PB & J

Professional Ferrari racer Johannes van Overbeek tests one of Maranello’s all-time greats: the 312 PB.

Photo: PB & J 1
March 2, 2012

When I reach for the ignition key, I notice that it is drilled for lightness. The 3.0-liter flat-12 turns over a few times then comes to life; the beautiful black and white analog gauges instantly snap to attention. I can feel the engine’s mechanical harmony and balance during the warm-up cycle, as each blip of the throttle sends a beautiful shriek from the four exhaust pipes.

As I wait for the temperatures to come up, I stare at the “olio” and “acqua” gauge to the right of the tachometer. At first glance, it looks as though there’s one needle for both temperatures, but I soon discover that there are actually two needles inside the gauge—a white one for water and a florescent orange one for oil. It’s a simple, clever and very cool way to conserve space and eliminate clutter.

Minutes later, the bark of the fully warmed engine is sharp and crisp. Listening to the flat-12’s song reminds me of watching the movie “Grand Prix” as a kid; this sound has been lost in today’s overly refined and muffled world. The Ferrari’s tinny howl at low revs transforms into a full war cry at the top of the range, one capable of sending chills down the spine of any lover of internal combustion.

Photo: PB & J 2

I’ve been racing professionally for nearly 15 years, and currently drive an Extreme Speed Motorsports’ Ferrari 458 GT in the American Le Mans Series. Yet I can’t help but think of all the legendary pilots that once sat in this beautifully upholstered seat—Ronnie Peterson, Tim Schenken, Nino Vaccarella, Brian Redman, Arturo Merzario, Carlos Reutemann and José Carlos Pace—and what it must have been like for them to muscle this very car around the world’s great racetracks, cheating death at every corner. Now it’s my turn.

I pull the polished wood shift lever over and back to engage first gear. I release the clutch, and lumber down the long pit lane at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California, feeling like a kid at Christmas. In just a few seconds, I’ll be on the track in this 312 PB (s/n 0892), a very rare, storied and insanely expensive piece of Ferrari’s past.

IN 1970, THE COMMISSION SPORTIVE INTERNATIONALE (CSI), angered by Porsche and Ferrari flaunting the spirit of its 5.0-liter production-car rules by creating the 917 and 512 sports racers, set a 3.0-liter engine cap for the 1972 World Manufacturers Championship. Enzo Ferrari, unhappy at his cars’ defeat by the German automaker, was determined to succeed under the new formula. This time, he had a secret weapon: the 312 B, Ferrari’s 3.0-liter Formula 1 car.

Photo: PB & J 3

Under the direction of chief engineer Mauro Forghieri, the 312 B’s engine, five-speed gearbox, brakes and wheels were transplanted into an all-new steel spaceframe that featured riveted aluminum and bonded fiberglass stiffening panels, all covered by a beautiful fiberglass body designed by engineer Giacomo Caliri. Suspension was independent, with double wishbones at all four corners. Ferrari called the resulting car the 312 P, but it has always been popularly known as the PB to distinguish it from a 1969 model of the same name.

Whatever the moniker, the PB’s specification was impressive. The flat-12 engine produced 440 horsepower, down 40 from the F1 car due to a lower 10,800-rpm redline. The car weighed 1,290 pounds (this would be raised in ’72 to 1,433 lbs. due to a rule change), just 110 more than the Grand Prix machine. Its top speed was 199 mph.

With the 5-liter sports racers still eligible in 1971, Ferrari used the season to test the 312 PB for ’72. The year was a trial by fire—literally. At the first race in Buenos Aires, Ignazio Giunti hit a Matra that was being pushed down the track; the fiery collision ended his life. The PBs showed their potential at various races, but didn’t win until the nine-hour, non-championship race at Kyalami, South Africa, in November.

Photo: PB & J 4

In 1972, however, the 312 PBs were utterly dominant. Directed by team manager Peter Schetty, the Ferraris won 10 of 11 championship races (the team skipped the 11th, the 24 Hours of Le Mans) against Alfa 33s, Porsche 908s, Mirages and Lolas, then added non-championship wins at Imola and Kyalami. Enzo Ferrari later described the season as “one of the most satisfying we have ever accomplished.”

