The Ferrari 126 CK, designed under the direction of Mauro Forghieri, takes its name from the 120° V-six engine supercharged with a Kühnle, Kopp & Kausch turbine system, while the C stands for competition.
Already during the 1980 season in Maranello it was decided to create a car totally different from the now obsolete 312 T, the last of which, the 312 T5, showed a total lack of competitiveness.
First of all, it was decided not to use the flat 12-cylinder aspirated engine, which due to its bulky dimensions does not reconcile with the aerodynamic needs of a wing car and with the characteristics of Michelin tires. A six-cylinder supercharged V-engine is introduced in its replacement.
As usual for Ferrari, the chassis maintains a tubular aluminium structure, with some changes in the rear due to the smaller size of the turbocharged engine compared to the aspirated one.
Thanks to the compactness of the engine, from the aerodynamic point of view, the 126 C is the first true wing car built by the Maranello-based company, having much more voluminous side skirts than the latest T single-seaters.
In addition to this, the team technicians implement a further expedient: in order to free up space in the sides to better drain the air from the underbody and maximize the ground effect, the supercharging system is included between the two engine banks. widened to 120°.
However, this involves a slight increase in the car's center of gravity, making it aesthetically different from competitors such as Renault, whose engine is configured in a 90° V shape, while the turbochargers are housed in the sides, outside the banks; also, for this reason, the aerodynamics of the 126 CK will prove to be less efficient than the cars of the other top teams.
The precocity with which the car is put on the construction site allows it to be brought to its debut already during the tests of the 1980 edition of the Italian Grand Prix; in this situation the new single-seater is much faster than the T5, but still too unreliable to be able to take it to the starting grid.
Both the classic Kühnle, Kopp & Kausch turbocharger (designation 126 CK) and the Comprex (designation 126 CX), a mechanical pressure wave compressor from Brown Boveri, are initially tested for supercharging, which being connected to the crankshaft cancels the delay response typical of turbo engines.
These tests continue throughout the winter and spring before the 1981 championship, but it soon emerges that the heavy drum of the Comprex, subjected to the sudden accelerations of the racing engine, generates such inertia as to break the belt that sets it in motion.
Brown Boveri shows willingness to develop the system in a competitive key, but asks Ferrari to contribute financially: the Scuderia, as had already happened on other occasions, considers the commitment too onerous and after the first two races of the World Championship it definitively chooses the less elaborate but more reliable KKK turbocharger.
The engine has a displacement of just under 1.500 cubic centimeters, and develops a power of 570 horsepower, capable of pushing the car to a top speed of 320 km/h.
The built specimens are in total seven:
126 C/047, the first laboratory car that basically uses the 312 T5 chassis with revised aerodynamics.
Following is the batch of cars with which Ferrari starts the season, built in configuration A according to the construction scheme of the 312T5 with panelled tubular chassis, and then revised in configuration C in the front, now all boxed and enlarged to be used in the final grand prix:
126 C/049 (later CK/049B), used by Villeneuve in practice for the 1980 Italian Grand Prix, then in six races by Pironi in 1981;
126 CK/050, which completed five races with Pironi, and four with Villeneuve who destroyed it in practice for the 1981 Canadian Grand Prix;
126 CK/051, completing six races with Villeneuve and two with Pironi.
Starting from Imola, the 052-053-054 cars in configuration B with modified front part are used, with boxed pedals area and boxed suspension connections in titanium. The central games are played with them, while the 049-050-051 are completely revised. Later these too will be converted to configuration C:
126 CK/052, which completes six races with Villeneuve and two with Pironi, now kept in the Ferrari Gallery in Modena, is the model with which Villeneuve wins two Grand Prix in Monaco and Spain;
126 CK/053, which completes three races with Pironi and one with Villeneuve;
126 CK/054, which completes only one race with Villeneuve, used as a reserve car, will be destroyed by Villeneuve in the Grand Prix practice of Italy 1981.
For 1981 Ferrari chose to confirm Gilles Villeneuve as the first driver, while to replace Jody Scheckter, who retired from racing after the disappointing 1980 season, he was hired by Ligier Didier Pironi. For the first time the Maranello single-seaters were associated with the numbering 27-28, destined to characterize them almost without interruption until 1995.
The season will be marked by the difficulties encountered by Ferrari in fine-tuning the turbocharged engine, which with its failures will cause several retirements. In addition, the frame, still of the tubular type and therefore not very rigid inherited from the previous T5, will nullify the greater power provided by the engine; this explains why the biggest hits will come mainly on slow circuits.
This lesson will be well metabolized by Ferrari, which the following year will hire British designer Harvey Postlethwaite to remedy the problem.
Halfway through the season Villeneuve manages to win two Grands Prix, the first in Monaco, after having beaten Alan Jones, and the second in Spain, in Jarama, in the latter case resisting for more than fifty laps the attacks of five fastest cars of him.
In Monte Carlo, unexpectedly in the last laps Alan Jones, who is suffering from fuel draft problems, wastes a lot of time, and on lap sixty-seventh he stopped in the pits for a refuelling. Four laps from the end Villeneuve, in a great comeback, overtakes him right on the finish line.
He thus wins the Canadian ahead of Jones, Jacques Laffite, Didier Pironi, Eddie Cheever and Marc Surer still in points with the Ensign. It was since the 1979 US-East Grand Prix that Ferrari had not won a Grand Prix.
But precisely due to the fact that he managed to defend himself from the attacks of more performing cars, it can be said that the victory in Spain was one of the most spectacular of Gilles Villeneuve's career.
The situation is extremely problematic for the Canadian from Ferrari, followed by four non-supercharged single-seaters and therefore overall faster than him in a tortuous circuit like that of Jarama. Villeneuve exploits the greater power of his vehicle by stretching on the straight to the finish line, and then resisting tenaciously in the mixed.
Behind Ferrari number 27, the train of pursuers becomes increasingly narrow, but Villeneuve does not make the slightest mistake and wins the sixth, and last, race valid for the Formula 1 world championship of his career. The Canadian precedes Laffite by 211 thousandths, then Watson (on the podium after two seasons) while De Angelis, fifth, is one second and 231 thousandths apart.
The finish is reminiscent of the sprint of the 1971 Italian Grand Prix, with Peter Gethin ahead of four other cars within six tenths of a second. Thanks to Villeneuve's victories, Ferrari managed to collect more points in two races than it had obtained in the previous 19 (21 to 13).
The Canadian then performs another great feat at his home Grand Prix in Canada, finishing third despite damage to the front wing which, having remained bent after contact with another car, obstructs the driver's view for a long time. not optimal due to bad weather, for several laps, also putting their safety at risk.
The season will prove to be much more difficult for team mate Didier Pironi, particularly uneasy in adapting to the characteristics of the vehicle: he only takes a few points and sees the victory in Belgium fade due to mechanical problems.
The Ferrari 126 CK ended the 1981 season with two wins and a third place as outstanding results, all obtained by Gilles Villeneuve, for a total of 34 world championship points and fifth place in the constructors' championship.