How its greatest losses led to a new era


One fatal misjudgement. That’s all it took to jolt the trajectory of Formula 1 history during the super-power 1980s.

Had Gilles Villeneuve backed off and missed the rear of Jochen Mass’s cruising March at Zolder in May 1982, who knows what glories would have abounded?

But even had he lived and won the world title that should have been well within his reach during that tumultuous season, Ferrari might still have missed the full benefits. Villeneuve was imbued with the mysticism of Enzo’s magical Scuderia and, 36 years after his violent death, still remains the ultimate embodiment of what a Ferrari F1 driver should be.

And yet even he, despite the competitiveness of his 126C that year and the loved-like-a-son bond with the Old Man, was growing tired of the politics that poisoned Maranello.

Ron Dennis, building a formidable new empire at McLaren, wanted Villeneuve – and the consensus is, for 1983, he would have got him. Alain Prost? His destiny would probably still have carried a white-and-Dayglo hue – but with his friend Villeneuve still around, the timeline of his wondrous era might have shifted a year or three (and as a consequence, the same goes for Ayrton Senna’s…).

It’s easy to lose oneself in the intrigues of conjecture. But the harsh reality was the brilliance of the French Canadian’s burning light blew out that day in May – and the ensuing darkness foreshadowed a gloom that would be hard to escape.

Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari 312T4, corrects a slide as he puts a wheel on the kerb

On the back of a disastrous 1980, in which defending champion Jody Scheckter and Villeneuve amassed a miserly eight points between them, Ferrari finally embraced the turbo revolution for ’81, as Dr Harvey Postlethwaite added some Anglo-Saxon salt to Mauro Forghieri’s Latin brew.

The hefty, slab-like 126CK was no beauty, but still Villeneuve worked wonders. His two victories that year, at Monaco and Jarama, were markers of his increasing maturity that belied the lazy ‘wild man’ stereotype detractors rolled out before and since the three-wheeling madness of Zandvoort 1979.

Gilles Villeneuve, Ferrari

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Despite a trying start to 1982, Villeneuve knew that this time Forghieri and Postlethwaite had given him a ride worthy of his talents. But his new problem was the guy in the other one. He and Pironi were close, but after struggling to manhandle the 126CK, the fast Frenchman was now a serious threat. And at Imola, their friendship ended.

Pironi’s “betrayal”, his apparent refusal to honour a pre-race team orders agreement, would forever cloud his reputation – particularly in the circumstances of the horror that would soon unfold. Villeneuve’s fury and expression of cold disgust on the chaotic podium would carry over into the following race weekend: Zolder.

Didier Pironi and Gilles Villeneuve in the pit garage together Motorsport.com

Didier Pironi and Gilles Villeneuve in the pit garage together

Photo by: LAT Images

What was Villeneuve’s state of mind when he blasted out of the pits for that fateful qualifying run on the Saturday afternoon? Its storm had certainly not been quelled by the public silence from Ferrari. Marco Piccinini, the arch politician now at the helm, refused to condemn Pironi for his actions, further stoking Villeneuve’s ire – and inflaming the conjecture that Gilles would have walked at season’s end, champion or not.

As it was, Pironi’s supposed part in Villeneuve’s death would hang as heavy as the thick mist of rain in Hockenheim’s trees that would lead to Pironi’s own downfall later that summer. Unsighted, he was launched over Prost’s Renault and into an accident that demolished his legs. His death five years later, while racing a powerboat off the Isle of Wight, offered a devastating coda to a tragic tale that carried echoes of Ferrari’s 1950s horrors.

Like some who lived through Jim Clark’s era, there are those who say their love for F1 was forever tarnished once Villeneuve was gone. The same has been said of Enzo Ferrari himself.

Now in his eighties and in ill health, the Old Man was less able or inclined to manage the Machiavellian swirl around Maranello. The Fiat vultures were circling their prized asset, by this time the most famous and celebrated automotive brand in the world. But the F1 team, the heart of the precious jewel, was corroding from within.

René Arnoux, Ferrari Motorsport.com

René Arnoux, Ferrari

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Back-to-back constructors’ titles in 1982 and ’83 hardly shrieked crisis, but much like Manchester United’s pair of FA Cup successes in football’s corresponding era, they were a diversion from what really mattered. Both were out of step with their time, with no hope of competing for the prize that counted: in United’s case the English First Division; in Ferrari’s the search for a successor to Scheckter’s increasingly distant title.

