Groundbreaking F1 Gearbox: 1989 Ferrari 640

Groundbreaking F1 Gearbox: 1989 Ferrari 640

Despite initial teething problems delaying the car by a year and tense confrontations between designer John Barnard and Ferrari management over the design, the 640’s radical new transmission was to become normal in F1 and greater motorsport in the coming years.

Photos: Ferrari

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Barnard’s Arrival

After leaving McLaren for Ferrari due to a dispute with Ron Dennis at the end of 1986, English car designer John Barnard moved to Ferrari the following year. He set up the team’s technical offices in Guildford from where he would do his work. He was too late to influence Ferrari’s 1987 car, the F1/87.

John Barnard - Ferrari

Alain Prost, John Barnard and Jean Todt.

However, Barnard did what he could and improvements brought to the car allowed driver Gerhard Berger to take victories in the last two Grands Prix of 1987. Looking to take control of the design of the 1988 car, Barnard targeted the chassis’ bulky design. The objective was to make an overall slimmer and more aerodynamic package.

The First Paddle-Shift Gearbox

Up until 1988, all Formula 1 cars had manual transmission as well as a clutch pedal in the car. Electro-hydraulic valves were used in the aircraft industry at the time. Ferrari saw potential and came up with a similar system that would allow a much smoother gear change while taking away the need for a third pedal or gear shift.

Barnard began work on the design with the intention for it to be used in the upcoming 1988 car. He proposed an electronic gear change through the use of two buttons on the steering wheel, a design which eventually evolved into two paddle-shifters and a handheld clutch used on the 1989 Ferrari 640.

1989 Ferrari 640 - Steering wheel

The 640's steering wheel.

Problems soon arose for Barnard and the new design. Throughout early testing of the 1988 ‘639’ (a car that never saw competition), the new gearbox design showed up multiple flaws and was not considered ready for a race situation, thus forcing Barnard and Ferrari to use an updated model of the 1987 car for 1988, dubbed the F1/87/88C.

Problems at Ferrari

With Enzo Ferrari’s passing in August of 1988, a number of high-ranking members from Fiat took control of Scuderia Ferrari and were soon ready to put up a fight against Barnard’s flawed design. With 1988 being the last year of the turbocharged engines in F1, Barnard worked out a reliable solution for the system to work effectively with Ferrari’s 1989 engine, the 3.5-L V12 Tipo 035/5, as the team readied to return to a naturally-aspirated layout.

1989 Ferrari 640 - Top view

With new management under control, there was extensive disagreements over the use of the new design. Barnard later admitted on an episode of Formula 1’s Beyond the Grid podcast that he had to exercise his title as head of Technical Operations at Ferrari as well as threatening to leave the team in order to convince the new management to use his design. Barnard had got his way and the Ferrari 640, including the new gearbox, was born.

On Track

1989 Ferrari 640 on track

There was much speculation and excitement over the new car in 1989, and how Barnard’s radical new gearbox would perform. The 640 was visually quite different to the previous Ferrari models of the decade, with the all-carbon fibre monocoque sporting a much sharper body design and front nose cone, thanks to the clutch pedal and gearshift no longer being present, the electronic design also made sure a driver could not jump out of gear and damage the engine.

The car was a race winner instantly, with Nigel Mansell taking the victory in Brazil at the first race of the season, as well as Mansell’s debut with Ferrari. However, reliability was still an issue with such a new design and the car did not see another chequered flag until six races later at the French Grand Prix.

However, the car finished no lower than third when it did finish a race, and took Mansell to a second victory in Hungary before handing teammate Gerhard Berger the win Portugal, in a race where the Ferraris were clearly quicker than recently crowned champions McLaren. The design and strength of the chassis was also praised for the protection it gave to Berger at that year’s San Marino Grand Prix, after the Austrian driver crashed heavily at Tamburello on the first lap.

1989 Ferrari 640 in Monaco

The car evolved into the 641 for 1990, which allowed Alain Prost to duel with rival Ayrton Senna for the title right to the final race in Japan, where Senna was declared champion after both drivers collided at the first corner.

By 1992, the majority of teams were now running a similar semi-automatic transmission set up to Ferrari. The once clear advantage had been diminished. It will be Barnard and Ferrari however, that will be remembered for a concept that would eventually find its way into every major motorsport as well as normal sports and supercar design.

Written by Cóilín Higgins.


  • Matteo bongarzone

    To be honest, I would like you to provide the sources for the information you have provided here, as I have heard many contradictory things regarding the first generation of semi-auto gearboxes used in Formula 1. On the one hand, in Adrian Newey’s book how to build a race car, he clearly states that 1993 was the first year the clutch was switched from a foot pedal to a hand lever. And, in a piece of onboard footage of Alain Prost in the new Williams from the Canadian gp of 1993, the commentator states that Williams just implemented their own fly-by-wire system similar to mclarens, which causes the drivers now to not have to rev-match on their way down the gearbox, as the computer is now able to control this function. However, the commentator also contradicts Newey by saying “the driver’s feet never touch the clutch again after the race start” but how could the drivers feet be touching the clutch if Newey said it was hand operated as per 1993… personally I choose to believe Newey, and, if what he says is true then I don’t think any semi-auto gearbox pre 93’ had a hand clutch. Unless you have sources to solidly prove these claims about Ferrari’s computer controlled semi-auto gearbox with hand clutch (and I’m not saying you don’t, I’d just be very curious and delighted to have access to such information) then I think it’s unlikely the 640 actually had a gearbox which functions the way you say. According to my understanding, the only thing that was different in the 89 car was that it now used paddles to electronically control the gears to shift up and down, rather than the driver having to remove his right hand from the steering wheel to select his gear thereby reducing the amount of control he has over the car. I believe the Ferrari of 89’ had a clutch pedal, but I think it’s also viable to say you probably didn’t need it for upshifts, you simply may have had to lift up on throttle quickly to cut ignition in order to slam in that next gear and then immediately get back on throttle, like they do with super bikes that don’t have quickshifters. However, if Williams was steel heel-and-toeing with their semi-auto paddle shift gearbox up until 92, then I believe you definitely had to still heel and toe the 640 going down the box even though it had paddles to select the gears. It’s advantage would have been the quicker up shift and hands never leaving the wheel, still huge advantages. Here is the link to the onboard footage of Prost in 93’ I referred to:

    This is only me trying to piece the puzzle together from the info I’ve gathered over the years, to know for certain how the gearboxes worked from 89-93 in Formula 1 is a piece of information I have been desperate to obtain for a long time.

    When you view pictures of the steering wheel of the 640 from its backside (which there are many), you can clearly see the 2 paddles for selecting the gears up and down, but there is NO clutch pedal evident whatsoever. I have not been able to find any photographs ever of its pedal box though which would most definitely confirm my hunch. I really want to get to the bottom of this grand speculation. Thank you,

    - Matteo

  • Kumaressan Suppiah

    Actually I did read somewhere that apparently Ferrari came up with the semi auto gearbox way earlier in 1978 via the legendary Mauro Forghieri and tested by both Scheckter and Villeneuve. But it was not used to race. They evolved it further with future engineers and with Barnard, made it race worthy with inputs from his own ideas as well.

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