Speed --Fast times, gripping stuff. Red lorry, yellow lorry ?

Famously described as a fast truck, the Ferrari Daytona was an unlikely racing car. Built for comfort as well as speed, so was the 550 Maranello. Yet both proved winners. Richard Heseltine drives them to find out why

Should have seen that coming. Giving impulse free reign, goaded into pressing on by the searing frenzy of that pure-bred V12 nearing its sweet spot, understeer beckons. And how. Braking for a sweeping, reverse-camber right-hander, the nose nudges left. Off the brakes, turn in and inertia takes over. Not so much a drift as a dive. Roll sets in, the back end gets jiggy before slowly finding equilibrium. Respect to anyone who raced a Daytona —365 GTB/4 Competizione to give its proper designation—over any distance, never mind 24 hours. This is heady stuff.

In the greater scheme of things this isn't a classic Ferrari racer, but it is one of the most charismatic. Only 15 lightweight Daytonas were ever made (with varying degrees of lightness) and they more than proved themselves in battle despite being a less than obvious candidate for the task. Driven by a roll-call of aces from Bell to Merzario, Wollek to Unser Jnr, Le Mans class wins were just the start of it. As late as 1979, a full 10 years after the Maranello GT's first tentative steps into competition, the GTB/4 was still making its presence felt; witness John Morton/Tony Adamowicz's surprise second place overall in that year's Daytona 24 Hours.

And for the better part of three decades it remained the last of the front-engined Ferrari GT racers. That is until 2000, when French enthusiast Frédéric Dor, owner of the Switzerland-based Care Racing, hired Prodrive to transform the 550 Maranello into an effective track weapon, following an aborted effort a year earlier with Italtecnica. The result was an emphatic GTS class victory at Le Mans in 2003 and, despite the arrival of the mid-engined Saleen S7R and Maserati MC12, domination of the FIA GT Championship.

Yet neither car was ever really blessed with much in the way of factory interest. When ushered in at the 1968 Paris Motor Show, critics were quick to label the Daytona as a dinosaur in light of tractor magnate Ferruccio Lamborghini's mid-engined Miura. Racing the brutish coupé wasn't very high on Enzo's agenda but even Il Commendatore realised that the association of a competition pedigree would provide a boost in sales, hence the customer assistance department at Modena offering some support to privateers.

Nothing too radical, mind. If the GTB/4 was to stand any chance of success it was to be in endurance events where reliability was key. Contrary to popular belief, only the initial batch (as many as five) of these so-called 'lightweights' had mostly ally panels, which, combined with Perspex glazing and a glass fibre bonnet, resulted in a kerb weight of 1230kg, 400 less than the regular road car. Hotter cams and ported heads, along with increased spring rates, competition shock absorbers and wider wheels, completed the ensemble. Though not officially homologated for the GT class, NART ran an all-ally Daytona at Le Mans in 1969 for Sam Posey and Bob Grossman. Despite showing a commendable turn of speed against the likes of the Reine Wisell/Henri Greder 7-litre Corvette, it didn't make the race after a collision in practice with NART's 206S. Oops.

After predictable eligibility rows with the CSI, later cars — dubbed series 2 and 3 — had rather less aluminium body content, the latter being tuned for 450bhp to compensate for the extra burden. Even so, good results soon followed: Claude Ballot-Lena/Jean-Claude Andruet were fifth overall and took Group 4 GTS class honours at Le Mans for Ferrari's concessionaire in France Charles Pozzi (his equipe repeating the win the following year), leading home a train of four other Daytonas.

Including this one. A series 2 (so a 'mere' 405bhp), chassis number 15373 was ordered new by Jacques Swaters of Ecurie Francorchamps who ran it at La Sarthe for Derek Bell/Teddy Pilette/Richard Bond. It finished eighth overall and fourth in class. The old warhorse was then sold to Midlands Motor Museum founder Bob Roberts who, according to current owner Nick Mason: "Repainted it black in the belief that it would make it less conspicuous to the local constabulary."

Our 550, in contrast, has never turned a wheel in anger, despite the bespoilered posturing suggesting otherwise. Unlike the Daytona, a road car turned into a racer, the LM Limited Edition is a road-going facsimile of a racer built from a road car. All of which makes perfect sense.

Story goes that after the Le Mans class victory in 2003 Dor requested Prodrive build him a street-legal replica. After some deliberation the Banbury concern declined, firm in the belief that such a task couldn't be performed economically. Undeterred, Dor teamed up with Roland Hall of esmotorsport (yes, it is all lower case) in early '04 for another crack. Leaked photos of this, the first car, saw a groundswell of interest in the project: plans are now afoot to build 49 more.

It was left to Bill Harris (once one of the core engineers behind the McLaren F1) to turn fantasy into reality. Prodrive, which had developed the Peter Stevens-styled carbon fibre add-ons, was less than forthcoming with supplying a set of these panels, so a race car was dispatched to GTR Ltd where copies were made, the only discernible deviation being inner rear arches which were reprofiled for greater tyre clearance. And the weight fell off: the front bumper alone, incorporating the lower airdam and splitter, comes in at a measly 4kg; the factory item weighed 28. While retaining road car civilities, the LM weighs 270kg less than the original. Add into the mix a 45bhp hike (with more to come) thanks to a remapped ECU and freer-flowing exhausts, the expected 206mph top speed seems entirely likely.

