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DSC Retro: Ferrari 333SP Retrospective

Ferrari's sonorous WSC

Michael Cotton wrote this article back in 2002 as the Ferrari 333SP left the international racing stage – we present it here as part of our DSC Retro series:

So, farewell to the Ferrari 333 SP, the most evocative sports car in regular service during the 1990s. It has been a consistent winner in America, notably at Daytona, Sebring and in the Petit Le Mans, and won four back-to-back championships in Europe in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001.

The Ferrari did not win at Le Mans – aside from a class win in 1998, though only 8th overall, where fuel efficient German engines have reigned supreme for the past eight years, but it has made a major contribution to the popularity of sports car racing on both sides of the Atlantic.

This year’s Rolex 24 at Daytona was almost certainly its last competitive appearance, where Giuseppe Risi’s entry was crippled by two gearbox pinion shaft failures (caused by incorrect heat treatment), and finally scuppered by David Brabham’s unfortunate accident on cold tyres.

Never again will we hear the soprano sound of the Ferrari 4-litre V12 howling round the Daytona banking, performing a symphony with the bass Ford 6-litre V8s, the rap-rapping Porsche flat-sixes and the piercing Mazda rotaries. Make no mistake, the Ferrari was a lead performer in this concert, and we shall miss it terribly.

The Ferrari 333 SP would not have been conceived without the sheer persistence of Gianpiero Moretti, whose belief in the project was finally rewarded by his personal victory at Daytona in 1998, followed by another at Sebring. More in hope than expectation, Moretti entered his Momo Ferrari for the 24-Hours of Le Mans, but the ‘triple crown’ was beyond him.

Moretti, the founder of the Momo wheels company (the name is a combination of Moretti and Monza, his home circuit near Milan), was clearly impressed by the World Sports Car regulations which came into effect in 1994. It would cost Ferrari little, he insisted to his good friend Piero Lardi Ferrari. Dallara would design and build the car, Ferrari would make available a supply of obsolete Formula 1 engines which could be enlarged to 4-litre capacity and most importantly, Ferrari would sanction the use of its name and Prancing Horse badge on these cars, albeit built down the road at Varano Melegari, near Parma.

Somehow, Piero Lardi had to overcome the objections of Luca di Montezemolo, and he received a somewhat grudging go-ahead in 1993. Gian Paolo Dallara, whose portfolio included the Lamborghini Miura, the Group C Lancias of the early eighties and some Formula 1 designs, produced a honeycomb aluminium chassis reinforced by carbon panels, clothed in carbon bodywork which was, of course, painted scarlet.

The 60-valve engine revved easily to 11,000 rpm and produced 600 horsepower, sounding like nothing else on the American circuits. Drive went through a five-speed sequential, transverse gearbox, another piece of very high-tech equipment in a package which made everything else look obsolete!

The 333 SP missed its scheduled debut at Sebring due to concerns about its endurance, but four appeared on the grid at Road Atlanta for the third round of the IMSA World Sports Car Championship, the first sports cars to wear the proud badge after an absence of 21 years.

The Ferraris fairly dominated the 2-hour, 234-mile race at Road Atlanta. Mauro Baldi claimed pole position in the Euromotorsports entry (owned by Antonio ‘no relation’ Ferrari) and led for the first 21 laps, but was troubled later by a rear brake calliper problem which caused his retirement.

Jay Cochran won that debut race for Ferrari in another Euromotorsports entry, with a solo drive, followed in second place by Moretti and Eliseo Salazar. Third, on that April day in 1994, was Andy Wallace in a Chevrolet powered Spice, who knew exactly why the Ferraris were superior: “We were even in the corners, then we’d get to the back straight and they would just pull away into the distance,” said the Englishman. The Ferrari’s sheer power, excellent fuel economy and superior aerodynamics made the crucial difference, he believed.

