It is more than 40 years since Ferrari had factory representation in top-line sports-prototype racing, but for eight seasons privateers did the marque proud with the overlooked – and very loud – 333 SP
It’s a famous motor sporting anomaly that Ferrari has not taken an outright Le Mans win since 1965, when Jochen Rindt and Masten Gregory swept to victory in their 250LM. There have been class victories at the Sarthe, of course – a 458 Italia triumphed in GTE Am only last season – but no factory prototype has competed in the world’s signature endurance race since 1973. At the end of that campaign, Ferrari withdrew from the World Sports Car Championship to focus more completely on Formula 1.
The roster of subsequent Le Mans winners features many obvious names (Porsche, Audi, Jaguar) and a few that are less so (Mazda, Rondeau, Dauer), but there remains one glaring absentee.
Carlos Pace and Arturo Merzario finished second at Le Mans in 1973 with their 312PB. In many people’s minds that car remains the last great Ferrari sports-prototype, but history tends to overlook the 333 SP that followed more than 20 years later.
Built primarily for US competition, 333 SPs have become a rare sight in Europe. But in December 2016 Ferrari managed to gather nine of them together at the Ferrari World Finals, which took place at Daytona International Speedway – the first time the event had been staged in the United States. Bringing together Ferrari 458 Challenge competitors from Europe, America and Asia, the World Finals also featured demonstration runs by current F1 drivers Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen and a parade of nine 333 SPs driven by the likes of double Indy 500 winner Arie Luyendyk, Max Papis, Didier Theys and Mauro Baldi, all of whom raced the car successfully in period.
“Moretti was competing in the States as a gentleman driver,” Baldi says, “and he was the guy pushing Piero Ferrari to build this car. Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo said he didn’t like the idea of a sports car programme, because he didn’t want the company to lose concentration on F1, but Piero approved this car for the American market and, as it turned out, it was a success that lasted several years. In the States F1 was not so popular, so it was a good thing to come and race over here with a Ferrari sports car.
“I was involved in testing from the very beginning of the project, at Ferrari’s private circuit in Fiorano. Nicola Larini had previously done a brief shakedown, but I did all the development work. Jean Todt had just joined Ferrari and I had raced sports cars for him at Peugeot, his previous team, so he brought me in. I didn’t win the car’s first race at Road Atlanta, sadly, because I retired with a gearbox problem while leading, but Jay Cochran went on to give the 333 SP a debut victory and I’m very proud of that.”
Baldi, Luyendyk, Theys and Giampiero Moretti shared the winning 333 SP at Daytona in 1998 – and the World Finals marked the first time that Baldi and Luyendyk had seen each other since that season.
“I don’t remember every specific part of Daytona ’98,” Baldi says, “but Moretti had a small accident with another car and had to stop. It was very early on, though, and we had time to recover. From the middle of race to the end, things ran perfectly.”
Luyendyk adds, “It’s great to be here and to see old friends. I don’t get too emotional about these things, but driving the car again was beyond my expectations of how much fun it is. I’d kind of forgotten how good it sounds – when you’re going through the gears it’s really nice. I got in there and immediately started watching what the others were doing and thinking, ‘Yeah, I remember braking around that area.’ I didn’t waste much time getting up to speed, but the steering wheel was hitting my legs so if I got really sideways I couldn’t correct it. I was fairly sure the owner would want it back in one piece, too, so had to cool it.”
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The 333 SP may never have been a serious challenger at Le Mans (it notched up a best result of sixth in 1997), but it was very successful in other blue riband events.
Inspired by amateur racer/MOMO steering wheel founder Moretti and Ferrari North America president Gian Luigi Buitoni, it combined a Dallara-built chassis (though later examples were constructed by Michelotto) with a modified V12 from Ferrari’s 1990 641 F1 car, stretched from 3.5 litres to four. It looked the part – and sounded even better.
First tested in 1993, the 333 SP made a triumphant race debut the following season (courtesy of Jay Cochran at Road Atlanta), won the Sebring 12 Hours on three occasions (the first of them in 1995), captured the Daytona 24 Hours in 1998 and secured championship titles in both the US-based IMSA championship and the International Sports Racing Series (launched in 1997 to plug a hole created by the demise of the World Sports Car Championship, and later embraced by the FIA). It was increasingly being outclassed by the turn of the millennium, particularly in America, although Marco Zadra won the FIA sports car title in 2001 – the last achievement of note before the car faded from view on both sides of the Atlantic.
By the time the 333 SP bade its international farewell, in the 2003 Spa 1000Kms, it had notched up almost 50 outright victories in major championship races.