• TURBO HERO #2015 #René-Arnoux appreciates the #Ferrari-California T’s performance and ease of drive. #Ferrari-California-T

    In the late 1970s, René Arnoux was one of the pioneering drivers of the turbo age, with its powerful, but always tricky to control, engines. After taking the California T out for a drive, we asked him to compare the past with the easy, enjoyable turbo technology of today.

    I don’t smoke,’ says René Arnoux, ‘but in those early turbocharged Formula One cars, after you put your foot flat to the floor, it felt like you had time to reach for your cigarettes, strike a match, and have a quick puff before the power arrived. In the very early cars you would wait maybe two, two and a half seconds. So I had to learn all over again how to drive a racing car.

    ‘As soon as I turned into the corner I would go flat on the gas, so that the power would arrive in time for the exit. And when it did arrive, you lifted off the gas again, because it came so strong that, unless you were on qualifying tyres, it would spin the wheels, even in fifth gear. It was a very exciting era to be a racing driver. But very difficult too.’

    Formula One’s first turbo era is often described as its wildest, and René Arnoux as one of its fastest drivers. At its peak, the cars were producing more than 1,000hp in qualifying trim from tiny 1.5-litre engines. A qualifying engine could be a molten mess after 10 laps; a set of qualifying tyres destroyed after just two. The engines developed so much torque that they could twist driveshafts and spin the wheels inside their tyres. The early engines suffered the worst of the “lag” that Arnoux describes. At low revs, they were just small engines with a few hundred horsepower: ‘a one and a half litre engine with low compression: nothing.’ But as the turbos spooled up, the power arrived with a bang. ‘Suddenly, 650 horsepower.’ Other drivers spoke of aiming their cars, not driving them. However, F1’s wildest age was also among its most fertile. The engines made huge leaps not only in power, but in driveability and reliability too. Chassis engineers worked fast to deploy the vast output of the engines. Turbocharging may have been dropped in 1989, but the other advances made in that era (carbon-fibre monocoques, disc brakes and electronic gear shifting) have been with us ever since, and define modern F1 and the highest-performance road cars.

    And now, of course, turbocharging is back. Last season, a quarter of a century after it was written out of the rules, it returned to F1 with the new 1.6-litre hybrid engines. In road models, allied with direct injection, turbocharging is enabling carmakers to continue to increase performance while reducing emissions and fuel consumption; not only in high-performance cars like the Ferrari California T and the new 488 GTB, but in mainstream models that sell by the million too. The reduction in carbon dioxide emissions will be significant, and the technology that enables it was pioneered in those 1,000hp monsters of the 1980s. Forced induction had been permitted by F1 since 1966, but at first it was impossible to make a 1.5-litre turbocharged or supercharged engine powerful and reliable enough to compete with the 3.0-litre naturally aspirated engines. Renault tried first, in #1977 , but it wasn’t ready, and its turbocharged cars failed to finish a race that first season.

    Ferrari was also busy experimenting with forced induction, using a 120-degree, 1.4-litre V6 block similar to that used in the 1961 Sharknose. The tiny V6 had engineering advantages over both the 3.0-litre flat-12 it would replace, and the inline fours, which some of its closest rivals adopted for their turbocharged engines.

    Ferrari examined supercharging too, and built the experimental 126CX F1 car with a Comprex supercharger. However, it decided to go racing with the 126CK; the “K” standing for the twin KKK turbochargers, which gave the little V6 at least 570hp in its first season. The Scuderia teased the tifosi by sending Gilles Villeneuve out in the turbo car during practice for the 1980 Italian Grand Prix at Imola. It didn’t make its race debut until #1981 , but Villeneuve set a time 0.6sec faster than his best in the flat-12 powered 312T5 he drove in the race.

    Expectations were raised, but the 1981 season didn’t meet them. Villeneuve scored back-to-back wins at Monaco and Jarama, the Scuderia’s first with turbocharging, but neither driver nor team challenged for the championship. The 1982 season was different; one of success and utter despair. On 8 May, Villeneuve was killed during qualifying at Zolder, and Didier Pironi was badly injured, again in qualifying, at the Hockenheimring. In a closefought season, the Scuderia won the Constructors Title, but there was no rejoicing in #Maranello .

    The Financial Times later wrote that this first World Championship for a turbocharged car marked the turbo era’s “coming of age”. Arnoux, then aged 34, joined Ferrari for the 1983 season, partnering Patrick Tambay. He found a car that was already much improved over the Renaults he had raced from 1978. ‘The lag was much less, now maybe just a second or so,’ he says. ‘And the engine was much stronger on the power, because Mr Ferrari liked the motor to be strong.’

