One-lap Wonder

In 1986 Ferrari spent heavily on an Indy 500 contender. But, says its designer, it ran only a single test lap. By Gordon Cruickshank

Can’t play, won’t play: Enzo Ferrari’s response when things weren’t going his way. He’d tried it before, and it looked like another such episode when in 1985 he announced Ferrari was going to America — to race in CART and win the Indy 500.

The press portrayed it as a tantrum; an over-the-top response to FIA proposals to ban turbos from 1989 and switch to a 3.5-litre limit with a maximum of eight cylinders. A kick in the teeth for the dodecaholics from Modena, where the V12 engine was in the genes. There are advantages for power and smoothness, but a V12 produces less torque and is usually longer than an eight. Maybe the Maranello lot were just addicted to the noise…

So the Indy proposal was, said the journals, an attempt to bring the FIA to heel. Formula One without Ferrari? Impossible. But II Commendatore hadn’t actually said that he would boycott F1; there was more to the story than that.

What did Ferrari know about US racing? Not enough. An abortive visit to Indy in 1952 and a non-qualifying Ferrari-powered Kurtis in ’56 were poor omens. It needed a partner. Enter Leo Mehl, Goodyear’s worldwide racing manager, who knew the US scene as well as European F1. Ferrari asked Mehl to choose a useful conspirator, and he suggested Jim Trueman’s Truesports team. With the talented Bobby Rahal driving a March-Cosworth, Truesports was on the rise in 1983 and ’84 and would almost win the CART title in ’85 — it was only a collision between Rahal and Jacques Villeneuve Snr which would knock them back to third. Moreover, the team’s chief engineer was also the man who had turned the unwieldy March 84C into a winner and designed the successful ’85 version —Adrian Newey.

In August 1985 Trueman and team manager Steve Horne flew to Maranello and did the deal with Piero Lardi Ferrari, who would be in charge. Then Newey was seconded by March to Kraco, a rival CART team. This was a blow to Truesports, though the team was still due to run the Newey-designed 86C, and to Rahal, who lost his race engineer. Instead, Ferrari hired ex-Zakspeed designer Gustav Brunner, who assembled a 20-man design team with, as he recalls, an unlimited budget.

Truesports sent a spare March 85C and two DFX engines out to Italy, and in September Rahal went out to Fiorano and ran it, setting a time within 2.5sec of the current F1 car. “Gustav was a great guy,” Rahal recalls in his autobiography. “We tested our car at Fiorano, and Alboreto drove it a little bit. I ran two days and it was a lot of fun.”

Enzo himself came to watch, a rare event by then which, says Horne, shows that he considered the event important. Then Ferrari set to work dismantling it. “I studied it seriously,” says Brunner, “and even made proposals to improve it! But the Ferrari was completely new and shared no components with the F1 car. Everything was special, and very expensive. CART rules did not allow an all-carbon structure, so I made a one-piece hot-formed 1/8in aluminium shell and laid up a carbon sandwich inside.”

Meanwhile negotiations proceeded which would make Truesports the official Ferrari factory team in the CART series for 1987, with engine service by Franz Weiss in Texas. To see where the chief differences lay between the two disciplines, Brunner and some engine technicians travelled out to a Laguna Seca race, then the 1986 Indy 500 practice sessions, and visited the Truesports workshops. “The team was very friendly to me and to Ferrari, which was welcome in CART,” Brunner remembers. “We also discussed rule stability with USAC (Indy) bosses, as we had electronic injection and ignition which no-one else had, but which were not banned.”

According to Home, they paid particular attention to the on-board air jacks and refuelling systems, as pitstops were vital to CART strategy but at that time were not significant in F1 since refuelling had been banned a few years previously. These visits meant the project soon became public knowledge in the US, as it now was in Italy. “It was no secret,” says Brunner. “There was a lot of activity finding partners and sponsors which was handled by team manager Marco Piccinini.”

Rahal had a slow start to 1986, finding his way with a new race engineer in place of Newey, and was lucky to emerge unhurt from a huge shunt at Sebring in his March-BMW sportscar. He failed to finish the first two Indycar races too, but the reward came at race three, the Indianapolis 500. Running near the front for the whole race, Rahal was lying second to Kevin Cogan when a crash brought the yellow flag out; when the green flag gave the go, with only two laps left, Rahal jumped Cogan and took the biggest win in US racing. It was a huge boost for Truesports, but a poignant one: Jim Trueman, terminally ill with cancer, died mere days after being driven around the Brickyard to celebrate his team’s victory.

