Sequential Sorrow - 1989 Ferrari 640


4y ago

The 1988 Formula One season was the last in which turbocharged cars would be allowed. After a one-year ban instated in 1986, naturally aspirated engines were back in an increased 3.5L form. This meant Ferrari had to start all over again. Following the lead of the privateer teams, they decided to focus their efforts on developing an new naturally aspirated car.

Ferrari's turbo years in a nutshell. Stefan Johansson (SWE), Ferrari F1/86.

Ferrari's turbo years in a nutshell. Stefan Johansson (SWE), Ferrari F1/86.

The Scuderia's turbo cars had been consistently uncompetitive and unreliable throughout the turbo era, which made continuing with the concept for one more year a highly unattractive proposition. McLaren had meanwhile decided to develop a new turbocharged car, which would dominate throughout the 1988 season.

The new car was very sleek compared to its predecessor, the bulky looking F1/87. A low-line, long nosed, low drag design gave the new model a very distinct and attractive look. Responsible for the new lines was McLaren defector and chief designer John Barnard, who was lured away from Woking to help get the struggling Scuderia back on track.

Powering the scarlet beauty was Ferrari’s new Typo 35/5 3.5L V12. The powerplant eventually produced around 660 horsepower, as much as the outgoing F1/87, which had been restricted to 2.5 bar (36 psi) boost. Coupled to the magnificently sounding engine was a truly innovative piece of engineering.

The talk of the F1-paddock.

The talk of the F1-paddock.

Ferrari had developed the first sequential, semi-automatic gearbox. It had been working on the concept for nearly ten years, but had to wait until the advancement of electronic systems caught up with the idea. The finished unit was electro-mechanically actuated and featured 7 forward gears.

Shifting was handled through two paddles fitted to the sides of the steering wheel. The clutch pedal was removed entirely and replaced with a smaller paddle also on the steering wheel. It was used for the start and pit stops only. This layout would prove to be the template for F1 cars for many years to come.

The concept looked fantastic on paper, but getting the innovative new transmission to work properly was proving to be an extremely difficult task. Persistent electronic gremlins slowed development considerably. Eventually this resulted in Ferrari being forced to postpone the car’s introduction for another year. As a stop-gap the turbocharged F1/87 was hastily updated into the F1/87/88C to compete in the 1988 season.

The clunky F1/87/88C was forced to defend Ferrari's honor for one more year.

The clunky F1/87/88C was forced to defend Ferrari's honor for one more year.

Extensive test work began with the help of Brazilian test driver Roberto Moreno. The gearbox’s reliability issue was eventually traced back to an undersized battery. The complicated transmission simply did not get the electrical power it needed to operate correctly. Ferrari’s electrical partner Magneti Marelli solved the issue and made the car vastly more reliable in the process. Ferrari felt the new car was now ready for the first season of the new 3.5L formula in 1989.

Ferrari selected former Williams driver and multiple race winner Nigel Mansell (GB) to drive the #27 car alongside the tall Austrian Gerhard Berger, who had driven for Ferrari in 1987 and 1988. Berger won the only race in 1988 not taken by McLaren at Monza. The experienced and fast driver line-up promised the 640 a chance at consistent high-placed finishes, something Ferrari hadn’t seen for many years.

Senna squeezing Berger at the first corner, 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix

Senna squeezing Berger at the first corner, 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix

The opening round of the 1989 season took place at Jacarepagua, Brazil. Despite the improvements done by Magneti Marelli, the Ferrari’s were suffering from transmission faults all weekend. In qualifying Berger still managed an impressive 3rd behind surprisingly fast Italian Riccardo Patrese’s Williams and pole sitter Ayrton Senna’s McLaren. Nigel Mansell was down in 6th behind the second Williams of Thierry Boutsen (BEL) and Alain Prost (FRA) in the second McLaren.

The race opened dramatically, as Gerhard Berger rocketed from the start line on his way past Senna. Senna was notoriously hard to pass, and squeezed Berger a bit too much. The two collided, ending Berger’s race and leaving Senna to finish two laps down. Meanwhile Mansell had been steadily making up places, not bothered by any reliability issues. He did however suffer a loosening steering wheel in the latter half of the race. At his final pit stop this fault was corrected, and he recorded a surprise win in the 640’s first ever race.

“If the car has even half the horsepower it sounds like it has, we’ll win every race this year…”

Nigel Mansell.
Gerhard Berger's vicious fiery wreck at Imola.

Gerhard Berger's vicious fiery wreck at Imola.

The next round was at the infamous high speed track of Imola, for the San Marino Grand Prix. Nigel Mansell improved in qualifying, managing 3rd. Team mate Gerhard Berger was down in 5th on the grid.

The race was a total failure for Ferrari. Mansell’s gearbox died just 3 laps into the race, embarrassing the Scuderia. Just a lap later, disaster struck for Gerhard Berger when his front wing failed on him and sent him off track at the incredibly fast Tamburello corner.

