In the second half of the 1980s, Formula 1’s turbocharged engines were producing prodigious power -- Ferrari’s F1/86 and F1/87 delivered almost 1,000 horses in qualifying, and nearly 900 in race trim. In an effort to calm things down, the FIA for 1988 dramatically reduced the allowed turbo boost. For 1989, it banned turbos altogether.
The return to naturally aspirated engines saw Ferrari once again utilize the V-12. The one in its F1/89 displaced 3498cc, had five valves per cylinder (3 intake, 2 exhaust), and produced 600 horsepower at 12,500 rpm.
But the big news the was the F1/89’s gearbox. It was an innovation that revolutionized race- and sports-car technology.
Ferrari had developed a seven-speed electro-hydraulic transmission that was, in essence, a manual gearbox that could be upshifted or downshifted automatically by touching a switch on the back of the steering wheel. No longer did the driver have to remove his hands from the steering wheel and reach for a shift lever to change gears. The advantages were impossible to ignore, and soon every F1 rival had a version of Ferrari’s innovative gearbox. Within a few years, paddle-shifted manuals would be in many high-performance road cars as well, including several from Ferrari.
The F1/89 came from the drawing board of Ferrari’s England based designer, John Barnard, and the car got off to a magnificent start when it won the ’89 season’s first race, at Brazil, with Brit Nigel Mansell driving. Then electronic gremlins started hounding the car. Mansell won the season’s ninth race, in Hungary, and Gerhard Berger won in Portugal. But that was it, and the team finished a distant third in the makes chase.
Ferrari was optimistic about 1990. It had a new car, the Ferrari F1 641. It had revised bodywork, and the V-12 had a shorter stroke, weighed less, and produced nearly 700 horsepower. Joining Mansell in the cockpit was one of the world’s top drivers, Alain Prost. The Frenchman was coming off his third F1 world championship, captured just the year before with McLaren-Honda.
The season turned into a dogfight between Ferrari and McLaren, then into one between Prost and Mansell. The intra-team rivalry was much to the detriment of Ferrari.
“If we had been able to cooperate as I had hoped,” Prost observed in Ferrari 1947-1997, “I am sure Ferrari would have had a world championship to celebrate that year.”
Instead, it was as close as Ferrari would come to another makes or driver’s title for almost a decade. Prost lost the championship in the season’s last race, when archrival Ayrton Senna pushed his Ferrari off the Australian Grand Prix’s Adelaide Street Circuit. Senna won the race and the title, in a McLaren-Honda.