The first week of July in 1991 saw the papers full of talk about Axl Rose’s displeasure at a camera causing something of a riot in the Riverport Amphitheater. Injuries were plentiful in an era when, unlike the modern day, cameras were something the rich and famous could control. Of course, the rage of that one man was small fry compared to the rage in US congress when they granted permission for the first President Bush to send “Stormin’” Norman Schwartzkopf and his fighting force into Iraq only a few months earlier. In Formula One racing, meanwhile, things seemed relatively calm. As long as you weren’t in the Ferrari garage.
The season had started surprisingly well, with team chief Cesare Fiorio opting to run with an adapted version of 1990’s Ferrari 641, itself a development of John Barnard’s stunningly beautiful 640. Steve Nichols, joining Ferrari after Barnard’s departure for Benetton in 1990, had overseen the design of the 641 and, with reworked aerodynamics and a longer wheelbase, it proved strong enough for six wins in 1990. Prost was challenging for the title that year, until that moment we all remember at Suzuka.
For 1991, Ferrari were confident that they had things in order. The strong finish to the previous season had them convinced that they were in good shape to take the challenge to McLaren in ’91. When they rolled out the 642 at the season opener and Prost took it to the second step on the podium, it looked like they might be right. Except that Senna, in his McLaren-Honda, was some sixteen seconds up the road.
The 642 was not heavily revised from the 641, with a lengthened and strengthened sidepod design being its main differentiator, primarily inspired by the fiery crash that Gerhard Berger endured in 1989. When it came to genuine performance enhancing design, many were wondering where Nichols’ genius was being spent. After all, this was the man who had designed the legendary McLaren MP4/4.
Alain Prost, rarely one to be pleased with defeat, had been pressing the team management to accelerate the design of the new car as it became ever more apparent that their 1990-machine-with-a-new-name was fundamentally outclassed by McLaren’s MP4/6 and Williams’ new Renault powered FW14. Cesare Fiorio, rarely one to be pleased with a driver telling him what to do, responded acrimoniously and the ill feeling that had commenced the prior season in Estoril grew yet stronger.
The second race of the season at Interlagos brought disappointment for the Tifosi, with the two cars coming home fourth and sixth. Prost was once again at odds with the team that had opted to revert the nose to the 1990 configuration without informing the Frenchman, inspiring an acute understeer that killed the front tyres and forced an additional tyre stop. By Imola, the Tifosi were splaying anti-Fiorio banners in the grandstand opposite the Ferrari pits. It was fair to say that the atmosphere in the team was getting close to that of the Republican palace in Baghdad.
The engineering squad, however, were still working on the car, and at Imola they brought a wholesale aerodynamic revision to the car and labelled it the 642/2. A revised underbody and square-arch diffuser, Williams inspired front wing end plates with skirts, longer sidepods, a modified airbox and new front dampers were all introduced. Prost, fourth on the grid and only four tenths down on Senna, and Alesi, seventh, were both smiling thanks to the upgrades. There was rain on race day, and as the expectant Italian crowd watched the cars set off on the parade lap they were not hoping either for Prost to slide off the track, become beached and stall, nor were they expecting Jean Alesi’s Ferrari to end up stranded in the gravel trap at Tosa three laps later. If Cesare was feeling any pressure before…
Monaco dawned, and with it a superb podium for Alesi. Owing more to attrition than pace, it failed to raise the spirits in a team that had become so used to rage and upset as their norm; he was nearly fifty seconds down on the leader.
Shortly before the Canadian Grand Prix, the decision was made to ditch Fiorio and establish a new management structure in a team that had become rudderless. With Piero Ferrari, illegitimate son of il Commendatore, taking the reins along with Claudio Lombardi and Marco Piccinini, one had to wonder if such a cumbersome structure was going to improve matters.
