The Ferrari 333SP was a beautiful workhorse of the IMSA series in the mid-1990s. Chassis number 012 sits in the Mugello pit lane awaiting a track lapping event in 2018. Photo: Martin Raffauf
In the early 1990s, Gianpierro Moretti approached his friend, Piero Ferrari about Ferrari building a sports prototype. It was a hard sell, but Moretti, along with IMSA (International Motorsports Association) eventually convinced Ferrari to build a customer car for the new IMSA Exxon WSC (World Sports Car) rules which were to take effect in 1994. This would be the first prototype sports car Ferrari had built since the 1970s and the 312 series.
Gianpierro Moretti was the brain trust and owner of the MOMO performance gear company. He was instrumental in convincing Ferrari to build the 333SP for the IMSA World Sportscar Challenge (WSC) series. Photo: MOMO press kit, 1994
Conforming to the WSC rules, the Ferrari 333SP was designed as a flat bottomed, open cockpit prototype. Engines had to be production-based and could either be based on a 4.0-liter “racing” version, or 5.0- liter stock block motor. Ferrari made the decision to use a derivative of the F50 engine and de-tuned it. In effect, this was a derivative of the 3.5-liter Formula One motor being used by the Ferrari team at the time. It was a 65-degree V12 that produced about 680 horsepower in its ultimate configuration. In later years, as FIA rules changed the original IMSA specifications for use in Europe, restrictors came into vogue and the Ferrari engine was severely limited in power. Ferrari basically gave up on the formula (rightfully so in my opinion), as their view was that this engine was not designed for a restricted formula.
The Ferrari 333SP cockpit was pretty basic compared to today’s modern sports racing cars. Photo: Martin Raffauf
In the end, some 40 or so Ferrari 333SP chassis were constructed, all of them being built by Dallara. The early cars were assembled by Ferrari in Maranello, the later ones were assembled by Michelotto in Padua.
In all, the cars were very successful. They won quite a few IMSA races between 1994 and 2001, eventually taking both the 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring races in the hands of Moretti’s Doran Racing Team. Ferrari also won the constructor championship in IMSA and the European based ISRS (International Sports Racing Series) multiple times.
The Ferrari 333SP was a fearsome competitor in the hands of independent IMSA teams. Photo: Martin Raffauf
None of the cars were factory entries but were all run by privateers. Notable entrants in the USA were, of course, Moretti, Andy Evans, and Fredy Lienhard. Fredy was probably the only entrant to participate on both sides of the Atlantic, running one car in IMSA and another in the European ISRS series. Ferrari did support the IMSA series and their 333SP customers, as long-time Ferrari engine man, Renzo Setti, was the designated factory support for the teams after 1994.
Confusion reigned in sports car racing in the USA by the late 1990s. IMSA had changed hands multiple times by this point and eventually was sold to Don Panoz, the inventor of the nicotine patch and ultimate car guy. Panoz resurrected the IMSA name as the organizer behind the ALMS (American Le Mans Series). Sports car rules (now under control of the ACO and FIA) shifted to a restrictor- based formula. Ferrari refused to modify or design any new engines, as in their view, this is not what the 333SP was built for. Once restrictors appeared, the 4.0-liter V12 became severely disadvantaged compared to larger engines from Ford, BMW, and others. Restricted, the engines suffered a loss of power, torque, and fuel economy, and were basically uncompetitive for the last years of the cars race history.
Kevin Doran, the team principal of Fredy Lienhard’s team, even went so far as to install a Judd V10 engine in the 333SP chassis, creating what became known as the FUDD (Ferrari-Judd). Some success was experienced with this configuration in 2000 and 2001, although by then there were newer more competitive chassis from other makers. Ferrari had gone back once more to concentrate on Formula One during the age of Michael Schumacher, and all future customer race car programs would become GT road car based.
By the end of 2001, even stalwart Fredy Lienhard put the Ferrari 333SP-012 back into his Autobau collection and bought a new Dallara-Judd. The 333SP was now relegated to vintage racing. As is the case with most Ferrari race cars, they soon increased in value exponentially. Because of their increased value, not many were ever, or are now raced in vintage events, although a few appear at Ferrari’s annual Corsa Clienti World Final events. Moretti boasted to me once in the 1990s about how he had bought a car (Ferrari), raced it all year, then sold it for what he had bought it for, about $500,000. He deemed this as “good value.” His 1998 Daytona and Sebring race winning car reportedly sold recently for five million dollars!