There was a lot of grumbling about the Ferraris, but IMSA officials clearly sided with the Italian make which brought so much prestige to the fledgling championship. The engines were supposed to be from production cars, according to the regulations. Well, the V12 had already been installed in the new F130 road car. And there was supposed to be a $650,000 price cap; the Ferraris were delivered at $950,000, but this included two spare engines, factory supervised engine maintenance and a large inventory of spares including a spare body, steering rack, dashboard with instruments, black box and computer.

Then again, the Ferraris were clearly too fast for the competition. If necessary, said IMSA’s technical director Amos Johnson, the V12 engines could be restricted to 10,500 rpm, but he did not want to take action straight away.

Moretti, then aged 54, earned his first win in 14 years when he and Salazar triumphed at Lime Rock, going on together to win at Watkins Glen and at the Indianapolis road course. The programme was already justified, but this was just the start.

Moretti expanded his team in 1995, running two Ferraris under the Momo / Danka / Konica banner. Wayne Taylor, the 1994 champion in a Jim Downing Mazda Kudzu, joined the team to drive with Moretti, the second car shared by Salazar and Didier Theys. The team was managed, for the second year, by Kevin Doran, whose earlier career had helped the late Al Holbert’s team to 20 outright IMSA victories.

They had fierce competition, though, from Andy Evans’ Scandia Ferrari team in which the owner was backed by Baldi, Fermin Velez and Eric van de Poele. The Ferraris failed to go the distance at Daytona, where the rather unlikely winner was Erwin Kremer’s K8 Porsche, but quickly notched up their first major success when the Scandia Ferrari won at Sebring crewed by Evans, Velez and van de Poele.

The rugged simplicity of the Riley & Scott Mk3, a space-frame design from Indianapolis powered by 6-litre Fords, proved more than a match for the nimble Ferraris on the bumpy road circuits. James Weaver won no fewer than five of the 11 rounds in Rob Dyson’s Rain-X Riley & Scott (three were solo drives, but he was joined on the podium by Butch Leitzinger at Watkins Glen and by Andy Wallace at Mosport).

Fermin Velez, the diminutive Catalan from Barcelona, won at Halifax and Phoenix to seize the IMSA championship by just two points, from Weaver, with Baldi and Taylor close up in third and fourth positions. Ferrari, though, easily won the Manufacturers’ championship, 41 points clear of Ford. Wayne Taylor drove his third make in as many years when he formed his own Doyle Racing Danka team in 1996, installing a GM backed Oldsmobile Aurora V8 engine into a Riley & Scott Mk3, and this proved to be a very shrewd move indeed. He won the Rolex 24 on the team’s debut outing, backed by Scott Sharp and Jim Pace, and this big success laid the foundation for Taylor’s IMSA championship title.

’Mad Max’ Papis made his debut with the Momo team that year, and immediately established an immense reputation with a catch-up chase in the dying stages of the Rolex 24, even setting a new lap record despite the loss of second gear. Papis gained a lap in the last two hours and was just half a lap behind Taylor’s Riley & Scott at the flag.

Papis was on the podium with Momo team owner Moretti and Didier Theys, and later on, they shared victories at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen, plus second positions at Watkins Glen and Mosport.

Scandia Racing, with Eliseo Salazar as its principal driver, had a much less successful season, team owner Andy Evans heavily preoccupied after taking control of the IMSA organisation…and renaming it the Professional Sports Car Racing organisation, to the dismay of all the old die-hards!

At the season’s end, Papis was the vice-champion (as the Germans like to describe such positions!) with 245 points, 15 behind Taylor, with Oldsmobile and Ferrari, locked on 227 points apiece in the Manufacturers’ Championship. The title went to Oldsmobile, with a greater number of race victories. Max Papis, though, was clearly the fastest man on the track all season with four pole positions and four fastest laps.

Responsibility for building and maintaining the Ferrari 333 SPs was transferred, by Ferrari, from Dallara to Michelotto at the end of 1996, a decision which did not go well with all the customer teams. Responsibility for developing and maintaining the 4-litre V12 engines was given to Mauro Forghieri’s Oral Engineering concern.