The Canadian grand prix revealed new front suspension, Penske sourced shock absorbers, and new front wing end-plates; all focussed on addressing persistent issues with high speed understeer. Alas, no salvation was found, and on the high speed sweeps of Montreal the 642/2 was once again outclassed, and to compound matters, unreliable. Lacking in power to the Honda and the Renault, Jean Alesi’s V12 let go on lap thirty four, whilst Prost’s gearbox had given up the ghost some seven laps earlier. Two more DNFs were to follow in Mexico.
Then, as we marched headlong into July, Axl Rose stormed off stage in St Louis and the Riverport riot kicked off, and three days later Ferrari averted a similar reaction from the Tifosi when they arrived at Magny-Cours with the all-new work of Steve Nichols; the result of three months of intensive work, the Ferrari 643.
This is where we move our attentions to 2015, and to the ever expanding and magnificently detailed work of ASR Formula in the rFactor2 modding scene. Since the beginning of the year they have released a series of classic Formula One machinery for ISI’s simulator, starting with the Ferrari 643, curiously the car that some would say marked one of Ferrari’s darkest moments. Early beta releases cut a dash, with superb 3D models and wonderfully detailed cockpits, with perfectly realised liveries for both Alain and Jean’s steeds.
The release of version 1.5 presented a car that felt very nice to drive, but perhaps a little too, I wouldn’t say relaxed, but maybe comfortable. With 740 horsepower being pushed out of the wailing V12 in the back of a 505Kg motor car, it can never be truly relaxed, but the rear end seemed very well planted and just a bit too easy to keep in check. A quick look at rFactor 2’s obscenely detailed telemetry output in Motec revealed why: stratospheric downforce levels were keeping things a little more planted than they perhaps should have been, and with correct optimisation of underfloor aero it was possible to match the pole time of Rosberg’s 2013 Mercedes around Barcelona’s aero-centric track.
A few months later, and the final release of the 643 came to pass from ASR with version 1.6, and it is perhaps the finest third party add-on car to grace the sim. A dramatic, and somewhat more realistic, cut in aerodynamic downforce has been allied to a slightly less grippy set of tyres, lengthier shift timing from the seven-speed semi-automatic gearbox, and a greater pitch sensitivity. All of this partially goes against what some may find a greater desire to have a precise and smooth drive, because it goes some way closer to replicating the realism of what dear old Alain and Jean had to contend with. Historical accuracy is trumping the desires of the player, just as it should be.
Running the 643 around aero circuits like Barcelona can be a joy, but the setup of the underbody and diffuser, as with any heavily aero-based car in rFactor2, needs to be precise to avoid a peaky downforce map. Running around the tighter confines of Estoril becomes a far bigger challenge as balancing braking stability and high speed stability with low speed compliance can be very difficult to achieve. Quick hands are a must, and it takes some time to truly understand the changes in grip over varying speeds.
Back to 1991, and at Magny-Cours, in a tight four-way battle for pole Alain sticks Ferrari chassis 643/128 on the front row alongside Patrese’s Williams.
As F1’s first race at the French “slot car track” got underway, Patrese’s gearbox refused to co-operate, and Prost took an immediate lead with a voracious Mansell snapping at his heels. It looked like the 643 was going to win on debut as the race settled down, but on lap fifty-five, Prost was baulked heavily by a backmarker allowing Mansell to sneak around him at the Adelaide hairpin. The Frenchman was then held up for a few more laps by that same lapped runner, who clearly was suffering from blue-flag blindness, and this allowed Mansell to escape into an unassailable lead. The backmarker? By pure co-incidence it was the recovering Williams of Patrese…
Still, whilst it may not have been the win that Italy were praying for, second place, and a competitive fourth behind Senna for Jean Alesi, was by far the best result so far in 1991 for the Scuderia. A glimmer of hope began to shine on Maranello.
The 643, despite being touted as a completely new car, was primarily focussed on aerodynamic modification from the 642/2. Indeed, the suspension and running gear were mainly unchanged, which meant the car’s wheelbase and other dimensions mirrored the earlier model. The monocoque, however, was completely new from the steering bulkhead forward, with bodywork fillets on either side running back to the sidepod leading edge to aid front end torsional rigidity under load, and a raised “undercut” nose.
