Master of Ceremonies

There were plenty of those as Maserati’s MC12 won a string of race championships, far eclipsing its Ferrari Enzo progenitor in the history books. Now Octane tries out a rare road version
Words Massimo Delbò Photography Max Serra

At the beginning of this century, the car world was very different from how it had been 40 years earlier. There were fewer manufacturers; many had been lost forever, while others were incorporated into bigger companies. Racing cars had become totally different from road-legal cars, while a bigger, richer market allowed even ‘exclusive’ manufacturers to sell their models by the thousand instead of in mere dozens. Maserati represents these changes in a Modena-based microcosm.

It wasn’t always in Modena, though. The company was founded in Bologna in 1914 by technical genius and gifted racer Alfieri Maserati, partnered by his brothers. It began as a mechanics’ shop working on Isotta-Fraschinis, and it soon developed, rather successfully, into a sort of racing department for Diatto. It was not until 1926 that Maserati developed its own car, the Type 26, proudly wearing on its radiator the trident symbol, representing the fountain of Neptune that stands in the centre of Bologna.

Various models of Maserati won races worldwide over the next few years, and until 1937, when industrialist Adolfo Orsi bought the company and relocated it to his Modena base, Maserati built nothing but racing cars. After World War Two, though, the firm began to make sports cars that were also capable of winning

Top-level racing drivers such as Juan Manuel Fangio and Sir Stirling Moss owe much of their success to the Modenese company. Both would describe the Orsi family as one of true gentlemen, and both would point to the single-seater 250F and the sports-racer 300S as the best cars they ever drove. In 1957, though, Maserati closed down the racing department to focus on production cars, leaving privateers to campaign its last racing creation, the Type 60 ‘Birdcage’. It remained the car to beat for several more years; American team owner Lloyd Perry ‘Lucky’ Casner, with his white-and-blue Maseratis raced by famous drivers, was among the most successful and scored the last significant Maserati race victory of the time. He named his team Camoradi, a racily Italian- sounding contraction of Casner Motor Racing Division.

After a decade of delicious road cars including the 3500 GT, the Ghibli, the Mistral and the Indy, the Orsi family sold Maserati to Citroën in 1968. The supercar market turned out to be a shrinking one; all the sports car manufacturers were suffering as conflict in the Middle East forced fuel prices upwards, and in 1975 the French company decided to shut Maserati down. The Italian Government intervened and gave the go-ahead for Maserati to be sold in August 1975 to Argentinian motor industry magnate Alejandro de Tomaso.

He kept the company alive with the new and more affordable models of the Biturbo family right up to 1993, when Fiat bought de Tomaso’s shares, which it then sold in July 1997 to Ferrari. So the rivals of the Modena motor massive were now linked in the new Ferrari Maserati Group. These were the Luca di Montezemolo years; he had been appointed president of Ferrari in November 1991, and many reckoned that it was he who saved Maserati by refusing to sign the death warrant that the Fiat management had prepared.

It’s rumoured that, with the closing-down decision already taken at very high level, di Montezemolo went to Modena for what was supposed to be an unnecessary visit to the old, mostly empty and decrepit headquarters and production line. While there, talking with the few workers and sensing their love for the company, he decided to take a personal risk and invest heavily to save the brand. His passion was contagious and, soon after, not only money but also knowledge and a new vision began to move from Maranello to Modena with almost immediate results.

 ‘The Target was a car that could be very competitive in racing. everything else was a consequence’ – Giampaolo Dallara

At the 2004 Geneva motor show, Maserati launched the perfect symbol of di Montezemolo’s decision: the Maserati Corse 12 (for the number of cylinders), a supercar derived from the limited-production Ferrari Enzo but developed, unlike its Maranello cousin, with racing in mind. To achieve homologation for this, there was also a detuned road version.

‘It was a very unusual process,’ says Ingegnere Giampaolo Dallara, the technical father of the racing version and of the study behind the chassis, aerodynamics and engine installation of the MC12. ‘When Ingegnere Giorgio Ascanelli [nowadays the R&D chief at Brembo], the father of the MC12 project, asked my company to help in its development, we were made aware only of its racing purpose. Amazingly, very few constraints were placed on what we could do. The main target was to develop a car, beginning with the Enzo, which could be very competitive in racing. Everything else was just a consequence.’

The engineer continues: ‘We were allowed to stretch the wheelbase, to use new materials for the chassis and to create completely new aerodynamics. We are very proud of what we achieved with the MC12, and the amazing string of racing successes was absolutely deserved. The gearbox, the Maserati Cambiocorsa, one of the best parts of the car, was developed entirely in Modena by ex-Ferrari people, both in the road-legal version and for the lighter racing one. Of course, starting from a fantastic supercar such as the Ferrari Enzo gave us some advantages, but the MC12 development in the wind tunnel was already very advanced, as was the testing, carried out mostly by racing driver Andrea Bertolini.’

At this time Ferrari and Maserati were clearly working well together, sharing knowhow and resources. ‘I don’t know if the production numbers were already established at that early stage,’ reflects Dallara, ‘or if they had more to do with new rules being introduced by the racing administrators. Nor do I know if the MC12 is indeed the new 250 GTO. The two cars are different in every detail but, for sure, they share the same spirit and philosophy. The MC12 had for Maserati the same importance as the GTO had for Ferrari.’

The MC12 was built in very limited numbers, 74 examples in all (plus one – I’ll explain shortly) in three different versions. The Stradale, all but two of them in white and blue to celebrate the Camoradi team, was homologated for road use in Europe but never officially imported to the USA. The total of those built in 2004 was 25, and 25 more followed in 2005. The Competizione racing version was replicated 11 times – plus that one extra car, built as number 12, to replace number five, which had been damaged in a racing accident. Finally came the Versione Corse, a further batch of 13 cars created at customers’ requests using a strange mix of racing and road-legal parts. These are by far the fastest MC12s, but impossible either to homologate for racing or to register for road use – although there is one in Germany, registered by its owner as a special.

