sports car racing in the US seemed to have hit a wall in 1993.
The GTP formula had played out its hand and followed the downward wave
of the economy and uncertainty about a new set of rules and the future
of the series hung like burnt oil in the paddock. What ever was
to follow the IMSA GTP era was certainly to pale in comparison, or so
it appeared as the ’93 season limped to the end. Just as
pessimism and ambivalence began to gain the upper hand, rumors and
reports of Ferrari returning to sports car racing after a 20 year
sabbatical began to circulate. Suddenly the possibilities for the
new sports car racing era looked not only better but actually promising
and rejuvenating for the first time in months. The whispers
became shouts and the story was true. Ferrari was coming!
The last season for the International Motor Sports Associations Grand Touring Prototype racing series was in 1993. In reality the last serious running of the racing series was ’92 and ’93 was a mere shadow of its former self. The early 90s recession had finally caught up and marketing departments at the major car manufacturers involved in IMSA GTP said enough and pulled the various programs. IMSA soldiered on with the GTP series for ’93 and dropped onto the table a new replacement sports car series that was developed to address some of GTP’s failures, namely cost and escalating performance. This new series was to be called World Sports Cars. The cars would feature limited aerodynamics; namely an implementation of a spec flat bottom underfloor, limited rear wing dimensions, and a mandated open cockpit going away from the GTP’s coupes. It was said the open cockpits would allow the spectators to “see” the driving action. Engines would initially be production derived though eventually that regulation would be officially ignored if not actually rescinded.
Admittedly it was a shame to see the IMSA GTP series go. I’m not one to say it was inevitable as at the time I was blissfully naive about the market’s ability to sustain the cost of developing cars that were as performance oriented as the GTP cars were. By 1992 the IMSA GTP cars were breaking track records set by the equally potent yet much lighter open wheel CART racers. Those were the days, and it was on this that the IMSA WSC class coat tailed. GTP regulations had generated such a cornucopia of interesting automotive rolling stock that what came after, well, it was almost like, “Who cares, we’ve seen it all”. When the WSC regulations came out, that simply dotted the ‘i’ confirming how great GTP had been. The 1993 IMSA GTP season was a transition year inasmuch as the WSCs were introduced and raced during the same events in preparation for WSC exclusivity in ’94. And the first WSCs were, let’s face it, retched, at best being nothing more than GTP cars with their roofs removed and interesting aero taken away (at worst…Google image search "Mantac WSC" and then there was the Cannibal…). So the initial WSC examples were tantamount to treason as far as the GTP legacy was concerned.
Gianpiero Moretti, founder of the Momo aftermarket wheel company, began his successful IMSA racing career in the late 70s. Yet by 1993 he had but one goal left, to race and win in a Ferrari sports car. The story goes that Gianpiero Moretti convinced Piero Lardi Ferrari to build him a car to run in North America to the new IMSA WSC series rules. It didn’t hurt that Ferrari North America CEO Gian Luigi Longinotti-Buitoni thought it was a pretty good idea too. The Ferrari 333 SP was Moretti’s “Il Sogno Americano,” or the American Dream, and the U.S. was Ferrari’s most important market after all.
This in itself was monumental news when it leaked out in December of 1993. Ferrari had stopped their sports car racing program at the end of the 1973 after a 30+ year run, multiple Le Mans wins, Sports Car Championship of Makes wins, etc. Now after a 20 year gap they were returning. This certainly was a rather unexpected boost to sports car racing, especially as 1993’s WSC preview had many wondering what in the hell was going to happen. With Ferrari returning it could only improve matters.
