Red Nose Day

Ferrari’s Sharknose 156 may be extinct but this faithful replica gives a clear picture of Enzo’s first mid-engine racer. Matthew Franey climbs aboard.

For reasons I will never quite understand, Enzo Ferrari, a man with an extraordinary passion for motor racing had a distinct lack of sentiment when it came to his racing cars. Instruments for winning races they might have been; objects of his affection they most certainly were not. And yet at least one example of nearly every car that raced under the banner of the prancing horse remains to this day to be hoarded by private collector, displayed in museums or raced by those who want to sample the mystique.

There is, however, one notable exception to that roll call of desirables, a car that marked a turning point in Ferrari’s history as a Grand Prix constructor and became the first racer to bring both the drivers and manufacturers world championships to Maranello. For no trace of Ferrari’s charismatic 156 ‘Sharknose’ – the class of the 1961 field – exists today; no exhibition centrepiece or historic race entrant. All that is left is a significant chapter in the history books. Five victories may have come and gone but the cars themselves went forever.

If then you are confused by the appearance of such a car on the cover of this magazine, some explanation is clearly required. The Sharknose illustrated here is, in every way except its engine, an exact replica of the very car that helped Phil Hill to become America’s first and only world champion and in the same year claimed the life of the flamboyant and popular Count Wolfgang Berghe von Trips on a stiffingly hot September Sunday at Monza. Its stands alone as the only current example of Ferrari’s first successful mid-engined creation thanks to musician and confirmed tifosi Chris Rea, who commissioned the car as the centrepiece for his film La Passione. If you need assurances of just how faithful a reproduction was produced then Phil Hill’s look of incredulity at Goodwood’s Festival of Speed a few summer’s ago is evidence enough. This Sharknose may not have been wheeled out of Maranello in the 1960s but as 156s go, it’s as good as it gets.

Good now and not a bad car in its heyday either, for despite the successes of Fangio and Hawthorn in the mid-1950s Ferrari had in terms of race wins been going through a poor run. Tactical acumen and talented drivers had brought two world titles but in the seven seasons between 1954 and 1960 the marque won just eight races. While rival teams such as Lotus and Cooper forged ahead with the switch to mid-engined cars Ferrari, never one to be seen following the crowd, pressed on with his wieldy front-engined machines. Only when it became clear that to follow his own route was akin to racing suicide did the instruction go out to investigate the design and building of this new breed of car.

The early prototype was little more than a 246 Dino with the engine moved behind the driver – namely Richie Ginther who finished sixth with the car at Monaco in 1960 – but it soon became clear that while the potential was there, timing was not on their side. The new 1.5-litre formula was scheduled for 1961 and Ferrari took the decision to effectively write off the rest of the season and concentrate on getting a new car and engine ready. Under the observant eye of engineer Carlo Chili the new project took shape, both car and new 1.5-litre V6 engine demonstrating their potential in Formula Two guise when von Trips beat Hans Hermann’s Porsche in the Solitude Grand Prix. It was an auspicious debut for the mid-engined car and perhaps the first signal of what to expect for the 1961 World Championship.

Over the winter of 1960 Chiti came up with the sleek bodywork and even used a windtunnel – almost unheard of at Ferrari – to pen the striking twin-nostril air intakes. He had also finished work on a new 120-degree version of the small engine which would, with time, provide more power and eventually room for a fuel injection system.

The 156 Sharknose made its first outing in the non-championship Syracuse GP driven by a virtual unknown, Giancarlo Baghetti. His victory against a strong field was the first real indicator that Ferrari had finally, it seemed, built a car worthy of its drivers. Second place for Ginther at the season-opener in Monaco only served to confirm that optimism. Over the next six rounds the Sharknose would win five times and only miss out on the chance of a sixth victory when, following the clinching of its world titles and the death of von Trips, the team opted to miss the final race in America. Job done, Ferrari might have shrugged, now onto the next season.

Nevertheless, it is hard to stroll quite so nonchalantly into Silverstone’s voluminous pit garages and act with the aplomb of the Old Man when nestling in the gloom is the quite tiny and quite beautiful example you see pictured here. The size is disconcerting on two fronts. Most obviously because my six foot frame is about 12 inches too tall for the car and my helmet would be of more help in protecting the roll hoop than vice versa, but also because the car just looks and feels in every way about as safe as a gentle afternoon stroll in the fast lane of the M1. The insides of the cockpit are lined, not with protective aluminium sheeting, but with long slim tanks that house either boiling water or a fair few gallons of four star. If you could slide your arms up inside the twin nostrils you wouldn’t have to travel as far as your elbows before you could fasten the velcro straps on my boots. It is the only thing you could fasten on this car of course – seatbelts never come into the equation.