Little Rene Arnoux gave it a decent shot in 1983, but his natural flair could never quite be harnessed with the consistency required to match Nelson Piquet and Prost. Then in ’84 he and team-mate Patrick Tambay failed to win a race as Ferrari’s fourth-generation 126C lost Ferrari’s mojo. Forghieri, for the third and final time in his life, paid the price: he was appointed director of something called the ‘advanced research office’… The bespectacled legend would finally quit the company in May 1987.

Maranello 1987, Enzo Ferrari, Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Marie Balestre on the day of renewal of the Concorde Agreement Motorsport.com

Maranello 1987, Enzo Ferrari, Bernie Ecclestone and Jean Marie Balestre on the day of renewal of the Concorde Agreement

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Michele Alboreto offered brief hope and the tantalising promise of a first Italian drivers’ champion since Alberto Ascari. But despite leading the points after victory in Montreal in the attractive 156/85, his challenge wilted in the face of a Dayglo onslaught. This was the bigger picture that Ferrari’s pollution of politicians kept missing – even though Dennis was effectively smearing it into their faces.

His empirical ambitions at McLaren had born wondrous fruit. In partnership with design genius John Barnard, Dennis had recognised where investment was required to nurture an F1 superpower. McLaren led the way in pioneering the use of materials such as carbon fibre, and built a lithe business structure that ensured strength in depth.

For all McLaren’s further success, this was the apex of Dennis’s contribution to F1 history. He set the template – the pristine, OCD, quest-for-perfection standard – of what a proper grand prix team now had to be. But in the mid-1980s, when first Niki Lauda and then emphatically a game-changing Prost reaped the dividends, Ferrari was too busy tearing itself apart to notice.

Modena 1986, Enzo Ferrari, Michele Alboreto, Ferrari with his wife Nadia Motorsport.com

Modena 1986, Enzo Ferrari, Michele Alboreto, Ferrari with his wife Nadia

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Instead of investing Fiat wedge into future technologies and a modern team structure, it was led by a reactive instinct for a short-term solution: hire Barnard. The offer was clearly too good to resist – but when the Englishman succumbed, he only did so on his own terms. And he refused to leave his homeland.

Determined to avoid the distractions of the invidious Maranello life, Barnard set up the suitably named GTO (Guildford Technical Office – slightly more prosaic beyond the acronym), in the belief that he could knuckle down to sculpting a new generation of F1 car in peace.

Barnard’s first impressions of his new employer came as a shock. While Ferrari, as ever, prided itself on engines, chassis facilities were way behind what he’d been used to at McLaren. With the company’s first windtunnel only just coming into commission, Barnard must have winced at the full realisation of his task.

Formula One designer John Barnard at the Ferrari Design and Development company in Guildford Motorsport.com

Formula One designer John Barnard at the Ferrari Design and Development company in Guildford

Photo by: Sutton Images

While he began work on a new car for 1988, his input on the evolved F1/87 bore some fruit. Gerhard Berger won the final rounds of ’87 in Japan and Australia, thwarting a worrying win-less streak that had stretched for more than two years. But still the pressure on Barnard was building, especially when it emerged his new baby wouldn’t be ready for the following season.

F1 was preparing itself to consign turbos to history (for now!) in favour of a return to atmospheric engines. McLaren and new engine partner Honda were confident of hitting the ground running with a potent V10 for 1989, but in the meantime would give the manufacturer’s powerful V6 turbo one final hurrah. And what a hurrah it was: 15 out of 16 victories for Prost and new team-mate Senna, a near-whitewash.

As bad as it was for Ferrari, it could have been worse – especially if Barnard had pushed through his revolutionary new car. The inevitable teething problems might have spelled a rapid end to his Ferrari career, especially now his champion Enzo was no longer around…

Enzo Ferrari, 1898-1988 Motorsport.com

Enzo Ferrari, 1898-1988

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Yes, the Old Man was gone, finally proving mortal at the age of 90 on August 14, 1988. Without its founder, Ferrari would never – could never – be the same.

At Monza, 28 days after Enzo’s passing, Berger and Alboreto delivered an unlikely Ferrari one-two after Senna tripped over Jean-Louis Schlesser – blotting McLaren’s perfect season and delivering a fairy-tale tribute.

Only Ferrari.

Gerhard Berger, Ferrari F187/88C Motorsport.com

Gerhard Berger, Ferrari F187/88C

Photo by: LAT Images

Meanwhile, Barnard faced the machinations from factions within Fiat, who now held the Prancing Horse’s reins in the tightest of grips.

