Forty years ago this month, Ferrari’s first turbocharged Formula 1 car made its competitive debut, starting a revolution that would transform the Prancing Horse’s racing machines and road vehicles
Ferrari wasn’t the first manufacturer to introduce a turbocharged engine to Formula 1, not least because the Scuderia wanted to make the most of its championship-winning naturally aspirated engine. Through the latter half of the 1970s, the team won three Drivers’ and four Constructors’ titles with its T series cars and their mighty flat-12s.
There was another reason for the delay though, as Ferrari was experimenting with two types of forced induction, both turbocharging and a new type of compressor, a ‘Comprex’ supercharger. Seeking a decisive competitive edge, the team built cars with each technology, with all of them featuring a new 120-degree 1.5-litre V6 that was shorter and narrower than the 12-cylinder engine.
The 126 CK featured twin turbos mounted atop the engine, driven by exhaust pipes emerging at the top of the V6 and pumping through intercoolers into inlet ducts outside the engine. The more radical 126 CX was belt driven from the V6, with its rotating drum arrangement theoretically offering better throttle response.
Both cars were extensively tested over the winter of 1980-81 and shipped to California, USA for the first race of the season. However, during practice the harsh acceleration demands and bumpy surface of the Long Beach circuit highlighted weaknesses in the belt drive to the Comprex rotor.
That meant a racing debut for the turbocharged 126 CK – and the 126 CX never saw a starting flag. Both Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi ultimately retired in the scarlet turbocharged cars’ maiden race in the United States, but there was a glimpse of the potential, with Villeneuve qualifying in fifth.
That potential came to fruition at the sixth race of the season, the Monaco Grand Prix. Villeneuve arrived having just missed out on the podium at the previous Belgium Grand Prix, but was buoyed by the announcement that his partnership with Ferrari would continue for another two seasons. He seemed inspired from the outset, qualifying on the front row just 78 thousandths off pole.
Lying in second during the race, Villeneuve began setting fastest laps, unleashing his car’s immense twin-turbo power in the tunnel. He closed on reigning world champion Alan Jones and passed him on the start-finish straight – before disappearing into the distance to eventually take the chequered flag nearly 40 seconds ahead.
The victory was the first for a turbocharged Ferrari Formula 1 car, and the first by any turbo engine at the Monaco Grand Prix. Supposedly unsuited to the tight and twisty street circuit, the turbocharged 126 CK had performed admirably – and that was just the start.
Three weeks later Villeneuve was back atop the podium at the Spanish Grand Prix. He started seventh, a shock absorber calibration issue having hobbled him in practice, but was up to third by the end of the first lap. On the second lap he took second, with only Alan Jones once again ahead of him – but his rival skittered into the gravel on lap 14, and lost yet more time when forced to pit for new tyres.
In the lead and with 66 laps remaining, Villeneuve then drove a masterful race. He used his turbocharged engine, by far the most powerful in the field, to maximum advantage on the straights, but conserved his tyres in the slower sections of the circuit.
He was faultless, even strategically slowing his pace to force a squabble for second place. Villeneuve took the win at the end of the 80th lap, with the four following cars within just 1.24 seconds, making it one of the closest finishes in Formula 1 history.
It was Villeneuve and Ferrari’s second consecutive victory in 1981, and the Scuderia would go from strength to strength over the coming seasons. With turbocharged power, the team would win the Constructors’ Championship in 1982 and 1983.