The Ferrari that would have won the Indy 500? Tale of the unraced 637

Indycar

The Transatlantic tale of Ferrari's unraced IndyCar - the 637, as developed by Bobby Rahal: "It seemed like this was something they really were gonna do"

Ferrari 637 prototype IndyCar in Maranello museum

Ferrari's unraced 637 IndyCar

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Ferrari reigning supreme at the Indy 500. It’s a dream long been harboured over at Maranello, but one that’s never quite come off.

In 1986, it almost did happen.

Not for the first time, Enzo Ferrari was at loggerheads with the FIA, with the political pressure gauge going off the scale. The FIA had ruled that, for 1989, regulations would stipulate all engines must be naturally aspirated 3.5 litre power units with eight cylinders, bringing an end to the turbo era.

This didn’t sit well with Signor Ferrari, who wanted to persevere with his beloved V12s. With the situation looking bleak for Enzo’s engines, he ordered an investigation into racing on the other side of the pond. More specifically, in the CART PPG Indy Car World Series.

Movements had thus far gone on behind the scenes. However, with rumours swirling about Ferrari’s American adventure, Enzo released a statement: “The news concerning the possibility of Ferrari abandoning Formula 1 to race in the United States has a basis in fact. For some time at Ferrari there has been study of a program of participation at Indianapolis and in the CART championship.

“We spoke of the possibility of racing CART to show that we will not necessarily be in F1 forever.”

“In the event that in Formula 1 the sporting and technical rules of the Concorde Agreement are not sufficiently guaranteed for three years the Ferrari team (in agreement with its suppliers and in support of its presence in the US) will put this program into effect.”

Enzo’s son, Piero Lardi, further confirmed this at the 1985 British Grand Prix: “If we carry on with Formula 1, we probably would not do anything else. But we spoke of the possibility of racing CART to show that we will not necessarily be in F1 forever.

“We want to stay in it, but only if the technical regulations remain as they were scheduled originally. No changes.

“If we do go to Indianapolis we would definitively build our own cars, but probably they would be run with some American involvement.”

Was it all political posturing, or was this a serious attempt at IndyCar? Indy 500 winner and three-time IndyCar champion Bobby Rahal was brought in by Ferrari to test at Fiorano. He’s certain it was the latter: “From the times that we were involved, it certainly did not seem to be an exercise in politics. It seemed like this was something they really were gonna do. It was a very serious effort.”

Bobby Rahal in the March Cosworth at Miami in 1985

Bobby Rahal and the Truesports team were Ferrari’s gateway to IndyCar

Bob Harmeyer/Getty Images

Rahal was the lead driver of Indy outfit TrueSports, the team engaged by Ferrari with a view to getting a foothold in American single-seaters.

Jim Trueman’s IndyCar squad were on good terms with Goodyear’s Leo Mehl and it was he who, after being contacted by Ferrari, got the two racing outfits together.

Ferrari were a Goodyear team, as were TrueSports, and Enzo trusted the judgement of Mehl. The wheels were soon in motion.

Rahal said he first got wind of the project in 1985, when Enzo’s son came over to visit TrueSports.

“Jim Trueman, Steve Horne and I took Piero out to dinner. That’s where everything was signed, that we would go to Maranello. The deal was that we would be the (works) team.

“It was agreed to go forward at that stage, and that’s when cars got sent. And that’s when all of a sudden, people are going, “You’re not going to this race (in IndyCar) we’re going to Italy for the next month and a half.”

Bobby Rahal on his way to victory at Cleveland in 1982

1982 Cleveland race saw a debut victory for Rahal and Truesports

Bob Harmeyer/Getty Images

Since its entry into IndyCar in 1982, TrueSports had been on the rise. Winning races in their first season, the team was the coming force. Ambitious, efficient and free of the potential politics of bigger teams such as Penske, Patrick or Newman/Haas – Ferrari and TrueSports were a good fit.

Sporting Director Marco Piccini had initially visited the US to investigate CART in 1985 and by the time the agreement with Lardi was in place, investigations into the technical ins and outs of the series had been going on for some time.

Leading these investigations was mercurial designer Gustav Brunner. He had been brought into the design team earlier in 1985 and was assigned to the fledgling IndyCar project.

Gustav Brunner with Eddie Irvine

Gustav Brunner, here with Eddie Irvine, led the design for Ferrari’s IndyCar

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

However, at one point it looked as though there’d be someone else in the design hot seat.

Rahal had been working on getting Adrian Newey, his race engineer and close friend, to come on board and design the Maranello effort.

