The Ferrari 500 is the most successful Grand Prix car of all time, winning every race except one in two Grand Prix seasons. Andrew Frankel samples a slice of Maranello motoring legend.
First, a few basic facts. During the 1988 season, the McLaren MP4/4 won all bar one Grands Prix, a fact which makes the team proud to this day. It is not, however, a record. During 1952 the Ferrari 500 won every championship round and all bar one the following year, giving it, on paper, a better claim to being the most successful Grand Prix car ever, especially as the only race it did not claim was lost when the lead Ferrari spun on the final lap.
And while it is true in their respective heydays the Ferrari contested one fewer Grand Prix, that is the fault of the calendar not the car. For further evidence of the 500’s dominance, consider that in its best season, a sister car came second in all bar one race.
There will be those who point out that Ferrari’s dominance was helped in no small part by the withdrawal of Alfa-Romeo from Grand Prix racing and the fact that Juan Manuel Fangio was sitting out the season with a broken neck. Even so, it is only fair to point out that not only did McLaren have Honda power for the first time, but also that the same had been removed from Williams, which had won not only the driver’s championship the previous year but also the constructors title with nearly twice as many points as any other team, including McLaren. In both cases, such extraordinary success came courtesy not simply of a couple of incredible racing cars, but also some unusually weak competition.
This matters not at all. You take your opposition as you find them and, back in ’52, Ferrari was taking it all, as this final fact proves: in that season there was a total of 1889 miles of Grand Prix racing and the Ferrari 500 led for over 1739 of them, or a little more than 92 per cent. How boring it must have been.
It’s not in the least boring today, listening to this 500 warming up at the test track. Though this particular chassis started its life as a customer car and, as such, possesses none of the vaunted history of the cars raced by Ascari, Farina, Hawthorn and Taruffi, it does have one trick under its bonnet. There you will find Lampredi’s wondrous twin-cam, four-cylinder engine, but with a bore and stroke of 94mm and 90mm rather than 90mm and 78mm of the standard 500 engine. This denotes the unit as a 2.5-litre engine from the 625 which campaigned the 1954 season. As it burbles away to itself, waiting for the oil and water come up to temperature, my mind flicks back to the one man who will for all time be identified with Ferrari’s 500.
Alberto Ascari, it is said, was quicker even than Fangio. He lacked the pure racecraft of the Argentine master and, as such, made an inferior racing driver overall, but when conditions were right for him, no-one could touch Ascari. In the 500, he found the car in which to express his genius. Between June 1952 and June 1953, not a single world championship Grand Prix was won by anyone else. In 1952 he failed to win only the Swiss Grand Prix because he didn’t take part. At both Silverstone and Rouen he lapped the entire field, including team-mates Farina and Taruffi in identical cars.
Oddly enough, it was an attempt by the authorities to stop Ferrari walking away with the championship that gave the 500 the chance it needed. By the end of 1951, the end was nigh for the Alfa-Romeo 159. A prewar design, it had mopped up in 1950 to make Dr Giuseppe Farina the inaugural World Champion, but by the time Froilan Gonzalez’s Ferrari 375 slid wildly to victory at Silverstone the following season the writing was on the wall for Alfa. The 159 could be developed no further, while the 375 was just getting warmed up, as its victory in three of the last four GPs of the season showed. Worse, the great white hope of England, the V16 BRM, was fast turning into a great white whale with little chance even of finishing a Grand Prix, let alone winning. There was no works Maserati team and the private 4CLTs that did venture out were utterly overwhelmed by their rivals on the other side of Modena. Unless something was done, Ferrari was going to march unopposed through the ’52 season.
The foIlowing two seasons were thus run to Formula Two regulations, with a normally aspirated limit of 2-litres. Ferrari got its walkover all the same — it was simply the 500 rather than the 375 that took the credit. For 1953, though, Fangio was back and this time he was on board a works Maserati. Still the 500 was untouchable, until that last race at Monza, Ascari’s spin and Fangio’s lucky, inherited win.
In typical Ferrari fashion, you’ll spend all day crawling over the 500 trying to find any particular trick to explain such absurd dominance. And you will fail. The engine, while a masterpiece, is entirely conventional. Yes, it has twin ignition with eight spark plugs, but that was scarcely rocket science even before the war. Four beautiful sidedraught Webers are bolted to one side of the light alloy engine which uses just two valves per cylinder to generate an honest 240bhp at 7200rpm in this 2.5-litre form, and around 180bhp in 2-litre F2 specification.
The engine, then, is utterly straightforward and, if it has a secret, this is it. Lampredi’s motor was not only more compact and lighter than the V12 212 model that the 500 replaced, it was also stiffer, less complex, more reliable, less prone to frictional losses and, ultimately, a deal more powerful, not to mention the massive torque advantage four big pistons will always wield over twelve tiny ones.