He hit the wall at an estimated 180 mph (289 kph). The car came to a rest and immediately engulfed itself in flames. A fast response from the safety marshals at Imola saved Berger’s life, as he escaped with a few broken ribs and several second degree burns.

Nigel Mansell powering out of the tunnel, Monaco 1989.

Nigel Mansell powering out of the tunnel, Monaco 1989.

Gerhard Berger understandably missed the next Grand Prix at Monaco, leaving just Mansell to defend Ferrari’s honor. He qualified 5th on the grid, an amazing 2.4 seconds behind pole sitter Ayrton Senna and his McLaren. Bad luck would hit him again on lap 30, with another transmission failure.

The good form shown in the very first race of the 640 had completely evaporated. Berger had recovered in time for the Mexican Grand Prix, but got his first taste of a gearbox related retirement on lap 16. Mansell would last till lap 43. The impending tsunami of transmission failures had by now come ashore.

The giants of the era going wheel to wheel: Mansell vs Prost

The giants of the era going wheel to wheel: Mansell vs Prost

Neither Nigel Mansell nor Gerhard Berger saw a finish in the streets of Phoenix at the American Grand Prix. At the Canadian Grand Prix, Mansell was disqualified after starting from the pit lane before the race had begun. He had gone in to change to slicks before the race and found no lights at the end of pit lane. Together with Bennetton driver Alessandro Nannini (ITA) he proceeded to the track, not being stopped by the stewards in the process. Berger was again out after just 6 laps.

The French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard began troublesome once again. Outbraking only himself, Mauricio Gugelmin (BRA) rammed his March into the back of Thierry Boutsen’s Williams before torpedoing Nigel Mansell’s Ferrari. The resulting chaos led to the race being stopped. The affected drivers made grateful use of this opportunity to jump into their spare cars. Eventually the race finally saw another finish for Mansell, who once again proved the car’s potential by finishing 2nd behind McLaren ace Alain Prost. Berger continued his no-finish season when a destroyed clutch caught him on lap 29.

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Mauricio Gugelmin playing tag with the F1 field.

Nigel Mansell’s car seemed to be in much better shape than that of his team mate, as he followed his 2nd place up with another at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, 3rd at the Hockenheimring in Germany, another win at the Hungaroring, and a 3rd placing at Spa. Gerhard Berger on the other hand would fail to finish in each and every of the aforementioned rounds.

Mansell’s good luck ran out at Monza and seemingly shifted to Berger, who finished a race for the first time that season. He skilfully piloted the surviving 640 to an impressive 2nd place behind Alain Prost. Berger’s persistence through all the mechanical woes was rewarded when he won at Estoril, Portugal. Mansell got his second disqualification in Portugal for reversing in the pit lane after missing his pit box. He was black-flagged twice, but ignored the marshal’s orders to pit.

For his stubbornness he was excluded from competing in the next round at Jerez for the Spanish Grand Prix. There Gerhard Berger would see his third and final finish of the season, finishing 2nd once again behind Ayrton Senna. Dismal retirements for both cars in Japan and Australia finally ended the 640’s troublesome career.

The Ferrari 640 was very far ahead of its time on a technological level. Even though the complicated gearbox was woefully unreliable, every time it actually worked the scarlet machine showed blistering speed. As a result the fickle 640 was one of the few cars that could actually run with the seemingly untouchable McLaren MP4/5.

For 1990 Ferrari would seek to improve the sequential gearbox with the 641, an evolution of the 640. By 1996 all cars running in the F1 field had incorporated the concept, securing the Ferrari 640's legacy as an incredibly unlucky technological icebreaker.

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Comments (8)

  • John Barnard said later that most of the retirements stemmed from losing power to the gearbox electronics. The alternator belt kept coming off due to crankshaft vibrations and it took a lot of time to fix on the dyno, they finally did it by using high-speed photography. The box itself was apparently pretty robust.

      3 years ago
  • Great article, as always. I'll add an amusing true story: Piero Lardi-Ferrari, the Commendatore's son, felt he was being sidelined by the new administration that FIAT had put in place after his father passed away and, along with a bunch of Ferrari engineers who weren't pleased with John Barnard (a foreigner and, worst of all, an english man!) being given total control of the team's technical efforts, decided to design and built an entirely new car, with a classic manual shift. When Cesare Fiorio, the team's then manager, and the powers that be found out, they weren't exactly happy and Piero's dreams of running his father's business on his own were dead for good...

      2 years ago
  • Great article and very informative. I believe the early nineties were the best years in Formula 1. These cars look stunning and sound like nothing before or ever since.

      4 years ago
  • Ferrari 640/1 are among the best looking F1 ever. Surely very fast but somewhat unlucky, they deserved more in my opinion.

      4 years ago
  • a great and informative read as always! keep up the fantastic work!

      4 years ago