The 1

In 1996, Ferrari built the F50 GT1 prototype. In 2011, we shake it down.

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October 21, 2011

After 15 tears in professional racing—I currently drive one of Extreme Speed Motorsport’s Ferrari 458 GTs in the American Le Mans Series—it’s easy to get jaded about fast cars. That’s not the case today, however, because the Ferrari F50 GT1 has completely blown me away.

When the grey Magneti Marelli digital dash, outdated by modern standards of color and clarity, reads 10,500 rpm, I tug the shift lever to select third gear. The dash readout quickly climbs back up to 10,500 as the car violently throws itself forward.

The same thing happens when I upshift to fourth, then fifth. I’m certain the result would be the same in sixth, but I’ve run out of straight to know for sure.

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At these serious triple-digit speeds, the corners of the bodywork, which I can barely see, begin to flutter in the hurricane-force breeze. I’ve never driven a car with so much power, so much venom. This Ferrari’s speed and sensations match everything I’ve ever heard about driving a Formula 1 car, especially the sound. The 4.7-liter 60-valve 65° V12 engine’s insane shriek is a wonderful combination of raspy, throaty and smooth wrapped into one glorious sound track. It sounds like a mechanical Janis Joplin, only better, and it makes me shiver every time I hear it.

I’ve driven the GT1 before, so it takes only a few laps to re-confirm what I had already believed: This is the coolest Ferrari sports-racer ever made.

IN 1995, FERRARI INTRODUCED THE F50 to celebrate the company’s 50th anniversary. As you’d expect, that road car was loaded with Formula 1-derived technology. The 520-hp V12 engine, composite tub and bodywork, titanium wheel hubs and push-rod suspension were all spun off from Ferrari’s early ’90s Grand Prix program.

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In 1996, in a neat return to the competition side of the equation, Ferrari built the F50 GT1 in order to contest the then-popular international GT1 sports-car class. The race car featured a 750-hp version of the road car’s 4.7-liter V12 (the original 3.5-liter Formula 1 engine developed 735 hp at 14,800 rpm), a carbon-fiber monocoque and bodywork, fabricated-steel A-arms, carbon disc brakes and period state-of-the-art aerodynamics.

Our feature car is chassis number 001, the only test mule for the racing program. Two other F50 GT1s exist—s/ns 002 and 003 were built from leftover spare parts—but s/n 001 was the only example assembled and used by Ferrari.

In 1997, Maranello scuttled the F50 GT1 effort. Some say management decided it was too much of a distraction from Formula 1. Others say they lost interest because of the cost and a host of other projects that took priority. Some believe that Ferrari realized that the GT1 was too similar to the road-going F50 to be competitive against more radical silhouette racers from other manufacturers. And still others point to the fact that the GT1 lapped Fiorano several seconds quicker than the very profitable 333 SP. No one outside the factory knows the reason(s) for sure, but there may be some truth in all of these explanations.

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While the demise of the F50 GT1 program was a loss for Ferrari fans dreaming of the first Prancing Horse victory at Le Mans since 1965, it was a win for Art Zafiropoulo, the first and only private owner of s/n 001. According to Zafiropoulo, co-owner of Ferrari of Silicon Valley, Ferrari called its best customers to see who wanted to buy the car—and when the Sultan of Brunei declined, he stepped in.

Zafiropoulo showed and drove s/n 001 for a few years, but the car has been in storage since the mid-2000s. He recently decided to bring it back out into the light, and when it came time for a shake-down test—the first time the car had turned a wheel in six years—Zafiropoulo called me. Which is why, on a postcard-perfect June day, I travelled to Thunderhill Raceway Park in Northern California.

WHEN I ARRIVE, THE SHINY, ALMOST WET-LOOKING F50 GT1 crouches in stark contrast to the plain-jane truck and trailer that hauled it here. Despite being a decade and a half old—as with dogs, race cars age very quickly—the Ferrari would look right at home on a modern-day grid.

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Where the targa-top F50 road car looks dated and has always seemed more Pontiac Trans-Am than Ferrari to me, the F50 GT1 is a study in gorgeous, timeless styling. The race car’s non-removable carbon roof, with its purposeful-looking air intake, helps blend the front and the rear of the GT1 together, while the low ride height and black Speedline wheels give it a menacing stance. Up front, the lower fascia was reworked compared to the street car, and a NACA duct was added between the gaping radiator outlets on the hood. The rear wing (tucked just under the roofline per period GT1-class rules), large diffuser and quad exhaust tips flesh out the back end nicely. The complete package is one of Ferrari’s finest—beautiful yet purposeful and aggressive.

Furthermore, the attention to detail is very impressive; every piece looks like it just left the loving hands of an Italian craftsman. Inside, the carbon tub appears much like the Enzo’s, with a little resin sheen on the weave of the high-end carbon fiber. This carbon is a far different animal than the stuff you see in many road-car interiors.

Looking around the cockpit, I’m struck by the DNA shared between the GT1 and “my” ESM/Patron 458 GT. The layout and type of switches, the lack of clutter and the roll bar all come from the same blueprint. However, I don’t fit as well in the GT1. For my liking, the seat is angled too far forward and it’s a bit close to the steering wheel; the effect is that my knees are uncomfortably close to the dash. Adjusting the seat angle and length would take more time than we have today, but fortunately, or unfortunately, I’m not competing at Le Mans so I’ll be able to manage the series of eight-lap runs we have planned.

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S/N 001’S SIX-SPEED HEWLAND SEQUENTIAL TRANSAXLE still has its Le Mans-specification gearing. This means that sixth is theoretically good for 235 mph, while first feels like it tops out around 75 mph. That’s important because the 4.7-liter engine has so much torque that just letting out the clutch pedal propels the featherweight GT1 forward. And once I fully engage the carbon-fiber clutch discs, I’m travelling much faster than seems prudent in pit lane: Think second-gear-flat-out-in-a-Miata fast—literally. Luckily, we’re all alone here today.

