Not for the Faint-hearted

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How do you fancy a trip to Osterreichring and the Austrian Grand Prix?”, came a voice down the phone. “Well, I’m terribly busy at the moment what with this and that,” was the best I could do for a rather feeble excuse. “How do you fancy a trip to the Osterreichring and the Austrian Grand Prix behind the wheel of a Ferrari 308 GTO and a BMW M1?”, came the voice again.

“When do we go?” was my immediate response. Nothing to do, you will understand, with driving the cars; after all, I had long yearned to stand on the outside of the Bosch curve and this did seem like an ideal opportunity!

The voice belonged to Tim Willson, lucky owner of these two magnificent performance cars and travelling companion for this dash across Europe. Now some may say that with two cars of such calibre and worth, a journey through Belgium, Germany and Austria was something worth savouring and should certainly not constitute a dash. As a Director of Bob Sparshott Automotive, whose three Lola T86/50s were running in the Intercontinental F3000 Championship Race supporting the Austrian Grand Prix, Tim was required at the circuit for first practice, Friday morning. With this trip only reaching fruition on the preceding Wednesday there was precious little time and simply no alternative but to dash.

I have been very lucky to have been associated with these exquisite cars from some considerable time; indeed in May 1985 young Mr. Willson and I were Maranello bound to collect the Ferrari 308 GTO (or 288 GTO to give it the official Ferrari designation). The trip back in this Group B Homologation Special was unforgettable and the childlike grin which etched our faces for the entire journey will long remain in my mind.

Embarkation point for the long drive south to Austria was Dover, scene of many previous trips, especially in the M1. Customs brought many memories flooding back to that first trip in the GTO, as it was in those very dreary halls that we sat for the best part of three hours while officials pondered the amount of Import Duty for such a car — nearly £16,500!

Taking a very late ferry rather than staying in Dover and leaving at a reasonable hour of the morning, we found ourselves in ghostly Zeebrugge at some unearthly hour. It had its benefits though, as we struck out towards Aachen and the German border at a cracking pace. Those first miles in the eerie Belgian mist on undulating roads gave us the first true indication of the performance and different characteristics of the two cars. It became obvious that the comparatively short time spanning construction of these cars had seen giant leaps in the applied technology, so much so that in these early hours the M1 was already struggling to keep up.

Ferrari’s 288 GTO commands something in the region of 500 bhp from its twin turbocharged 2855 cc V8 power source. The Jochen Neerspach inspired, Stuttgart built, M1 is powered by a BMW Motorsport developed version of the six-cylinder engine which is perfectly at home in the 635is and 735is which cruise the motorways of Europe and reside in the Company Executive’s parking slot — the only difference is the on-tap 280 bhp. In comparison to the 288 GTO just over twice the number of M1s were built, the last rolling off Baur’s line in 1980. Like the GTO, whose 308 Pininfarina origins are obvious, the M1 keeps its looks and turns use as many eyes thanks to its Giugiaro styling.

The M1’s performance may be slower when compared to the GTO but on that damp August morning my confidence level was much more at home in the German car. Pirelli P7 205/55 fronts and 225/50 rears may be awe inspiring but provide a surefooted ride much more in keeping with my timid character at that early hour. The Italian machine’s foothold was a totally different kettle of fish. It may be ultra-quick, capable of 189 mph without no much as a groan and a 0-100 mph time more akin to a space rocket at 11 seconds, but one exuberant squeeze too many on the pedal sends your pulse racing with the turbos and as the rear Pirelli P7 225/50s start to exchange roles with the front Pirelli P7 205/55s a handful of opposite lock has to be fed in to enable forward motion. As Eddie Cheever, who should know a thing or two about performance cars, has said, the 288 is not really for the open road and certainly not for the faint hearted!

With the mist clearing and Thursday morning’s sun breaking through we tore on towards the German border, crossing at Aachen and heading for Cologne before turning south on the E5 Autobahn bypassing Bonn, Koblenz. and Frankfurt. For the first time on many of these German sorties we elected to take the approach to Munich via Nurnberg and the E6. It may look like two sides of a square on a map we encountered heavy traffic on this long stretch of two-lane Autobahn and it was this shortage of time that enforced the one illegal error of the whole trip. The German police were very polite; after all it wasn’t every day they stopped an “M einz” for speeding. After a fascinating discussion on the English Royal Family, the number of men in the Duke of York’s army and a close inspection we were on our way once again to arrive in the quaint Austrain ski resort of Hauental a mere 9 hours after leaving Zeebrugge.

There were few mod-cons and even less home comforts in the Gasthof which BS Automotive had chosen as base camp for their Austrian weekend, but there was one jewel in the village’s crown. The road to Zeltweg and the Osterreichring. Close on 30 miles in length, this B road was a real delight after the arduous and cramped hours of Autobahn motoring. Here the 288 GTO really showed its class and on that first morning with Andrew Gilbert-Scott at the wheel there was again no room for the faint hearted and no way the M1 was going to match the tremendously fast point and squirt performance.

Being driven provided the opportunity to consider the GTO’s interior. Like the M1, which incidentally was the same car which AH road tested two years ago for MOTOR SPORT, the trim is business like, although a little more colourful. The driving position is unlike any run of the mill road car as one would expect and there is that distinctive feeling of sitting in a very special and fast piece of equipment. What is so delightful is the push button starter which guns the sweet sounding V8 into action; there is, I consider, something very stylish about a push button starter switch. Like all Ferraris the clutch is heavy and takes a little getting used to, as does the heavy gearbox with its traditional chrome gate. Combining clutch and engine revs is critical and if you get this car away without stalling the first time you are doing very well indeed — it requires an almost agricultural use of the accelerator and professional clutch work.

The journeys to and from the circuit over those few days produced some of the most invigorating driving I have ever experienced. The GTO’s performance was quite mindblowing. As one’s confidence grows the car becomes all the more rewarding. If you have the nerve the red lined rev band can be reached with some staggering performance figures, well over 100 mph in second, 150 mph in 3rd — and all the time the turbo whistle eggs you on just that little bit more! On twisty yet quick roads, thankfully dry, the car was unbeatable even though a number of large motorbikes tried — much to the annoyance of their owners and the animated relief of at least one pillion passenger!

Sadly, this breathtaking road was to be the final undoing for the GTO. Homeward bound after watching Alain Prost take the honours, the car blew a pipe off the right hand turbo and with it went, quite naturally, all the performance. The M1 too had begun to suffer — a little rust(!) in the fuel tank creating all kinds of performance problems. The plan had been to return via Calais arriving at the French port in the early hours of Monday morning. As it was we were limping along close to Stuttgart when we should have been back in the office recounting our experiences.

With a down-on-power car one can sympathise with those owners of less potent machinery who build up speed only to be agonisingly slowed by the truck that invariably pulls out in front on a hill. The GTO’s plight was just that although the M1 did at least run clean with a full tank. As it was we limped home, spending the night at an Autobahn Motel, worried all the time of any damage which was being inflicted upon the Ferrari’s V8. The port of Calais brought a rewarding respite from a harassing return journey — but our troubles were not over as the engine’s mighty cylinders had to strain to force the stricken machine up the ferry ramp. For the first time in many years the port of Dover was a welcome Haven; even the Customs Hall didn’t seem that awful.

The final hours of that Austrian Grand Prix trip may have been fraught but looking back from the depths of an English winter to that August weekend re-kindled some fabulous memories especially of the trip down, the countryside and, of course, standing on the outside of the Bosch curve. MLW