Why Paul Ricard's last grand prix was a defining F1 tech moment

Formula 1 returns to Paul Ricard this weekend after an absence of 28 years - a period in which the championship's technology and sophistication level have been revolutionised

Why Paul Ricard's last grand prix was a defining F1 tech moment

But while the 2018 F1 cars are a world away from those that took the grid at the 1990 French Grand Prix, the Ferrari and Leyton House March that fought for victory at Ricard back then featured then-radical ideas that are now standard.

The two cars were totally different in concept, and both featured design elements that opened up new avenues for F1 teams and quickly became accepted practice.

The Ferrari of Alain Prost was based on 1989's John Barnard-designed 639, which was a milestone in F1 technical history.

The 639 pioneered the semi-automatic gearbox in F1, and also had completely different aerodynamics.

In addition, it featured front and rear torsion bars instead of springs - setting a trend that now features on all cars.

The Leyton House driven by Ivan Capelli was based on Adrian Newey's 1988 March, which was an extreme car aerodynamically.

It was so extreme that the contours of the chassis were built around the shape of the drivers' feet. It was really the start of F1's move towards incredibly complicated aerodynamics.

The Ferrari and the Leyton House also had a completely different philosophy in terms of building the chassis.

Ferrari's carbon fibre chassis was separate from the bodywork, which was attached.

The Leyton House was part of a new generation of thinking, where the chassis also made up the bodywork as it does with the current cars.

These were two cutting edge but totally different cars, featuring elements still important to F1 28 years on.

With help from Gary Anderson, we look in more detail about the specific design elements of the two cars.

The Ricard race was won by Prost after passing Capelli late on when the Italian suffered a brief drop in fuel pressure.

What is striking is the growing complexity of the aerodynamics that now make it so difficult for cars to overtake.

The Ferrari 641 was a Barnard-designed car, with Henri Durand leading the aerodynamics team, and it shows how much things have moved on.

The sidepods are long and sleek, whereas currently the design objective is to get them as short as possible to allow more room for the multiple twisted turning vanes that are now called bargeboards.

The undercut sidepods hadn't come in back in 1990, so the trend was for tall and narrow radiator inlets.

The front wing is minimal, with just two elements, and the diffuser in those days was much more powerful.

The current cars produce something like 1600kg of downforce at 240km/h (149mph), and the Jordan we raced in 1991 had about half of that - although we weren't a Ferrari beater and were happy to just get one over on the big teams if they had a bad day that year.

The underbody layouts of the cars are fairly similar. From the front, you have the chassis, fuel tank, engine and gearbox but now the underbody detail is so much more refined.

I remember Williams design legend Patrick Head in 1998 standing on the grid at Barcelona and, still with his headset on, turning around to colleague Geoff Willis and shouting at the top of his voice: "Geoff, underbody aerodynamics, that's where we've failed, underbody aerodynamics".

Williams had qualified just beside us and we were having a difficult time, so you can imagine how bad it was for Williams.

But he was right, now the underbody aerodynamics are as important as what the outside body surfaces look like. That was in 1998 and huge strides have been made since then.

It's also interesting comparing the front wing to what we now see on the Red Bull, very different but I think you can see it comes from the same family.

Ferrari was the first team to introduce the paddleshift gearshift system, which was introduced on 1989's 640 and then used on the 641.

It was a Barnard creation and Ferrari started testing it during the second half of 1988. My Formula 3000 driver at Bromley Motorsport, Roberto Moreno, was hired to do the test work and the system then was quite different to what is used today.

Ferrari took more or less a normal gearbox with three selector rods and fitted electrical solenoids at the end of the selector rods.

The paddles would simply energise the solenoid and move it one way or the other, so the paddle was more of a see-saw so you could push or pull it.

Now, the gearshift is more like a motorcycle with a barrel gearchange system.

One actuator basically rotates the barrel a certain number of degrees so it goes from one gear to another.

With the current zero-torque loss system (seamless shift) it is a little more complicated than that but then so is everything else.

That's because the teams now have at least tenfold more in manpower. In 1991 we had about 30 people at Jordan, now there are in excess of 300 of Force India while Ferrari probably had 100 people in 1990.

It was 1993 before we, at Jordan, entered into the world of the paddleshift system and like everyone else it wasn't without its problems, but by the end of the season we had more or less got on top of it.

When the paddleshift was working correctly, it was a lot easier on the driver, who didn't have to take their hands off the steering wheel and it reduced the risk of a missed gear blowing up the engine.

It was a good thing, but it also meant there is now zero chance of missing a gearchange so it takes away the potential for that little driver error that in the past has led to so many overtaking manoeuvres.

This cutaway of the Ferrari 641 shows in more detail the car in its second iteration, which was introduced for the San Marino GP at Imola.