The new ‘atmo’ era dawned in 1989 with the promise of more McLaren domination. Meanwhile at Ferrari, Barnard’s striking new F640 was failing to complete a race distance in testing. New recruit Nigel Mansell, one of the Old Man’s final contributions, appeared to have little to hope for at the Rio season opener.

But then, unbelievably, he won, as if it was pre-ordained. Barnard’s revolution, led by a hydraulically operated paddle-shift semi-automatic gearbox, had even survived a mid-race steering wheel change. Again, only Ferrari.

Nigel Mansell, Ferrari 640 Motorsport.com

Nigel Mansell, Ferrari 640

Photo by: LAT Images

But Mansell subsequently failed to finish the next four races, while teammate Berger escaped a fiery horror-crash at Imola with relatively minor burns. In Maranello, rumours whispered of a breakaway design faction, with the backing of Piero Lardi Ferrari (Enzo’s illegitimate son).

Meanwhile, Barnard fumed that his clever gearbox took the brunt of blame for the DNFs, when the truth lay in the externally supplied electronics systems. Mansell would cement his heroic Il Leone status with a magnificent charge (and defeat of Senna) in Hungary, and Berger would win in Portugal, but Ferrari remained resolutely in McLaren’s shadow.

Then came Prost and the full realisation of Barnard’s vision, complete with sorted electrics. Except Barnard wasn’t there to conduct it. Benetton had come calling with a “fairly impressive” offer and, worn down by the politics, he jumped at it.

Prost came in as reigning champion after beating Senna to the 1989 title. But success had come at a heavy price. After two seasons of increasing bitterness in the same team, pragmatic Prost had come to the only logical conclusion: while he was equal to Senna in most respects, he couldn’t quite match the Brazilian for out-and-out pace. To beat him again, he would have to do something different .

Alain Prost, Ferrari 641 Motorsport.com

Alain Prost, Ferrari 641

Photo by: Sutton Images

In the 641 Prost won five times to Mansell’s single victory, driving Il Leone to distraction and eventually out of the team. More importantly, he pushed Senna all the way to another Suzuka title showdown, which his enemy concluded with the most reprehensible piece of driving in F1 history.

Had Senna not driven into Prost at the first turn at 150mph, and Prost had won the championship, how would the story of 1991 have played out? In truth, with Barnard gone, Fiat’s suits still rife in Maranello and no solutions in place to solve the age-old problems, the story would probably have been the same.

Alain Prost, Ferrari 641 Motorsport.com

Alain Prost, Ferrari 641

Photo by: Sutton Images

By the end of that season, a disillusioned Prost had been sacked, remarks comparing his revised 641 to a “truck” allowing Fiat to use him as a scapegoat. But dazzling, perfectly groomed – and familiar – hope had wafted over the horizon.

Fresh from masterminding a successful Italia ’90 football World Cup, suave Luca Cordero di Montezemolo received a call from his old mentor Gianni Agnelli at Fiat: come and sort our troublesome Ferrari. And not just the F1 team, as he had way back in ’75: this time he was chairman and president of the whole shebang.

Niki Lauda and Luca Di Montezemolo Motorsport.com

Niki Lauda and Luca Di Montezemolo

Photo by: Sutton Images

To tackle F1, he called on old friend Lauda for advice and hired back Barnard after what had turned out to be two unhappy years at Benetton. The fix would not be immediate, an overly ambitious twin-floor chassis and disastrous active suspension ensuring further nightmares in 1992. But for clear-of-mind Montezemolo, the penny had dropped: Dennis had shown the way years earlier.

No ‘silver bullets’ this time. A new and lasting approach was required, and if he was to rejuvenate Ferrari’s underperforming road cars too, he needed help to lead it.

The call he made – arguably the most important and decisive in Ferrari’s history – was to a steely-eyed Frenchman, with no direct experience of F1. Jean Todt had single-mindedly nurtured Peugeot into a winner on the rally stage and then at Le Mans. But this was something else.

Did Todt really have the chops to lead the biggest name of them all, on the greatest and most demanding stage? Ferrari’s F1 future was counting on it…

First published in F1 Racing, the world’s only official monthly F1 magazine.

John Barnard, Ferrari with Jean Todt Motorsport.com

John Barnard, Ferrari with Jean Todt

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Motorsport Network photographer Ercole Colombo has the largest private collection of Ferrari images in the world.

Click here to check out more of his iconic work.

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