11th May 1947. A team bound to become the most famous team in the world made their debut on the circuit of Piacenza: the Scuderia Ferrari. The single-seater on the track was a Ferrari 125 with a 12-cylinder engine; the driver was Franco Cortese. The car was manufactured at the Ferrari factory, a tradition which is still part of its trademark. On that first car, however, there were parts from a supplier which has been with the “Rosse di Maranello” since that very first day; after 70 years, it is still a technical partner and, as an Official Supplier, its logo is on Vettel’s and Raikkonen’s cars.
Today this technical partner is known as SKF, a multinational corporation from Sweden specialized in the manufacturing of ball bearings; but at the beginning of their partnership with Ferrari its name was RIV, one of the companies making up the Fiat Group which was finally sold to the Swedish corporation in 1988, after over twenty years of collaboration.
But let’s go back to the origins: from 1947 until the end of the ‘60s, Ferrari made their single-seaters taking lots of mechanical parts from the catalogues of external suppliers: among them there was RIV – later known as RIV SKF and, today, SKF -, which produces the ball and roller bearings used in many parts of the engine as well as the clutch and gearbox.
They are invisible but indispensable components: in plain English, they eliminate friction and they are an essential part of any mechanical device with rotating parts such as aircrafts, trains, bicycles, washing machines. Of course, the ones we find on F1 cars are extremely sophisticated and, through the years, they have developed enormously: from the small steel balls to the last generation of ceramic ones, which are even more resistant and “sliding”; parts which were ordered from a catalogue and then adapted to those which are now designed jointly by the Ferrari and SKF technical teams.
An incessant collaboration which aims, not only to create cutting-edge components, but also to verify possible issues together, as in the case of the ball bearings seizure in Jean Alesi’s right rear wheel during the Italian GP in Monza in 1995, when there were only 7 laps remaining and he was leading the race. At first they thought it was a flaw on one of the bearings and, only after several tests carried out by the two teams on the various components, it turned out that the seizure was caused by the titanium spacers mounted to preload the bearings. These spacers dilated less at high operating temperatures and overcharged the bearings, which literally “roasted”.
We shouldn’t forget, in fact, that an F1 single-seater is a highly sophisticated prototype, made of thousands of components specifically designed and assembled to work together at very high temperatures and in extreme conditions – just think about the start of a GP, or the impact on the high kerbs at over 200 Km, or the sudden deceleration when braking. Although on today’s car the block engine-gearbox is extremely compact, it still contains 150 balls and roller bearings and the technical challenge continues relentlessly.
This explains perfectly the need of a close collaboration between Ferrari and SKF but also with the suppliers of other components. The cooperation is not merely technical, but it also involves the planning to produce these components, given that nowadays research moves faster than production: tests and races never stop from February to December. A demanding challenge which takes place behind the scene of GPs, and SKF has been accustomed to it for over 70 years!