It’s hard to believe but it’s coming up for 30 years since Ferrari invested seriously in its first forced-induction Formula 1 programme after 1950, developing its 120-degree V6-cylinder 126C design. Maranello’s engine group at that time was headed by the veteran pairing of Franco Rocchi and Walter Salvarani, assisted by Angiolino Marchetti, all answering to chief engineer Mauro Forghieri. Having studied the requirement to follow Renault’s 1.5-litre turbocharged lead in F1, they developed their design while researching three alternative forced-induction ploys. Two involved conventional exhaust-driven turbochargers made by Kühnle, Kopp & Kausch (KKK) of Germany, or by Garrett AiResearch of America, while the third used a belt-driven mechanical pressure-wave supercharger unit made by Brown Boveri & Co of Switzerland.
The little V6 engine – whose basic architecture mirrored that of the 1961 World Championship-dominating ‘Sharknose’ unit – offered several advantages over the alternative V8 and four-cylinder studies. With each cylinder bank being only three cylinders long, not only the block but also the crankshaft and camshafts could be shorter, lighter and stiffer. Fewer moving parts than a V8 promised lower friction loss, and compared to a four-cylinder the smaller surface area of each piston crown promised lower thermal risk to each one, yet greater piston area overall. The wide-angle vee provided plenty of space between the inlet cam covers to house the compressors, ignition and injection units. What’s more, the V6’s narrow base chamber left plenty of space each side for unobstructed ground-effects under-surface tunnels – always a bugbear of the preceding 3-litre flat-12 engines in the T3-T5 cars.
Brown Boveri’s Comprex supercharging system won the initial PR war. Although it was aimed mainly at diesel engines, BB was trying to promote its use in small passenger cars, hence the promotional R&D link with Fiat-Ferrari to encourage wider adoption by the production industry. But it didn’t happen.
The first prototype 126C was chassis ‘049’ in the then 11-year-old F1 Ferrari series founded in 1969. And while the new 1500cc V6 harked back to the 1961 ‘Sharknose’ programme, the new aluminium-skinned monocoque used Ferrari’s ‘Aero’ construction system, introduced by Forghieri and his chassis team as far back as ’63 – just in time for that year’s Italian GP. There was little confidence among Italian industry in building otherwise unframed stressed-skin monocoque structures, so they adopted instead an internal framework of flat-faced tube which would be panelled – and effectively triangulated to resist bending and torsional loads – by riveted-on alloy sheet. Little evidence of Ferrari constructional practice – other than the redundant cars, sold into private hands – has escaped into the public domain.
But while trawling through some of one-time Ferrari Direttore Sportivo Franco Lini’s photography, I came across the shot reproduced here. I believe it shows either the prototype 126C chassis – ‘049’ – or one of its early sisters in manufacture on the surface plate at Maranello. Looking at the fuel cell section, whose forward bulkhead would have closed off the back of the piloto intrepido’s cockpit, one can see the characteristic rivet lines which each announced the location of those internal frame members. As for the structure framed up for each side pontoon, one begins to develop a fairly scary feel for the contemporary drivers’ exposure in these things. Of course there were the deformable sidepod structures with glassfibre and composite external skins, plus the water radiators and induction intercoolers to be slung on outboard which would provide further side-impact protection, but even so… Gulp.
In fact ‘049’ would not make its public debut until the 1980 Italian GP at Imola that September, where Gilles Villeneuve gave it a sound thrashing during practice, merely to keep himself interested and to keep faith with the Italian tifosi because there was no intention of racing the car. Testing showed the Comprex-blown 126BBC configuration – later reclassified as the 126CX – was not only quieter, but demonstrably slower, than the crackling KKK-blown 126CK alternative. So the much-trumpeted Swiss system was dropped unraced in favour of the German turbochargers. Six 126-series cars were built through 1981, the last three using modified and stiffened B-spec chassis from new, while their predecessors were updated to match. At Imola, 1981, Didier Pironi scored the new model’s first World Championship points, while Villeneuve qualified on pole and led the race. He then won at both Monaco and Jarama. These were powerful cars at some 600bhp, quick out of corners but notoriously evil-handling and bouncy. But then Villeneuve and Pironi were pretty bouncy too. One can’t help thinking that had they seen their chassis under construction, it might have taken some of the Tigger out of them both… But one cannot accuse many great racing drivers of having any imagination, and in that respect this sadly ill-fated pair were nothing unusual.