There’s A Definite Hierarchy When It Comes To Paddle-Shift Ferraris
Photography by Rosario Liberti
When it comes to car show nuisances, oftentimes the conductor of obnoxious parking lot experiments in redlining cold motors can be found sitting in the front seat of a late-model Ferrari, and, almost invariably, they’ll be decked out in the latest team garb and a pair of hi-perf driving shoes to make sure all two pedals in the footwell are pressed appropriately… It’s unfortunate what a few inconsiderate people can do for a car’s reputation, because while there’s obviously nothing inherently wrong with a 458 for instance, it’s hard to look at them fondly when so many of your run-ins with the model involve the kinds of people who bring the police to the party. Most of the time they’re just trying to impress someone who wouldn’t know the acoustic difference between an Italian V8 and an old Accord with a few exhaust leaks anyway, making these antics all the more annoying.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that we’re often influenced by the outliers—after all, the large majority of Ferrari enthusiasts I’ve met are emphatically unlike the schmucks mentioned above, whether they drive vintage or modern cars—but it can be hard to keep some perspective on the whole when the bad eggs make such an impact. At times it’s difficult to remember the true racing genetics in the sea of wannabes, but last weekend’s Imola Motor Legend Festival was the perfect way to recalibrate.
The marque’s strong contemporary F1 efforts might do the same trick (especially since Vettel is leading Hamilton at the time of writing), but I think it goes without saying that if you’re reading Petrolicious it’s the older contingent you find most interesting. That said, the car we’re focusing on here—as shot by Rosario Liberti—only has two pedals. The 640 was a significant car not just for Ferrari though, and it was the harbinger of a new technological landscape in Formula 1 when it debuted in 1989 at the Brazilian Grand Prix. The first Ferrari design by John Barnard, the 640 was also the first-ever Formula 1 car to have a semi-automatic gearbox and I think it’s safe to say that tech’s trickled down since then. A few years after the 640, the entire grid ditched the stick-shift.
So the car was already significant for that innovation on its own, but it carried further weight by being Ferrari’s first foray back into naturally-aspirated 12-cylinders since the era of turbocharging, which had just come to a close with the new rulebook banning forced-induction motors for the 1989 season, and the Ferrari Type 035/5 power plant was their first V12 for Formula 1 in two decades. The car had potential, but like so many pioneering pieces of engineering like it, the novel gearbox greatly hampered the car’s reliability and as such the Ferrari 640 became a sort of perfect embodiment of the Italian car stereotype: pretty and fast, but often broken down.
It was beautiful (removing the traditional gearshift linkages allowed for a cleaner design, and while that’s a subjective statement for sure, the fact that the car’s successor-slash-doppelgänger, the 641, once hung in the lobby of the MoMA lends some professional credence to the opinion); it was fast (Ferrari works driver Nigel Mansell won with the car in its first race outing even though it was down on power compared to the McLarens and their Honda V10s); and it was very unreliable (of the two 640s fielded for 1989, not once in the 16-race calendar did both cars manage to finish in the same event).
Gerhard Berger was the other Ferrari factory driver alongside Mansell back then, and last weekend one of his 640s returned to the circuit that almost claimed the Austrian driver’s life 29 years ago. One of the most experienced racers in the sport with 210 starts to his name, he was a consistent front-runner in Formula 1 throughout his career, but his time with the 640 was a bit “up and down,” you could say: out of his 15 starts in 1989, 12 resulted in a DNF, and during the second race of the season, the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola, he suffered a broken front wing and careened wide off the track at Tamburello in a nearly straight line at nearly 180MPH. On impact the car turned into a fireball, but Berger was relatively unharmed and only had to skip the following race in Monaco before he was back in the cockpit of another 640. So, probably not his favorite year of racing in hindsight, but there were some highlights near the end of the season once some of the gearbox issues had been ironed out, and Berger earned three strong finishes in a row with a 2nd-place in Italy, a win in Portugal, and another 2nd in Spain.
In a fitting if unintentional tribute to the car’s rather unfortunate history at the circuit, the 640 that ran as part of the Ferrari Corsa Cliente program last weekend also took a trip off-tarmac, though thankfully one that resulted in some nice photos rather than a horrific blaze. It was joined on the day by a few of the company’s more modern Formula 1 efforts—including two F2002s and an F2003-GA, both of which were models that won the San Marino GP in their respective time periods—and to bookend at least part of the 640 story, there was also what looked to be a between-season or else short-lived version of the Ferrari 412T2, which is, to date, the very last of their Formula 1 machines with 12 cylinders behind the driver’s helmet.