Ferrari's turbo revolution

From Villeneuve on the cover of Time magazine to the technical revolution completed with the 488

Thirty-five years ago Ferrari wrote one of its many pages of car – and in particular Formula One – history. It was 31 May 1981 and Gilles Villeneuve's 126CK had won the Monaco Grand Prix in a race that exceeded all expectations. It was the first victory by a turbo-charged engine in the principality and, in many ways, a vindication for the Scuderia after a disappointing 1980 season, during which work on the 312 T5 was quickly set aside to focus on the new car, one that would include a revolutionary power unit, Ferrari's first supercharged engine. It was a V6 designed by Mauro Forghieri, inspired by Renault, which, after years of mixed success, had started to reap impressive results in the top category.

Villeneuve on the grid at the 1981 Spanish Grand Prix 

That win, together with another in Spain a few weeks later, went beyond the realm of sports racing and became a cultural phenomenon. All the ingredients for front-page headlines were there: Villeneuve's strong personality (the dashing Canadian bewitched Italy and the world with his contempt for danger and a racing style that always tested the limits), a technological revolution, and the mythical Prancing Horse brand. And so, in late August of that momentous year, Gilles, the 126 CK and Ferrari's turbo engine appeared on the cover of the world's most famous weekly, Time magazine. It was the first time a racing driver had done so since Jim Clark, back in 1965.

Villeneuve at the wheel of the 126 CK on the cover of Time magazine, August 1981

Now, 35 years later, Ferrari is completing a cycle, converting its motorsport competition models to turbo. It's a technology that is back in favour, not just because it is fashionable, but because it is the solution that best balances efficiency, fuel consumption, and performance. The F1 cars were the first to reintroduce supercharging; during the 2014 season, they introduced the hybrid power units, 26 years after turbo engines were banned in 1989. During the same year, Ferrari again offered turbo engines in its road cars as well, with the California T unveiled in Geneva during the spring of 2014.


In 2015, the turbo engine was back in the V8 sports berlinetta, with the 488 GTB that replaced the 458 Italia with a naturally aspirated engine. The 488 GTE and GT3 were introduced in November at the World Championship finals at Mugello; these two competition versions of the car arrived 27 years after the 1989 F40 GTE, the last turbo-charged Ferrari built for GT competitions. The GTE version of the 488 made its debut at the 24 Hours of Daytona in late January, while the GT3 had a memorable first race, immediately winning the 12 Hours of Sebring.

The turbo-charged Ferrari SF16-H 

The 488 GTE had its European debut in April at the 12 Hours of Silverstone, which opened the new season of the World Endurance Championship: it was a triumph with a one-two finish that saw Davide Rigon and Sam Bird finish ahead of Gianmaria “Gimmi” Bruni and James Calado. The season’s high point will be in June at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The last chapter of Ferrari's turbo revolution will be written at the end of 2016. The new 488 Challenge will be introduced at the World Championship finals in Daytona, scheduled for 1-4 December; it was developed to compete on the track in the 25th year of the most famous single-maker championship in the world.

The 488 GTE on its way to victory at Silverstone