Unforgettable

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174

Ferrari’s P3/4 is simply astonishing, both to look at and to drive, Dickie Attwood relives his epic race at Spa, then hands over to Andrew Frankel

Take yourself back thirty years to Spa, May 1, 1967. It’s a little before 1.00pm and the 1000 kilometres of Francorchamps is about to be begin. Dickie Attwood, sitting on the third row of the grid in the Maranello Concessionaires Ferrari, is not happy.

His career is going nowhere. He’d quit Formula One at the end of 1965 after three colossal accidents from which he’d had little right to walk away. Two had been caused by suspension breakages but it was the third which really preyed on his mind. Unlike the others, it had been his fault. Driving a Lotus-BRM faster than it cared to go, the car had flown off the track at just a fraction less than its maximum speed and disintegrated around him. It was at one of the most dangerous points, the Masta kink, on one of the most dangerous circuits in the world, the same Spa-Francorchamps at which he now finds himself sitting in the red Ferrari P3/4, chassis number 0854, with its distinctive pale blue nose, wheels and rear panel, the inimitable colour scheme of Colonel Ronnie Hoare’s racing team.

The weather piles on the misery. Over the years Spa has proven quite lethal in the kindest of conditions and now graphite skies pour relentlessly onto the Ardennes circuit.

And, as he sits there blipping distractedly at the throttle, he has not even the crumb of comfort that, if the car runs perfectly throughout for himself and team-mate Lucien Bianchi, there is a chance of victory. There is none whatsoever. Ferrari had worked away at its answer to the Ford GT40 and produced the 330P4 for itself. However, the P3/4s it supplied to its privateer teams — Maranello Concessionaires, the North American Racing Team, Scuderia Filipinetti and Equipe National Beige — were updates of last year’s car, the P3, but they lacked, crucially, the fuel injected, three-valves-per-cylinder engine used by the all-new P4.

So while it is just about impossible to tell a P3/4 from a P4 by looking at it, the 420bhp at 8000rpm developed by the Weber-fed, quad-cam, twinspark, 4-litre V12 of the earlier car compares poorly with the 450bhp at 8200rpm that the Lucas fuel-injection P4 can draw upon. This is not the only problem. Up ahead lies not only the works P4 of Mike Parkes and Ludovico Scarfiotti but also the Mirage-Ford ofJacky Ickx, the Chaparral of Phil Hill and, most galling of all, the Belgian P3/4, its drivers making the most of the home advantage. Even if the race runs exactly to plan, a place on the podium seems remote.

And then, a split second before the flag falls, the Ferrari stalls. The field disappears over the crest of Eau Rouge and away. The P3/4, or 412P to give it the official factory name, trickles pathetically down the hill propelled by no more than gravity. Pointing downhill on the grid, all the fuel has drained away from the pick-up and the twin-choke Webers are dry. Right then, Attwood doesn’t need another reason to want fuel injection. Eventually, as the ground evens out at the bottom, the pumps start to pick up fuel and the V12 belches into life.

The entire procedure has taken just under three minutes, losing Attwood the thick end of a lap over the entire field.

Spool forward 30 years and Attwood is back in the P3/4, recalling what happened next. “I think we were quite lucky. Lucien was perhaps the best co-driver I ever had and Firestone had just produced this wet weather tyre which worked brilliantly in the rain.” This in itself, however, fails to explain how the flying P3/4 managed not only to recoup all the time it had lost but had also shot through the entire field to finish third, with just Jo Siffert’s Porsche and the Ickx Mirage ahead. It was a particularly sweet result, for the local P3/4 been driven so hard in its drivers’ efforts to keep Attwood and Bianchi at bay that it had eventually slid off the road. Even more satisfying, they had also beaten the works P4 in a technically obsolete car.

“It was a good race, for sure, but it was not the right time to be racing for the Colonel. The glory days of Maranello Concessionaires were over and Ronnie had been on the receiving end of some pretty shabby treatment by the factory, which supplied cars which, in normal circumstances, had no chance of winning the big races.”

It is true, the P3/4 will not be remembered as one of Ferrari’s most successful racing cars but, a generation on, sitting in a rare pool of February sunlight, this seems not to matter at all. For this, to my eyes at least, is the most beautiful car that has ever been built for use on road, track or anywhere else. The visual novelty of every car I have ever spent any time with — even the Ferrari 250GTO, perhaps most commonly credited with looking better than any other — starts to wear off after a day poring over the smallest details. This, emphatically, does not happen with the P3/4. Spend three hours looking at it, driving it, exploring its every angle, look away for an instant and then return your gaze and the re-introduction is quite startling. Be so fickle as to abandon it for an hour in favour of lunch and, when you see it again, alone on a vast expanse of tarmac, the surprise is that of having never seen it before. In this respect, it is unique.

Even Attwood, who has seen more of this P3/4 and its like than most, was moved to say it was quite, quite beautiful, in a way that the Porsches he went on to drive with considerably more success would never have understood.

And so it is. But the styling of such cars paid scant attention to form or line, owing rather more to the considerations of aerodynamics and the legislative hard-points laid clown in the prevailing rule book of the time. Add a bit of Italian passion if you must but the simple truth is that these finest of lines just happened.

Which is how it should be for a car such as this, a car that was never intended to be looked at for any longer than the driver, sprinting across the track for yet another Le Mans start, needed to identify it as his own.

