The Experiment

New rules forced Ferrari to try a different approach to race-car design.

November 30, 2017
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Enzo Ferrari’s stated belief that “aerodynamics are for people who can’t build engines” served him very well through the 1950s, but in the winter of 1960-61 it was clearly time to reconsider. The issue was the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The FIA had just announced that, beginning in 1962, the Manufacturer’s World Championship would be contested in production Grand Touring cars rather than the sports-racing cars of previous years. As always, winning Le Mans was going to be essential. Les 24 Heures had always been the supreme test of racing cars, not only because of its grueling 24-hour duration, but also because the 3.7-mile-long Mulsanne Straight put a premium on absolute top speed. Almost half of each lap was spent with the car going as fast as it possibly could.

Ferrari had introduced the “Short Wheelbase” 250 GT Berlinetta for the 1960 season as the standard bearer for defending its GT-category championship. The SWB proved to be a formidable competitor, easily holding off the challenge from Aston Martin’s DB4 GT, but its blunt nose and corresponding higher drag were a liability at extremely fast venues like Le Mans. The clincher came in March 1961, when Jaguar unveiled its new E-Type, sending shock waves through the Maranello factory. Enzo himself reportedly said the Jag was the most beautiful car ever made. It was clearly an aerodynamic masterpiece: The stock E-Type was supposedly capable of 150 mph, while Ferrari’s fastest competition SWB had managed just over 155 mph on the Mulsanne.

It was unquestionably time to build a serious single-purpose racing car that met the GT rules; from that point forward, Ferrari officially decided there would be no more “dual purpose” factory racers. Production of the SWB would continue in both competition and street versions until it could be replaced with the road-oriented 250 GT Lusso, and a purpose-built, visually distinct GT racing car could be developed.

Ferrari quickly devised a two-pronged strategy to respond to the new challenge. The first, immediate approach was to take an SWB chassis, make mechanical changes to it as required for the mission at hand, then ship it off to Pininfarina to be bodied in a more aerodynamic manner. The idea was to create a sort of closed-body Testa Rossa, and it had to be ready to run at Le Mans in June.

The second, longer-term strategy was to have Ing. Giotto Bizzarrini and team manager Carlo Chiti assemble a small, secret team to design and build a GT racer that would incorporate everything they were learning from the first approach, and be ready for the 1962 season. That new model would be the 250 GTO.

SWB s/n 2643GT was selected as the basis for the immediate project and delivered to the competition department. There, its frame was strengthened, and its front shock towers lengthened and rear pickup points altered to allow a lower ride height. Next, the car received a 1961-spec Competizione gearbox and a dry-sump Type 168/61 Testa Rossa engine with six 38DCN Weber carburetors, rated at 300 hp.

The dry sump was an essential part of the equation, due to a very painful lesson Ferrari had learned at Le Mans in 1959. That year, it entered a trio of TR 59s with wet-sump engines (like all previous Testa Rossas), only to discover that, while the V12s were able to rev to 8,500 rpm down the Mulsanne, their lubrication systems weren’t up to the task. Ferrari’s team manager imposed a 7,500-rpm limit, but of course the drivers ignored it, and all three cars failed due to problems associated with the sustained high revs. This cost Ferrari both the race and the 1959 Marques Championship, and from then on all factory racers were equipped with dry sumps.

Though earlier dry-sump cars carried their oil tanks in the front fender, s/n 2643’s sat just forward of the rear axle on the right side, most likely in an attempt to better balance the car. This apparently worked well, as it became the tank location on the GTO.

When the competition department was done with it, the prepared chassis was sent to Pininfarina in early April. The completed car was returned to the factory in mid-May, a build time of just about five weeks. (Tell that to your restoration shop!)

Pininfarina had been developing what it considered to be aerodynamically slippery designs for a number of years, particularly with the big-engined Super America and later Superfast series of Ferraris. The design for s/n 2643, though entirely fresh and unique to this car, was an evolution and adaptation of the themes from those earlier cars.

At the time, the Italian approach to aerodynamics for automobiles was far more of an art than a science. In England, Jaguar had been using aerodynamic theory and wind-tunnel testing in designing its racers since at least the C-Type, but Italian designers were more inclined toward an intuitive, “beautiful and smooth is fast” approach. An airplane wing was the primary touchstone, so the Superfast designs tended toward a blunt, rounded front and a long tapering tail.

Though s/n 2643 kept the scoops, openings, vents, and details that characterized Italian coachbuilding at the time, as a bespoke racer it got none of the bumpers, sound deadening, or road equipment of the “ordinary” Superfasts, and was built of very thin aluminum sheet over a thin-wall chrome moly tubular substructure. The interior was simple and almost Spartan in keeping with the pure racer criteria. At 2,100 pounds, it weighed about 700 lbs. less than a street 400 Superfast, 300 lbs. more than a Testa Rossa.

The color specification was a light cobalt blue with a red stripe on the hood and along the sides, though the car emerged with a French tricolor red, white, and blue hood stripe. The speculation on why this happened centers around the fact that s/n 2643 was to be driven at Le Mans by Fernand Tavano, a Frenchman of Italian descent.

Why the car was painted blue rather than Corsa Red when it was destined to run for the factory team is another interesting question. S/n 2643 was a one-off experiment (hence its semi-official moniker “250 GT Sperimentale”) that was neither a contender against the Testa Rossas Ferrari hoped would win the race (which they did) nor a legal-production GT like the SWBs. Given that it really didn’t have a suitable class in which to compete, and was in any case entered to test new ideas, not win, the factory may have felt it was best the car not be red. At any rate, the Sperimentale remains one of very few Ferraris, and possibly the only one, to have competed as a factory team entry in a color other than red.

Also from Issue 163

  • 458 Speciale A
  • 166 F2
  • Ferrari sweeps IMSA GTD titles
  • Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion
  • F1: End of the Line
  • FORZA Tifosi Challenge: The End
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