In reality however, the Ferrari 643 was a bit of a dog. The handling was so bad that driver Alain Prost felt compelled to compare it to a truck, something that saw him swiftly booted from the proud Italian team, but this car along with its predecessors did have some pretty nifty engineering under that gorgeous body.
Before we can get onto the Ferrari 643 though, we must go back to 1988 in order to truly understand what led to the creation of one of the most beautiful F1 cars ever built. Back then, McLaren were dominating with Ferrari very much on the backfoot but an overhaul of the technical regulations was planned for the 89 season, including a ban on turbos and a limit on engine capacity, so Ferrari focused all their efforts on being at the top when the pack was shuffled.
This included drafting in some new engineering talent including chassis designer John Barnard and engine wizard Claudio Lombardi. Lombardi developed a lightweight, normally aspirated V12 engine to replace the fuel hungry V6 turbo engine of the previous car, while Barnard implemented the first F1 semi-automatic gearbox with paddle shifts, significantly reducing shift-times. The bodywork was refined too with a narrow nose, full length side-pods and more delicate front wing elements, a nod to the fact that these normally aspirated machines were never likely to encounter the same wind resistance as those of the turbo era.
The new machine took a stunning debut victory in 89 with Nigel Mansell at the wheel but even though the Ferrari 640 was quick, it would only go on to win a couple more races that season. The clever transmission Barnard had developed was just too unreliable. On the flip-side though, the 640’s carbon-fibre monocoque proved more than up to the task when driver Gerhard Berger hit the wall at 180mph in Imola and the car burst into flames. He survived with only minor burns and broken ribs. The fact that the car was fitted with a now ubiquitous paddle-shift gearbox meant that Berger could actually return to the car just one race later to compete, whereas a conventional stick shift would have left him watching from the side-lines while his body mended itself fully.
Barnard left the team at the end of 89 to be replaced by Steve Nichols, whose primary goal was not necessarily to find more pace but to make the damn thing reliable. The 640 became the 641 with very little visual changes, however on the driver side Berger was out and reigning world champion Alain Prost was in. Prost went on to win a string of races in 1990 and challenged his former McLaren teammate and nemesis Ayrton Senna for the driver’s championship until the start of the Japanese Grand Prix when Senna intentionally punted Prost off the track, securing the drivers championship for himself and the constructors championship for McLaren.
For the 1991 season, the 642 was launched and again looked pretty much indistinguishable from both the 641 and 640. An unhappy Mansell had left leaving Jean Alesi to partner Prost but the two Frenchmen brought home little more than a handful of seconds and thirds. Towards the end of the year a revised chassis called the 643 was introduced as per Prost’s request to combat inconsistent handling issues and to allow for a more softer suspension travel but things didn’t improve as much as he felt they should have.
Before the season finale Prost exclaimed “a truck would be easier to drive than this car” which upset Ferrari deeply. As such, he found himself sacked from a works team for the second time in his career. Prost was replaced by Ferrari test driver Gianni Morbidelli who went on to finish 6th while his teammate Alesi failed to finish the race.
The 643 was replaced for the 92 season with the F92A, a car built from the ground up with little resemblance to the 643. It featured a ‘double floor’ for improved aerodynamic performance but this compromised the handling significantly and it was incredibly slow down the straights. Driver Ivan Capelli later said in an interview that the F92A was the worst F1 car he raced in his career. Ferrari amassed only 21 championship points that year…