|Ferrari 640 F1|
During the 1988 season McLaren's dominance was absolute; the British team could have easily won all sixteen races had Ayrton Senna handled a back-marker a little better during the Italian Grand Prix. Understandably all other teams welcomed the drastic rule changes planned for 1989. Forced induction was banned altogether and naturally aspirated engines had a displacement limit of 3.5 litre.
Realising defeat early in the season, Ferrari set all sights on the new season long before 1988 was over. This was not easy as many key figures had left the team during the year. Among the replacements was designer John Barnard, who had introduced the carbon-fibre to Formula 1 during his stint at McLaren. Engine wizard Jean-Jacques His' place was taken by Claudio Lombardi. He had the important task of designing a brand new engine.
The 3.5 litre displacement gave Ferrari the perfect opportunity to return to the manufacturer's favoured engine configuration; the V12. Lombardi did not take the easy route and created a lightweight 12 cylinder unit with four camshafts and five valves per cylinder. Three valves were used on the intake side. Ferrari officially rated the engine at 600 bhp at a startling 12,500 rpm.
Barnard was far from certain that the new Ferrari engine would be powerful enough to take on the Renault and Honda V10s. To get the edge he had thought of a more efficient way to transfer the power to the wheels that would have a lasting effect. He had created a seven-speed gearbox with an automatic clutch. Paddles behind the steering wheel operated the gearbox and the driver only needed to use the clutch during take-off. The ingenious system drastically reduced shift-times.
The sophisticated drivetrain was bolted to a carbon-fibre monocoque chassis as a fully stressed member. The new Ferrari received a distinct aero package with a narrow nose and full-length side-pods with tall and narrow intakes right behind the front suspension. That there was considerably less power available than in the 'turbo years' was well illustrated by the more delicate front and rear wings. Fresh air was fed to the engine by two slats on either side of the head-rest.
Late in 1988 Ferrari built two prototypes under the '639 F1' moniker. They were used for testing only. For the first race of the season, Nigel Mansell and Gerhard Berger lined up with the new 640 F1 or F1-89. Although barely tested, the revolutionary machine had a dream-start as Nigel Mansell took a debut victory in his first race for Ferrari. The 640 F1 remained competitive throughout the season but could only rarely convert the raw pace in results. Mansell and Berger would only win one more race each.
Barnard left the team at the end of the year and he was replaced by Steve Nichols. Much of the work for 1990 was focused on making the quick machine reliable. With no major revisions, the 640 F1 evolved into the 641 F1. The most noticeable change was the adaption of a more conventional 'airbox' intake for the engine but that had already appeared halfway through the 1989 season. The personnel changes were more prolific as the team had managed to sign reigning World champion Alain Prost to drive the 641 F1 alongside Mansell.
However minimal, the changes did have the desired effect. Prost won the second race of the year and soon after scored three victories in a row. His closest rival for the title was his former team-mate Ayrton Senna. The Brazilian had a better start to the season and led the championship but Prost was still within striking distance after his fifth win of the year. Senna ended the 'tifosi's' hopes by punting Prost off the track during the start of the Japanese Grand Prix. Mansell also won a race, helping Ferrari to clinch second in the manufacturer's championship.
Evolution was again the key-word in the subsequent off season. The 'new' 642 F1 was again barely distinguishable from its predecessor. Disgruntled with his position within the team, Mansell had left and was replaced by the talented Jean Alesi. The two Frenchmen managed no better than a handful of seconds and thirds. Towards the end of the year a revised 643 F1 was field but this was barely an improvement. The drama was complete when Prost was fired before the final race after likening the handling of the 643 F1 to that of a truck.
Drastic measures were needed to get Ferrari back on track. The team's highly successful manager of the 1970s, Luca de Montezemolo returned to the helm of the team. The first brand new car in three years was developed but sadly it also failed to bring the desired results. The 640 F1 and its off-shoots will forever be remembered for launching the 'flappy-paddle' gearbox that has since been widely used on both racing and road cars. In 1990 the revolutionary system brought Ferrari achingly close to both titles.
Article by Wouter Melissen, last updated on January 28, 2010
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