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Ferrari's turbo revolution

22 aprile 2016

Thirty-nine years ago Ferrari wrote one of its many pages of car – and in particular Formula One – history. It was 31 May 1981 and Gilles Villeneuve's 126 CK had won the Monaco Grand Prix in a race that exceeded all expectations. It was the first victory by a turbo-charged engine in the principality and, in many ways, a vindication for the Scuderia after a disappointing 1980 season, during which work on the 312 T5 was quickly set aside to focus on the new car, one that would include a revolutionary power unit, Ferrari's first supercharged engine. It was a V6 designed by Mauro Forghieri, inspired by Renault, which, after years of mixed success, had started to reap impressive results in the top category.

That win, together with another in Spain a few weeks later, went beyond the realm of sports racing and became a cultural phenomenon. All the ingredients for front-page headlines were there: Villeneuve's strong personality (the dashing Canadian bewitched Italy and the world with his contempt for danger and a racing style that always tested the limits), a technological revolution, and the mythical Prancing Horse brand. And so, in late August of that momentous year, Gilles, the 126 CK and Ferrari's turbo engine appeared on the cover of the world's most famous weekly, Time magazine. It was the first time a racing driver had done so since Jim Clark, back in 1965. Now, almost 40 years later, turbo-charging lies at the heart of Ferrari’s motorsport competition models. It's a technology that is back in favour, not just because it is fashionable, but because it is the solution that best balances efficiency, fuel consumption, and performance.

The F1 cars were the first to reintroduce turbo-charging; during the 2014 season, they introduced hybrid power units, 26 years after turbo engines were banned in 1989. During the same year, Ferrari again offered turbo engines in its road cars as well, with the California T unveiled in Geneva during the spring of 2014. In 2015, the turbo engine was back in the V8 sports berlinetta, with the 488 GTB that replaced the naturally aspirated 458 Italia.

Ferrari’s turbo V8 engine so impressed the International Engine of the Year Award judges that it won, in 2016, the first of four successive outright victories. The 488 GTE and GT3 racers were introduced in November 2015 at the World Championship finals at Mugello, 26 years after the 1989 F40 LM and GTE, the last turbo-charged Ferrari built for GT competitions. The GTE version of the 488 made its debut at the 24 Hours of Daytona in January 2016, while the GT3 had a memorable first race, immediately winning the 12 Hours of Sebring. The 488 GTE had its European debut in April 2016 at the 12 Hours of Silverstone, which opened the new season of the World Endurance Championship: it was a triumph with a one-two finish that saw Davide Rigon and Sam Bird finish ahead of Gianmaria “Gimmi” Bruni and James Calado. 

The 2016 season ended in glory, with victory in the Championship – a winning formula that would be achieved again in 2017’s WEC season. But without doubt the 488 GTE’s greatest triumph came at the 2019 24 Hours of Le Mans, when the AF Corse car driven by Alessandro Pier Guidi, James Calado and Daniel Serra took a famous victory. 

Meanwhile the 488 Challenge racer, introduced at the World Championship finals in Daytona in December 2016, took to the track in the 25th year of the most famous single-maker championship in the world. The one-make action is set to get even more intense, as Ferrari presented its updated 488 Challenge Evo at the Finali Mondiali at Mugello in October 2019.