Magny-Cours was to prove (throughout its tenure of the French Grand Prix) a very peculiar track that was very reactive to temperature variation, though Ferrari were not to know this with 1991 being F1’s first visit. Despite Prost’s podium run to second place, the car continued to suffer an increasing level of high speed power understeer throughout the race. Testing proved that the 643 worked well enough in high downforce configuration despite this issue, but in low downforce trim the front tyres could not hold on. Prost believed the issue to be related to poor damping control, inherited from the 642/2, and Ferrari duly brought in shock absorber technician extra-ordinaire Hiro Tememoto to commence a development programme. A fact that could not be ignored was that, Hungaroring aside, all of the remaining races in 1991 would be run on higher speed circuits.
High speed understeer and the associated tyre wear implications were not the only problems Ferrari had in their new car, as Paulo Massai’s sixty-five degree V12, designated the Tipo 291, that resided in the back of the 643 was also being regularly outclassed by the Honda and Renault motors on track. Dropping around forty horsepower to the Honda and a little less to the Renault, the engine lacked drivability and torque in the mid-range. As a result, it could match the top-end speed of McLaren and Williams’s challengers, but would fall away on mid-range acceleration. In an effort to alleviate this deficiency, modifications such as throttle-sensitive butterfly valves and variable length intake trumpets were evaluated, but the gap remained.
Silverstone, a track that was going to highlight just about every problem with the 643, was a hit to the team’s confidence after the promising performance in France. Prost took another podium only after Senna ran out of fuel on the final lap and dropped out of second place. It was a good enough haul of points, but the one minute gap to Mansell’s Williams left only sad faces in the Ferrari garage as the ebullient race winner gave Senna a lift back to the pits.
Hockenheim dawned and with it the curious, and seemingly not very original, rumour that Audi were contemplating a move into F1. “Pure speculation” they stated. Naturally, the press never mentioned it again. Tyres were the discussion point as Goodyear suffered multiple punctures in practice, but at Ferrari the atmosphere could be cut with a knife. Prost had been under fire from the Italian press for failing to win the French Grand Prix, meanwhile Fiat’s Umberto Agnelli publicly stated his preference for Ayrton Senna. After Prost responded to press criticism, perhaps unwisely but, angrily, the moral tone changed, and the giornali demanded an apology.
On race morning Prost had, it seems, had enough:
“This is the last straw in a ridiculous sequence of events. I don’t think it is possible to resolve the problems I have with the Italian press. They are always criticising me, giving me a lot of shit.”
In the race Prost ended up pitted in a battle with his old adversary Senna. The Brazilian’s typically robust defence causing even more ire from the Frenchman, who ended the race in a run off area with his car refusing to find reverse. Once again enraged, Alain spoke out about the standard of Senna’s driving and FISA’s lack of curtailing action, to which Senna could only offer a shrug and a patronising grin whilst muttering: “I think we all know about Prost and his complaining about everything.”
On track, Alesi had executed a pit stop free race to bring the 643 to its third podium in three races, a pleasing result at such a high-speed circuit.
In Hungary Prost was issued a suspended one race ban by FISA for his comments in Germany, something that could only further darken his mood, though a private discussion and a public handshake with Senna seemed to suggest a road to potential armistice between the pair. Mansell now led the championship and Senna was to fight back with pole and a lights to flag victory. Despite the team’s hope that the Ferrari 643 would perform in higher downforce configuration, they could manage only fourth and sixth on the grid, with Prost once again ahead of his fellow countryman. Warmup saw Prost at the top of the timesheets by nearly a second, but in the race the lack of overtaking opportunity had him mired in third place until his V12 was to give out on lap twenty-eight. Alesi would come home a lonely fifth.
