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Great Ferrari Innovations: The F1 semi-automatic gearbox

The 1989 Ferrari 640 was the first F1 car with a true paddleshift gearbox. This is the story of how it came about
Words - Jason Barlow
Film - Rowan Jacobs

‘I was stuck on 13 wins for so long I was beginning to worry,’ Nigel Mansell noted, his laconic sense of humour firmly intact.

I’d like to dedicate this win to the late Enzo Ferrari and to the team, and I’m very happy with the progress we’ve made.’

Happy and perhaps surprised. Mansell’s victory on his debut for the Scuderia, at the season-opening 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix, was one for the ages, not just because it was a fairytale start for the driver the (I)tifosi(I) called (I)il leone(I), but on account of his Ferrari’s technically innovative specification. The 640 was and remains one of the most elegant racing cars ever made, perhaps proving the old adage that a beautiful car was usually also a fast one. 

Equipped with the new 'paddle shift', the Ferrari 640 would give Mansell his debut Scuderia victory at the first race of the 1989 season - Brazil 

But forget the aesthetics and focus instead on the transmission, for this Ferrari was the first to feature one of the great motorsport innovations of all time: the semi-automatic gearbox. A conventional clutch was needed only at the start and during pit stops, while the so-called paddleshift allowed the driver to keep his hands on the wheel and his focus on the optimum racing line…


Yet the pre-season buzz had been muted. The 640 was reportedly lacking in grunt, and its transmission’s electronics may have been highly inventive but, as is so often the way with these things, also unreliable. It had continued to be glitchy in free practice and qualifying, and Mansell had even jokingly advised the British Airways pilot who had flown the driver to Rio to wait for him on the return leg – a flight that was due to depart before the GP had even ended. 


Watch the story of the paddle shift gearbox and its influence on Ferrari race and road cars 

Ferrari’s innovation was hard-won and would comprehensively alter the trajectory of F1. Pretty soon, everyone had adopted a similar semi-automatic system. But Ferrari was further ahead of the curve than most observers realised. Credit to the great Mauro Forghieri, the man Enzo Ferrari entrusted with the Scuderia’s technical destiny in 1963, when he was just 26. Fast forward to the late Seventies, with turbocharged engines the new paradigm and the finest F1 minds seeking a way to circumvent the lag that inevitably resulted. 


Forghieri figured that a semi-automatic transmission might be one way of dealing with the problem, and fitted a prototype to a 1979 Ferrari 312 T. It worked by using a high-pressure hydraulic system, similar to that used in aviation, with buttons mounted on the steering wheel to trigger the gear changes. 

Ferrari's technical director, John Barnard with racing driver Nigel Mansell. It was Barnard's belief that a semi-automatic gearbox was central to Scuderia victory that saw the paddle shift arrive in Mansell's Ferrari 640    


None other than Gilles Villeneuve then proceeded to test it at Ferrari’s Fiorano test track, where he apparently completed 100 laps without a hitch. There was only one problem: he didn’t like it. “Despite this successful outcome,” Forghieri opined, “he was not convinced. Gilles said to me, ‘A steel shift lever will always be more reliable than electronics.’ The project was temporarily set aside. Mr Ferrari always accepted requests from Gilles.”


Oddly enough, it was preparations for the post-turbo era due to start in 1989 that reignited the project. Whether Ferrari’s new technical director, John Barnard, knew anything about his predecessor’s efforts is unclear. But when he began working for the Scuderia in 1986 – having persuaded the powers-that-be to allow him to establish a technical centre in the UK – a semi-automatic gearbox was a key part of his thinking. Why? Because a naturally aspirated engine would need to operate within a narrower power band than a turbocharged one, necessitating more gearshifts. 

Mauro Forghieri (seen here with New Zealand driver Chris Amon) was just 26 when he was entrusted with the Scuderia's technical destiny. He was the first to try the semi-automatic transmission with Gilles Villeneuve, but it received a lukewarm reception from Villeneuve who preferred the existing steel shift lever  

Barnard and his team were also keen to eliminate the shift linkage as they sought to optimise the next generation of chassis, aiming for greater aerodynamic efficiency and that slinkier look. 



When the system was successfully proven at the end of 1987, the decision was made to go all-in on the new transmission; this was punchy stuff for Ferrari. Two prototypes were built using 1988’s 639 car but never raced, hastening a rapidly reworked version of the F1-87. The price of progress, perhaps. Barnard persisted and had to stand his ground, especially in the months following Enzo Ferrari’s passing in August 1988 when the new management queried the team’s technical direction. The gearbox’s lack of reliability was eventually attributed to an under-sized battery, and Ferrari’s partner Magneti Marelli were able to remedy it. 

Inside the cockpit of the 355 F1. The road car arrived in 1997 and was the first Ferrari to sport paddle shift gears on the steering wheel

Of course, that victory in Brazil flattered to deceive. Mansell and his team-mate the indefatigable Gerhard Berger would have to ride out their share of bad luck and unreliability as the season wore on. But there more highs and improvements came for the 1990 season, improving reliability and allowing the drivers to skip gears during downshifts as they entered a corner. By the middle of the decade, every car on the F1 grid used a sequential semi-auto ’box. 

Just as significantly, Ferrari successfully migrated the technology to a road car for the first time, the F355 F1 debuting in 1997. It’s arguably the most prominent example of a motorsport innovation making the jump to production cars, initially in the high performance context of a Ferrari but latterly right across the board. 

04 febbraio, 2022