“They hired Gustav Brunner but initially we tried to get Adrian Newey. Adrian was my engineer in ‘84 and ‘85. I really worked hard to try to get him to go to Ferrari for the IndyCar program.”

At the time March supplied most of the CART grid with the car to have, the March 85C. Newey had designed this iteration of the March Indy Car challenger and would create its successor too, the 86C.

Rahal had real hope of the winning TrueSports relationship migrating to Ferrari. Unfortunately for the driver, Newey’s employer – March boss Robin Herd – had other ideas.

“In the end he broke off, I think in part because Robin Herd basically dissuaded him. He said ‘That’s not gonna happen, so don’t do it. And anyway, we’re going Formula One racing’ or whatever. He had some hook out there for Adrian to stay in, although he left us and went to Kraco, with Michael Andretti in ‘86.”

The designer himself commented that, in any case, a move to Ferrari “didn’t feel right”.

Adrian Newey with Bobby Rahal at the 1984 Indianapolis 500

Rahal with Newey in 1984

Bob Harmeyer/Getty Images

Despite the loss of Newey, things were still looking good with promising engineer Brunner onboard. His talents were directed exclusively to IndyCar.

Rahal said the excitement surrounding the project was palpable: “This new entry into Indianapolis was really something – something to be proud of and be very excited about.

“I mean, it’s Ferrari right? There weren’t many manufacturers involved in IndyCar. It was all ‘the garagistas’ as Ferrari would call them. In Formula 1 it was all independents, IndyCar was really no different.

“So for a manufacturer, especially a manufacturer with the history that Ferrari had in motorsport, for that to say it’s coming to Indianapolis, that was a big deal.”

From the archive

Part of the TrueSports-Ferrari deal was that a March 85C and two Cosworth DFX engines would be sent to Maranello. The car would be tested along with every component being stripped down and inspected.

The TrueSport engineers went over with the equipment in August, before Rahal followed mid-September to drive the car in anger round the Fiorano test-track.

When the Ohio-native arrived in Italy, he was stunned by the sheer wealth of riches on display.

“I just remember being absolutely impressed by the capacity that Ferrari had at Fiorano and Maranello.

“In the racing area there were shelves full of engines of different spec, different volume, different v angles, six cylinder, four cylinder, V8, you name it.

“It was so impressive. You thought ‘How can anybody compete with that?’”

Further bolster to the idea that this was a serious effort was the attentiveness shown by the Ferrari team to TrueSports on their arrival, appreciated by Rahal.

Fiorano track

Ferrari developed the 637 at Fiorano

Ferrari

“The guys on the team were very welcoming to our guys – we had the car in the area that the F1 team was ran out of. Everybody was very interested, I think that’s a good way of putting it.

“I don’t think there’s any question that we all felt we were received very warmly by the Ferrari people, particularly on the shop floor.”

Once on track, Rahal set a lap within 2.5sec of the Fiorano record.  During a successful two day running, the main work went towards set-up rather than outright speed.

Michele Alboreto also tested the March, with the only widely circulated picture of these events being one of the Italian in the car.

Enzo was present at the test, showing an unusual amount of interest in the project and furthering crediting its seriousness. Rahal was ushered in to meet “Il Ingenere” back at the office by his PA Brenda Vernor.

“She ushered me in and I had my few moments with Signor Ferrari. You know, that’s like meeting the pope or probably even a little bit better!”

Whilst the Fiorano test was a success, investigations were carrying on in the US.

Brunner was present at the business-end of the Indy Car season, absorbing as much information as he could – almost becoming part of the TrueSports team.

“Gustav also participated, observed the last three races of that (‘85 season). He was in the engineering meetings, during a lot of the discussion. He was going back and forth (between the US and Maranello).

Brunner himself said: “The team was very friendly to me and to Ferrari, which was welcome in CART. We also discussed rule stability with USAC (Indy) bosses, as we had electronic injection and ignition which no-one else had, but which were not banned.”

Brunner proceeded with his design as TrueSports experienced further IndyCar success in 1986. After an indifferent start to the season, Rahal won America’s biggest racing prize, the Indianapolis 500. It was looking like Ferrari had made the right call.

Bobby-Rahal-with-the-trophy-after-winning-the-1986-Indy-500

Rahal’s 1986 Indy 500 victory bode well for the Ferrari project

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Back at Maranello, the Ferrari IndyCar, named the 637, was taking shape. Although Brunner’s 20-man team had the March 85C from which to draw inspiration, their unlimited budget allowed them to come up with a unique design.

