Thousandths of seconds can make the difference between winners and losers. And the second placed driver is first of the losers. This is F1, the pinnacle of motorsport, where the majority of teams, cars and drivers challenge each other constantly. And in which technology rules all. An example? The paddle gear change, technology which was established in Formula 1 and with which any self-respecting sports car is now equipped. Thirty years ago, however that was not the case. In fact the opposite was true. It seemed unthinkable. In 1979, Scuderia Ferrari had developed and tested an electro-hydraulic gearbox control system in a 312 T3 laboratory car. Instead of using a lever, the gears were engaged thanks to two buttons on the steering wheel capable of activating electromagnetic valves which activated the pistons of the gearbox actuator. In the absence of advanced electronics, this solution was put aside. But the idea did not go away.
Ten years later, with new technology, Ferrari retraced the same path, starting a new era in Formula 1 with the revolutionary F1-89, project number 640, designed by John Barnard. This car was in all respects the progenitor for the current generation of electronically controlled cars.
It was characterised by an innovative aerodynamic design, mounted with push rod suspensions with torsion bars and the latest Ferrari V12 engine putting out nearly 600 cv at 12,000 rpm. The jewel in the crown of the F1-89 however was the gearbox which was managed electronically via paddles behind the steering wheel. With the right hand, the driver could move up the gears, with the left hand he activated the down-shift. The gearbox was a traditional longitudinal transmission in which gear selection took place through hydraulic selectors managed by the electro-hydraulic actuators. The advantages for the drivers were obvious: more concentration on driving for shorter lap times but also reducing errors and over-revving, all improving engine and transmission reliability.
Reliability was the word but here comes the painful part. Reliability was lacking on the F1-89 on the eve of the first race of the 1989 World Championship, the Brazilian Grand Prix. The technology was too new and in the paddock they were betting on how many laps the Austrian Gerhard Berger and his new teammate, the Englishman Nigel Mansell would be able to complete. The race was held at the Jacarepaguá circuit, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. Among the drivers, confidence in the reliability of the new technology was so low that Mansell himself had booked a flight home for that afternoon. Nigel was sure that his race would not last long.
In qualifying, Ayrton Senna in the McLaren dominated, taking pole position ahead of Riccardo Patrese in the Williams, Gerhard Berger in the Ferrari, Thierry Boutsen in the other Williams, Alain Prost in the second McLaren and Mansell in the number 27 Ferrari, almost a second and a half off.
At the start, Senna got away quite badly, losing the lead to Patrese. Berger in the Ferrari got alongside him and the two made contact at the first corner. Both went off the track, definitively compromising their races. Behind Patrese were Boutsen, Mansell and Prost. On the third lap, Mansell overtook Boutsen and started to attack the race leader. The order remained the same until lap 16 when the Ferrari overtook the leader, before the first tyre stop.
After the pit stops, Patrese lost ground to his rivals, while Mansell continued to lead Prost. The Frenchman ran in first position for two laps after Mansell’s second wheel change, but then had to stop himself. Nigel, the first to doubt the new technology, continued to the finish line without any problems and won the race ahead of Prost and the Brazilian Mauricio Gugelmin in the March, on his first ever podium finish.
At the end of the race, the right hands of all the other drivers were hurting after so many gear changes while Mansell cut his when raising the winner’s trophy on the podium. Another important chapter had been written in the story of Formula 1. And it was written by Scuderia Ferrari.