At Spa-Francorchamps, where the 643’s high speed understeer would prove particularly painful, Prost put in a momentous effort in qualifying to put his car on the front row for a race where both car’s engines were to fail. Monza brought a switch to new dampers from Bilstein, the third damper manufacturer of the year, to combat the understeer problems. Steve Nichols was rapidly coming to the conclusion that the problem was a fundamental aerodynamic issue. With a rearward centre of pressure taking high speed grip from the front end, and troublesome pitch sensitivity in medium and low speed corners, the front suspension had to be run in an overly stiff configuration. The Bilstein dampers were adopted for the rest of the season, a season that was looking ever more likely to be winless.
Horsepower was, as ever, king at Monza, and the Ferraris were third best in front of their home crowd; Prost ahead of Alesi on the third row. With all eyes on Benetton’s newly signed wunderkind Michael Schumacher, the race saw one more V12 detonate while Prost came home what should have been a commendable third. Not good enough for the Tifosi.
Back-to-back races in Portugal and Spain saw the third row become a familiar place as Schumacher would help Benetton start to get on terms with Ferrari. Another engine blown for Prost and a podium for Alesi in Estoril was also becoming a familiar story, and the turmoil within the team seemed to be far from over with the rumour mill suggested that both drivers could be queuing at the job centre in 1992.
The Circuit de Catalunya saw host to a number of political wranglings in 1991, not just in the ever political environment of the Ferrari pit. It was the final race for FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre, a position he had held for thirteen years, and he came under fire in the driver briefing as Senna and Mansell went head to head over on track tactics. Their words were to later echo for us all as after a damp start, Mansell was dropped behind Senna and forced to pass the Brazilian in a move that has since gained considerable fame. The two cars, mere inches apart whilst nudging two hundred miles-per-hour on the front straight, sparks flying.
Prost, seeing the damp-but-drying track, had wanted to start the race on slicks. He suspected it was his only chance at victory from sixth place, given that it was clearly inevitable that the leaders would have to switch to dry rubber relatively early in the race. Much to his consternation, he was overruled by the top-heavy Ferrari management. Blocked heavily by his team mate Alesi on the opening lap (Alesi was later to receive a ten second penalty for weaving), Prost came in on lap three, first of the top runners, and ran a consistent race amongst chaos to come home second. Another podium, but still no top step.
As we step back into 2015 and ASR Formula’s superb rendition of the Ferrari 643, I am given loan of Mr Alesi’s machine to drive around Interlagos in a test. After sustained lappery, and considerable work on setup, I am reminded that this is really a car where you have to think things through. The likelihood that you will leap into this car and be fast right away is low, as the variable track and weather conditions that rFactor2 offer present a number of challenges. First you have to get the brakes working; those sensitive carbon discs needing to be up in a high heat range to operate at their best. Then, when you start looking at the aero balance, you could find some difficulty in judging whether brake balance or pitch sensitivity are your biggest issue in some of the bigger stops.
As was found with the real car, the mid-range torque of the evocative sounding V12 is distinctly lacking, but there is a peaky top-end that takes the screaming machine to some fourteen thousand RPM. To the uninitiated the car is astoundingly quick, and can make ISI’s Dallara DW12 feel rather portly, despite the modern Indycar being faster over a lap.
The fast sweeps through the middle sector of Interlagos accentuate the high speed understeer problems that prove very difficult to quash no matter how much front wing you wind into the car. However, once the diffuser is sorted out, the rear of the car is very stable in the high speed stuff.
There is a lot to think about with this car, and racing it over a sustained season would be a fascinating prospect. On some circuits, and in some conditions, it feels genuinely delightful to drive, and the level of historical accuracy and depth of the vehicle modelling almost makes you want to fall in love. Then you can take it somewhere else where, no matter what you do, you can’t make the thing work the way you want to. You can pour over telemetry data for hours wondering why. It’s a car of peaks and troughs, but when you see its beautiful lines and hear its demonic roar, it is hard not feel a warm glow for this virtual machine.
In 1991, the teams arrived in Suzuka to news of a huge earthquake in Uttar Kashi, but Formula One’s ever insular world was more concerned with its own brand of turmoil. Ayrton Senna’s run to second place behind Berger clinched him a third world title, prompting another post-race monologue from the champion. Here he opted to give us his full and frank thoughts concerning outgoing FISA president Balestre, and openly admitted to causing the 1990 collision with Prost a year earlier. Candour out of control?