Remarkably, it is not at all intimidating to climb aboard, fire up and move off. Though it started life as a coupe, the Spider bodywork means that clambering over the preposterously wide sill is easy. There’s a large chassis tube running across the floor which you stand on before dropping your feet into the narrow channel that leads clown to the pedals and, bracing yourself on the sill, lowering your body down into the car.

The driving position is fine though the revcounter, oil pressure and water temperature gauges, shrouded from the sun deep in the area beyond the wheel, are dimly calibrated. Like so many purpose-built racing cars of the day, it has righthand drive “simply,” says Attwood, “because most circuits ran clockwise”. Even in 1967 the rules said sports racers needed such road-going niceties as a handbrake, indicators, horn and even a luggage area and these it has, complete with essential silencing and road-sensible brake and clutch pads to fit 0854’s current brief to be a car for the road as well as the track.

Firing up the V12, even when cold, is no more difficult than a road-going Ferrari of a similar vintage. Turn the key once to activate the ignition and fuel pumps, prime the Webers with the appropriate amount of four star, push the ignition key forward and the mighty V12 will cough and die. Two or three more attempts and it will catch and hold a whirring, mellifluous idle for 10 minutes while it heats up its oil and water to something approaching working temperature.

That, however, is where comparisons with the experiences you might derive from any road car, even a Ferrari, end. Although the clutch is progressive by most racing car standards, it still requires care if the engine, with a flywheel that’s barely worth a mention, is not to die. The gears, too, are not to be fooled with. As you would expect the P3/4 has a straight-cut dog ‘box, laid out in the traditional Ferrari exposed gate with first out on its own. There is no spring loading at all and changing gear requires a firm yet sensitive hand if the lever is not to kick back at you, risking damage to the gear teeth. Mercifully, it also possesses an interlock system that makes it impossible to move any more than one plane to the right or left.

My first laps of the private test track were not encouraging. It seemed not so much a difficult car to drive as rather just not a very pleasant one. With oil still under too much pressure and with insufficient temperature for hard work, I drove trying to instill a little heat into the hand-cut Avon slicks and Koni shock absorbers to stop the car wandering around the track. The engine, while happy enough to run at 4000rpm, refused to pull cleanly in response to my gentle prods at the throttle. It took perhaps three laps before all of 0854’s components, including its driver, were up to temperature. Then, in an instant, it all made sense.

There is a certain commitment that the P3/4 requires from its driver before it will behave. You have to be precise and drive it with authority if it is to show you its secrets. Pussyfoot around with the throttle and the message will confuse the big old racing V12. It is not a language it was ever designed to understand. Squeeze the accelerator swiftly but progressively all the way to the floor and it will not even pause to think: in one indescribably rich explosion of sound it rockets the Ferrari forward, roaring, howling, screaming and shrieking the glories of Maranello from different parts of the motor.

It is surprisingly quick only until you calculate that, with a weight of about 885kg, its power-toweight ratio is around 475bhp per tonne giving, with Le Mans gearing, a top speed in the region of 195mph. So even if respect and prudence means you impose a 7000rpm limit on yourself, it will still accelerate about as fast as a Ferrari F50. Use the full 8000rpm and Ferrari’s flagship wouldn’t stand a chance in hell.

Inevitably, that engine is the P3/4’s finest part but this does not mean, as it does with some Ferraris, that the chassis requires any kind of apology. Using double wishbones at the front with a lower wishbone, upper link and a trailing arm at the back, it feels never less than inextricably planted to the bitumen, even when flashing through curves at well into three figure speeds. The brakes are mighty ventilated discs at each corner, clamped by four-pot aluminium calipers and, thanks to the road-car pads, work well from cold, shedding speed with alacrity and reassuring stability.

The real fed for the car, though, comes through that fine, three-spoked alloy steering wheel. Compared to a modern sports racing car such as a McLaren F1 GTR, it feels rather vintage, with a degree or two’s lost motion about the straight ahead before the rack takes up the slack. It’s extremely light and quick either side of centre but waits until a little more lock (and preferably considerable suspension loading, too) has arrived before that real, racing car feel comes flooding through the rim. Once there, it’s just one more joy that conies from getting to know the P3/4.

What’s it like right on the edge? I couldn’t tell you; there were just four P3/4s built and this one is valued at somewhere between £3 million and £4 million. Under such circumstances, slinging it flat-out around a tree-lined track didn’t really seem like much of an option.

Dickie Attwood, however, remembers it with fondness. “It was one of those lovely cars that just didn’t have any vices, no nasty surprises up it sleeve. When I raced it, it wasn’t the quickest car around but it gave you the edge of confidence you needed to really press on without the fear of being slung off the track.

“It only really shows its limitations when you start comparing it to the likes of the Porsche 908, which was a quicker and better car one you could really chuck around for hours on end knowing pretty much that it wouldn’t break. The Ferrari never really had that feel, though to he fair the P3/4 was based on a 1966 car while the 908 was brand new in ’68, and in those two years the game really had moved on.”

It is probably true that the P3/4 basks in the reflected glory of the triumphant P4 but, away from the heat of the competition, the only real difference between the two cars today is a paltry 30bhp. What matters rather more is that this most beautiful of racing cars is as good to drive as it is to look at. A fabulously successful racing car it may not have been but, cranked over in another 100mph curve with that peerless V12 hurling you away from the apex, the steering alive, your thoughts are not of such matters: they are of the rare and inestimable privilege that even a few hours in the company of one such as this affords.

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