Thing is, and there is no getting around this, the 550LM's race influences will invariably polarise opinion on the road. Not that the Elvio d'Aprille-penned outline of the factory car was ever a work of great beauty, but those bulging flanks, allied to that preposterous rear wing (carbon fibre, of course; available in white or black) do lend the car an air of absurdity: we believe the modern parlance is 'pimped out'.

If anything, the wheel arch flares of the yellow Daytona don't exactly enhance the Leonardo Fioravanti-devised outline, but it gets away with it as aesthetics never really enter into the equation on the Mulsanne Straight (as opposed to the M42). What is certain is that few racers are as compelling and unsettling as this, even from a dozen paces away.

That's largely due to the Daytona's reputation as being a bit of a corpulent old tugger, which is only partially justified. With sufficient space to explore its huge performance — an honest-to-God 173mph — there's little to touch the road car for sheer exhilaration. However, find yourself on the twisty stuff and the brakes are the first to go, swiftly followed by your upper-body strength: steering is heavy and remote. Though starved of luxuries, the Competizione is still patently a converted road car for all the gutted door skins and pull cords. The large wheel remains tilted from the vertical; move the seat so you can outstretch your legs and you can barely reach it. The prospect of driving one around the clock is daunting.

That is, until you fire it up. Starter motor whirs before the thunderclap. Loud, urgent and instantly Ferrari, the mighty 4390cc 60-degree dohc all-alloy jewel is commotion itself. Once warmed up, easing onto the track, the steering's heft dissipates as you build momentum. But in no way does this car shrink around you: you are constantly aware of its size.

And is it fast. Accelerating is what the Daytona does best. The gear change seems infinitely friendlier than the road car's — albeit with the same long travel due to the transaxle layout — and has a satisfying self-centring action. Unexpectedly, the clutch is lighter than you remember, while the brake pedal is firmer for longer than it ever was in its regular application. That said, you still need to begin your braking about halfway down a straight to be sure of shedding enough speed to make the corner. Stamp on the anchors and you get the impression that they won't be with you for long.

This isn't a car that allows you to relax. At speed there's no let-up. You can feel it constantly moving underneath you, every twitch from the tail and every nuance of camber change directly telegraphed to your contact points. Drive with an economy of movement and the nose tucks in cleanly enough, but allow your concentration to lapse for a moment and it will fight back: the front end washes out and it all gets a bit messy There's no delicacy here: for what purports to be a lightweight racer, at 1454kg in its current trim, it's no such thing. But thing is, familiarity breeds confidence and for all its faults this is a car you just want to keep driving. Getting it right never felt better.

After which the 550LM might be expected to be an anti-climax. As much as anything with 530bhp can ever be an anti-climax. But not so. Those looks aren't all for show. It helps that the driving position is about as close to perfect as it gets, the carbon-backed seats offering plenty of support, the suede-covered three-spoker a delight to hold. The carbon fibre weave that pervades the cabin may be uncomfortable to traditionalists but you can't fault the quality: it's beautifully realised.

But that's not the good bit. Trying to leave behind the usual journalistic excesses is made all that much more difficult the second you accelerate. ES, sorry, es claim a 0-60 of 3.9sec. It's incendiary stuff: no hesitation, no flatspots, just an unbridled, linear release of power. It still weighs around 1400kg — not much less than the GTB/4 — but you'd never know. The time-honoured clunkiness of Ferrari gear changes is largely gone, yet for track use only the first four of the six cogs are necessary.

The regular 550 always was a very usable tool, and the controls here are much the same, although the steering has that bit more weight, the gain in feel being a bonus. The overall weight loss aids turn-in, too, the huge rear wing and rear diffuser pushing and sucking the car onto the road and removing all traces of aero lift: it feels pinned down on its springs. And the brakes — 359mm AP Racing discs front, 335mm rear, four-pot calipers all round — offer staggering levels of stop.

Currently fitted with an experimental damper/spring set-up, the suspension is said to be 30 per cent stiffer than the regular 550's, but there's little corresponding dart or kickback. The LM feels composed at all times. That this prototype is at the beginning of its development cycle, with the likes of Andy Wallace and David Brabham on test duties, and is so good out of the box, is a credit to es. As you should expect from a car that costs upwards of £90k. On top of the donor car, that is.

Similar in concept, diametrically opposed in ethos, the more youthful car will always be more efficient, the older machine often more rewarding. The LM is outstanding to drive, the Daytona less so. Thing is, flaws reinforce the positives; you cannot help but love the GTB/4. It doesn't do anything particularly well even by standards of its day, but few cars engender more entertainment than this. The 550LM proves that there is absolutely nothing wrong with progress; the Daytona proves that progress isn't everything.

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Sidebar -- 365GTB/4: 'A right old beast at times.'

