Ferrari 640: F1's most influential modern-day grand prix car


The Ferrari 640 was an F1 winner – when it could finish – and its effect on grand prix design can still be seen today

Nigel Mansell Ferrari 1989 Monaco GP

Ferrari 640 – an influential F1 car with so much promise, but few results

Grand Prix Photo

Many consider the McLaren MP4/4 to be the ultimate ’80s F1 car, but were it not for a troublesome small alternator belt, history could have been rather different.

When it finished a race, 1989’s Ferrari 640 was devastatingly effective. Nigel Mansell won with it on debut, and when the car did make the end of a GP it never placed lower than third. The problem was that it didn’t finish very often.

That didn’t stop the 640 being hugely influential though, and it features in our 2024 calendar which celebrates 100 years of Motor Sport.

The Ferrari was the first-ever grand prix car to to have a paddle-shift sequential gearbox, its revolutionary transmission solution was precipitated by John Barnard’s aim of having a slim frontal profile. Removing the gear linkages from the front, combined with having many of the rear components tucked in behind the engine – different to so many of the wide turbo cars from that decade – produced an F1 form which can still be seen today, essentially viewed as the definition of a grand prix car.

Nigel Mansell Ferrari 1989 Belgian GP

640 was beset by reliability issues

Grand Prix Photo

Both the un-raced 639 (which included the paddle-shift concept) and its 640 successor were “designed specifically around that gearbox,” Barnard told Motor Sport last year. “By that, I mean the chassis was narrow. You couldn’t get a gear shift in it… that was my intention.

“I was trying to neaten up the front. That’s when I came up with the short torsion bar arrangement driven through a rocking arm [instead of front springs/dampers]. The shape of the car was me trying to close up the back. I wanted to tuck the tail in and get the radiator air flow to exit inside the bodywork, under the rear wing.”

The 640’s birth was difficult in more ways than one, with Barnard saying Ferrari founder Enzo – who died shortly after – “shook his head” when he saw the new design, while others at the team were reluctant to adopt such a radical design.

Vittorio Ghidella, Il Ingegnere’s nominal replacement, even commissioned a version with the old gearbox system installed for Mansell to test, but the Brit was easily faster with paddle-shifts and Barnard was able to stick to his guns.

Mansell had already won the hearts and minds of the tifosi by breaking the lap record in the 640 on a frosty winter morning at the Scuderia’s private test track Fiorano, and he carried on in similar form at the first race of the season by storming to victory on the car’s debut at the Brazilian GP.

However from here things became an uphill battle, with promising results at San Marino, Monaco and Mexico all going begging. The revolutionary new car kept on conking out, and Barnard and co came under huge pressure from the scrutiny with which the Scuderia is usually observed.

Nigel Mansell Ferrari 1989 Hungarian GP

640 came good again with wins in Portugal and Hungary

Grand Prix Photo

“We had awful reliability in testing,” he remembered. “The newspapers in Italy kept saying, ‘Oh, the gearbox has packed up again,’ etc. It was really quite a difficult time for me.

“A lot of the retirements in early 1989 listed as gearbox failures weren’t at all — they were due to loss of power to the ‘box.

From the archive

“The alternator was driven by a belt from the crank and this kept falling off. It took a long time to find out why, using high-speed photography on the dyno.

“At this time the V12 only had a four-bearing crank which started to whip at certain revs, causing the front pulley to shed the belt. The alternator would stop and so would the gearbox electronics.”

Prospects started to look up from mid-season, with another famous win for Mansell in Hungary and team-mate Gerhard Berger topping the podium in Portugal.

The inherent Ferrari politics all became too much for Barnard though, who decided to leave the team at the end of the season, but his ideas are still evident in the F1 cars of 2023.

“Effectively, it was trying to do what they do today,” he said. “The paddle shift, the torsion bar, the closed-in bodywork around the back that you still see now is, in my opinion, a development of the 640.”

Our limited edition 2024 Motor Sport 100 Years calendar is now available from the Motor Sport shop.

Buy now