Mike, put brain to paper and let us know what you consider to be the sportscar of
2003…….oh and give us your reasons…………thus we challenged our venerable
Seer…….here is what he came up with.
My challenge: nominate the endurance racing "Car of the Year 2003", and give my
And the nominations are……….
The candidates stand out. In alphabetical order Audi, for winning the American Le
Mans Series in dominant style. Bentley, for winning the 24-Hours of Le Mans after
a 70-year break. Ferrari, for winning the FIA GT Championship and the GTS class
at Le Mans. Porsche, for winning the Rolex 24 and the Spa 24-Hours outright, all
the ALMS LM-GT races and most of the FIA N-GT races.
I would like to thank………
The Ferrari 550 Maranello wins the contest by quite a margin, in my opinion. The
development was financed entirely by Frederic Dor out of the goodness of his
heart, was undertaken by Prodrive under the direction of George Howard-
Chappell, and I might add with no encouragement or assistance from the Ferrari
factory. They bought pre-owned cars from dealers’ showrooms and made all the
special parts in England, mostly at Prodrive’s headquarters in Banbury.
There could not be a greater contrast with the other winners. Audi’s R8
programme was in its third year, and little development was carried out in
Ingolstadt. Little was needed to deal with opposition from the Intersport Lola
team, Rob Dyson’s MG Lolas, the ageing Panoz LMP-1 team and sundry Riley &
Scotts. Audi would not finance an appearance by Reinhold Joest at Le Mans, in
order to give Team Bentley a clear run, and does not get my unqualified vote.
Team Bentley did a superb job at Le Mans, claiming first and second positions
overall with virtually no mechanical problems (none on the winning car, minor
irritants on the second). The 4-litre V8 turbo engine was developed and supplied
by Audi but the chassis and bodywork were designed by Peter Elleray at RTN in
Norfolk, and the transmission was supplied by Xtrac.
Team Bentley made an impressive season debut at Sebring; a track which did not
suit the super-streamlined cars particularly well, but sadly two appearances is all
we shall ever get. It was the third year of three, mission was accomplished and off
they go. Team Bentley made a bit of history, which was the purpose of the
programme, but it was a marketing driven exercise rather than a sporting
endeavour and we are denied the chance of seeing the British Racing Green cars
in action ever again. How sad.
Porsche, on the other hand, has a sporting pedigree as long as your arm. The
911 is nearing its 40th anniversary in production, and it seems to get better all the
time. Like the woodcutter’s axe, it has had six new handles and eight new heads
but it’s still the same axe. Each evolution makes it go faster, and its durability in
racing conditions is almost miraculous. The economy and efficiency of the 3.6 litre
flat-six engine tipped the scales both at Daytona and at Spa, and helps the GT3
RS to swat its opposition on a regular basis at Le Mans.
The Porsche 911 is a strong contender for "Car of the Year", but I want to hand the
accolade to the Ferrari 550 Maranello because it was developed ‘from scratch’ to
beat General Motors’ Chevrolet Corvette works team, operated by Pratt & Miller
here, there and eventually, everywhere.
The complete story of the Ferrari 550 Maranello GTS will be published in a book
due to be published by a Parisian publisher, Wake Upp, and distributed on a
world-wide basis. I declare an interest, having written the racing chapters, in the
course of which my admiration of the Care Racing programme grew steadily.
Stephane Ratel, organiser of the FIA GT Championship, was determined to
introduce the Ferrari marque to his series, a measure that was of vital importance
when the FIA GT Championship virtually collapsed at the end of the 1998 season
under the weight of Mercedes’ and Porsche’s involvements with very special,
unroadworthy GT1 cars.
"I was the desperate motorsport promoter who had a dying championship which
had only Chrysler Vipers and turbo Porsches, which did not interest anybody"
Ratel recalls. "The Ferrari is just beautiful. It has the looks, it has the performance,
it has the public appeal, it has just everything."
Luca di Montezemolo forbad the development of the F50, which had gone out of
production, so Ratel forced through an FIA resolution that specialist companies
could undertake their own homologations, called technical passports, and
manufacturers would be allowed only two weeks to state a reason why their
product was not suitable for preparation for racing. It was Hobson’s choice, in
other words, and Ferrari spent two years sitting on the fence, refusing to get
involved with any ventures involving the 550.