One of Michelotto’s first moves was to develop a six-speed version of the transverse gearbox, but it was notoriously weak and Doran quickly reverted to the original five-speed transmission. Rob Dyson’s team started the 1997 season well with a rather lucky win at Daytona, the Riley & Scott’s Ford V8 engine smoking heavily for the last hour but hanging on to beat Andy Evans’ Scandia Ferrari, crewed by Evans, Velez and father and son Charles and Rob Morgan. It could have been a win for Scandia, had Charles not got into a schemozzle with a pair of Porsches and broken a rear upright on Saturday night.

It could have been a win for Moretti, for that matter, but an oil leak onto the exhaust system set light to the wiring and put the Momo Ferrari behind the wall for 83 minutes. Moretti, sharing with Theys, Derek Bell and Antonio Herrmann, finished seventh.

Victory at Daytona launched Dyson Racing’s successful bid for the Exxon World Sports Car Championship in 1997, Butch Leitzinger winning the 24-hour race and four more. Velez and Stefan Johansson joined Evans and Yannick Dalmas in the Scandia Ferrari at Sebring, beating the Dyson Riley & Scott by a scant 47 seconds at the end of the 12-hour event.

Andrea Montermini joined Moretti’s team at Sebring, for the remainder of the season, establishing himself as a worthy successor to Papis with no fewer than five pole positions. He and Herrmann raced to victories at Lime Rock, Pike’s Peak and Sebring (a late season re-visit).

Rob Morgan was the first Ferrari driver in the championship, though, fourth behind Leitzinger, Elliott Forbes-Robinson and Weaver, having won at Mosport with Ron Fellows. Ferrari was narrowly beaten by Ford in the Manufacturer’s Championship, just six points adrift after 11 races.

The 1998 season was the last for Ferrari in the big league in the States, but it was also the most successful. The competition was increasing all the time, from Panoz with the GTR and from Porsche, whose Champion Racing team was campaigning the GT1 model, while Dyson’s Riley & Scott team always remained the one to beat.

Andy Evans had disbanded his Scandia team but was replaced by Wayne Taylor’s Doyle-Risi-Danka team, in which the South African was joined by Theys and Velez.

Moretti was finally rewarded by his dream victory at Daytona, success shared by Baldi, Theys and Arie Luyendyk. Just for once they had a trouble-free run to beat four Porsches, two GT1s and two GT2s. Allan McNish was Momo’s greatest threat in the Rohr Motorsport Porsche GT1, but the scarlet Ferrari had eight laps to spare at the end.

“I love Daytona, but she doesn’t like me” said the emotional Moretti at the end. “So I say OK. I say it’s like a woman. I try again and again, and this time I succeed!” Now 57 years of age, Moretti renewed his effort at Sebring and again, the woman succumbed to his advances. He proclaimed victory in the “36 hours of Florida” by winning the 12-Hours with Baldi and Theys, a single lap ahead of Brabham and Wallace in the Visteon Panoz GTR and Boutsen, Wollek and Pilgrim in the Champion Racing Porsche GT1. Some race!

Moretti called it a day after Le Mans, Theys joining the Swiss Fredy Leinhard in a Lista backed Ferrari still run by Kevin Doran. Wayne Taylor’s Doyle-Risi Ferrari won a new event at Las Vegas, but saved the best until last by winning the inaugural Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta, in October.

McNish and Dalmas had looked the likely winners in their Porsche GT1, two laps clear of the field until the Frenchman performed a spectacular back-flip over the infamous ‘hump’ on the return stretch. Although outpaced, Taylor had driven a measured race in the Ferrari, ably backed by Eric van de Poele and Emmanuel Collard.

Butch Leitzinger was again the American sports car champion while Ferrari again claimed the Manufacturer’s Championship, for the last time.

Daytona had now established its own “Can-Am” championship (how these names change!) while the Professional Sports Car organisation organised the rival American Le Mans Series, Don Panoz rapidly shifting gears from team owner to series promoter to circuit owner.

The Ferraris were as good as obsolete in the new ALMS but always looked good enough for one more victory at Daytona.

