On January 31, 1970, the unmuffled roar of 550-horsepower, 5-liter racing engines shook the air and ground at the 24 Hours of Daytona. This was the first meeting of the Porsche 917 and the Ferrari 512, and the start of what looked to be the sports-car battle of the decade.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t there; I hadn’t yet been born. My first exposure to this Porsche-Ferrari war came in the mid-1980s, when my dad and I sat down in front of the VCR to watch the movie Le Mans, produced by and starring the legendary Steve McQueen. McQueen’s character, Michael Delaney, raced a 917; his nemesis, Erich Stahler, played by Seigfried Rauch, drove a 512. I was riveted by the sound of those 12-cylinder monsters hammering around the track in the French countryside.
Nearly three decades later, I’m sitting on the bare aluminum floor of Stephen Read’s Ferrari 512 M (s/n 1024) with my helmeted head jammed against the roof and my foot pressing accelerator to metal. It feels like a flashback as I’m hit by that same wall of noise, a full-race 5-liter Ferrari V12 erupting into its shrieking, high-rpm song. It’s the sound of Stahler going flat-out down the Mulsanne Straight.
What the movie didn’t inform me, however, is how unbelievably fast the 512 M is. Despite having been a professional racing driver for nearly 15 years, and currently racing a Ferrari 458 GT in the American Le Mans Series with Extreme Speed Motorsports, as the 512’s revs soar I have a fleeting thought that perhaps I shouldn’t explore the engine’s 8,500-rpm redline, because maybe I’m already going fast enough. This roughly 1,800-pound Ferrari belts out more than 600 horsepower, so it’s no surprise it is explosively quick, but words just can’t convey the sensation. The best I can do is to liken the 512 M’s acceleration to free falling on a roller coaster: It leaves you breathless the first time you experience it. Then once the initial shock has passed, just as with the roller coaster, you want more.
THE FERRARI 512 STORY STARTS in the late 1960s, when the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) began to juggle the rules that governed international sports-car racing in an effort to limit the success of the American interlopers, particularly Ford, in Europe. It didn’t work. Ford GT40s won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, ’67, ’68 and ’69, and Ford clinched the World Championship in ’68.
But the FIA’s 1968 rule that allowed manufacturers to enter the 5-liter “production car” class after building just 25 examples did eventually end the rein of the GT40. In 1969, Porsche unveiled the 917, a far more sophisticated prototype racer with the full might of Weissach behind it. And early the following year, Ferrari arrived at Daytona with five examples of another proper sports-racer, the 512 S.
A few days earlier, on January 20, those five Ferraris had been part of a group of 25 shown en masse to inspectors from the Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI), who confirmed that the required number had indeed been built and certified the 512 for competition. It was an impressive feat for Ferrari, which had designed and constructed the cars in just five months despite the simultaneous development of a new flat-12-engined Formula 1 car by the same team of talented engineers, led by Mauro Forghieri. The key to the short time frame was utilizing what Maranello had learned in creating the one-off 612 Can-Am two years earlier.
The 512’s 5-liter 60° DOHC V12 engine was derived from the Can-Am car’s 6.2-liter unit, with both bore and stroke reduced, although it featured revised castings and a different dry-sump oiling system. Designed for endurance racing and fitted with Lucas fuel injection, the all-aluminum 48-valve V12 produced 550 horsepower and 371 lb-ft of torque. Power was sent through a five-speed transaxle with a ZF limited-slip differential.
The 512’s chassis was a steel tube space frame reinforced with aluminum sheeting. The engine’s water radiators were tucked just behind the cockpit, one on either side, while a pair of engine oil coolers sat up front alongside the mandatory spare tire. The front and rear bodywork were made of fiberglass.
Suspension consisted of unequal-length A-arms with coil springs and Koni shock absorbers at all four corners. Wide 15-inch Campagnolo alloy wheels surrounded 11-inch cast-iron Girling disc brakes. Claimed dry weight was 1,852 pounds.
A few months later, after a 24 Hours of Le Mans that saw Porsche sweep the podium, aerodynamicist Giacomo Caliri was tasked with updating the 512 S. The result was the 512 M (for Modificata), which featured, among other revisions, a new body, revised front suspension, slightly wider rear wheels, a space-saver spare relocated to the rear, a single oil cooler vented through the hood and 55 fewer pounds. Steady engine development saw output climb to 616 horsepower.
STANDING IN INFINEON’S PIT LANE, waiting for my hot laps and staring down at Read’s less-than-waist-high Ferrari, I can barely believe that this 512 M is 41 years old. It looks brand-new. I’m blinded by the reflections coming off the paint, and later find out Read had the Ferrari extensively detailed after he purchased it. The car’s beauty is more than skin deep; to ensure safety and reliability, Read had the original, 40-year-old magnesium uprights replaced with new aluminum ones. The 5-liter 12-cylinder heart of the beast was rebuilt to original specifications, but some of its internals, including the bearings, pistons and connecting rods, were upgraded to modern equivalents for improved durability. It’s a smart course of action for a car that will be used in earnest on the track.
While I’m intimately familiar with the Ferrari from Le Mans, I’ve never had the opportunity to inspect one up close and in the metal. The 512 M is an imposing machine—long, low and wide—yet its lines are absolutely spectacular. The car has wonderful proportions and a beautiful blend of form and function; these are things Ferrari traditionally got right and others did not. The only aspect of the 512 that doesn’t quite work for me is the dead rear, where the taillights are forlornly attached to a cross member as if they were an afterthought.
