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The Maserati MC12, A Dominant Force In The FIA GT Championship

In the words of Andrea Bertolini and Sven Schnabl

You can’t do GT1 week without writing about the Maserati MC12, one of the most dominant cars in GT racing history. You can debate the question of the car’s legality against the regulations at the time, but that’s a discussion for another time. While we will touch on it, this piece is mainly a reflection of its development process, achievements and the people behind it.

The fact is, it raced and it dominated. Despite multiple attempts by rule-makers to peg it back, it continued to thrive. It won races around the world, and titles aplenty. Up against the other standout cars from its era, the Ferrari 550, Aston Martin DBR9 and Corvette C6.R, it’s easy to make the case that it was significantly better than all three. The only place it didn’t shine against GT1 competitions was in ACO racing and the Le Mans 24 Hours because it wasn’t allowed to race there…

Before we get into Andrea Bertolini and Sven Schnabl’s memories of the car, let’s put its dominance into perspective.

The car made its race debut back in 2004 in the FIA GT race at Imola towards the end of the season, it finished second and third amid a debate about its homologation.

Then from 2005 onwards, it would go on to win the FIA GT Championship (and the FIA GT1 World Championship) every year until 2011, when no MC12s were entered. During that time it won the Spa 24 Hours three times too. Against a slew of other GT1 cars fielded by world-class teams featuring factory drivers, it consistently came out on top.

It was a car that was way ahead of its time, featured a raft of Formula One tech from Ferrari, and was developed by a highly-skilled team behind the scenes. It wasn’t the easiest car to extract maximum performance from, but those who unlocked its true pace were rewarded with victories aplenty. It was reliable too, after early kinks were ironed out.

The MC12 had to be heavily restricted to allow the other cars of the era to remain competitive in what Bertolini recalls as “the early days of BoP.”

The testing and developmental phase of the car was fascinating.

Bertolini, Ferrari F1’s test driver at the time, was called up to help develop the MC12, starting with a Ferrari Enzo being used as a mule. From there the car was constructed and put through its paces in an extensive testing programme which Bertolini remembers well. Beyond the first shakedown at Fiorano, it was clear that this car was going to be a world-beater.

“We were a really strong team, with a strong team of people,” Bertolini told DSC. “When we were working in 2004, around 100 people were in the racing factory and every guy was the best at their job.

“We had started in 2003, the Mule was the Enzo with the splitter, rear wing, and a few other parts just so we could test the tyres for Pirelli for the MC12. We did a lot of tyre tests. We have a connection with the experimental department in Maserati, where our technical group worked together to make the best street car and race car.

“We wanted to make it perfect. I spent a lot of time working on the cockpit to make everything predictable and use in the races. I learned a lot because at the same year and the year before I was a Formula One test driver and was close with Michael (Schumacher) and I learned a lot about cockpits. This helped a lot.

“I remember the first time I drove it, the first shakedown at Fiorano. Everyone was there. Jean Todt, Luca di Montezemolo, Giorgio Ascanelli, our CEO, Everyone from Ferrari and Maserati.

“I did an out-in, and at the hairpin I had a problem with the driveshaft on the first lap. But I was able with the speed I carried to get back to the garage. Nobody knew we had the issue. I told the radio guys we had to stop and we spent three hours in the box.

“Jean (Todt) came over to me and he said: ‘you broke the car already?’ I said: ‘yes boss I broke the car…’ But we could laugh about it. After the problem was solved we were able to immediately do a 480km run.

Every 15 days we would do four or five days of testing.

“Then we embarked on an impressive programme, every 15 days we would do four or five days of testing. We started at Fiorano, then went to Paul Ricard, then Monza, then Vallelunga. Mileage was king. It was the best training, many times I’d do 700-800km a day for four straight days all the time, doing tyre tests, aero tests, it was maximum attack.

“Back then it was nice, I was leading the development of the F1 car from Ferrari and Maserati GT1 at the same time. I was always in a car, I would be in Paul Ricard for the MC12 four days, go back Friday night, then Monday morning go to Fiorano for the Formula One tests.

“After all the testing I told the guys my feedback, I said “guys, we are now four or five years in front of everyone in terms of the car. And it was true.”

Sven Schnabl, who ran the Maserati MC12 for multiple years as part of the Vitaphone Racing operation came onto the scene later.

He too felt that the car was worlds apart from the other GT1 cars at the time, but remembers it as a car which was extremely complex, and required a significant amount of assistance from the factory to prepare and run.

“It was a brilliant car, a good project to work with. It was a downgraded Formula One car,” Schnabl told DSC.

“It was far ahead of the Lambo, the Aston. There wasn’t a single strength, the whole package was brilliant. If we ran without restrictors we’d have been miles ahead of the others.