Undoubtedly the most experienced sportscar pilot Britain has ever produced, Derek Bell wasn't too keen to step down to a 365 GTB /4 for Le Mans in 1972 (below) "I must admit that the prospect of flogging a Daytona around for 24 hours wasn't too tempting.

It was my third attempt at the race, having started out with a Ferrari 512 in 1970 and then a Porsche 917 a year later. I still thought of myself as a Prototype driver but there was a rule change capping the 'big banger' stuff at 3 litres, so they were down on entries for '72. I really did the race for Jacques Swaters of Ecurie Francorchamps who'd given me my first taste of sportscars some years earlier. I was helping out a friend but was still grateful for the drive.

I drove the legs off that car and it was a right old beast at times. The handling was very off but I was still relatively new to racing and couldn't figure out why it was behaving the way it was.

"About an hour before the race was over one of Ferrari's senior team members came over and told me to take it easy, to get it to the end; not to race. Then I went out and was reeling in Mike Parkes [in the Filipinetti Daytona], setting him up for a good battle. Going down the old Mulsanne Straight I had the legs on him and was going to overtake but the marshals were all standing on the track waving their flags, so I couldn't. It was the last lap. That was frustrating but to finish Le Mans is always a good thing.

"It was only after the race that I learned that our car had a broken rear anti-roll bar, which explained a lot! I don't have very fond memories of the Daytona as a racing car, but then my mind was on Prototypes." That wasn't altogether the end of his Le Mans adventure for '72. though: "I had a Daytona road car. Anyway, I was driving back to my hotel from the track and was still very focused. The race car was incredibly noisy but the road car was a lot quieter, and I had the radio and air-conditioning on: all very civilised. Then my wife tapped me on my leg and said, 'I think we're going a bit fast.' I looked down and we were doing165mph.

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Sidebar -- 550 GTS: 'It can be a bit of an animal.'

Having already sampled single-seaters up to F1 (he tested for Williams) only to become arguably the best tin-top pilot of the Super Touring era. Alain Menu patently likes diversity. So no surprise he said yes when asked to become part of the 550 Maranello GTS project.

It wasn't much of a decision really says the amiable Swiss. "I was with Prodrive in touring cars in '99 and 2000 when it all kicked off. Of course I was interested. Racing at that level really appealed. and the fact that it was to be with Ferraris was a bonus. I didn't actually do that much of the development driving, Peter Kox did that, but I did manage a couple of races with the 550 in 2001 and loved it. "It's a big car but it doesn't feel all that heavy because of the power steering. It had to be quite stiff, for sure and this makes it a little lively at times. It can be a bit of an animal over the bumps, especially at Le Mans. The engine's very torquey from low down. and it handles pretty well. You can trust it. Not that Menu could always trust his luck: "Le Mans in 2002 was very disappointing. It was my first time at the circuit and it was quite an eye-opener quite challenging in places. I really liked the atmosphere there and enjoyed the fact that it was a team effort. We were going well, leading our class, when the car caught fire. That was it. Game over. It was such a shame. And then the following year they won without me. A return in 2004 looked perilously like giving him the win: "I thought so. Peter (Kox) and Tomas Enge, who'd won the class the previous year were my team-mates and we were looking good.Then, shortly after the 20-hour mark and with a five-lap lead a broken wheel bearing caused a puncture. The time lost saw them drop to fourth in class. "My best race with the 550 was probably the 1000-mile Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta at the end of 2003. I was sharing with Peter and Tomas and we led home a Ferrari 1-2. That was very satisfying, especially as my year in the DTM (German Touring Car Championship with Opel) had been so bad. It was nice to win something."

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TECHSPECS

Ferrari Daytona 365GTB/4 Competizione

Engine -- All-alloy V12 with DOHC per bank. Capacity, 4390cc. Max power, 405bhp @8300rpm. Power/Weight ratio, 358 bhp/tonne. Fuelling system, six twin-choke Weber carburetors

Drivetrain -- Gearbox, five-speed all-synchro transaxle

Chassis --Type: glass-fibre floor, steel and aluminium body. Wheelbase, 2400mm. Length, 4395mm. Width, 1843mm. Height, 1220mm. Weight, 1454kg. Suspension (f & r) independent, unequal-length double wishbones, coil springs/dampers.

Running Gear -- Brakes, hydraulic, discs, servo-assistance

Performance -- Top speed 185mph, 0-60mph 5.4 sec

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Ferrari 550LM

Engine -- All alloy V12 with DOHC per bank. Capacity, 5474cc. Max power, 537bhp. Power/weight ratio, 392 bhp/tonne. Fuelling system, sequential multi-point injection with electronic distributor-less engine management system

Drivetrain -- six-speed all-synchro transaxle.

Chassis -- Type, composite and aluminum body. Wheelbase, 2499mm. Length, 4549mm. Width, 1935mm. Height, 1278mm. Weight, 1400kg (tbc). Suspension (f & r), independent, double wishbones, coil springs/dampers, anti-roll bars

Running gear -- Brakes, hydraulic, cross-drilled and ventilated discs, ABS.

Performance -- Top speed, 206mph (tbc), 0-60mph, 3.9 sec (tbc)