Fredy Lienhard still owns Chassis 012, and from time to time, takes the car out to “track days” for his friends and business associates. I worked on his race teams for Kevin Doran for many years, so I was fortunate to be invited to one of these events in early 2018 at The Mugello Circuit in Italy (and again in 2019 at Mugello).
Weather permitting, I would get the opportunity to go for a ride as a second seat had been mounted in the car for passengers. Although I had worked on these cars for many years, changing engines, gearboxes, installing and removing suspension and brakes, I had never actually ridden in one. The only real race cars I had ridden in were a Porsche 935 in the late 1970s, and a BMW 235-i Cup car. Having had quite a bit of history with this Ferrari, it was with some anticipation that I looked forward to seeing what it was like to actually experience it at speed.
Mugello in March can be cold. In fact, the days we were in-house (at the circuit), there was snow on the hillsides around the circuit which sits in a valley. So, it was unclear if this was going to work or not. The 333SP has to be warmed up with a water heater, especially during cold temperatures, as there is a danger of the radiators splitting. The minimum recommended water temperature to start the car is 50C.
The Mugello circuit was cold and wet when we showed up in March 2018. Photo: Martin Raffauf
Despite the cold temperatures, we got the car warmed up and Didier Theys took a few laps to make sure all was in good order. I suited up and prepared to get in. The immediate sensation is that this is a tight fit. The second seat, if you want to call it that, is just some padding and some belts next to the driver. Getting in and buckling up, the sensation is that you are sitting on the pavement. Very different from a road car or race car based on a road car such as a Porsche 935. The Ferrari 333SP is a 680 HP go-kart!
Acceleration is massive, the car just leaps forward. The noise of the engine without earplugs is deafening. As you exit the Mugello pits, you are on a long straight, the longest on the course. You go over a rise, then descend slightly downhill to the first corner which is a long radius 180- degree right-hand corner. At the end of the Mugello straight in this car, the speed is in the neighborhood of 185 mph Braking here is very, very impressive in this car (with steel brakes, no less). The first impression of a non-driver is that there is no way the car will stop. However, it does of course (Didier later told me he was braking 50 meters early, only running at about 80% capacity). I am convinced the G force of braking would throw you out of the car if you were not strapped in tight.
Due to the “passenger” seat configuration, I found my head was sticking up into the airflow more than Didier. The force of the air tended to want to rip my helmet off. So, I had to hang on with one hand and hold the front of the helmet down with the other to see where we were going. All the while, I had to be careful with the spare hand, as right in front of me was the switch panel, with all the ignition and fuel switches. I had to be careful not to hit a switch by mistake!
Trying to keep my helmet from flying off at speed! Photo: Dino Sbrissa
We were on the circuit with other cars. Most of them were GT based cars such as Porsche GT3 cup cars and the like. So, we passed a lot of people in the few laps we did. Passing was kind of disconcerting as again the 333SP is so low, I found myself looking up at the door handles of the cars we were passing! A strange sensation for the uninitiated. As we zipped thru the traffic, the car just leaped from one corner to the next. The ride was a lot more brutal and jerky than it looks when just watching. The power allowed the 333 to cover distance very quickly compared to the other cars. I tried to imagine driving this car at the 24 Hours of Daytona, at night, trying to get through traffic. A mind-boggling thing to comprehend. As we drove, I tried to put myself in the driver’s seat. I thought, ok, would I stick my nose in this corner to pass this GT car? Most often the answer was NO! I asked Didier later how he knew these guys would not come over on us in the corner. His response, “My nose tells me, after many years of experience!” But I guess that is why he is the driver and I am the mechanic!
Riding in close proximity to other cars, in an open cockpit car you notice quickly the exhaust smell of the cars in front of you. No doubt this was due to my head sticking up in the airflow higher than the driver. Didier said it didn’t bother him, as the air goes over the drivers head due to the shape of the front windscreen.
Too soon, it was over, and we returned to the pits. I was left with the feeling that every race mechanic should take a few laps as a passenger in the cars they are working on. Very quickly, you begin to understand what is at stake here, and how fast you are going, what could potentially go wrong and what the consequences might be.
All in all, an incredible experience to ride in this historic sports racing car, at the famous Italian track which is owned by Ferrari. In the USA, we call this a definite “E-ride” (referring to Disney World’s rides ranging from A, the lowest and easiest to E, the most impressive). It was a short glimpse of what is possible and what most people never get to experience.