Perhaps, but it was neither here nor there for Prost who, after qualifying fourth, would go on to finish in the same position, some eighty seconds down. After a few laps of running, it seems, the front shock absorbers had collapsed on Prost’s 643, and this resulted in the steering becoming absurdly heavy. The Frenchman, commenting on this subject after the race, was heard to say: “It was like a horrible truck to drive, no pleasure at all.”
The comment, innocent enough, referred to the weight of the steering as a result of the damper problem in the race, but went on to be famously misquoted by almost every publication the world over. The quote was contorted somewhat to imply that Prost had implied that the car itself was like a truck, and this brought even more discontent within a team that was straining to stay in one piece. Ferrari were in a state of pandemonium and, on the Friday after the Japanese Grand Prix in 1991, Alain Prost was advised that his services were no longer required by Scuderia Ferrari.
In Adelaide for the final race of the season, Claudio Lombardi was quoted as saying: “After deep analysis of Alain Prost’s behaviour during the present season, we had to take the decision [to terminate the contract]. We are always prepared to consider constructive criticism as a team, but Prost made too many critical comments outside the team.”
At the time, with forty four wins over ten years of competition, Alain Prost was the most successful driver in Grand Prix racing’s history. That none of those wins came during the 1991 season spoke of a frustration that may have hinted that some words behind closed doors were more of a catalyst to his departure than his misplaced truck-based comments. But still, that was the quote that stuck, and to this day that is the quote that is remembered.
As for the Ferrari 643, its tenth and final race saw entries for chassis 129 and 130, the third and fourth 643’s to roll out of the Maranello factory. Twenty three year old Italian Gianni Morbidelli replaced Prost in the number twenty-seven car, having impressed many with his performances for Minardi throughout the season. They occupied the fourth row of the grid and, upon race day, torrential rain saw a red-flag fall after fourteen laps, with Alesi’s Ferrari finishing, like so many, in a crumpled heap in the wall. Morbidelli, on what would stand as his only Grand Prix for Ferrari, brought his car home sixth, scoring half a point for the team; his first world championship points.
As the sun set on the 1991 season, Ferrari’s tumultuous time continued and, before long, Lombardi was replaced at the head of the team, with Steve Nichols ousted for a returning John Barnard. The 643 was never going to be remembered as one of the great cars from the Prancing Horse; whilst its tally of fifty-five and a half points over the season helped the team to third in the constructors’ championship, their tally was more than doubled by Williams in second place.
ASR Formula have nonetheless brought us a piece of Motor Racing history, a car that, while no pace-setter, was a car that was embroiled in controversy in a Ferrari team that seemed intent on tearing itself to shreds in the early 1990’s. After challenging for the title in 1990, the 1991 season marked an era of darkness for Ferrari that would last for many years until Jean Todt arrived to commence their return to the front of the field.
As we move on through this year ASR have released 1991’s McLaren MP4/6 and have a Williams FW14 in beta. Despite some question marks concerning performance equivalency, this is a breath of fresh air for the motor racing enthusiast in sim racing; the more cars we can gather that have a history and a story to tell, the better. Let us hope that the Ferrari 643 is just the start of a series that can help breathe passion and soul into the rFactor 2 scene.
The Ferrari 643 is a car which never excelled on track, indeed in many respects was considered a failure, but as a piece of machinery it offers a unique driving experience that brings with it a unique history. It might not be the flagship car of its era, but in its own right it merits its place in the history books for its real world exploits and history, and merits a place in our sim garages as an opportunity to sample that history and be a part of it.
With increasingly fractured car collections delivered by sim developers, it is often the case that we rarely get a chance to sample some of the “has beens” and “also rans” of motor racing’s past. But just as they have their place in the history of motorsport, they also have a place as a part of recreating and capturing the essence of their era within sim-racing.