The True Story Of How The First Successful
Their Story Told By Your Man On The Scene, Christian Rochet
ORIGIN OF THE PROJECT: A RACING VERSION OF THE F50…
At the beginning of the FIA-GT Championship in 1997, Stephane Ratel, the originator, organizer, and manager of this Championship, began exploring ideas to increase the audience for this GT series. To expand the interest of the racing public, one initiative was to endeavor to convince Ferrari to create a racing version of the then current Ferrari F50.
At the end of 1998 in Modena, Stephane Ratel met with Jean Todt, the Manager of the Ferrari Formula One team, and head of all Ferrari racing activity (the Challenges), and his then current assistant, Claudio Berro. After lengthy discussion, they gave him their qualified agreement to begin such a project. Unfortunately, this exciting development never took shape, principally for two reasons. First was the fact that, four years after Jean Todt had accepted the head management position of the race team, Ferrari still had not won either of the two Formula One World Championships, for pilots and manufacturers. The pressure from the Italian press, and from certain members of the management at Fiat and Ferrari, was tremendous on Jean Todt, as well as on Michael Schumacher. Second, news of the proposed return of Ferrari to GT racing had leaked out, and the influential Italian magazine, AutoSprint, had run a front page article on the matter. This had not been officially decided, and the publicity was not to the liking of President Luca di Montezemolo. At this level, information leaks are hardly appreciated and the project was shelved. [A third reason given was that the F50 GT, of which Ferrari had made three examples to explore the possibility of a return to GT racing, was not up to the task. Ferrari’s test drivers reported the car to be too flexible to be a serious contender, with much work needed to make it a real threat.]
WHICH CAME TO NAUGHT, BUT ALL WAS NOT LOST…
At the same time, however, this stillborn program to bring the manufacturers, and especially Ferrari, back to GT racing, had the effect of arousing great interest on the part of established private teams, and also private but prosperous clients. One private racing team was that of First Racing (Jean-Daniel Deletraz of Geneva), and one private client was a certain Frederic Dor. The latter had, after fifteen years of rallying, ended up with the title of French Champion, at the wheel of a Subaru. (This winning car, incidentally, had been set up by a well known English company by the name of Prodrive, who were also beginning to have a new interest in track racing. They were going to play a key role in Ferrari GT racing as of December of 2000, as we shall see).
Without Ferrari support for the F50 GT in GT racing, however, Stephane Ratel unfortunately canceled this great project, but he was not to give up. He went back to Ferrari and proposed to the team of Todt-Berro that a competition program be instigated that would be based on the 550 Maranello.
A NEW PROGRAM, WITH A TWIST…
Ratel’s innovative objective was to ensure that the GT category, of which he dreamed, would have the same impact on the public as the GT category did in the 1960s and 1970s, these eras having become famous mainly due to the Ferrari 250 GTs and GTOs in the 1960s, and later the Comp. Daytonas in Group IV in the 1970s.
Therefore, three major ingredients had to be united:
Ratel’s previous experience in competition since the famous BPR days, his fruitful and long lasting relations with the FIA, and his exceptional temperament as an patient and effective salesman, soon made possible the creation of this now famous “technical passport”, enabling a private team to homologate the competition version of a touring category car.
THE FOUR MARANELLOS FROM ITALTECNICA…
To actually launch this new FIA-GT Championship, based this time on extant touring category cars, Ratel created the English company GTRD Ltd. (Grand Tourism Racing Development, Ltd.), the original investors being friends of his, as passionate as he.
Their objective was to assign to the racing shop Italtecnica in Italy, the task of designing three racing cars, and to name this new model the Ferrari 550 GT Millenio, as it would emerge in 2000 with the new millennium.
As with the stillborn F50 competition program, the first three clients for these cars were again the Swiss Jean-Denis Deletraz, for his stable First Racing, the Frenchman Frederic Dor, and the Englishman Steven O’Rourke. Furthermore, the Japanese racing team “Go” had an option on an additional two cars.
The first car was launched at Monza in 1999, and at the following races at the beginning of the 2000 season. The car, however, never performed well, nor was it very reliable, with numerous motor and transmission problems. Ratel eventually withdrew the car and reimbursed Jean-Denis Deletraz.
The second car for Steve O’Rourke was raced with the German pilot Gunther Bleininger, without success in 2000, and then it was sold to the Rafanelli stable, who ran it in 2001 in the American championship created by Don Panoz, the American Le Mans Series (ALMS).
