It’s a truism that the tougher times become, the more many of us take refuge in the comfort of the past. As one who can hardly bear to watch such sporting contests as Six Nations rugby or an England test match, or indeed the America’s Cup sailing live – because I don’t handle tension too well – yet who will avidly devour the replay once I know the (too often awful) outcome, I have much sympathy with this mindset.
It’s always convenient to consider bygone history in 10-year chunks. This year the motor racing world will be looking back in particular to 1961 – the year of the then brand-new 1½-litre Formula 1, so dominated by the ‘Sharknose’ Ferraris – but against that background it’s quite interesting to leap forward in 10-year slices. A decade after the ‘Sharknose’ and Phil Hill’s win for them in the Drivers’ World Championship, Ferrari launched into 1971 riding high on the success of its gorgeous 3-litre flat-12 312B cars during the second half of the 1970 season. Then it had won four of the last five Championship-qualifying rounds, the first three of those consecutively – the Austrian, Italian and Canadian GPs. Emerson Fittipaldi struck back by scoring his breakthrough GP victory for Lotus at Watkins Glen, but then Jacky Ickx renewed the Italian team’s winning streak with a great performance in Mexico.
Into the 1971 season Ferrari then seemed to be in tremendous shape. After Chris Amon’s long-awaited win for Matra in the Ferrari-free non-Championship Argentine GP, the Italian steamroller resumed what had become normal service at Kyalami with Mario Andretti driving the winning 312B. Clay Regazzoni then followed up with another win for Ferrari in the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch, and Mario triumphed again in the Questor GP at Ontario Motor Speedway, California. But the wheels then fell off the Italian campaign.
Jackie Stewart, Derek Gardner’s Tyrrell and the latest Cosworth-Ford DFV V8 development engines progressively de-bagged Ferrari through the remainder of that season. The updated Ferrari 312B2/Firestone low-profile tyre combination produced more destructive vibration than extended grip. If only the second half of 1970 and the first half of ’71 had formed one single World Championship campaign then Ferrari would surely have walked away with the titles. As it was, its success proved out of phase for two consecutive seasons, and failure resulted.
Spool forward another 10 years, to 1981. Huge change. Ferrari emerged from a terrible 2020-like season of 1980, but one for which they had in effect both budgeted, and braced themselves. Mr Ferrari had taken the long-range strategic decision to follow Renault Sport’s lead and invest heavily in development of a 1.5-litre turbocharged V6 engine. Pending its introduction the team updated its Championship-winning 312T4 design of 1979 and sent reigning Champion driver Jody Scheckter and the irrepressible Gilles Villeneuve back into battle with the recycled, uncompetitive, pseudo ground-effect 312T5. They struggled all year. While Villeneuve kept motivated, the unimpressive Scheckter surrendered both his racing career, and much respect…
Through 1981 the brand-new Ferrari 126C series turbo cars struggled towards reliability. Villeneuve drove around the design’s handling deficiencies to exploit its explosive straightline capabilities to the full. His Monaco and Spanish Grands Prix wins were spectacular, taking advantage of rivals’ failings in Monte Carlo but then indomitably blocking off his rivals all around the tight Jarama circuit to score victory with just 1.24secs covering the top five finishers. It proved the Canadian’s last win.
By 1991 Mr Ferrari had long since died, a new cabal was in command and the 10-year slice saw the 3.5-litre V12 Ferrari 642/643s consistently outclassed by the dominant McLaren-Honda MP4/6s. Team drivers Alain Prost and Gerhard Berger salvaged only three second places each, using cars well short of design maturity.
Into century 21 – 2001 – Ferrari had taken Formula 1 by the throat. Jean Todt erected the political umbrella under which technical director Ross Brawn, chassis designers Rory Byrne, Aldo Costa and Nikolas Tombazis, and engine head Paolo Martinelli produced their F2001 cars. Michael Schumacher won nine GPs to secure his fourth World title, his second consecutively for Ferrari, which secured a hat-trick of Constructors’ Championships 1999-2000-2001 – and of course another sequence of three more would follow.
So our last slice – 2011 – with the forgettably entitled 2.4-litre V8 Ferrari 150˚ Italia cars for Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa. Five second places for the Spaniard and six fifth places for the luckless Brazilian did little to revive Ferrari fortunes. And here now – at the outset of the 2021 series, Ferrari’s finest have a ghastly year thankfully receding in their rear-view mirror. Sixty years after its success of ’61, 50 years after their disappointments of ’71, 40 years after the rousing turbocharged revival of ’81 – all Ferrari fans have their fingers crossed this time. Delight, or dismay – we shall see.
Doug Nye is the UK’s leading motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s