift in 1980. The race in South Africa was a few days before Daly's birthday and, to the Irishman's surprise, he was called to the factory to receive a present.

Ken Tyrrell solemnly presented Derek with two similar dog rings tied together by a piece of string. One, taken from Jean-Pierre Jarier's car, was lightly marked. The other, removed from Daly's gearbox, was severely mangled with most of the teeth missing. Typical of Ken, however, he had also arranged for the workshop to set up a gear linkage and 'box to show his man exactly how everything worked. Daly did not do serious mischief to another dog ring for the rest of the season.

Apart from fitting their own casting to accept the rear wing support, teams in the 1970s would make few alterations to the units delivered from Hewland Engineering's factory at Maidenhead. Progress being what it is, the introduction of specific side plates and suspension pick up points eventually led to teams producing entire castings of the box - but, interestingly in the light of the recent proposal - the Hewland internals would remain standard.

That would change substantially in the 1980s when the introduction of carbon fibre - plus the widespread adoption of transverse transmissions - brought fully bespoke gearboxes, and the humble beginnings of an accelerating cost spiral they're trying to knock into neutral today.