The nose had a sharper point, with a shorter panel covering its top.

The upper lip of the cooling air intake had a more rounded shape above the lower part of the intake, while the radiators were taller.

There was also a new lateral outlet and larger fuel-system air intakes.

Ferrari also modified the pick-up points for the rear suspension and introduced a new undertray.

Newey's famously aggressive packaging meant that the confines of the Leyton House cockpit were very tight.

This shows the design of the March 881, used by the team in 1988 before its name changed, and things were very similar for the 1990 car.

"It was small," says Capelli of the 1988 car. "The steering wheel was just 25cm across and the whole bulkhead that you had to put your legs through was 25cm.

"With three pedals, it was so tight that there was no footrest, which was a real problem in some corners.

"The first time I drove, I couldn't reach the gear lever because it was too far back.

"Adrian said 'wait there', took the gear lever out and I could hear hammering at the back of the garage.

"He came back with the lever bent forward."

shares
comments
Three Formula 1 teams have tried to sign Lando Norris from McLaren

Previous article

Three Formula 1 teams have tried to sign Lando Norris from McLaren

Next article

Montezemolo: Marchionne jealous of Ferrari's past F1 successes

Montezemolo: Marchionne jealous of Ferrari's past F1 successes
Load comments
How F1's biggest crisis helped trigger its exciting 2021 season Plus

How F1's biggest crisis helped trigger its exciting 2021 season

Formula 1's return to Austria this weekend comes under exceedingly different circumstances to its last Spielberg visit, when F1 took its first tentative steps out of the global COVID shutdown. But the tightrope F1 walked in 2020 has ultimately led to the most exciting season of the hybrid era

Can Red Bull really win anywhere now it’s toppled a Mercedes F1 stronghold? Plus

Can Red Bull really win anywhere now it’s toppled a Mercedes F1 stronghold?

OPINION: Red Bull team boss Christian Horner reckoned Max Verstappen winning the French Grand Prix – an event where Mercedes had previously been dominant – would signal “we can beat them anywhere”. Here’s how that claim stacks up looking at the rest of the 2021 season

Formula 1
Jun 23, 2021
The IndyCar feature that Paul Ricard desperately needs in F1 Plus

The IndyCar feature that Paul Ricard desperately needs in F1

OPINION: The French Grand Prix offered a surprisingly interesting spectacle, despite the headache-inducing nature of the circuit. But IndyCar's Road America race offered far more in terms of action - and the increased jeopardy at the Elkhart Lake venue might be something Paul Ricard needs in future...

Formula 1
Jun 22, 2021
French Grand Prix Driver Ratings Plus

French Grand Prix Driver Ratings

The French GP was a weekend decided by tiny margins both at the front of the field, as Red Bull inflicted a comeback defeat on Mercedes, and in the battle for the minor points places. That's reflected in our driver ratings, where several drivers came close to a maximum score

Formula 1
Jun 21, 2021
How Red Bull took French GP "payback" on a day of Mercedes mistakes Plus

How Red Bull took French GP "payback" on a day of Mercedes mistakes

The French GP has been a stronghold for Mercedes since Paul Ricard's return to the calendar in 2018. But that all changed on Sunday, as a clever two-stop strategy guided Red Bull's Max Verstappen to make a race-winning pass on the penultimate lap - for once leaving Mercedes to experience the pain of late defeat it has so often inflicted on Red Bull

Formula 1
Jun 21, 2021
The new age of sponsorship facilitated by F1’s relevancy push Plus

The new age of sponsorship facilitated by F1’s relevancy push

The age of the high-profile title sponsor is over, says JONATHAN NOBLE, but Formula 1’s commitment to technological innovation is attracting high-tech partners

Formula 1
Jun 20, 2021
How Britain’s lost Ferrari star epitomised a bygone F1 era Plus

How Britain’s lost Ferrari star epitomised a bygone F1 era

The 1956 Italian Grand Prix was over for Juan Manuel Fangio, along with his hopes of winning the world championship – until his Ferrari team-mate (and title rival) voluntarily surrendered his own car so Fangio could continue. NIGEL ROEBUCK recalls Peter Collins, a remarkable sportsman

Formula 1
Jun 19, 2021
The 'surprise' Mercedes time that puts F1's victory fight back on a knife-edge in France Plus

The 'surprise' Mercedes time that puts F1's victory fight back on a knife-edge in France

Red Bull led the way after the first two practice sessions for the 2021 French Grand Prix, but only just ahead of Mercedes. There was all the usual practice skulduggery complicating the performance picture, but one aspect seen at the world champion squad gave it a ‘surprise’ lift, as it looks to leave its street-circuit struggles firmly in the past

Formula 1
Jun 18, 2021