Ferrari power-train engineer Mauro Rioli was the 333 SP project’s Technical Director with Ing Gian Paolo Dallara in a supervisory role. Yes, that Dallara. The car’s aerodynamics were seen to by Dallara’s Dialma Zinelli and Ferrari’s Giorgio Camaschella. Dallara's 20% scale rolling road wind tunnel was used. Famed TWR Jaguar Group C/GTP designer Tony Southgate acted as a consultant and came on board later in the Ferrari’s initial development. Conceived at Ferrari under Rioli’s pen, developed in Dallara’s wind tunnel, and utilizing Ferrari designed/sourced components (engine, gearbox), the cars were built by Dallara (though the initial batch were manufactured by Ferrari), with consultants Michelotto contributing various sub-components. Dallara and Michelotto would eventually assume all production responsibilities for Ferrari 333 SPs.
The 333 was first unveiled at the 24 Hours of Daytona in January of 1994. Well, to clarify actually, the Daytona International Speedway, in their infinite wisdom, thought the Ferrari 333 SP on display would distract from that year’s event and insisted the car not be displayed on the grounds of the race track. So it was shuttled off to the Hilton Hotel in Daytona Beach and viewed by appointment only. The first actual public showing of the car was at the next event, the Sebring 12 Hours. Naturally the publicity potential of the car was something the Sebring authorities didn’t shirk (unlike Daytona) even if it was just going to sit in the paddock; Ferrari had never intended to race the car at either of the first two endurance events of the season given the car's unproven reliability. The next event following Sebring was the Road Atlanta round of the series and the first sprint event of the year.
Ferrari arrived at Road Atlanta with no fewer than four examples of their 333 SP split amongst three teams. Quick right out of the box, the Euromotorsports 333 of Mauro Baldi and Massimo Sigala was on pole with the other 3 examples closely following. The Jay Cochran piloted Euromotorsports #50 won the race followed home by the Moretti/Salazar #30. Moretti had gotten his Ferrari yet first blood had gone to someone else.
The irony was that almost instantly there was controversy. The 333 threatened to obsolete the entire (albeit modest at this point) grid. Certainly its purpose-built design showed the way. But in all fairness, the Ferrari’s competition consisted of GTP machinery modified to meet the WSC regulations and was far from being as optimized, unlike the Ferrari. There was also talk of its $1,000,000 price tag. Though that always conveniently overlooked the fact that what you purchased was a package: spare engine, additional bodywork, track support, etc., which now has become common place, if unique at the time. In addition, the Ferrari would appreciate over time due to its heritage. Call it an investment.
The 333 SP’s engine origins were also contentious in that it was the chicken before the egg. At the time WSC regulations stated that all engines must be production derived and the 333 SP’s production donor was the Ferrari F50. That the race car came out years ahead of the production F50 was always quietly overlooked, no doubt for political reasons.
Various update packages were available through out its racing career with the most substantial update being the 1995 bodywork kit. Though raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans a number of years, the Ferrari 333 SPs never found any consistent 24 hour endurance victories despite a win at the Daytona 24 Hours (1998). In the end, 40 333SP chassis were built (chassis numbered 001 to 041, serial number 013 apparently not being used). Ferrari built chassis 001 through 004, Dallara 005 through 014, with Michelotto picking up the difference.
The Ferrari 333 SP would race continuously from its debut in 1994 until the 2003 season. The 1995-1998 IMSA WSC competition between the Ferrari and Riley & Scott MkIII chassis were typically phenomenal as the cars were well matched. But by 2003 the 333 SP was simply outclassed by the new generation cars. In the American Le Mans Series Audi had arrived with its dominant R8 chassis in 2000 and there was little to be done to the Ferrari chassis to keep it competitive (though Kevin Doran did try, doing the unthinkable and removing the Ferrari V12 and replacing it with a Judd V10 in 2000! A couple of these conversions were built, and indeed it was a Judd-engined Ferrari 333 SP at the chassis' last event, Monza 2003). At the end of the 2002 season Grand-Am had gone and abolished the World Sports Car class in favor of something else. So that left few venues for the 333 SP to race and none competitively. Though with a nearly 10 year life, the 333 SP had its fair share of wins and championships no matter where it raced; 126 races, 385 total starts, 47 wins, 12 major championships.
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