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Gearing Up

24 aprile 2020

Chris Rees

The rise and rise of the Ferrari automated gearbox, from Formula 1 through to the latest Ferrari Roma and the SF90 Stradale

Considering it wasn’t until 1976 – with the 400 GT – that Ferrari first offered a model with the option of an automatic gearbox, it is a remarkable fact that 100% of today's Ferrari have automated gear-shifting. How did we reach this point?

The answer is quite simple and it’s down to the old adage, ‘racing improves the breed’. Scuderia Ferrari realised there were significant performance advantages to be had by using an automated clutch in Formula 1 racing. The Ferrari Tipo 640 F1 car of 1989 pioneered wheel-mounted ‘paddles’ to shift gears without the need for a clutch pedal. Whatever initial doubts anyone had about this system, they were firmly allayed when, on the 640’s maiden outing at the 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix, British driver Nigel Mansell won the race.

This Ferrari invention revolutionised the world of motorsport – and of road cars, too. With its proven, race-winning status, it was only a matter of time before paddle-shift automated gearboxes were adopted in road cars.

And it was Ferrari that pioneered this move, offering its first automated manual transmission, dubbed ‘F1’ for obvious reasons, in the 355 F1 of 1997. The traditional H-gate was gone; in its place were two buttons (one to toggle between automatic and manual modes, the other for low-grip conditions) and a small lever to engage reverse. But the real novelty came just behind the steering wheel: exactly like a Formula 1 car, there were ‘paddles’ to allow the driver to make manual gearshifts without moving his hands from the steering wheel. Not only this, but the gear changes were lightning fast. Indeed, Ferrari guaranteed that they were faster than a conventional manual gear change.

It’s important to realise that the six-speed gearbox itself was exactly the same as in the F355; it was simply the method of changing gear that differed, with electrohydraulic technology doing the gear changing.

Where the Ferrari 355 F1 trailblazed as the world’s first road car with paddle-shift technology, others followed. Paddles quickly become an absolutely essential piece of technology amongst high-performance cars. Indeed, Ferrari placed such significance on its paddle-shift system that, when it launched the Enzo in 2002, F1 transmission was the only available choice.

Ferrari did not rest there. The 599 GTB Fiorano of 2006 introduced a new-generation F1-SuperFast system, speeding up gear-change times even further, to just 100 milliseconds. Closely integrated with the steering wheel 'manettino', the driver could now also select Launch Control mode, offering smoother starts from standstill.

The first Ferrari dual-clutch transmission came in 2008 with the California. This seven-speed unit featured two clutches that pre-engaged automatically, lining up the next gear in advance. That meant gear-change times were minimised and the feeling for the driver was even keener, as well as reducing fuel consumption and emissions.

Next came the first Ferrari mid-engined car with dual-clutch transmission, the 458 Italia of 2009, with closely-stacked gears for the sharpest possible performance. As with the Enzo, there was no manual gearbox option; only automatic. This proved to be a truly defining moment at Maranello. Whilst certain models in the range continued to be offered with manual transmission, buyers came to recognise that the automated gearbox was superior, both in terms of performance and of comfort. The very last manual gearbox Ferrari came off the line in 2011.

The last decade has been exclusively ‘automatic’ at Ferrari. Another new era began in 2019 with the launch of the new SF90 Stradale and Ferrari Roma models, which feature a fresh eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox, more compact and lighter than its seven-speed predecessor. Shifts are faster and smoother thanks to low-viscosity oil and a dry-sump configuration, meaning even greater responsiveness on the open road and extra comfort in town, as well as reduced fuel consumption and emissions. The SF90 Stradale’s gearbox has one further innovation: it has no reverse gear, since the onboard electric motor is used for this.