As Ferrari’s first turbocharged 1.5-litre grand prix car, the 126CK broke with marque tradition, but its two victories in 1981 were largely down to Gilles Villeneuve’s genius behind the wheel
Words: Alan Henry. Photography: Charlie Magee
Tech spec – Ferrari 126CK – Chassis 052
Multi-tube spaceframe skinned with aluminium alloy sheet
Front suspension: double wishbones, rocker arms, inboard coil/dampers
Rear suspension: double wishbones, rocker arms, inboard coil/dampers
Brakes: outboard ventilated discs
Steering: rack and pinion
Configuration: turbocharged, quad-cam, 120-degree V6
Valvegear: four valves per cylinder
Bore x stroke: 81mm x 48.4mm
Induction: twin KKK turbochargers, twin intercoolers
Gearbox: transverse Ferrari five-speed
Sitting in the Galleria Ferrari at Maranello, the 126CK is certainly not the most elegant racing car to have emerged from the Gestione Sportive. Yet this in no way debars it from staking a claim to be one of the truly seminal designs to emerge from this most famous of shrines to grand prix racing. And, this is a very special — the most special — Ferrari 126CK.
Chassis number 052 is the machine which carried Gilles Villeneuve to two of the greatest wins of his tragically brief Formula 1 career, in the 1981 Monaco and Spanish Grands Prix. They were races which not only stood as tributes to the French Canadian’s driving genius, but also occasions when Villeneuve’s talent enabled the ill-handling Ferrari to punch above its weight in the fledgling months of the 1.5-litre turbo era at Maranello. It was during the summer of 1980 that Ferrari showed off his first 126CK at Imola for that year’s Italian GP. Villeneuve drove it in one of the free practice sessions for that event — and most people were under the impression that it was little more than a travelling test bed.
The chassis construction of the 126CK followed typical Maranello lines with a multi-tubular spaceframe overlaid with stressed aluminium alloy sheeting; the suspension was by means of rocker arms operating inboard coil spring/dampers all round, and the whole package undeniably looked a little crude and makeshift. By contrast, the 120-degree, 81x48mm, 1496cc V6 engine was a much more polished affair. The four-cam unit had its inlet camshafts on the outside and exhaust camshafts on the inside of the vee, enabling short exhaust pipes from both banks to feed into the large turbos which were centrally mounted immediately behind the substantial fuel cell. The exhaust from the turbines ran to short tail pipes above the final drive unit. Air intakes for the compressors were mounted on each side of the fuel tank and the compressed air feed ran via a boost pressure relief valve into intercoolers in the sidepods. From these the cooled intake air ran back and up to the intake manifolds. A transverse gearbox was employed, and the 126CK’s overall dimensions were quoted as being almost identical to the 3litre ‘boxer’ engined 312T5 which had shown such disappointing form in 1979 with Villeneuve and Jody Scheckter at the wheel. Although the handling of the first Ferrari turbo was pretty lurid around Imola, Villeneuve gave it his all, revelling in the power. During qualifying he posted a 1min35.751sec best which was 0.6sec faster than he managed at the wheel of the 312T5, even though he eventually drove the flat-12-engined car in the race itself.
Over the winter of 1980-1981 the Ferrari 126 underwent an intensive programme of test and development work, most of which centred around the KKK-turbocharged version of the V6 engine. In addition, however, Maranello’s Formula 1 technical chief Mauro Forghieri investigated a new system of forced induction which had been developed by the Swiss Brown-Boveri company. Its Comprex system was a directly driven supercharger. Winter tests suggested that the Comprex system might have an F1 application and Villeneuve actually practised the shrill Comprex-equipped Ferrari 126 for the 1981 US GP West at Long Beach. In the end Ferrari chose the KKK turbo, feeling it had more long-term potential. The Comprex car never raced.
The 126CK still had considerable problems in both the chassis and the throttle response departments which made it a difficult proposition for 1981 drivers Villeneuve and Didier Pironi. Nevertheless, the Ferrari turbo led for a few yards in its opening race at Long Beach although Villeneuve ran wide into the escape road at the first hairpin. Gilles eventually retired with transmission failure while Pironi, who was dicing with Mario Andretti’s V12 Alfa Romeo 182, lasted a little longer before stopping with a broken engine. From California the F1 tour went to Brazil and Argentina where both cars struggled. Villeneuve retired in Brazil with a broken turbo wastegate and pulled up with a snapped driveshaft in Buenos Aires. Pironi spun off in Brazil, tangling with Alain Prost’s Renault in the process, and suffered engine failure three laps into the Argentine round.
By the time the team appeared on home soil for the first San Marino GP at Imola the 126CKs had undergone plenty of chassis alterations. Villeneuve’s race car featured revised front suspension pick-up points and a longer wheelbase, but in the end he preferred the feel of the team’s shorter wheelbase spare, which he used — much to the crowd’s delight — to take pole ahead of Carlos Reutemann’s Williams FW07C.
The race started in wet conditions with Villeneuve and Pironi going straight into first and second places. Gilles led for 14 laps before deciding that the track was drying quickly enough to justify a switch to slick tyres, but this proved premature and he then had to stop to change back again, dropping well back down the pecking order. Pironi finished a respectable fourth with Gilles hauling his way back to seventh after a gritty performance. Then came Monaco and Jarama, two of the most glittering jewels in Villeneuve’s crown. For Monaco the 126CKs had revised camshafts to improve torque characteristics, but no matter how you sliced it, there was no way these heavy and ponderous cars with their thirsty engines and less-than-instantaneous throttle responses should have been on a par with the nimble Cosworth-engined Brabham BT49C of Nelson Piquet. Yet Gilles performed superbly to line up second on the grid. Initially the race developed into a battle between Piquet and reigning world champion Alan Jones. Piquet, though, hit the barrier under pressure from Jones, whose Williams was then hobbled by a misfire. Villeneuve blasted into the lead with four laps left to run. After winning, Gilles confessed to being exhausted. “I tell you, my car was very hard to drive,” he said. “The suspension was so stiff it was like a go-kart. I kept bumping my head against the rollover bar and now I ache all over. My brakes were finished, and when they started to go, I had to be very brutal with my gearbox, but it lasted OK.” The other 126CK was a lapped fourth in the hands of Pironi. Three weeks later Villeneuve catapulted his 126CK into an immediate second place behind Jones’s Williams at the start of the Spanish race at Jarama. Jones made a slip which handed Gilles the lead ahead of a weaving, jinking train of cars comprised of Jacques Laffite’s Ligier-Matra JS17, John Watson’s McLaren MP4, Carlos Reutemann’s Williams FW07C and Elio de Angelis in the Lotus 87.
Villeneuve knew his pursuers were potentially quicker, so he had to drive on the limit for the entire race and not make the smallest error. And that is precisely what he did.
Chassis 052 never won another race. By the start of 1982 Enzo Ferrari had recruited Harvey Postlethwaite to bring a long overdue UK angle to Maranello’s chassis department. For 1982 the cars were built from aluminium honeycomb folded round carbon fibre composite internal bulkheads. An all-CFC tub followed for 1983.