Alas, it didn’t happen. Rob Dyson’s team again won the Rolex 24 in 1999, chased by no fewer than three Ferrari 333 SPs. Wayne Taylor’s Doyle-Risi entry was second, shared by McNish, Didier de Radigues and Max Angelelli, Jim Matthews’ Ferrari was third (Matthews joined by Johansson, Papis and Jimmy Vasser), and Lilian Bryner was fourth in the Auto Sports Ferrari with her partner, Enzo Calderari, Angelo Zadra and Carl Rosenblad.

The Ferrari 333 SPs enjoyed a more benign existence in Europe from the 1998 season onwards, the Paris based team of Jean-Michel Bouresche winning the main awards in the International Sports Racing Series / Sports Racing World Cup series in three successive years.

Emmanuel Collard and Vincenzo Sospiri dominated the ‘98 season, winning six ISRS races in their JB Giesse Ferrari, which was managed by former Grand Prix driver Jean-Pierre Jabouille. They ran into some heavy opposition in ‘99 when Jean-Paul Driot’s DAMS team entered the black, Motorola backed Lola B98 / 10 and demonstrated that the Judd GV4 V10 engine was superior to Ferrari’s ageing V12.

Getting into its stride mid-season, at Donington, the DAMS Lola Judd scored the first of four successive victories, each one handled by Jean-Marc Gounon and Eric Bernard. Collard and Sospiri retained their titles, just three points clear of BMS Scuderia Italia Ferrari driver Christian Pescatori.

M. Bouresche went for the hat-trick, and duly notched up his third successive Teams Championship in 2000. He had split with Jabouille, but the JMB Giesse Ferrari team worked better than ever with Benjamin Durand managing a single entry in the re-named Sports Racing World Cup.

Pescatori and David Terrien won no fewer than five of the eight events, plus second place to Scuderia Italia’s Ferrari at Monza and third at Spa, to dominate the season. Driot’s DAMS team made their task a little easier by switching to the Cadillac marque, an inauspicious move!

Bouresche withdrew at the end of the 2000 season, Durand explaining that with his Lola (the previous year) Driot had shown how vulnerable the Ferrari had become. BMS Scuderia Italia became the standard bearer in 2001 and made Marco Zadra the champion, ahead of John Nielsen and Hiroki Katoh in their Dome Judd.

Scuderia Italia claimed two victories in the FIA Sportscar Championship — its third new title! — at Barcelona and Spa, plus runner-up positions at Brno, Magny-Cours, Donington and Mondello Park, while Giovanni Lavaggi and Christian Vann scored a popular win at Monza in the GLV Brums Ferrari Judd.

This week Scuderia Italia announces that it has withdrawn from the FIA Sportscar Championship, believing that the Ferrari 333 SP is finally uncompetitive. Ferrari would not approve the installation of the Judd V10, explains BMS director Augusto Mensi, failing to add that the cost of the conversion is unacceptable to team owner Beppe Luccini.

We may have seen the last of the Ferrari V12 powered 333 SP, so this is an epitaph. It’s the end of an era!

Michael Cotton

The Editor cheekily adds one more paragraph to the 333 ‘tail’. Le Mans 1996. Eric van de Poele was fastest in Pre-Qualifying, six 333s started the race, none of them finished – but van de Poele set a magical series of lap records just after dawn (and a gearbox replacement, shades of Daytona 2002). In a nine lap spell, the Belgian, in the Racing for Belgium entry, broke Hans Stuck’s just-set lap record, then broke his own lap record four more times. You can’t imagine the other four laps, or the rest of a double stint, being anything other than blindingly quick, but the other laps were logically interfered with by traffic. This could have been one of the great Le Mans catch up stories, but Eric Bachelart soon stuffed it on cold tyres. That wasn’t the end of the 333 Le Mans story, but it was the 333 at its competitive best.

PS. The Ferrari Judd made two appearances in 2003, at Lausitzring and Monza, but that appearance at the home of Italian motorsport really was the final chapter in the international racing career of the Ferrari 333SP.