Trueman’s death might have derailed the team, but after a sticky period the wins began to come. After a cliff-hanging finale Rahal became the 1986 CART PPG champion. This was a relief to Maranello too, which after some uncertainty had decided to trust Home’s management of the team post-Trueman. One of the tricky negotiating points, says Home, was sponsorship. In an era when Ferrari only carried small ‘trade’ logos, Truesport’s all-over Budweiser and Red Roof decals jarred with the Italians, while the Americans were understandably reluctant to break a good sponsor relationship. But conveniently the Bud red was quite close to Ferrari’s pre-Marlboro day-glo shade, so a compromise looked set to mix Bud, Agip and Fiat symbols on a red body.

And during 1986 that body was rolled out at Fiorano. One of the first projects to benefit from Ferrari’s new wind tunnel, as well as a team at Fiat working on Computational Fluid Dynamics, Brunner’s design was very clean. At the rear of the sidepod the conventional CART kick-up before the rear tyre was smoothly integrated, while a smoothly tapering cover hid a 2.65-litre turbo V8 whose exhausts exited upwards from within the vee. Suspension followed the March pattern with pull-rods front and back, though Brunner departed from CART convention by using a transverse gearbox instead of the usual longitudinal format. “That was a Ferrari tradition,” explains Brunner, “and it had structural advantages as the housing was wrapped round the turbocharger.”

With its screenless cockpit, tiny button mirrors, sidepod ‘gills’ and almost sponsorless scarlet flanks the car had a sleek, almost shark-like presence. And, says Brunner, “the engine was, at least on the test bench, very competitive.” It all looked bright and exciting — until August ’86.

That season’s F1 results had not been good for Ferrari — no wins and a lowly fourth place in the manufacturers’ title. The Scuderia’s new design chief John Barnard told II Commendatore that they couldn’t afford to split their attentions; if Enzo wanted to win in F1 he had to chop the US project. Shortly after, the phone rang at Truesports’ HQ…

There were also financial reasons both to start and stop the project, as Brunner points out: “This was before the sell-out to Fiat. Ferrari was majority-owned by II Commendatore and growth was necessary. More than the threat about outlawing 12-cylinder engines, Ferrari needed money from FOCA, from Fiat, Goodyear etc to invest in modernising production.”

Horne agrees: “If it was a ploy to beat up the FIA they wasted a huge amount of money doing it. Enzo Ferrari displayed an unusual amount of interest in it, and I had no hint that it was anything other than a serious project.”

So it was not so much a tantrum as simple economics which fuelled and killed the Indycar. It finally ran — just. “The car did a function test of one lap to check the electronics,” recalls Brunner.

“But Enzo Ferrari did not want us to test it.”

Brunner himself was switched to F1, creating the F187 which began Ferrari’s renaissance in 1987. Truesports also coped with the change of plan. Not directly involved in the Ferrari’s development, it was able to continue as a customer of more regular Indycar builders. This time it switched to Lola, which turned out to be the chassis to have: Rahal won the ’87 CART title easily, plus a couple of IMSA rounds and $225,000 in the new Marlboro Challenge sprint. Would he have had a season like that in a tyro Ferrari? Unlikely.

And what do you do with a redundant race car? Put it in your museum. Unless you need it again…

Ferrari was independent when the Indy idea began, but within a year 89 per cent of it belonged to Fiat. Suddenly Fiat had two runners in F1: prestigious Ferrari and languishing Alfa Romeo, having a dismal time powering Osellas. In order to push the Alfa brand in the US Fiat decided to have another swing at CART, and in 1989 an Alfa Romeo engine appeared in a March chassis run by Patrick Racing. Despite the talents of Danny Sullivan and Al Unser Snr it was down on power and unreliable. After two expensive and fruitless seasons that effort was canned too.

At the time it was reported to be the Ferrari unit rebadged, though it went through four iterations and ended with central intakes, unlike the Ferrari. ‘Whether it grew out of the ’86 unit or not, there’s one more intriguing detail. In 1989 historian Doug Nye recognised a primer-painted chassis in Autodelta’s workshop as the Ferrari Indycar — perhaps finally finding a use as a test mule.

So ended Ferrari’s trans-atlantic challenge. Sound commercial judgement, not mere footstamping, then. But never mind the facts; it’s the tantrum theory that will probably survive.