The sound came and went, like ocean waves, but instead of regular intervals there were different gaps between the crescendos. It was Le Mans, in 2004, my first time there, the last day of practice and qualifying. I, along with thousands of other spectators, stood on the mound at the exit of Indianapolis and watched the drivers attempting to extract the most out of their machines.
The cars and sounds continued to come and go, and one sound stood out above all the rest. In the distance, a red speck was quickly approaching. As it became larger, I saw its silhouette—red paint, large rear wing, low stance—was distinct yet familiar, as was the unmistakable growl of a normally aspirated V12 engine. It was a Ferrari 550 GTS.
The trio of 550 GTSs lapping the circuit featured everything that was great about the Prancing Horse. They made the right noises, they had sex appeal, and, having already won their class at the world’s most famous endurance race two years earlier, they were successful. I dreamed of driving one some day.
Here’s the funny thing: These Ferraris weren’t built by Ferrari. The last time anyone in Maranello touched a 550 GTS was when the donor road car, or chassis, rolled out of the factory gates. Instead, a total of ten of these astonishing race cars were built and engineered by British motorsport company Prodrive to the order of one Frédéric Dor.
DOR, A FRENCHMAN LIVING IN SWITZERLAND, had a dream: to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a Ferrari. He’s not alone in that dream, but unlike most dreamers, Dor had both the resources and determination to pursue it.
“It was a dream [I had] when I was a young boy, to do Le Mans in a Ferrari,” recalls the charming Dor, now in his late 60s. “Then [in the late 1990s] I say before I get too old I must find a Ferrari and do Le Mans. And there was no Ferrari; the only GT cars running at the time were the Lister and the Viper.”
Dor asked friend and motorsport promoter Stefan Ratel to ask the FIA about running a car that wasn’t currently homologated. Ratel then visited several automakers, including Jaguar, Porsche, Mercedes, and Ferrari, and found that Maranello, which at the time wasn’t involved in GT racing, was interested.
Three 550 Maranellos were commissioned. Ratel tasked an Italian firm with building the cars, but it soon became painfully obvious these Ferraris weren’t going to be Le Mans contenders.
“Unfortunately the car was not on budget and the power for the car was not sufficient and the work was not so good,” explains Dor. “We would never have been able to race, the car was breaking down in testing.”
After more work and more money, the problems persisted. It’s hard enough to win Le Mans with the perfect car, let alone one that can’t run for even an hour.
That’s when a frustrated Dor decided to approach Prodrive. Based in Banbury, England, Prodrive is best known for winning three World Rally Championships with Subaru, although many _FORZA_ readers will remember it and chairman Dave Richards’ efforts with Formula 1 team British American Racing in the early 2000s. Dor himself had raced for six years in the WRC with Prodrive.
“We were very disappointed [with the Ferraris], and I say, okay, I am working with Prodrive and they are quite clever and they want to do GT. Maybe we show them the car and ask if they are able to fix this car or do a new one. They were seeking to go into [the] Porsche Cup [series], and I say, ‘That’s not so prestigious, you are just one of the Porsche teams.’ I managed to interest them in [my project], there is an opportunity for them to go GT racing. I ask them to build me two cars and that’s how it started.”
With Prodrive on board and Dor willing to fund the development of the 550 GTS through his company, Care Racing Development, the project began anew. Period rules allowed extensive modifications to the pair of donor 550s. All-new suspension and Peter Stevens-designed carbon-fiber bodywork widened the cars roughly 2.6 inches to the maximum allowable 2 meters. A new front splitter and rear wing were proven in the wind tunnel. The stock Ferrari block and cylinder heads were retained, but the rest of the engine was modified extensively, including an increase in displacement from 5.5 liters to 6. Despite series-mandated air restrictors, the V12 developed 600 or more horsepower. An Xtrac sequential gearbox was fitted, as, later, were carbon-carbon brakes. Weight was pared by more than 1,000 pounds to the class minimum of 2,425 lbs.
The table was thus set to win Le Mans with a Ferrari. The first two cars were built in 2000 and 2001, and scored a pair of wins in the ’01 FIA GT championship.
“We start to race, we win the first race, I think,” says Dor. “It was quite successful. After one year, we have a lot of inquiries from teams running the [Ferrari 360] Modena, saying they would like to run a V12 car. These teams ask us if we want to sell the car and we say, ‘No, but we will build more cars.’ They ask if we will sell those cars, and we say, ‘No, but we will bring them and run the cars for you.’”
