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.


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