    ‘What I liked most about Ferrari was that everything – the engine, gearbox, chassis, everything – was made in the factory. If I wasn’t on the track at Fiorano testing the car, I would be in the factory, watching it being made. The other cars at the time had a Hewland gearbox, which was very heavy to use, but Ferrari made its own, which was easy, precise, soft and quick.

    ‘At Monaco you changed gear 72 times each lap, for 78 laps. You only had one hand on the wheel, and these cars were so brutal to drive, so physical. Sometimes the winner had difficulty climbing to the top of the podium and staying on his feet. But when a constructor gives you a part like that, your performance is better, and you finish the race in better condition physically.’

    Arnoux remained in contention for the World Championship until the final race. He finished third and Tambay fourth, but the pair delivered Ferrari’s second consecutive Constructors Title. ‘Every year the car got faster and easier to drive.

    By the end of the season, we might have 70hp more than we started with. The speed of development was incredible. There was no restriction on testing then, and at Ferrari you just opened the door of the factory and there was Fiorano. Every week there was something new to test. It seemed normal that every time we tested there would be another 10hp, or a new improvement to the chassis or brakes.’

    However, despite the advances, McLaren was dominant in 1984; Ferrari finished second, and Arnoux sixth in the drivers’ standings. His finest moment was an extraordinary Dallas Grand Prix in which he scythed from the back of the grid up to second place, his white helmet cocked forward in the red car, suggesting the intensity with which he always drove. And he would have caught the leader Keke Rosberg had there been just a few more laps. Ferrari was starting to apply what it was learning in F1 to its road cars. The 1984 288 GTO was the first of the “specials”, a line that continues to the LaFerrari. Its 400hp, 2.8-litre V8 was Ferrari’s first turbocharged road car, and its use of composites in the chassis drew on Ferrari’s experiences in the 1982 F1 season. ‘We applied pure F1 technology to two components in this car,’ Scuderia Technical Director Harvey Postlethwaite said at the time, ‘and some principles to lots of body components. The racing department is directly responsible.’

    Arnoux agrees. ‘Those cars were not so different to my F1 car. I can’t take any credit for developing them. Sometimes if I was testing at Fiorano and we took a break, Dario Benuzzi [the former Chief Test Driver] would ask me to take a road car out for a few laps. They were so exciting to drive and people love them. After I left Ferrari I bought an F40 for my own use. But the way the power arrived, you had to be skilled to drive them. I actually thought maybe customers should learn how to use it first.’

    Formula One cars developed even faster over their short first incarnation. Arnoux left Ferrari in 1985. By #1986 the turbo era was at its peak, with turbocharging compulsory and no restriction on boost. The F1-86 had (officially) 850hp in race trim and in excess of 1,000hp in qualifying, but those figures are probably conservative. The next two years saw boost and fuel limited, and naturally aspirated engines reintroduced. Turbos were banned for the #1989 season. Arnoux retired at the end of that year, with only his first and last ever seasons spent in non-turbo cars. ‘It was a technologically interesting time, but if we had kept going like this we would have had engines with 2,000hp.’

    I ask him if he thinks that would have been a bad thing. ‘At the end of the turbo era I was told I had been closer to 1,500hp in qualifying. That was enough. Nobody who ever got to drive one of those cars will forget it. I was lucky enough to test two of Michael Schumacher’s Ferraris and although it was still difficult to go fast, the car was better to drive than mine, more comfortable and easier to brake. It was still easy to make a mistake, but I think it was easier to make a mistake in mine.

    ‘Michael tested one of mine at Fiorano. He didn’t just do 10 laps: he stayed out there for hours, and when he finally got out, he said, “Whoever raced those cars back then was completely crazy.” Well, there were some big characters in F1 in my time. But the cars were the biggest characters of all.’ And the California T? Arnoux grins. The car’s sublime ease of use and powerful aspirated engine has clearly found a new fan. Is it better than that old F40 of his? ‘Oh, it’s totally different. Like night and day. It’s really easy to drive. The power comes without a delay. It doesn’t stop, and if you lift and then go back on the throttle, it’s always there. You only know it’s a turbo because it has lots of power and torque. You could easily think it was naturally aspirated. The difference is incredible.’

    “Incredible. The California T’s power just doesn’t stop”

    Arnoux pictured today in typically genial mood. The former #F1 driver greatly appreciated the quick response of the California T’s turbo engine while driving on the roads near Geneva.

    Some of the most signi!icant images from René Arnoux’s career, including, above right, with Gilles Villeneuve, with whom he fought an epic duel at Dijon; far right, in action during the 1983 season, when he won the Canadian, German and Dutch Grands Prix; above, with his countrymen Patrick Tambay and #Alain-Prost .

    Arnoux at the wheel of a modern-day turbo: the California T. Above, right, during his days as a driver at #Ferrari in #1983 and #1984 .