In 2002, a 550 GTS was leading its class at Le Mans when, around the 12-hour mark, an oil line let go. There were no such issues the following year, when Peter Kox, Tomás Enge, and Jamie Davies drove their Prodrive Ferrari to the GTS-class victory. Not only did they win, they beat the second-place car by an amazing 10 laps. Another way to think about the victory is that, after 24 hours, the 550 GTS was 85 miles ahead of the second and third-place Corvettes.
More wins and championships would come over the eight-year racing career of these amazing cars. “We produced two cars every year, and we created a system where we provided the car, the engineers, the building of the engine, and, like Scuderia Italia BMS, several teams that provide support. We race ourselves with Care Racing for three seasons, then it was the end of the GT1 class, because it became too expensive.”
Our featured car (s/n 108612) competed in an astonishing 69 professional races in four different series between 2003 and 2008. During its long career it scored three pole positions, seven race wins, and one championship: the 2004 Le Mans Endurance Series.
FAST FORWARD TO LATE 2016. Today, s/n 108612 is owned by a San Francisco-area enthusiast who recently added it as the newest member of his vast collection of historically significant competition Ferraris. It’s the only 550 GTS not still owned by Dor, as well as the only one in the United States. And now it’s my chance to drive the car I saw so many years ago at Le Mans.
When I arrive at Sonoma Raceway, the Ferrari’s new crew, Competition Touring Cars, is being brought up to speed by its old crew, Swiss race team Solution F. In addition to a handful of engineers, Solution F brought driver Steve Zacchia, who won that Le Mans Endurance championship in the car; his name still resides on the doors. Zacchia and Solution F spend the morning testing, tweaking (among other changes, they’re reprogramming the fuel mapping to work with this track’s higher-octane fuel), and setting up the Ferrari to make it pleasant for its new owner, who’s not a top-level professional racer, to drive.
During the lunch hour, I sit in the car for a briefing on how everything works. By today’s standards, it’s all pretty straightforward. For example, unlike today’s multi-color dashboard displays that serve up far more information than the driver can possibly absorb in the heat of battle, the Prodrive car offers only shift lights and a simple gear indicator in red.
Also straightforward is the six-speed Xtrac gearbox (coincidentally the same unit found in the back of the 1999 Le Mans-winning BMW V12 LMR prototype). It’s a sequential unit, like a motorcycle, that doesn’t require lifting off the throttle or using the clutch pedal on upshifts. You just keep your right foot flat on the floor.
Downshifting requires a bit more effort, as you have to heel and toe. A perfect downshift means braking, working the clutch, blipping the throttle, and pushing the gear lever forward, all in the same millisecond. Luckily, I’ve done thousands of racing miles in various Porsche 911s with the same arrangement.
When we check the placement of the seat relative to the pedals and steering wheel, it turns out my long legs get in the way; not an unusual turn of events. In order to get properly situated, I need the seat to go back or the steering wheel to go up. Since the seat is bolted to the floor, the path of least resistance is to raise the steering wheel by about 20mm, around three-quarters of an inch.
Soon, it’s go-time. It’s always a little unsettling to drive someone else’s very expensive, historically significant, 600-hp race car for the first time, but I’m not really nervous about it. The reason is, based on these cars’ competition success, I know they must be fairly driver friendly, and I’m excited to have that notion validated.
Three steps are needed to fire the big V12. First, flip the Master electrical switch to On. Second, flip the Ignition switch. Third, push the green starter button. The engine lights with a loud, glorious growl. A couple of seconds later, it settles into an insistent but smooth idle, just like a road car.
As instructed during my lunchtime briefing, I engage first gear and gently let out the carbon-fiber clutch without using any throttle. The Ferrari immediately pulls forward out of the pit box.
Idling down pit lane, I check rearward visibility. There’s no mirror on the windshield and the wing mirrors are opaque from years of sun exposure, so I can see objects but not clearly. It won’t be a concern once I get up to speed—who’s going to catch me?—but I’m mindful of leaving pit lane mostly blind in an unfamiliar car with cold tires, 600 hp, and no traction control. At least it’s not raining!
