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Formula One has always been the very pinnacle of motorsport – and it arguably still is. Even so, I have not been following the great circus for years, which is, among other things, due to the current day F1 cars.

The Formula One cars of today are to my eyes much too alike, too unsightly, too technical, too fast and too far from it all. I simply don’t like them and that is a major contributing reason why I don’t watch the races any longer.

In fact, I haven’t watched a single Formula One race all season – and I didn’t last year either, nor the year before that. For me personally, interest declined for several years in a row – probably coinciding with the declining number of overtaking manoeuvres. My interest received the decisive shot to the bow as the engines in concept practically became unified. As with classic cars in general, I like to revel in the differences of race cars both technically and aesthetically, and both became difficult to keep up with as the whole was encapsulated in aerodynamics.

Jacky Ickx in Ferrari 312B, Monaco 1970: Classic cigar shape, minimal aerodynamics, great view of the mechanical components.

So I usually prefer the exhilarating and visible mechanicals of the sixties and seventies – but the Ferrari here is one of the last cars which truly caught my attention: The 640.

The backstory to the 640 was that the turbo engines had been banned leading up to the 1989 season, and the leading team McLaren had to give up the amazing Honda engines which had secured them 15 out of 16 wins in 1988. Ferrari had experienced a terrible 1988 season and in reality abandoned the season already midway so they could instead focus their efforts on a brand new construction for 1989. The McLaren’s new Honda as well as the Williams’ new Renault engines were both V10’s and known to be very powerful. But Ferrari chose a V12. Because – well, because they were a V12-kind-of-manufactorer.

Nigel Mansell in the Ferrari 640, Monaco 1989: Han failed to finish. But just LOOK at the Ferrari from this high angle: What a shape!

The 640 was John Barnard’s first car for Ferrari, and during the development he had focused heavily on the utilization of the power from the new 3.5-litre engine – which was much less than the turbocharged engines developed by their competitors. This was reflected in the aerodynamics, where the Ferrari was slimmer and more streamlined than any F1 car in the 1989 line-up. This of course also means “encapsulated in aerodynamics”, which I initially stated that I don’t like. Barnard, however, gave the Ferrari a very distinct basic shape, and I will never forget that pointed low nose, bulging bottle shape over the high side panels and cheeky slim and narrow rear end.

Or from this angle: With a slim and very low front the Ferrari certainly looked the business.

The gearbox had the technical team think out of the box as well: Barnard was nervous that the 640’s new engine wasn’t strong enough to beat Renault and Honda, which prompted him to equip the 640 with a seven-speed transmission against the competitors usual six speeds. He didn’t stop with that though, as it even had steering wheel shift – yes , the world’s first modern kind of paddle shift. The gearshifts could be performed faster than any manual shift, and the seven gears could utilize the powerband more efficiently. It was all mounted in a carbonfibre frame which Barnard had been pioneering during his time at McLaren.

A first: The seven-speed gearbox was electronically controlled and the driver activated the changes with steering wheel mounted paddles.

The engine was of course also new, and Ferrari’s first naturally aspirated engine for ten years returned to the twelve cylinders which the marque had previously been so intrinsically linked with. It provided just over 600 horsepower at 12,500 rpm (on Agip petrol, by the way!), and Barnard was right: The engine was not as powerful as the two main competitors, but still the overall package in the 640 was fully competitive, and Nigel Mansell won the debut race in Brazil.

However, the reliability over the season left something to be desired, and Mansell and teammate Berger took only three wins overall. When they did finish however, they always ended up on the podium, so the speed was clearly there. Ferrari further developed the 640 over the next three seasons, and in 1990 the successor 641 almost took Prost to the championship title. Senna famously pushed him off the track (as you know, of course…) in Japan, butI still recall both the 1989 and 1990 seasons with pleasure: Different-looking cars with different approaches to aerodynamics, engines, transmissions and driving styles – and even more importantly, lots of overtaking.

Close!

The 640 was incidentally also the last scale model car kit I ever bought. It was at least the last thing I actually completed – in a hectic final sprint up to New Year’s Eve around 1993, mostly due to a bet with a friend. I still have a number of unassembled kits of different car favourites of mine, but the 640 got my last glue due to its shape and technique. It was also the last (successful) twelve-cylinder car in Formula One, and one of the last cars to offer innovation which the layman could actually understand. Yes, here I’m thinking of Williams’ active FW13 (an example of which sold last week for 2.7 million Euros – the ex-Mansell car of 1993) , which I didn’t quite understand, and didn’t have much sympathy for either – it was just too superior, and not near as beautiful as the 640. Of course there have been other exciting Formula 1 cars since: Jordan’s first car was a study of how beautiful simplicity can be, but match the Ferrari’s charisma it could not.

Please note why the 640 was never mentioned in the commercials for Shell and their 60 years with Ferrari: It ran AGIP!

Incidentally, I have never forgotten Mansell’s jaw-dropping 280 km/h spin at Imola in 1991 in the successor 642: During an attempted overtaking manoeuvre of Berger (who switched to McLaren in 1990), Berger pushes him out onto the grass, but Mansell spins 360 degrees back on to the asphalt – and simply continues. The German commentator calls Mansell’s maneuver for “frivolous”. I honestly think Mansell himself would have rather been without this experience, but I will never forget him for it. “Our Nige,” the English called him, and though he never won the title for the Italians, he surely had some of his finest matches for Ferrari in those years – resulting in them coining him “Il Leone“, the lion.

Watch the infamous spin below and enjoy the 642 from all angles while rotating through the full 360 degrees:

Have I overlooked something – such as another, later and also beautiful Formula One car? Please educate me – the comments section below is all yours…

 

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