“In 2005, 2006, 2007 as a team we couldn’t start the car on our own. You needed computers, you needed people. To fire up the car before an event, you had to have an Italian come to help.

To fire up the car before an event, you had to have an Italian come to help

“If you didn’t have the Maserati backup, it was not possible to start it up. The service and maintenance was done in house aside from things like gearbox and engine rebuilds but at the race track we had an engine mechanic, an engine engineer, a gearbox mechanic, a data engineer and a general mechanic. There were always five to six people per car from Maserati.

“They had to be there, and it was the same story with JMB when they ran the car.”

Once the results came through, the car flourished. Its performances at Spa some of the most memorable since the 24 Hours became a GT race in the early 2000s. Schnabel remembers being surprised at just how reliable the car was during its first Spa 24 Hours back in 05.

“Coming into Spa in 2005, we’d had small issues here and there leading up to the race,” Schnabl continued. “And we weren’t fully sure whether or not it would go the distance. But we ran both without trouble, it was perfect. For me, it was a big surprise.”

Bertolini on the other hand, says he was sure from the early days that it would be a weapon over 24 hours. Did it have its niggles? Yes. But they weren’t ‘flaws’. After the heartbreak of losing the FIA GT Driver’s Championship back in 2005 at the final round (Vitaphone still won the Team’s title and Maserati won the Manufacturer’s title – Gabriele Gardel took the Driver’s crown with huge support from an on-form Pedro Lamy in the Larbre Ferrari 550) at Bahrain, he didn’t doubt the car’s ability.

“We never did a 24-hour simulation but we did two or three 36-hour dyno simulations with the engine and every single car had done more than 40 hours of testing without needing changing,” explained Bertolini.

“The only point, especially in the beginning, was the gearbox, we had to take care. In 2005 I lost the title in Bahrain, I was leading the race and a part of the gearbox broke.

“It was the only part of the gearbox that didn’t go through quality control, and we didn’t know why. Then in 2006, I won the title the gearbox guy came to my office at Maserati and gave me the piece of the gearbox that I broke in 2005. After that I never broke anything, never had reliability issues with the car.

What’s remarkable is how much the car changed over its life span. Like the Audi R8 in prototype racing, in an effort to stop the MC12 dominating the FIA GT (and the ALMS where it wasn’t eligible for points when Risi ran it in in 2005 (below)) the car had to undergo some fundamental redesigns.

Even after it was dumbed down it was still forbidden by the ACO to compete in the Le Mans Series and the Le Mans 24 Hours.

Stephane Ratel reflected on this in a recent interview with DSC. He feels that the decision by the FIA to allow the car to be balanced and compete despite protests and a lack of faith from the other teams was “maybe the most important moment in the history of modern GT racing.” It paved the way to the GT racing we have today that’s governed by Balance of Performance.

“In the first full season for the MC12 we received the new rules from the FIA and ACO,” Bertolini remembers. “We had to change the car, we had to cut the nose to make it shorter, reduce the downforce dramatically by putting a smaller wing on the rear and change the rear diffuser. The car was hammered. I remember being in Vallelunga and Mika (Salo) was with me. Turn 1 there is a fast one, and when everything is ok you can take it flat. With the first version of the MC12 you could do it easily flat.

The BoP was so against Maserati, because we kept winning

“So we took the modified version, Mika took the car out, tried to take Turn 1 flat and went straight on, thankfully he avoided crashing. That was the reality of the aero we had for 2005.  ‘It is so difficult to drive now,’ he (Salo) complained, ‘it is impossible!’

“And we kept receiving new BoP. They also changed the race distance. So we worked on Traction Control (which came from F1) to make sure the car was as consistent as possible in races. The BoP was so against Maserati, because we kept winning.”

Yet it carried on winning, despite it being a blunted weapon by the time the FIA GT1 World Championship replaced the FIA GT back in 2010.

“In 2010 the car was really difficult to drive because they introduced a new skid plank under the car, we had to run the car high and lost a lot of downforce. We also had to run with really low power, low low power. But we won again because we were consistent, and we were quick in the pits.

“We were always able to understand how to work around it.”

For Bertolini, this is a car which stands out to him in his career, which is mightily impressive considering the staggering number of GT machinery he’s driven, and of course, the F1 cars. Lest we forget the only driver on the planet to have tested every single Ferrari F1 car…

There are so many tales to tell about the MC12, which is why DSC will feature more MC12 goodness in the coming weeks. Bertolini’s tales from his 2006 and 2008 Spa 24 Hours victories, in particular, are ones to be savoured.

They are too detailed to feature in all their glory within this overview so we’ll be giving them the space they deserve very soon…

Image credits: Andrea Bertolini, DSC, Maserati, DPPi