Time Gentlemen Please

Maserati’s Ghibli Open Cup should appeal not only to the jet-setting gentleman racer, but also to the young hopeful eager to impress. Marcus Simmons drove the 1996 version at Magione

The gentleman racing drivers of Europe have never had it so good.

The really rich ones can contest the BPR Global GT Cup in a McLaren F1, Ferrari F40 or Porsche GT2. Those slightly further down the pecuniary scale can opt for the Grand Prix supporting Porsche Supercup.

For 1996 there are series for the Ferrari 355, the Light Car Company’s Rocket, and possibly even Lamborghini Diablos. Add to that the Maserati Ghibli Open Cup, which was only given the go-ahead in February 1995, but which enjoyed a maiden season encouraging enough for it to be installed as a near permanent feature of the International Touring Car supporting ‘package’.

Maserati’s Adolfo Orsi invited us to try the car at Magione in February. And, we can reveal, it is a series not only tailor-made for the enthusiastic amateur who wants to travel the circuits of Europe, but one in which a touring car wannabe, tired of banging his head against a brick wall in his bid to progress beyond one-make racing, can learn new circuits and impress some of continental motorsport’s most important decision makers.

Although only a small handful of Italians contested the entire 1995 series, several guest cars ensured that a World Rally champion, a Grand Prix winner, touring car stars and even an Indy 500 victor got to race the Ghibli. In the final round, at Magny-Cours. Formula Opel Euroseries champion Jason Watt’s performance was impressive enough for the Dane to be offered an Alfa Romeo ITC test drive. He is now an Alfa Romeo ITC racer…

Another Maserati man tested for Alfa too. Denny Zardo, the 19-year-old inaugural champion, remains in the series for 1996 in a bid to keep his name to the fore in the minds of the Class 1 bosses.

Given the championship’s late green light, it is hardly surprising that the Ghibli which was raced in 1995 was hardly to optimum specification. Therefore, veteran test driver Giorgio Francia and former Peugeot touring car engineer Marco Chiosso worked through the winter on an Evolution version, of which 30 examples will be available in ’96. Modified spoiler, revised gear ratios, improved Michelin racing tyres and an adjusted suspension emerged from the Turin workshops and, in the hands of Beppe Schenetti, the Ghibli lapped Misano only 0.2s slower than the Ferrari 355 lap record which is held by Schenetti!

The basic Maserati, as in 1995, utilises the near standard twin-turbo, four valves per cylinder, V6 engine. The 330 bhp is transmitted via a six-speed Getrag gearbox to the rear wheels. Front suspension consists of modified MacPherson struts with racing Bilstein shock absorbers and Eibach springs. At the rear it’s oblique arms with Bilstein shockers and Eibach springs.

When you reach Magione’s numerous tight corners, you stop this 1,270 kg racer with competition ventilated and drilled discs, featuring four pot aluminium Brembo calipers. ABS with servo assistance is also fitted.

There isn’t that much you can do to a Ghibli. In a bid to keep costs down, the engine, solenoid valve of the turbocharger system, gearbox and differential are all sealed before they leave the factory. Although initial purchase price is around £50,000, running expenses for the championship are relatively cheap.

Budgets to compete can be offset by the high rewards for those who are successful in the series. We worked out that, if you were to repeat Zardo’s exploits in 1996, you would take home around £27,000. That’s aided by the existence of separate prize money classifications for professional and gentleman drivers, under 25s, over 50s and ladies. But don’t be too successful, because every race win brings with it a 40 kg ballast penalty for the next round. Zardo played his cards right last year, taking the title without a single victory!

The champion was on hand at Magione, but only in an advisory capacity. The circuit, near Perugia, nestles on the western plain below the Apennines which, clearly visible in the distance, offer a spectacular snow-peaked contrast. Magione has been extended over the off-season and, from being one of Italy’s fiddliest short circuits, is now one of the country’s tightest medium-length tracks.

Every type of medium and slow corner is packed into its length, but fast turns are conspicuous by their absence. That’s just as well, for the Ghibli is somewhat vague on turn-in to the quicker third gear bends. The other problem I encountered was getting used to the Getrag gearbox – I had several nightmares going from third to second during my first stint, before realising that a good old stamp on the throttle while heeling and toeing was needed rather than my usual tentative blip.

The problem also lessened when I twigged that, thanks to the massive torque offered at 4,000 rpm, it was usually better to trundle into the slowest corners in a kerb-hopping third gear and then allow the subsequent surge to punch you down the straights on exit. This worked on the way up the ‘box too, for on the second to third change it seems to take ages to engage.

Only five gears are necessary at Magione, but even so 215 kph (around 133 mph) was clearly visible towards the end of the longest straight, and I’d only just got into fifth at that stage. Round one at Monza, due to take place on March 24, will probably have seen some pretty impressive speed-trap figures.

Much of the work completed by Maserati has been invested in improving its handling in tight complexes, something increasingly important on Europe’s chicane-ridden circuits. Magione illustrated the improvements well, as a four-corner sequence, with each of the first three turns tighter than its predecessor, was negotiated comfortably by the Ghibli. The last of the four corners opens up a little midway through the 4,000 rpm level is reached and the tail wags nicely as you power onto the start/finish straight.

But the handling of the car is really secondary to where you race and who it’s in front of. After all, Formula Vauxhalls and Ford Fiestas always attract full fields in Britain…

The Ghiblis? They will play to packed ITC houses at Estoril, Helsinki, Silverstone, Nurburgring, Magny-Cours and Mugello, as well as slightly more select BPR GT audiences at Monza and Jarama. Tens of thousands of Italian car-crazy Dutchmen will witness the Maserati antics at the Italia a Zandvoort meeting too.

And at the end of it all, you might even get Alfa Romeo to give you an ITC test drive.