This particular PB played a supporting role in Ferrari’s success that year, with a second-place finish at Daytona, driven by Peterson and Schenken, and a strong run at Watkins Glen with Redman and Merzario before engine failure sidelined it in the sixth hour. In 1973, Pace and Merzario drove s/n 0892 to fourth at Vallelunga, while Ickx and Redman finished second in the car at Dijon-Prenois; the PB DNF’d at Le Mans and in the Targa Florio. Its last entry for the factory came in 1973 at Watkins Glen, where a failed distributor drive knocked Reutemann and Schenken out of the race.

Since that time, s/n 0892 has had five owners, the most famous of which was the first: Clay Regazzoni. The factory driver was given the car by Ferrari, and held onto it for six years before selling it to collector Albert Obrist. Obrist owned the car for 18 years, then sold it to Cornelius Tamboer in 1998. In November 2004, the PB was sold to Frenchman Jean Guikas, who, less than a year later, sold s/n 0892 to its current owner, Steven Read of Berkeley, California. Last summer, Read invited me to drive it—and I jumped at the chance.

Photo: PB & J 5

DRIVING A CAR LIKE THE 312 PB isn’t as simple as arriving at the track and hopping inside. Instead, two days prior to my drive, I met Pete Racely at Competition Touring Cars in Sonoma to get fitted to—or, rather, to see if I fit inside—the 312. Racely manages Read’s collection, and it is his job to make sure everything comes together when it’s supposed to.

Sitting in the work shop on stands without its bodywork, s/n 0892 looks surprisingly delicate and vulnerable. The gearshift lever, steering wheel, gauges and switches all look quite dainty, although the personal pizza-size fuel-filler cap to the right of the driver appears suitably robust. The aluminum panels shine, with rivets forming interesting patterns across their shapes. The PB is also very small; it’s more than three feet shorter than a 458 Italia (although only a couple of inches narrower).

Moving around to the front of the car reveals two big radiators, one on either side of the driver, that stick out like sore thumbs. With the bodywork in place, however, the radiators fade away into the fluid shape. Between the radiators sits a very small roll bar—I’ve seen bigger ones on Miatas—that ties into the frame and (hopefully) protects the driver’s head in case of the unthinkable.

Photo: PB & J 6

While I’m confident in my abilities to drive the car safely, I’m leery of something breaking on this high-strung, now-40-year-old machine; it doesn’t matter how good a driver you are if the suspension fails! But crew chief Florent “Flo” Boisseau, who has been involved with high-level professional racing for years, allays my fears by telling me that they regularly crack-check every major component in the PB. With some newly established confidence, it’s time to climb inside.

The 312 is a snug fit but, surprisingly, my 36-inch legs fit under the dash without protest. Articulating the pedals is easy, the seat feels great and the gear lever is well placed for quick, uninterrupted shifts. Boisseau runs through the cockpit’s few switches, and points out that the PB has both low- and high-pressure fuel pumps; the flat-12 starves for fuel and stumbles below 5,000 rpm or so, but then stabilizes when higher revs are reached and the high-pressure pump takes over. We inspect the large 120-liter fuel tank (a 100-liter main and a 20-liter reserve) and the tiniest of passenger seats (fitted per the period rules). It’s all simple and straightforward.

What’s clear, from the first glance to the last, is that s/n 0892 has been very well cared for. The car is an active vintage racer, but looks more like a museum piece. For example, everything under the bodywork, from fasteners to headers, shines. In a pinch, you could eat off this car…which makes me all the more eager to drive it.

Photo: PB & J 7

I TAKE THE FIRST COUPLE OF LAPS at Infineon easy, in order to get acquainted with the PB’s gearbox, brakes, power and grip. Everything feels great; in fact, it seems like the 312 is bored with my cautious approach. So when I exit Turn 11 onto the front straight, I plant my right foot to the aluminum floorboard and shift from second to third when the tach quickly hits 10,000 rpm (my self-imposed redline for the day).