Once on track, I very carefully work the car in the corners to get heat into the relatively narrow Michelin tires. (The Pirellis shown in the photo on the previous page are only used for trailer transport.) With a claimed 750 horsepower and full race-spec carbon brakes on tap, it would be all too easy to flat-spot a set of cold slicks.

I soon start to push harder on the straights. While the F50 GT1 is pretty tranquil at part throttle, full throttle is an entirely different story. As a reference, I’ve driven a Porsche 935 with a dyno-sheet-documented 750 hp that weighed about the same as this Ferrari—and that Porsche felt slow by comparison! If I were to guess, I’d say the GT1 delivers something approaching 900 hp. That’s serious power; this Ferrari is faster than anything else I’ve driven.

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The scene from Star Wars where the Millenium Falcon jumps to light speed and the stars blur is a pretty fair description of what the accelerating GT1 feels like. Everything in my peripheral vision suddenly gets very blurry while the view directly ahead becomes intensely clear. The GT1 doesn’t feel big-block-Corvette fast; it feels jet-fighter-catapulted-off-an-aircraft-carrier fast.

This light-speed experience is repeated with every upshift. The sequential shifter mounted in the center console is mechanically very similar to the one in my 458 GT (another sequential Hewland unit, not the 458 road car’s dual-clutch gearbox). What’s different are the electronics. In the 458, I shift with my right foot plastered to the floor. In the GT1, I have to lift off the gas between each shift because the older electronics aren’t sophisticated enough to handle millisecond-long engine cuts. Both cars have straight-cut gears so you can downshift without using the clutch, but I still do. Old habits, I guess.

Due to the GT1’s monstrous speed, the normally long straights at Thunderhill seem to disappear. I don’t have any time to rest; I feel as though all I’m doing is turning. As my speed increases, the relatively long circuit begins to feel like an autocross course.

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Heading into Turn 2 at an incredible clip (the car’s data acquisition isn’t working, so I can’t say exactly how fast), I brake gently and turn into the corner in third gear. I’ve never driven through this turn so quickly yet the car feels as though it is truly on rails—which of course means I could have gone faster. At these speeds, the GT1’s aerodynamic efficiency and light weight make it feel go-kart-like. The steering is non-assisted but relatively light. And then there are those carbon brakes.

As I approach Turn 9, a quick uphill left-hander, I stand on the middle pedal and quickly grab two downshifts in succession. The angry growl with each blip of the throttle is followed by the V12 gargling as the car slows. The braking performance is literally breathtaking, but at the same instant I realize that I don’t have my racing harness cinched tight enough. Let’s just say I’m glad I already have kids!

I brake harder into other corners, but I’m not trying to reach the car’s ultimate limits. That’s by design: I’m here to get the GT1 working properly for its owner, who’s looking forward to driving it in the years to come. But I’ll freely admit it’s difficult to rein myself in—this Ferrari just begs to go faster.

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The morning sessions are spent making sure the freshly tuned-up car is working correctly. We then spend a few more runs sorting the suspension. The GT1 is neutral overall, but the rear can be upset, especially on the throttle, by Thunderhill’s bumps. (It would probably be perfect at a smooth track like Le Mans.) By softening the rear anti-roll bar and taking some compression out of the rear shocks, we make the back of the car more compliant. This both reduces the effect of the bumps and allows the GT1 to put down its copious power more smoothly, with less chance of oversteer.

In the middle of the afternoon, Zafiropoulo climbs in for a few laps. When he gets out, he’s beaming. “It’s good to be back behind the wheel of this car,” he says. “It’s unbelievable—the car has never driven better or looked better.”

TO FULLY APPRECIATE THE F50 GT1, you have to drive it. Unfortunately, that’s a real rarity. I’m extremely lucky to be on the very short list of people who have gotten behind the wheel, along with the likes of Derek Bell, Didier Theys and Andrea Bertolini. It’s thought that Michael Schumacher took s/n 001 out for a spin at Fiorano, and the seven-time World Champion’s signature on the dash lends credibility to that rumor.

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My Exteme Speed Motorsport 458 is the best GT race car I’ve ever driven, and in some ways the F50 GT1 feels very similar to it. Both cars have a special balance and poise, and both feel alive and eager in a way that makes me want to challenge the entry to every corner—how much speed can I carry? Both cars get to the apex without protest or struggle, which in turn allows me to get on the throttle early and aggressively out of the corner. Then, of course, the experience totally changes: I can only dream of the 458 GT having anything near the GT1’s power.

As the day winds to a close, I savor my final laps in the F50 GT1, as well as the last of those 10,500-rpm upshifts. The car is as impressive now as I remember it from ten years ago. Looking at the old but familiar dash and listening to the howl of the V12, I can’t help but think what could have been had Ferrari campaigned this car in earnest, or at all.

Pulling up to the truck, I switch off the ignition, unbuckle the racing harness and climb from the cockpit. Closing the door for the final time of the day, I’m already looking forward to hearing the V12 again—and, with luck, maybe then its Le Mans-spec mufflers won’t be in place. When that day comes, I can only hope that more people are around to hear it.

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Also from Issue 114

  • First look at the new 458 Spider
  • A fire-ravaged 250 GT PF Cab is reborn
  • We talk with Chris Amon, 1960s Ferrari racer
  • The 458 GT scores its maiden ALMS win
  • Ferrari's F1 season comes down to the wire
  • A convertible, twin-turbo 400? Why not?
  • Market Update: Modern 12-cylinders
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