Brunner eschewed the IndyCar usual bodywork kick-up in front of the rear tyres in favour of a smoother shape tapering inwards. The front wing and nose was not dissimilar to that of Williams FW09, the aim being for airflow to be distributed down the sides of the car instead of being kicked up over the front.

Whilst the suspension was similar to that of the March’s, Brunner adhered to Ferrari tradition by utilising a transverse gearbox instead of the more commonly longitudinal design.

The 2.65-litre engine also appeared competitive when run on the test bench.

It was looking like the car could be run competitively as early as late 1987.

Then, despite all the promise shown, things started to go awry for the Maranello-Indy project. As 1986 rolled on, so the 637 development ground to a halt.

Enzo Ferrari

Was 637 project Enzo Ferrari’s attempt to call F1’s bluff?

Ferrari

There are two hypothesised reasons as to why. One was related to the fact that FIA chiefs, in real fear of Ferrari quitting F1, eventually relaxed the new ‘89 engine regulations. Enzo was permitted to run his cherished V12s. The threat of IndyCar was resultantly removed, its purpose fulfilled (if it apparently was a political ruse)

Another dramatic aside to the above theory is that Enzo allegedly had the new Indy engine fired up mid-meeting with the governing bigwigs to show them just how serious he was.

The other (slightly more pragmatic) take is that the recently installed Technical Director John Barnard had decided enough was enough. If the F1 team wanted to top the podium once more, these IndyCar shenanigans would have to come to a stop. All money, resources and manpower had to be directed towards grand prix racing.

“From a chassis standpoint, there’s no reason to think it would not have been competitive, right from the start.”

With that, the American dream was over. Rahal said of the situation “It just started to…less and less conversation, and then ‘we’re not gonna do this (right) now’. And of course, for us, we always had to be ready, to really prepare as if it wasn’t happening anyway. Having said that, I think there was a lot of disappointment that we weren’t able to do it. I think it would have been historic and unbelievably good for Indy Car to have a brand like Ferrari.”

For what it’s worth, Rahal isn’t in much doubt about whether Ferrari would’ve been competitive or not.

“From a chassis standpoint, there’s no reason to think it would not have been competitive, right from the start.

“Man, our March, that was the car to have in ‘85. Ferrari had that to pore over, to look at, understand and measure – to see what was current. It wasn’t as if they were starting with a blank sheet of paper, they had insight.”

“Gustav spent a fair amount of time with us, both in our shop in Ohio but also at the races. So it’s not like he didn’t have some experience already. And he was a very open guy, he was all ears. He was learning, trying to absorb it all.”

It was only in Signor Ferrari’s favourite part of his cars that Rahal thought there might have been some greater challenges.

“If there was going to be any risk it was probably – in the very, very short term – going to be in the engine area.

“If you remember Honda, they were dominating Formula 1 (during late ’80s/early’90s). Then they went into IndyCar and there were a lot of struggles in the first year. It’s just a different animal.”

“But as I said, when I looked at all those different types of engines on the shelves, and the ability to figure it out, it wouldn’t have taken very long I wouldn’t have thought.”

The 637, with Alboreto at the wheel, was only ever allowed to do one installation lap before it was ushered to the back of the factory.

The chassis was spotted some years later by journalist Doug Nye when visiting Maranello, minus its red livery and assumed to be in use as a test mule for Alfa Romeo’s own IndyCar project.

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The car later appeared at the Maranello museum, before then making its way to be displayed at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It had finally made it to the brickyard, albeit as a racing curio rather than competitor.

All ideas of Ferrari were shelved for three decades. Now though, with F1’s budget cap on the horizon, thoughts of the Scuderia racing at Indy have returned once more.

Ferrari F1 boss Mattia Binotto recently suggested that in order to keep staff employed, personnel could be redistributed to racing efforts in different series, with IndyCar one one of the mooted destinations.

Roger Penske, the series owner, said that discussions have already taken place with IndyCar about a 2022 entry.

When questioned on a new Ferrari Indy project, Rahal said: “It would be just as exciting today as it would have been back then. I’m sure IndyCar would love to see Ferrari there – what a great addition to the series!

“You would have to think they’d have the ability to produce a very competitive car right from the start. It’s never easy, but there’s no question that that would happen in my mind.

“It would be just as exciting to be driving a Ferrari (at Indianapolis) today, as we thought it was in 1987.”

In spite of this new promise, for now at least, the 637 remains the closest the Prancing Horse has ever come to galloping over the fabled yard of bricks.

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