Gerhard Berger on the flawed genius of his 1989 Ferrari 640

14th April 2024
Ethan Jupp

Gerhard Berger and the Ferrari 640 with which he contested the 1989 Formula 1 World Championship were a duo with an uneasy working relationship. History and the fans remember both with adoration – both car and driver were received at the 81st Members’ Meeting presented by Audrain Motorsport like Hollywood film stars – but neither had an easy season in period. 


Berger was a driver comfortable with what he knew, facing the necessity to adapt to what was a very different, innovative and unreliable car compared to those provided by the Scuderia in his prior two seasons. But the impact both had and the affection both command today – the car being one of the prettiest and best-sounding F1 cars ever and the driver highly decorated and a beloved character of the sport – is unwavering some 35 years on.

Berger drove the car here at 81MM this weekend for the first time since decanting at the end of the 1989 season. We couldn’t turn down the opportunity to get his thoughts and reflections on the experience, his in-period journey with the car as well as his thoughts on the reception he’s received at Goodwood.

“I’m a Goodwood guy. I love to come here,” Berger tells us of his experience over the weekend.

“Charles [The Duke of Richmond] invited me to do it and of course I said yes. The thing that impressed me the most is the soul England has for motorsport. Nowhere in the world compares to England. England is the number one of motorsport. I love to come here.”


We’re standing beside the Ferrari 640, the universally adored arachnid-like stance its sprawling pushrods, wishbones and Goodyear-shod wheels affords it at this point limiting our space to move within the shelter. 

It is all that stands between us and Tifosi members of all ages, as enamoured with the car as they are Gerhard. For many their weekend has been made by seeing this car and meeting him and he’s been happy to do it. The same can’t be said for some drivers who can’t quite do the public-facing thing for as long and maintain a smile. But our attention turns to the car.


“I was the first in charge of driving it at Maranello. To be honest after two or three laps I came in and said ‘Well, every car will have this in the future once it works’.”

‘This’ is arguably the 640’s party piece and the innovation that cements its place in the history of Formula 1 and the motorcar as a whole: the semi-automatic gearbox, with its solenoid-controlled, hydraulically-actuated clutch and wheel-mounted paddle gear shifters. History of course tells us that, as soon as six years on, not a single team would retain a manual gearbox.

“For the first time, you had both hands on the steering wheel, you could shift in corners, you could be much more confident. It was just great. That was the upside.”


The memory of what was a gruelling season doesn’t labour the tone of what follows. 35 years is a long time to make one’s peace with events.

“The downside was it never worked more than five laps, because there was still a lot in the control area going wrong and in the first year we had a lot of failures. We couldn’t do test mileage, we couldn’t sort the setup because we ran out of time because we were chasing problems.” 

Always a quick qualifier but also almost always an unreliable racer, the 640 was a car of feast and famine. Our memories, the history books and the results of 1989 tell us as much and the way Berger flip-flopped between the car’s pros and cons reflects that.

“But the car was great and the gearbox was great. When we finished the races we always finished well. In the wet, it was always such an advantage. When you’re in Monaco you have like 1,500 gearshifts and with manual, you spend 80 per cent of the time steering with one hand. This was a game-changer…

… But in the first year, it was hard work to go through the first problems.”


Gerhard Berger reunited with the screaming Ferrari 640

13th April


It shouldn’t come as a surprise from a professional perspective that Berger preferred the earlier cars with which he was more familiar, having raced for most of the turbo era. But the sonorous 3.5-litre Tipo 035/5 V12 engine, that along with this car’s beauty is what so many remember so fondly, was always as much under his skin as a lover of cars, as all of us.

“To be honest I’ve been more close to the turbocharged cars, maybe because I was used to them,” he explains.

“It [the V12] was a different driving style. It sounded great, but you felt low on power and the driving lines had to change, and how you open and when you open the throttle. Yes I could adapt but my heart was always with the turbo cars. 

“Saying this, I don’t think anything sounds better than this 12-cylinder engine.”

“It’s also such a beautiful car,” he continues. “John Barnard was a fantastic engineer and the number one man. He did this car and it was a masterpiece.”

Barnard of course is famously the mastermind behind the 640 and its revolutionary gearbox, which appealed to the designer for its packaging and aero platform advantages as much as it did the drivers for its ease of use. No physical manual gear linkage meant a slimmer cockpit, which in turn meant more design freedom around aero…


So what was it like being reunited with the car three and a half decades on? Judging by the fact that, before yesterday, the car hadn’t seen those kinds of revs since the 1989 season-closer, an old expression about riding a bike springs to mind. 

To be precise, we heard from a member of the entourage around Berger and the car that, while the current convention for longevity is to shift at 12,000rpm, Berger didn’t hesitate to take it to 14,900 during his few precious laps.

“I was thinking yesterday, I don’t think I have driven it since ’89. Funnily enough the pedals, the mirrors, everything was just perfect.

“The clutch was a bit difficult for pulling away but it was fine after that. It’s a great car.”

All that’s changed is that Berger doesn’t exactly frequent the helms of such high-performance cars anymore. So getting the 640 up on its toes like he did back in the day, shall we say, came as a bit of a shock to the system.

“I felt a little sick,” he chuckles, "because I’m not used to the G-forces anymore.”



The highs and lows of Gerhard Berger’s history with this car make it a complicated one to rank among his many steers. He ponders a moment.

“The number one car for me is the F1-87, but it was a turbo car where it suited very well for me. From an aesthetic point, this is clearly number one. The only downside is the reliability so we couldn’t get the success the car should have, that it deserved.”

He then raises perhaps the most profound connection he has with this car that secures it a special place in his heart.

“I have to say, I survived a terrible accident with this car in Imola,” he explains.

“The carbon chassis was so well done that I could survive. We registered a 120g impact and I still survived. The car saved my life. I have a personal thanks for it.”

That 180mph accident at Imola’s Tamburrello turn of course famously left Berger with broken ribs and some burns. Given the speed and what happened, it could have been, as we all know all too well, so much worse. Berger has said in the past that if not for the semi-automatic gearbox, his return to racing as soon as the Mexican Grand Prix, having only missed Monaco, would not have been possible.


Lovable underdog doesn’t quite encapsulate the love that fans of this sport have for the Gerhard Berger Ferrari 640 pairing. Here at Goodwood, among the fans, amid the adoration, you could have mistaken both for the clean-sweep champions of 1989. 

But we of course know that not to be the case. Instead, both are as pure examples as any of the X-factor that makes this one of F1’s all-time golden eras. It was wonderful to have both at 81MM.

Photography by Pete Summers and Joe Harding

  • Ferrari

  • 640

  • Gerhard Berger

  • 81MM

  • Members' meeting

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    Members' Meeting

    Gerhard Berger to drive his Ferrari 640 F1 car at Members’ Meeting

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    Members' Meeting

    Video: Gerhard Berger's screaming Ferrari 640 lights up 81MM

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    Members' Meeting

    Video: Saturday highlights | 81MM