Frederic Dor was the owner of the third car, and disappointed by the recurring failures of the sister cars, had the idea of asking for help from his old English friends at Prodrive. This company, created in 1979 by David Richards, and experienced in the development of racing cars for BMW, Porsche and Subaru, had earned numerous national and world titles. The first thing that Prodrive did was recommend that Frederic Dor not complete the purchase of the car developed by Italtecnica. This third car was actually built some time later, and sold to the Italian Andrea Garbagnati, who ran it in 2001 with the Italian pilot Emmanuele Naspetti.
A fourth car was built, and run by the French racing team JMB, driven by the Austrian Philip Peter and the Italian Fabio Babini.
These four cars were developed by Italtecnica from street 550 Maranellos (wrecked ones too, we are told), and they were starting from scratch. The cars did not win any races, except for a race in the Italian GT Championship, with the Italian pilots Garbagnati and Naspetti, but they proved that a credible race car could be built out of the 550. The cars were fast, and they were very good at cornering for such a large and heavy car. Their initial downfall was the reliability of the engine and gearbox, but this was to be expected, since these were street components never meant to compete.
Ferrari was officially against the project, it should be said, since the front engined 550 was never meant to be a race car, and Ferrari was pinning its future GT racing hopes (if any) on the 360 series, which was smaller, lighter, and mid-engined, and which was already racing in the marque specific Challenge series.
A DIFFICULT BEGINNING…
After a tough start, and facing further difficulties as the teams tried to raise sponsors, the four cars experienced an uneven adolescence. The initial car which was purchased by Deletraz, and then taken back by Ratel, did not race in 2001, and was sold, early in 2002, to the ex-F1 pilot Philippe Alliot, originator of the team Force One with David Halliday. Despite some great promise in terms of performance, this car had so many problems with reliability that Alliot and Halliday decided to change their vehicle in mid-season for a Chrysler Viper, whose reliability did not need to be proven. Furthermore, this car encountered serious adherence problems when it was fitted, for means of sponsorship, with Pirelli tires. This car now sleeps in the collection of the Frenchman Gerard Autageon.
Steve O’Rourke’s car was sold to Gabriele Rafanelli, as mentioned, owner of the racing team of the same name, who raced it in 2001 and 2002, with numerous talented pilots such as Philippe Duez, Fabien Giroix, Franco Bielli, Memo Sciatarella and Emmanuele Naspetti. Rafanelli’s team spent much time developing the motor and chassis, and the car was much more of a performer, but encountered the same reliability problems. Indeed, Naspetti had the pole position at Zolder, and, at the 24 Heures de Spa, the car held first place for over six hours.
The car belonging to Andrea Garbagnati was driven by himself in 2001 and then, in 2002, raced with the Austrian team JAS (with Dieter Quester and Luca Ricitelli). In 2003, the car was sold by the Austrians to the French team JMB, owned by Jean-Marie Bouresche, who had the French pilots De Richebourg and Terrien race it, as well as the Italian Pescatori.
AND THE CAUSE?…
These four cars, passing from one owner to another, had progressed generally in terms of performance, but without attaining a sufficient reliability, except for the Rafanelli team. The problems were mainly caused by the length of the V-12 motor. It was meant to be a street engine, and while highly tuned to give exceptional performance for street use, and even great performance for club track use, it was not designed to withstand the stresses of serious competition. This was a pity, since otherwise it was a great racing engine – flexible, adaptable, easy to modify, etc. Due to this weakness, for example, the JMB team broke about fifteen motors.
SOME SERIOUS DEVELOPMENT…
Despite the known problems, and at the same time, thrilled by the materialization of this new GT Championship, Frederic Dor ordered from Prodrive a feasibility study relating to the performance and reliable of the 550 Maranello. This was something the Italians had not done – a basic engineering study for turning the street car into a competitive one, but Italtecnica cannot be faulted. They were ordered to explore new territory, and the results were promising enough to give hopes to others.
The FIA-GT regulations stipulate that the chassis, the motor block, and the body must remain “of origin.” This allows, however, for significant progress to be made on all other aspects of the car, and it is in this extra-territorial domain that Prodrive excels.
