Photo: Richard Kelley

Some Ferrari fans will remember the year 1980, and others will not. The year is significant not so much for what happened, but rather for what did not―as Ferrari didn’t win a single race the entire season. The only other year with the same dismal results before then was 1973.

Looking back, the lacklustre year wasn’t due to a lack of driver talent. After all, Jody Scheckter and Gilles Villeneuve, only a season earlier, had been on top of the racing world.

There are various elements that contribute to the success of a race team: technology, engineering, skill, competitiveness, context, and even luck. Which of these brought about Ferrari’s despair in 1980?

Questions abound.

Would a smaller turbo engine have helped? Did Michelin and Renault form an alliance in France with the goal of removing the Italian squad’s crown? Was the 312T5 under-engineered?

It could be argued that Ferrari’s dramatic change of fortune was due to an ironic twist of sorts. The same technology from which the competition benefited, buckled the prancing horse’s knees. A review of some historical facts and stats relating to the 312T4—its predecessor—may shed light on why the 312T5 bombed.
The 312T4 used the flat 12 cylinder configuration carried over from previous 312T models. The car was reliable and fast because of improved aerodynamics achieved during the off-season. It held promise as the perfect machine to go head to head with defending champion, Team Lotus.
Was the 312T5 under-engineered?
It could be argued that Ferrari’s dramatic change of fortune was due to an ironic twist of sorts. The same technology from which the competition benefited, buckled the prancing horse’s knees. A review of some historical facts and stats relating to the 312T4—its predecessor—may shed light on why the 312T5 bombed.

The 312T4 used the flat 12 cylinder configuration carried over from previous 312T models. The car was reliable and fast because of improved aerodynamics achieved during the off-season. It held promise as the perfect machine to go head to head with defending champion, Team Lotus.
The outcome? The Scuderia won six races with its 312T4: three P1 finishes for South African, Scheckter; and three P1 finishes for Canadian, Villeneuve. These victories―plus points gained at other races where the two drivers placed well―earned Ferrari the 1979 Constructors’ Championship, (the team’s fourth Constructors’ Championship in five seasons), as well as the Drivers’ Championship for Scheckter. However, the sweet taste of victory would soon sour for Ferrari.

Only months after the end of the 1979 championship season, things took a turn for the worse. Both the competing Williams and Ligier teams gained in aerodynamic downforce with their cutting edge ground effect wing-cars, benefitting from wind-tunnel testing, and power improvements from engine supplier Cosworth. Ferrari was heavily committed to producing their own turbo-powered car for the following 1981 season, and not wanting to give the impression that they were reacting to their rivals’ developments, they brought a heavily updated version of the 1979 car to the track.

Gone was the championship-winning 312T4; the unproven 312T5 taking its place.

Though the two cars were practically, some notable adjustments and modifications had been made. For instance, the new nose was narrower and more chiseled. In addition, a new dorsal fin on the engine cover allowed for a more consistent air-flow to the rear wing. the re-worked front suspension used a robust cast magnesium transverse crossmember for added rigidity. Two additional openings were added to the top of the side pods to provide better air flow for the cooling flow from the radiators. And the wide 3.0L flat 12 cylinder heads reduced by 4.5 centimeters in order to narrow the overall width of the engine.

Photo: Richard Kelley.

Despite all the changes, the engine still sat low and wide, stealing valuable inches from the venturi tunnels in the side pods – the narrow tunnels resulting in a lack of downforce. The Michelin tires for 1980 were developed specifically for the unruly power delivery of the Renault turbo power plant, instead of the smoother torque characteristics of the Ferrari naturally aspirated boxer 12 engine, so never work to their potential on the T5.

If the 312T had it lived up to expectations, it would have inherited the 312T4’s place among championship cars. Instead, it slid around with lack of grip. It retired with engine failures caused by modifications to the cylinder heads and couldn’t match the downforce of the competition. Every other car gradually improved as the season went on, but the 312T5, having reached its limit for development, plateaued at the midfield of the grid.
The season ended with Ferrari in the tenth spot of the Constructors’ Championship. Villeneuve led the team in points with two fifth- and two sixth-place finishes, totalling six points. Scheckter ended up not even qualifying for the Canadian Grand Prix and retired from the sport after scoring a mere two points the entire season.

The fact that Gilles Villeneuve was able to capture those points against the dominating Williams and Ligier cars is a true testament to his unmatched skill, courage and determination. Ferrari knew they had someone special in their hands. They needed only to provide the French-Canadian driver a car worthy of his talent. Alas, the 312T5 was not that car.

Enter the 126CK in 1981, newly equipped with a turbocharged V6 engine. Supported by the performance of Gilles Villeneuve and Frenchman Didier Pironi, it got Ferrari rolling again—in the right direction.

Ferrari tifosi would prefer to forget the disappointing 1980 season, however, they are grateful for the change it spurred.

Had it not been for the car’s shortcomings in 1980, the turbo 126C Ferraris would not have become as important as they are, and the 126C (126CK, 126C2, 126C2B, 126C3, and 126C4) would not be the icons that they are now considered to be.

With the new turbo cars, Pironi and Villeneuve both had a respectable season the first year. And thanks to their brilliant handling of the new cars, as well as subsequent positive fan reaction, turbo-era Ferraris are now valued by nostalgic fans and fetch big dollars from enamoured collectors.
Despite its weak performance in comparison to its predecessor and the rivals of its time, the 312T5 is a legendary racing Ferrari―a 12-cylinder monster inadvertently built to fail, yet the unwitting catalyst for the team to reinvent itself.

The 312T5 may have been a mere shadow of the great car preceding it, but it is still a great racing car powered by the legendary Ferrari 12 cylinder monster. Of course, it was not meant to fail; but it did. In a sense, its failure was an evil necessity prompting the team to pave a better future. On a symbolic level, it succeeded more than anyone could have imagined. From the ashes of the 312T4, the Ferrari pedigree was reborn.

And as so often happens, history may have repeated itself in 2014, with the new hybrid era turbo six cylinder powered Formula 1 cars. The F14T car may or may not have been the only issue for 2014, however the progress the following year with the 2015 season SF15-T, with an increase of points, podiums, and surprising victories brought hope back to the fabled squad.
Has 2014 become the new 1980 making 2015 the new 1981? Only time will tell. Who knows, maybe 35 years from now we’ll be romanticizing the F14T.