Once wedged firmly in place the view – if you can ignore the shooting pains in your hips – is an ergonomic delight. Between the broad brushed metal spokes of the wood-rimmed steering wheel sits a large Jaeger rev-counter flanked by pressure and temperature gauges. A fuel level indicator that appears to be rather misinformed rounds out the dash. By your right thigh protrudes a gearstick that leads, via the dog-leg open gate, to the five-speed gearbox, and beside it an ignition cut-off switch and starter.

Under the new 1.5-litre safety rules of 1961 all cars had to be “on the button” as push starts were banned. That is all it takes to get this 156 firing into life but no 1.5-litre V6 screamer nestles behind your neck; to build one of those from scratch would have been prohibitively expensive. The 2.5-litre Dino 246 engine that replaces it is, in fact, a clever alternative, for its 192bhp output is almost an identical match to the original 120-degree V6. What the replica may give away in a few more kilos weight, it makes up for in a few more pounds of torque.

Wait patiently for some heat to ease through the moving parts and then depress the ultra-light clutch pedal to snick first gear. The Ferrari eases smoothly away, the popping and cracking from its exhausts clearly audible as you make your way out onto the track. First impressions as always in cars such as these are often misleading. I have probably only driven three or four cars in my life that were so forgiving that you could go flat out from the start. The Sharknose is not one of them. Put at its most basic, the car is a film prop, albeit a glorious one, and such luxuries as set-up and development were presumably not the highest priorities when the time constraints of filming were at their worst.

On cold tyres on a cold day the car is unnervingly skittish and the brakes at first seem non-existent. With use the discs gain a little more potency but with a power to weight ratio of 400bhp per tonne the Sharknose is equipped with fearsome acceleration. In present form it has neither the brakes nor the mechanical grip to really cope.

That’s not to say the car is unenjoyable to drive. Get used to its little foibles and learn to drive around them and progress, while not in the von Trips league, is rapid enough. While the original engine would, as indicated by the rev-counter, pull to nearly 10,000rpm, a modern Dino engine runs out of puff this side of 8,000. That’s no problem on a day like this though, for the V6’s powerband is broad and assuredly smooth. As a driver all you need to do is keep a mindful eye on the needle and ensure that your gearshifts are steady and not too violent and this car in present form will outrun nearly and supercar you might care to mention. The steering however is vague, and while the simple act of finding the correct tyre pressures might well transform the feel of the Sharknose it is perhaps the single biggest problem you have to overcome.

Rounding Silverstone’s fast Copse corner, the urge to push on is tempered by the visual realisation that ever-increasing inputs through the wheel produce very little in terms of concrete results. Constant understeer forces the nose wide and off line but come off the power in an attempt to tuck the front end back in and the Ferrari begins to feel increasingly pendulous as oversteer creeps in. The Sharknose will round the corner, and at quite considerable speed, but whether this driver was in total control at the time is probably open to debate.

Where the car is at its best is exiting slow corners like the new Luffield turn on to Silverstone’s start-finish straight. Then a surfeit of power over grip is far less of a problem, although it still takes concentration to balance the car on the throttle while the steering wheel twists sharply in your hands. Get it right and the sensation of balancing a Grand Prix Ferrari on the edge of adhesion is one to savior; get it wrong and the tank-slapper that ensues is neither the fastest nor most pleasant way to end your lap.

On the one occasion that the laws of physics overtook my ability to hold the rear wheels in check the Sharknose slid harmlessly to a halt. It is a mistake you can safely make on the vast expanses of the airfield circuit, but not one you would feel certain to get away with around the narrow confines of Monaco or the Nurburgring.

With time and the intelligent feedback of a good test driver the replica Sharknose could become a truly enjoyable single-seater. It was, after all, in terms of efficiency and consistency, the class of its field. It could also be, like all cars of its era, the purveyor of ghastly reality. That it forced Wolfgang von Trips to pay the ultimate price is no reflection on its qualities or character, but as you walk away, it is sometimes hard to comprehend the bravery of the men who took these paper-thin cars to the edge and beyond.

Our sincere thanks go to Chris Rea for the loan of his cars and the British Racing Drivers Club for the use of Silverstone.