I walk around to the right side of the Ferrari and open the door; the 512 M is a right-hand-drive car, and luckily features a right-hand shifter. Kneeling down, I peer into the simple, purposeful cockpit. The large analog tachometer sits front and center behind the three-spoke steering wheel, its location and prominence reflecting its importance. The car’s other gauges are less than half the tach’s size, and are scattered across the minimalist dash. A dainty wooden knob crowns the shift lever, which sprouts from a gate; the shift linkage itself is visible through an opening in the sill.
There are rearview mirrors mounted on each front fender, and a third one on the front edge of the roof. There’s a hole in the roof through which the driver can see this mirror; if the angle and lighting were just right, I can almost imagine being able to see a little bit of what’s happening behind the car. But I’m reminded of the movie The Gumball Rally, when Raul Julia’s character, Franco, rips the rearview mirror from the dash of his Daytona Spyder, tosses it out of the car and proclaims, “The first rule of Italian driving—what’s behind me is not important!”
Bob Earl, Read’s driving coach, has been warming up the 512 M as I’ve been walking around. To start it, he first turns over the engine to build up oil pressure, then crew chief Florent “Flo” Boisseau sets the fuel mixture to full rich. Once the V12 fires with a deep-chested roar, Earl repeatedly blips the throttle to get the oil circulating and raise the temperatures. As the temps climb, Boisseau slowly leans back the mixture; the car idles fast, with a deep, big-block burble. They soon shut it down, and I’m given a thumbs-up that the 512 is ready to go.
I change into my driving suit, pull on my helmet and sit on the wide sill in preparation for swinging my legs inside and dropping into the seat. But I don’t make it very far before I realize there’s no way I’m going to fit. I’m 6-foot-1, and this is the first time my height has ever been an issue with a race car.
After a quick discussion with Boisseau, we decide to remove the beautifully upholstered seat, exposing the gleaming floor. I slide back inside, and discover that my legs now fit. However, my head is stuffed against the roof, canted over at a 10° angle. This isn’t promising, and I briefly consider whether I should drive the car at all, for safety’s sake, but quickly decide this is not an opportunity to be missed. So I buckle the belts as best I can, the floor’s rivets digging into my back, and refire the engine.
THE 512 M ISN’T ABOUT FINESSE. The shift lever is heavy. The steering is even heavier. The brake pedal requires a lot of pressure. In other words, it’s a brute, one that requires you to handle it with authority and a firm hand. If a car could be likened to a football player, the 512 M would be a linebacker. But a very, very fast one.
The V12’s mighty power delivery is a bit peaky, but there’s plenty of torque on hand; in this regard, the car feels similar to the F50 GT1 [“The 1,” FORZA #114]. And while the 5-liter engine is wondrously powerful, it may be a little too powerful. After a few laps at speed, I’m left with the feeling that the chassis isn’t quite up to the challenge thrown down by the V12’s 600-plus horses.
That’s not to say the 512 M is ill-handling, however. Through Infineon’s slower corners, such as Turns 2-4, the Ferrari exhibits gentle understeer. This is perfect, because it allows me to test the car’s limits at corner entry and have confidence that the front will lose traction before the rear. The back end is very secure and remains planted despite the copious amount of power I put through the massive rear tires. That said, the track’s two very slow hairpins, Turns 7 and 11, require a very judicious application of throttle to prevent major power oversteer—which, of course, I sample a couple of times anyway while exploring the Ferrari’s limits.
Infineon’s esses are the perfect place to discover a car’s high-speed balance; Turns 7-11 get progressively faster as you make your way downhill towards the pit entrance. The 512 M remains unfazed here no matter how hard I push. As in the slower corners, the Ferrari understeers at the limit, which is comforting because I never have to worry about the rear making a sudden appearance—something I don’t want to happen while I’m perched on the floor sans seat!
In any case, going faster would require the crew to cut back on the understeer, which was likely dialled in to make the car more user-friendly. This can be done by stiffening the rear anti-roll bar, softening the front bar, putting more “rake” in the car (i.e., lowering the front relative to the rear) or some combination thereof. Only if none of these worked would I consider reducing the angle of the rear wing, which would help cure some of the understeer in the high-speed corners.
With more laps under my belt, I begin to get comfortable hustling the 512 M around the track. Turn 11 soon becomes my favorite. Exiting this hairpin in second gear, I put the perfectly tuned 12-cylinder engine to work, feeding in the power and grabbing third gear just as the tach hits redline and I slice between Turn 1’s concrete walls to line up for Turns 2 and 3.
As my speed climbs, the steering becomes a bit lighter and easier to manage. The gearbox gets smoother the more I drive, either because its oil is fully up to temperature or because I’ve learned the right way to articulate it through the polished gate.
As the big cast-iron brakes heat up, the brake pedal drops a bit closer to the floor, which makes heel-and-toe downshifts easier. The brakes themselves work beautifully, inspiring confidence in both low- and high-speed corners. It’s hard to say what role the modern pad materials and brake fluid contribute, but the brakes never feels out of sorts or nervous in terms of balance or outright performance.
Back in the day, the 512 M was never a proper rival for the 917. Porsche enjoyed a one-year advantage in development, and while its air-cooled flat-12 engine was never as powerful as Ferrari’s watercooled V12, the 917 was lighter and handled better. Plus, Ferrari’s racing resources were spread thin and most of the 512s were run by privateer teams, not the factory. In the end, the 512 never realized its full potential. Or so you’d think until you drove one.
From the driver’s seat, the 512 M is a truly thrilling car, one with a compelling mix of brute power and confident handling, with the former making a larger impression than the latter. Although I didn’t quite fit behind its steering wheel, the Ferrari more than fit my expectations, formed so long ago watching Erich Stahler’s 512 in Le Mans.