It’s a quiet day at Sonoma and I’m on my own entering the track. Exiting Turn 1, I make sure the car is pointed straight and then lean hard on the power. The rear tires spin, which is what I want to generate some heat in them. Coming into Turn 3, I aggressively apply the brakes. The objective is the same as spinning the rear tires—warming up the front tires and the brakes.
Driving a racing car on cold tires with cold brakes isn’t easy. Everything the car tells you feels wrong. On my out lap, the Ferrari is quick to lose traction and it doesn’t stop. That’s a terrible combination, especially in a powerful car, but as a driver you must have faith that the harder you push the car the better it will become, as the tires and brakes come up to operating temperature.
So push I do, trying to be as aggressive as possible without being stupid. And as the car warms up, I can feel the limits of the tires increase and the braking distances decrease.
With everything up to temperature, the first thing that becomes clear is that the 6.0-liter engine is a torquey beast. From the moment I leave the pits, sans throttle, to shifting at redline into 4th gear, the big V12 just keeps pulling.
The torque curve feels pretty flat, although the engine definitely gets angrier as the revs climb. As a result of all the torque, I find I don’t pay a big penalty, in terms of lap times, by running a gear higher than what is ideal; the car pulls nearly as hard in a taller gear. As with all modern EFI engines, the power delivery is buttery smooth without any hesitation or hiccups.
I do have to be very judicious in the application of that power, however. The more steering-wheel angle I have the less power I can feed in, and I never feel comfortable at full power with as little as 10° of lock applied. But I never grow tired of the straight-line thrust and the glorious sounds the V12 makes going through the gears.
Speaking of gears, this Xtrac ’box is by far the best sequential unit I’ve operated. It’s smooth, the shift cuts seem perfectly timed, and it upshifts as fast as I can pull the lever. Each change requires a firm and decisive motion, but once I get used to that the shifts are magical.
The steel brakes, on the other hand, feel good and confidence-inspiring but not super-powerful. I’m not sure if I’m more accustomed to carbon brakes, which these cars ran in period when allowed, or this car simply demands more braking than it has.
Whatever the case, from a maintenance and cost perspective, steel brakes are a much better way to go. A set of carbon brakes can cost upwards of $50,000 and they require the driver to carefully manage their temperature. If run too hot, carbon brakes can wear out faster than you can imagine.
Prodrive moved the V12 back 7 centimeters (2.7 inches), the maximum allowed under the rules. Those 7cm weren’t easy to get; the company had to cut a corner off of the cylinder head to clear the firewall! As a result, the bulk of the engine sits behind the shock towers, thereby making the 550 GTS a mid-engine car. A mid-engine car is quicker to change direction than a front-engine one, and is also superbly balanced in both slow and quick corners.
At Sonoma, the 550 GTS exhibits all of these characteristics—although it does have more power than grip, which means it can be a bit tail-happy under power. At the bottom of the downhill Carousel, as the track bottoms out, I go from 50 to 55-percent throttle. The compression, combined with the added throttle, causes the Ferrari to began a very controllable power slide. No drama and lots of fun, but certainly not the fastest way out of the corner. It’s probably why the late Colin McRae, who won the 1995 World Rally Championship with Prodrive, loved piloting these cars so much.
Although my allotted laps rush by much too quickly, I’m very comfortable in this storied racer, just as I had hoped. If you ask, the car will deliver. That’s not to say you can be reckless or careless, but if you operate the 550 GTS with respect and assertiveness it will put a smile on your face that lasts much longer than the drive itself. This is a serious testament to the Prodrive Ferrari’s roots, design, and engineering.
The 550 GTS reminds me of another very special red car I’ve driven: the F50 GT1. Obviously, the GT1 is more prototype than GT, but its torque, that glorious V12 song, and its handling balance are all shockingly similar to the Prodrive car’s. Another Ferrari that’s similar, in terms of chassis dynamics, is the F430 GT I raced in 2009. Like the 550, the F430 was balanced and eager to be challenged. However, its V8 engine can’t hold a candle to the torque and power of the GTS’s 6-liter V12.
My hot laps and subsequent debrief done, I walk back to my car, thinking about what I had just experienced. Then I heard that familiar sound from long ago. It came and went, like ocean waves, but instead of regular intervals there were different gaps between the crescendos. Somebody else was driving the 550 GTS. The difference today, versus 12 years ago, is that I know what it’s like to be behind the wheel. It was worth the wait.