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40 years of turbo: the beginning

04 marzo 2021

Ben Pulman

As our series celebrating 40 years since the race debut of Ferrari’s first turbocharged Formula 1 car comes to a close, we look back at where it all began: testing at the Scuderia’s Fiorano track

This weekend the 2021 Formula 1 season begins, and the Scuderia Ferrari will be racing once again. Intense development throughout the winter break has seen a new engine, revised aerodynamics and a modified rear end readied for the new SF21, which will be driven by the driver pairing of Charles Leclerc and Ferrari newcomer Carlos Sainz.

Forty years ago the Scuderia was also putting forward a new driver line-up, with Gilles Villeneuve being joined on the team by young Frenchman Didier Pironi (pictured above). But whereas Leclerc and Sainz have another year until radical 2022 Formula 1 rule changes usher in a clean-sheet design for their race car, in 1981 Villeneuve and Pironi were preparing to drive an all-new Ferrari single-seater.

Their 126 CK was totally different from the Scuderia's T series cars that had dominated much of the second half of the 1970s, with a new twin-turbo 120-degree V6 engine replacing the championship-winning naturally aspirated 12-cylinder. A whole new car was designed around the shorter and narrower engine, though it retained the big side pods of the T series cars to house heat exchangers for the compressed air of the turbo V6.

The new 126 C was first shown to the press on 9 June 1980, and demonstrated to the public at the Italian GP on 13 September. That car ran with a twin-turbo configuration, but Ferrari was experimenting with both turbos and a more radical ‘Comprex’ supercharger for its new wide-angle V6.

To find the best solution, Ferrari tested both cars through winter of 1980-1981. An expansive and comprehensive programme put the turbocharged 126 CK and ‘Comprex’ 126 CX through their paces. This era was very different to the Formula 1 of today, where circuit tests are limited to only a few days per year, and other avenues like wind tunnel running are strictly controlled too.

Ferrari also had an advantage when testing was unregulated. It had had the foresight and wherewithal to create its own track – Fiorano – next to the Gestione Sportiva, the Scuderia’s headquarters in Maranello. Opened in the early 1970s, its availability made no small contribution to the three Drivers’ and four Constructors’ titles won by Ferrari between 1975 and 1979.

These rarely seen images reveal both the 126 CK and 126 CX at Fiorano, and offer a glimpse into the heart of the Scuderia 40 years ago. At one such test, snow is still on the ground when Didier Pironi is at the wheel of the 126 CK. In another, Villeneuve is in the 126 CX – and visible on the engine cover is a ‘BBC’ logo, as the ‘Comprex’ supercharger was developed with Brown Boveri.

The 126 CK would ultimately win the day against the 126 CX, and Gilles Villeneuve would win twice in 1981 – but the new car wasn’t yet reliable enough to challenge for the title. Yet with Fiorano on hand at which to test, and the team working feverishly, those early woes would be quickly cured and see the Scuderia go on to take the Formula 1 Constructors’ titles in 1982 and 1983.