Ferrari 641: V12 furore

It had the potential to win the championship but the Ferrari 641's title quest fell victim to Senna, circumstance and Maranello's political infighting. David Malsher reports

Nigel Mansell in Ferrari 641

GP Photo

Ferrari’s F1 Finest

4th, 641

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No doubt about it, John Barnard’s 640 had caused a stir in 1989, with its semi-automatic gearbox, svelte bodywork and brilliant chassis. It had around 600bhp from its screaming V12, not enough to threaten the McLaren-Hondas of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost (650bhp). But where the road turned, the scarlet machines of Nigel Mansell and Gerhard Berger were probably passing the apices quicker. Aside from a major air intake alteration at the fourth round, the one other significant mid-season development was the improvment in reliability.

Says Barnard: “We found out by filming the engine on the dyno that the crank was flexing so much that the pulley at the front threw the belt off at high revs. At that point, the first thing to stop working was the gearbox, hence the drivers’ unjustified criticism of a system that I’d put my contract on the line to defend! We resolved the issue by switching from a four-bearing crankshaft to seven.”

By August, Barnard was already working on 641 for 1990.

“There wasn’t a lot of difference from the 640,” he says. “We basically kept the same chassis, but increased the fuel tank capacity and put the electrics on top of the car. The increase in the fuel hold was necessary because of the progress made in the engine department”

Indeed, Ferrari’s engine department had worked wonders, and most estimates of the 641’s power output put it at the 680bhp mark, a gnat’s away from Honda’s 1990 offering. Not only that, but disillusionment and unhappiness as Senna’s team-mate had driven Prost to Fenuri, replacing Gerhard Berger who went the opposite way. Now it was the scarlet cars that had the strongest driver line-up: a thoroughly fired-up reigning world champion and the ever-hungry, ever-aggressive Mansell.

Ferrari 641 illustration

What they didn’t have, however, was their designer. Barnard had received a “fantastic offer” from Benetton and departed, but had the satisfaction of watching his creation become a major thorn in the side of McLaren. Prost won at Interlagos, the second round, and Mansell should have won in San Marino in the car which bore Jean-Claude Migeot’s elegant tweaks to the leading edge of the sidepods, and rounded nose-end. Prost won three races mid-season (Mexico, France and Britain) — and Mansell took pole in the latter two GPs. The 641 was more settled than McLaren’s MP4/5B through fast sweepers — and a dearth of first and second gear corners also suited Ferrari’s engine.

“Ferrari were close to Honda on outright power that year,” says Barnard, “but the torque characteristics were very different. The Ferraris were top-endy, whereas the Honda gave better power lower down the rev range, which gave the McLarens superior acceleration.”

At Spa and Monza, Prost was separated from victory only by Senna’s audacity when lapping backmarkers and Honda’s grunt out of chicanes. In Iberia, the 641s were simply the best cars, scoring a 1-3 at Estoril, 1-2 at Jerez. Then came the infamous Senna-Prost first-corner clash at Suzuka which resolved the title in the Brazilian’s favour.

Barnard rues missing out on working with Prost that year. “When I signed with Benetton, Alain hadn’t decided on Ferrari for certain. But he had been told by them that I would be there! When we found out about each other’s deals, we both sort of said, ‘Oh shit’!

“He was so intrinsically fast that he had this huge mental capacity left over to analyse the car as he was driving. It made him a fantastic test driver. That, and his patience. Alain worked on his car until it had the perfect set-up.

“Alain should have been champion in 1990. It was the team falling apart that caused him to lose it”


Ferrari 641 statistics, 1990

Grands prix entered 16
Wins 6
Additional podiums 8
Pole positions 3
Fastest laps 5
Laps led 174


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>> Ferrari 312T: Central figure