I’m immediately impressed with two things. First, the flat-12 runs flawlessly; there’s nary a flat spot nor hiccup. Second, the shifting is magical—positive and light, and all done with a flick of the wrist.

Heading up through Turn 1 into Turn 2 in fourth gear, I suddenly realize just how quickly I’m going. The 3.0-liter engine’s power delivery is pretty linear but lacks torque, so it’s easy to think that you’re not going very fast. Don’t be fooled: With 440 horses on tap propelling 1,400 pounds, the PB is seriously quick.

Photo: PB & J 8

With my hands at 9 and 3 on the small-diameter steering wheel, my wrists are only a couple of inches apart. Luckily, I don’t have to take my hands off the wheel to negotiate any of Infineon’s corners. The 312’s steering ratio is very direct and beautifully weighted.

Like the rest of the car, the Ferrari’s brakes are very well sorted, with no surprises and just the right amount of pedal effort and feedback to let me know how hard I can push before locking the wheels. I trail brake into Turn 4, a 90-degree right-hander, at a good clip. The 312 understeers slightly, then takes a set and launches off the apex once I feed in the power.

At the crest of the Turn 6 hill—the Carousel—I lightly touch the brakes and turn into the fast, left-hand, 180-degree sweeper. The Ferrari is now coming into its element. As I dive downhill through the corner, all that is required are a few small corrections; the 312 screams through the fast, fourth-gear turns with confidence and ease.

Photo: PB & J 9

But it is in Infineon’s esses, Turns 7-11, where the 312 truly shines. What makes this sequence interesting is that the five turns (Turn 8 is made up of two parts) get increasingly faster, quickly revealing a car’s grace and nimbleness—or lack thereof.

Exiting Turn 7 in second gear, I get on the power and shift into third. After a left-right jog at full throttle, I brush the brake for the left-hand Turn 8. As the 312 loads up, I roll off the brake and onto the power, giving the flat-12 full rein for a second between Turns 8 and 8a. I lift slightly for 8a and immediately get back on the power down the hill in fourth gear through the flat-out bend known as Turn 9. And then it’s time for Turn 10.

Turn 10 is a very quick right-hander with a narrow, concrete wall-lined exit that puts the fear into most people—and now me, in this fragile and expensive racing car. I brake very lightly on approach, and the 312 changes direction faster than I am expecting. But it’s ready to commit, so I roll off the brake to balance the chassis and then apply full power as I pass the apex. The 312 zings through without any hesitation, sweeping my concerns away like the breeze whistling around my helmet.

Photo: PB & J 10

In Infineon’s esses, the 312 PB feels more like a formula car than any sports racer I’ve driven. After the fact, I even feel like re-counting the corners because I could swear I missed a couple. The Ferrari’s combination of light weight, balance and grip makes for an effortless trip down this normally challenging section of track.

JUST BEFORE I LEFT THE PITS, Boisseau had asked me how many laps I planned to do. My smart-alec response was, “It depends on how much fun the car is!” By this point, I’m having some serious fun. After easing my way towards the 312’s limits, it becomes clear that, despite its age, this is a very user-friendly car that is very, very easy to drive flat-out.

As the laps climb, I push the Ferrari harder and harder—and, impressively, the increasing speed delivers even more driving satisfaction. The car makes me feel like a hero; it’s so predictable that my perception of its limits keeps expanding, like filling a water ballon in a faucet. Abruptly, however, I realize that I’m in danger of losing touch with how much is too much. It feels way too easy to keep pushing the PB further and further, so I decide to pit. Read was kind enough to let me drive his mobile sculpture, and I’m determined to return it in the same condition—minus a few gallons of gas.

Back on pit lane, I kill the engine and climb out of the 312 PB. Looking down at s/n 0892, it occurs to me that this car is the product of an era where lots of things came together at just the right time and in just the right way. The rule changes, the Ferrari personnel and the “donor” F1 car all blended together to produce a truly brilliant racing machine, one that is just as magnificent today as it was back in 1972.

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