Scuderia Ferrari was flying high in 1979. Drivers Jody Scheckter and Gilles Villeneuve each won three races, with the former and the team claiming their respective World Championships. With the 312 T4 clearly the cream of the F1 crop, the updated 312 T5 was surely the horse to bet on for the 1980 season.
Maybe so, but odds makers and the tifosi alike were in for a bitter surprise. Quicker than the T4 but not as fast as the competition, the T5 struggled all season with ingrained breakage and grappled for grip on its fast-wearing Michelins. The ’79 champions finished tenth in the title chase—perhaps the farthest fall from grace F1 has ever seen—and, mid-year, Scheckter privately warned Ferrari of his retirement.
This 312 T5 (s/n 046) was Scheckter’s mount during that dismal year, but it’s enjoyed an astonishing prolific post-factory life. S/n 046 is the most raced vintage Ferrari F1 car in the world, with longtime owner Bud Moeller of Melbourne, Florida having competed with it for two full decades.
I first met Moeller in 2012, when he brought his other Ferrari F1 car, an F2003-GA, to Northern California’s Sonoma Raceway for an F1 Clienti event. Today we’re both back at Sonoma, but this time I’m watching the 61-year-old management consultant turned non-profit volunteer behind the wheel of the ex-Scheckter T5. The car has just been revived from its winter nap for the 2016 vintage F1 racing season—first, to Elkhart Lake in July, then to the Monterey Motorsports Reunion in August.
S/n 046, which has been geared to run over 180 mph for more leggy tracks, mesmerizingly blitzes the front straight and ascends the hill, articulating pure Italian aria in perfect pitch. But Moeller detects a stutter, and pits.
“It’s got a little electrical problem in the motor,” he tells me as the T5’s caretakers dive hands-first into the ignition tray of the Mauro Forghieri-designed, Lucas fuel-injected 2,991-cc flat-12. “We have this engine redlined at 11,200 rpm [1,100 fewer revs than in period] for more motor longevity, but it’s really struggling to get there. Normally it’s pretty crisp.”
“The horsepower these engines make is limited by their ignition systems,” explains British-born Phil Denney, owner of PRD Engineering, who’s kept the T5 ticking for the past 21 years. “Every time a new system came on the scene, everybody scrambled to get it—because ignition controls compression, and compression controls the amount of power the thing has.”