Care Racing Development, incorporated by Dor at the end of 2000, ordered two cars from Prodrive. One car was intended for the American ALMS series, and the other one for the FIA-GT Championship – they were ready for action and victorious from the first season.
BRINGS IMMEDIATE RESULTS…
In 2001, the Prodrive Maranello was immediately competitive, and won two races, in Austria on the A1 Ring and in Spain at Jarama, with professional pilots such as Alain Menu, Peter Kox, and Richard Rydell. Based on these promising results, Frederic Dor decided to start the production of four additional cars for the 2002 season.
In 2002, two cars were entered for the FIA-GT Championship, one car for the ALMS series, and still another one for the 12 Hours of Sebring in Florida and the 24 Heures du Mans. This season’s results were much better compared to 2001, with an ALMS victory at Laguna Seca, California, and four FIA-GT victories at Jarama, Anderstorp, Oschersleben and Estoril, with the same team of Piccini-Deletraz. At the 24 Heures du Mans, the Prodrive 550 GTS held the first place for over seventeen hours, before expiring due to an oil leakage. (The victory of this car at Le Mans would have been most surprising, as it had never attempted the preliminary tests for 24 hours, as required today.)
In addition, Frederic Dor began his own training on the track as a driver, and,
with the help of Jean-Denis Deletraz, won a race in the Spanish GT Championship
in Barcelona in September of 2002.
In 2003, with numerous detail adjustments from Prodrive, the cars dominated the FIA-GT Championship by winning seven races out of eight. They also had four ALMS victories in the USA, concluding the series with one point less than the Corvettes for the entire season.
But the ultimate was victory over the Corvettes at Le Mans, the Ferraris winning the GTS category there by defeating the actual factory-entered Corvettes. This Le Mans victory was the ultimate consecration because, after all, Care Racing Development and Prodrive are only private, but were facing the huge financial and logistics clout of General Motors, the number one car manufacturer in the world.
Why has the tandem of Care Racing Development and Prodrive succeeded where others have failed? Mainly because the necessary approach to car development was conducted by experienced professionals who were given the necessary budgets to fulfill such realizations. The Prodrive budget for this project was double the one presented earlier by the company created by Stephane Ratel, which was used initially to start the project with Italtecnica. In the end, it is better to spend double and win, rather than to lose from lack of funds.
The development of a racing car must reach the limits authorized by the regulations, and since the legislator often cannot detail everything in advance, one must be prepared to interpret the rules. In this, Prodrive succeeded perfectly. When all the motors prepared by Italtecnica, Rafanelli and the others broke at every race, Prodrive had the idea of reinforcing the motor bloc with extra bolting along its length. As the FIA regulations were not precise on this point, this modification was nearly rejected by the FIA technical commission, after a complete dismantling of the motor in the spring of 2003, almost two years after the car’s introduction in 2001. Finally, the FIA decided that the English prepared car was in conformity with the regulations in use.
Also, the association with Michelin, and the ensuing endurance tests of 28 hours at Jerez and Castellet, had rendered the car invincible, a requirement for winning, especially at Le Mans. As Enzo Ferrari once said: “To finish first, you must first finish.”
With the great Le Mans victory, and the first places in the FIA-GT World Championship, the 2003 season has been the culmination of a three year program, conducted without any help from the Ferrari Factory.
Interestingly, in the spring of 2002, Frederic Dor, with his English partners, proposed to Jean Todt, administrator and great guru of the Gestione Sportiva, that Ferrari take back the program he had started. A Prodrive prepared Maranello was even tested by Luca Badoer, Ferrari’s Formula One test pilot, on the Fiorano race track.
Finally, Luca di Montezemolo did not give his agreement, fearing at that time that the Maranello cars developed by a private company might be defeated by the General Motors’ Corvettes, particularly in the USA, a concern which did not materialize, as we have seen. Despite beating the Corvettes, and having several successful seasons, this was Frederic Dor’s main regret – that his dream of having his private program being turned into an official manufacturing program did not succeed.
In the meantime, we have seen that Ferrari has launched its own GT program with the 575 GTC, but all of us who love Ferrari GT racing are thankful for the foresight and courage of Frederic Dor, who really made it all happen.
Christian Rochet is an avid Ferrari enthusiast, and has written in the past for Cavallino, and other specialized magazines. With his background in world finance, he has been able to help many collectors, and race teams, realize their dreams.
Copyright © 2005 Cavallino Magazine.