High Stakes - 1986 Ferrari 637 Indycar

By 1985 Scuderia Ferrari had seen some tough years following the advent of ground effect and turbocharging in Formula One. The illustrious outfit had a hard time keeping up with all the technological advancements, and saw itself slip back from the fairly dominant position they had enjoyed in the late 1970’s. The first turbocharged models were clunky, ill handling, thirsty, too slow and unreliable. Improvement came very slowly as the independent British teams swept away one championship after another.

As the turbo era was reaching its absolute peak, the FISA was already considering boost limits, fuel restrictions and other measures to slow the massively powerful cars down. Enzo Ferrari was most displeased with this development. His team was finally starting to show some semblance of competitiveness again, and he felt limiting regulations would strangle the Scuderia’s chances to further close the gap.

Stefan Johansson (SWE) in the F1/86 helpfully demonstrating Scuderia Ferrari's abject misery during the turbo era.

Stefan Johansson (SWE) in the F1/86 helpfully demonstrating Scuderia Ferrari's abject misery during the turbo era.

Constant political battles with the conniving Bernie Ecclestone and the near tyrannical FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre had exhausted Ferrari. More than anything he wanted an end to the uncertainty about the future of Formula One. To end his predicament he went in search of the biggest political stick he could find to vigorously slap the management of Formula 1 over the head with.

Enzo Ferrari was a pure red blooded racer, but he was one of the first to understand that racing is very, very expensive. He had started his road car business with this singular goal in mind: to make money to spend in his racing programs. By the mid 1980’s Ferrari had become increasingly dependent on the North American market for his road car sales, which gave him an idea.

Ferrari F1-driver Michele Alboreto (ITA) testing a March 85G Indycar at Ferrari's Fiorano test track.

Ferrari F1-driver Michele Alboreto (ITA) testing a March 85G Indycar at Ferrari's Fiorano test track.

At the time the American CART championship, home of the Indycars, had been rising in popularity. The series had gained enough ground to seriously threaten Formula One, especially in the North American market. Enzo Ferrari knew he would really anger the big wigs of Formula 1 if he would try to leave Formula One and enter CART. An added bonus was the possible fulfillment of his dream to see one of his cars score a victory at the legendary Indy 500, the only major race he had failed to win. To this end he sent Ferrari Motor Sport Director and F1 team boss Marco Piccinini (MON) to the US for talks with the CART organisation.

Through their mutual tire supplier Goodyear, Ferrari was linked to the TrueSports CART team. TrueSports would aid Ferrari in the design of the new car, and supply their own March 85G Indycar chassis as a test and research vehicle. A young British TrueSports engineer by the name of Adrian Newey was invited to design the new Ferrari machine, but declined due to other commitments to March Engineering.

In his place the Austrian Gustav Brunner was taken on to perform the design duties. He attended several CART tests and races late in the 1985 season to gain experience. In 1986 he even showed up at the Indy 500 with Ferrari-president Vittorio Ghidella, which sent the motoring press into an unadulterated frenzy.

Contrary to the clunky looking March, the Ferrari was a very low and refined design.

Contrary to the clunky looking March, the Ferrari was a very low and refined design.

Gustav Brunner designed a chassis composed of a blend of aluminium and carbon fiber composites, which were glued into place. An elegant and sleek body was draped over it, complemented by an unusually large rear wing. The wing was later changed to a design with much smaller endplates, as the bigger example’s legality was somewhat questionable.

The biggest challenge Ferrari faced was building a suitable engine. CART regulations stipulated the use of a 2.65L V8, which could only use a single large turbocharger. Ferrari’s engineers utilized some of the experience they had gained developing the twin turbo 2.6L V8 powerplant for the Group C Lancia LC2 sportscar, and delivered the methanol powered Tipo 34.

The engine featured an unusual layout. The exhaust manifolds were located inside the V of the engine, and fed to a massive turbocharger pressed up against the transmission. At 1.6 bar (29 psi) of boost it could produce between 690 and 710 horsepower at around 12.000 rpm.

Meanwhile Enzo Ferrari’s plan to upset the bosses of Formula One had played out perfectly. Rumors about Ferrari’s entry into CART and a possible departure from F1 were bouncing around the paddock constantly. In the summer of 1986 he finally made a public statement regarding the incessant rumors.

The news concerning the possibility of Ferrari abandoning Formula One to race in the United States has a basis in fact. For some time at Ferrari there has been a study of a program of participation at Indianapolis and the CART championship.In the event that in formula one 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 Ferrari.

The statement created even more of a media buzz around the world. The world of motorsport was truly shocked by the apparent confirmation of the rumors. During his November 1986 presentation of his new F1 effort, Enzo Ferrari added oil to the fire by also revealing a completed Tipo 34 engine. Again the motoring world went wild and F1 officials were gritting their teeth in quiet frustration.

The Tipo 34 single turbo V8

The Tipo 34 single turbo V8

Not much later the management of Formula One revealed its plans to exclusively run 3.5L naturally aspirated engines starting from the 1989 season. Adding insult to injury, a maximum of 8 cylinders was also specified. Ferrari was horrified by the prospect of having to abandon his beloved 12 cylinder engine when the new formula would be instated. As a result the FISA announcement soured the already shaky relationship between Enzo Ferrari and F1’s top men considerably.

Realizing that they had perhaps gone a bit too far, and with the danger of a total Ferrari departure still fresh in their minds, FISA representatives traveled to Maranello in late 1986. Their objective was to appease il Commendatore and convince him to remain in Formula 1. During the talks Ferrari conceded that he was willing to give up the V12, but could not guarantee that his company would not pursue other racing interests.

Immediately after this statement the FISA contingent was surprised by the sound of an engine starting up. The sound seemed to come from a small turbocharged V8. Enzo Ferrari casually pointed to the workshop, where a fully operational Tipo 34 was being tested. To their shock and horror, the FISA men realized just how far along Ferrari’s CART project really was.

Rightfully spooked by this revelation, the representatives made a new agreement with Ferrari allowing the use of V12 engines on the spot. The new Concorde Agreement was officially signed in Maranello in March 1987. In a speech at the event, FISA president Jean Marie Balestre called Enzo Ferrari “The Pope of Formula 1.“

With the high stakes poker game between the FISA and Ferrari now over, the CART effort was put on the back burner. Even though Ferrari had made clever use of the project as a bargaining chip in the negotiations, the 637 was not a total smokescreen. Ferrari had invested millions in research and development on the car and was ready to enter CART late in 1987. The cost had been too great for the car to simply be sacrificed in turn for the right to use V12 engines in Formula One.

Enzo’s dream to win the Indy 500 was not to be however. Recently hired head designer John Barnard (GB), fresh from McLaren, understood the importance of focusing on one issue at a time. The 1986 Formula One season turned out to be one of the worst in the history of the Scuderia, as it failed to score a single victory.

Barnard argued that the only way Ferrari would get on top again in F1 would be total financial and technological commitment to the championship. The cost of simultaneously running two top level projects in both F1 and CART would be far too much, even for Ferrari. Enzo Ferrari acknowledged Barnard’s concerns, and begrudgingly ordered Project 637 to be canceled.

The 637 on the iconic Brickyard start/finish line, Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The 637 on the iconic Brickyard start/finish line, Indianapolis Motor Speedway

The Ferrari 637 Indycar was both a weapon in and a victim of the fierce political battle between Enzo Ferrari and the FISA. The car was very successfully used to negotiate a new Concorde Agreement to secure the use of V12 engines in Formula One, but also wasted millions of Lires on a pipe dream. In a sad twist of fate, the 637 never turned a wheel in anger on American soil.