550 High and Low
Ratel, with other backers, formed a company called GT Racing Development
which placed an order with Italtechnica, in Turin, to develop the 550 for racing. The
first car was presented in Paris in February 2000, and was named the Millennio. It
looked a million dollars and the customer list, with deposits placed, included First
Racing (Jean-Denis Deletraz and Fabien Giroix), Frederic Dor, Andrea
Garbagnati, Steve O’Rourke, Kazumichi Goh (for two cars) and Franz Wieth.
There was just one problem. The first Ferrari 550 Maranello was woefully
unreliable, driving Deletraz and Giroix to the brink of despair. They got shot of the
car, to a collector, after just six appearances in the FIA GT Championship.
Frederic Dor, who has wide-ranging business interests including an oil platform
and tankers, took delivery of his car and took it to Prodrive for appraisal. He had a
long association with Prodrive in the rally field (he is still a rallyman first, and
finished second overall in the Safari Rally retro event in December). Howard-
Chappell reported back: ‘We can’t do anything with this car. We would have to
start over again with a road car, and do a proper job.’
To his credit M. Dor mentally signed off a very large sum of money and gave
Prodrive the go-ahead, forming Care Racing as an umbrella company for the
Ferrari project. The first Prodrive prepared Ferrari 550 made its racing debut at
Budapest on July 1, 2001 where Alain Menu and Rickard Rydell qualified fifth, then
failed to finish due to an electrical problem.
Second time out, at the A1-Ring, Rydell and Peter Kox started from pole position
and won the three-hour race, vanquishing the Chrysler Viper teams, and the Lister
Storm. The Ferrari had another win in 2001, at Jarama, a week before the second
Prodrive Ferrari 550 made its American Le Mans Series debut in the Petit Le
BMS Scuderia Italia took on the running of the Care Racing Ferrari 550s in the FIA
GT Championship in 2002, when Deletraz and Andrea Piccini claimed no fewer
than four victories (three of them consecutively at Jarama, Anderstorp and
Oschersleben, then later at Estoril). Dor himself, with Deletraz, won the final round
of the Spanish GT Championship at Barcelona.
The stage was set for the Care Racing Prodrive Ferraris to conquer the world in
2003. Thomas Biagi and Matteo Bobbi blitzed the FIA GT Championship, winning
the first five races in succession at Barcelona, Magny Cours, Enna, Brno and
Donington. By this time the outcome of the series was hardly in doubt, but for
good measure the two Italians also won at Oschersleben.
After two false starts, the Care Racing/Team Veloqx Prodrive Ferrari team got the
better of the Chevrolet Corvettes at Le Mans. Always significantly faster than the
American cars, the Ferrari 550 of Jamie Davies, Peter Kox and Thomas Enge was
also totally reliable and claimed one of the most coveted results in endurance
racing, a GTS class victory in the 24-Hours.
In America, too, the Care Racing Prodrive Ferrari team, still financed by M. Dor, got
the upper hand on the Chevrolet Corvettes which squeaked home in the first half
of the season. David Brabham and Jan Magnussen claimed a fine victory at Road
America in August, followed-up with another at Laguna Seca, and then Brabham
and Turner won at Miami (the young Briton’s first street race, incidentally).
Care Racing and Prodrive finished the season with a real tour de force: first,
second and fourth for Ferrari in the Petit Le Mans GTS class. Chevrolet was
thrashed but Ron Fellows won the ALMS GTS driver’s championship, again, and
Chevrolet retained the Teams Championship but a single point after scrambling
to third place at Road Atlanta.
Ferrari makes some of the world’s finest Grand Touring cars but that does not
automatically stamp them as world class race winners. Little remains of the
original 550 Maranello once Howard-Chappell’s technicians have been at work,
other than the central monocoque, engine block, door handles and sundry items.
Brilliant engineering, sound construction and a significant pile of money
transformed these Ferrari 550 Maranellos into world beaters, but they will face
even stronger challenges in 2004.