And throughout the rest of the car, convention rules. The chassis comprises two parallel steel rails with transverse cross-members on which sits its elegant aluminium monoposto bodywork. Suspension followed traditional Ferrari thinking of the day, with double unequal length wishbones at the front linked by a transverse leaf spring and a similarly sprung De Dion rear axle located by radius arms.
Now it is warm. At idle, to be honest, it sounds like anything other than a Ferrari. Enzo won World Championships with four, six, eight and twelve cylinders, but if your mind’s ear has an idea of how a Grand Prix Ferrari should sound, you have my word it is nothing like this. It’s loud, of course, but more crisp than mellow. At idle, there’s none of the fascinating whirrings of a multi-cylinder Columbo unit, just a straightforward, baritone burble.
The cockpit sides are low, the aperture generous. There is, of course, nothing you’d mistake for roll-over protection: the drivers of the day considered their chances of survival in an accident were higher out of the car than in, which may explain why cockpit seems purposely designed facilitate rapid evacuation.
The driving position is wonderful and, if my calves were shorter, would approach perfection. Incorporating the driver in the aerodynamic envelope was not uppermost in the minds of the designers of the era; consequently you sit almost bolt upright with your legs splayed either side of the transmission tunnel. Ahead on the turned aluminium dashboard there is simply a rev-counter plus small dials for water and oil temperature, oil and fuel pressure. The steering wheel should be a larger wood-rimmed one; even so, its reduced diameter conveniently clears my legs.
The four-speed crash gearbox sits over the back axle to even up the weight distribution, and the gear lever, down by your leg, finds the first of its ratios with just a tiny click. The clutch is light and kind enough to allow a clean getaway first time. So now we are moving; me and Mr Ferrari’s all conquering Grand Prix car. It’s a moment to be savoured, appreciated and not forgotten. The chance even to sit in a Grand Prix car comes to few indeed, but to actually drive the most successful type to be produced by the world’s greatest motor-racing marque, arguably the most dominant Grand Prix car ever built, that is something with which to bore the grand-children.
At first, I think I was slightly disappointed by how simple the 500 was to drive. The only real obstacle could be the crash gearbox, but that soon revealed itself as one of the sweetest ever built. It is childishly simple on the way up the ‘box, requiring the merest double dab on the clutch as your hand flicks the lever into the next slot. The gears are predictably short and so close you don’t have the time to make a mistake. Even on the way down a quick kick on the throttle between slots is all you need. My guess is that, if you were racing, you’d not bother with double declutching at all, but on a test track and in someone else’s car there seems little to be gained from such abuse.
The best part of all is the engine, which, in its unique way, lives entirely up to the name on its cam covers. It is awash with torque, almost absurdly so by Grand Prix standards. It will pull from 2000rpm, and at 3000rpm it’s sharp and strong. Maximum torque appears to be generated at around 4500rpm, by which stage the big four is heading for the hills. It will spin happily to 8000rpm, though today I’m stopping fully 1000rpm short of this, probably just a whisker below peak power. At the business end of its powerband, the character of the engine changes once more and, far from augmenting the coarseness inherent in its design, smooths out into a delightful yowl.
It’s fast, this car, helped no doubt by the 625 engine. Remember that, in the ’54 and ’55 seasons when Mercedes-Benz had a stranglehold on Grand Prix racing, it was the 625 more than any other, including Ferrari’s own Squalo and Super Squalo and Maserati’s 250F, which most frequently provided what little opposition there was.
This, however, is not what’s best about this Ferrari. Unlike the Lampredi-powered sports Ferraris of the era (like the 340 Mexico tested in MOTOR SPORT, January ’98), the 500 is an exquisite handling car. The steering is so light you can scarcely credit there’s an engine over the front wheels; yet it proves quick and positive for a car of its age.
Best of all, though, the car has precious little grip and, with all that torque, sliding the 500 around comes naturally and easily. Dunlop racing rubber graces each corner and can easily be persuaded to relinquish its grip on the tarmac, and once you have climbed on top of the fact that this is a ferociously valuable Grand Prix Ferrari you’re sliding about, there’s little to be feared from the car. Even the brakes are superb, better than any other drum-shod car I have driven.
In the end though, the 500 is, today, more about what it represents than how it drives. While it is a truly delightful racing car, a triumph of common sense and simplicity over technological overload, it lives today as a two-fingered salute to those who changed the rules specifically to stop Ferrari winning everything just six months after Maranello’s first ever GP victory. That, in the face of this, it delivered to Ferrari two consecutive and unchallenged world championships was no less than this car and its extraordinary creator deserved.
Our sincere thanks to Sherman Wolf for lending us his Ferrari and to David Cottingham and the staff of DK Engineering for their valued help on the day