The Competizione and the Stradale are very different. The Competizione has more sophisticated aerodynamics, including a smaller (surprisingly) but more efficient rear wing, plus a front wing with splitters and a dedicated underside. Both have Brembo brakes, with vented steel discs, ABS and EBD for the road car, and similar-sized carbon-ceramic discs – without the electronic aids – for the race car. The Stradale weighs 1335kg, but the Competizione is pared down to 1100kg.

Both use an Enzo-derived engine, upgraded for more torque and better driveability. The naturally aspirated 65o5998cc V12 retains the aluminium crankcase, titanium connecting rods and dry-sump lubrication, but there are new cylinder heads with gear-drive to their twin overhead camshafts instead of the Enzo’s belt-drive. Fuel and sparks are managed by Bosch Motronic ME7 fuel injection in the road car, and a Marelli MR5 system in the race car. An evolution of the Ferrari ‘F1’ paddleshift transmission, dubbed Cambiocorsa, does duty in the Stradale, but the Competizione has a proper sequential racing unit, which is a massive 41kg lighter.

‘THE LIMITATIONS IMPOSED on the racing MC12 were amazing,’ says Andrea Bertolini. ‘There were moments when we thought the Federation was studying the rules just to punish this car. It was guilty of being too competitive.’ Bertolini was not only the main test driver but also winner of the International FIA GT Championship in 2005 (with a JMB Team MC12), and in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010 (with a Vitaphone Racing Team car). He scored a total of 17 victories and 11 pole positions.

‘In 2003 I was already part of the Ferrari racing team, with Ingegnere Ascanelli as technical director, developing the 360 GTC for the FIA GT Championship and testing every Ferrari racing car, Formula 1 included. Then Jean Todt assigned me to a tyre test, with Pirelli, for a new car.

‘I remember driving a mulotipo [a combination ofmuletto and prototipo]. The car was good from day one but it was under continuous development from then on. After the first test of the new model in Fiorano, with all the management looking at it, I declared that it was five or six years ahead of every other competitor. I didn’t know how right I was, because the car won until 2010.

‘Ascanelli and the whole team did a great job,’ Bertolini continues, relishing the memory. ‘It was fast and very reliable, with an attention to detail second-to-none, even compared with the F1 programme. The first version had amazing downforce, but at the last minute they changed the regulations and we couldn’t use it in that configuration. We were forced to adopt a smaller rear wing. Then we were obliged to shorten the car, to comply with more new rules, but the main issue remained the width, reduced in the rules after the model was finished.

‘This,’ he observes ruefully, ‘is one reason why we could never race at Le Mans. The second was that 100 cars had to be built, and we were asked to achieve the impossible task of showing all of them before the start of the season. But the car was immediately very reliable and fast, with only a few issues with the sequential gearbox, which was capable of changing gear in less than 20 milliseconds while managing massive torque. The engine’s air intake had to be reduced year by year, limiting the maximum power to a mere 600bhp while the road version had 630bhp and the Versione Corse 750bhp.’

Yet still the MC12 was the class of the field. ‘In the final years of racing we were not the fastest – Aston Martin was but we were more consistent during the race. We won, not by chance, most of our races in the final laps, having fresher tyres and brakes and because we really covered every detail. We practised every week for the pit stops because the final pit stop, mandatory for a splash-and-go of fuel, was supposed to last no more than 11 seconds. We managed it in 9.5.’

Winning an endurance race is easier if you don’t have to work too hard with the car. How was the MC12 over the hours? ‘It was an easy car to drive,’ says Bertolini, ‘very honest and balanced, in both race and road versions. Sometimes I was assigned a road car to drive to the racetracks. It usually was a very fast journey indeed, and I still remember with pleasure a drive from Paul Ricard directly to Mugello, with Ascanelli at my side.

‘The only problems with the MC12 on the open road were the small size of the luggage compartment and the difficulty, linked with the size of the external mirrors, of collecting and paying for the toll ticket on the Italian and French motorways. For me, it is hard to imagine a better contemporary sports-racing car, already elected at Goodwood as one of the most beautiful and successful cars ever.’

During the MC12’s racing career it won 14 titles and 19 races in the FIA GT Championship (GT1 in 2010). These titles are two Constructors’ Cups (2005 and 2007); five Drivers’ Championships (Bartels/Bertolini in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010; Thomas Biagi in 2007); six Team

Race-bred, Ferrari-derived V12 isn’t the only reason you’d want an MC12, but it’s a big part of it; on the autostrada, with the presence of a shark in a sea of Fiats.

Championships (uninterruptedly since 2005, by the Vitaphone Racing Team); and one Citation Cup in 2007 by ‘gentleman driver’ Ben Aucott of JMB Racing. Three of the most significant race victories were in the Spa 24 Hours (2005, 2006 and 2008). The Ferrari Enzo might have arrived first, but history will surely revere more the MC12, a car with a much clearer purpose.

THE FATHER OF the MC12’s design was Giorgetto Giugiaro of Italdesign, who established the basic volume and shape, while Frank Stephenson (more recently head of design at McLaren Automotive) developed and finalised the styling. It’s actually a targa, though most people assume it to be a coupé. You can remove the top, though there is nowhere in the car to store it.

A surprise greets you on entering the cockpit of an MC12 Stradale. It’s respectably comfortable, the driving position is perfect and it’s well-finished in a mix of carbonfibre, leather and the special, very grippy BrighTex fabric for parts of the cockpit and the seats.

As I try to set the mirrors I notice that the internal one is missing: it would be totally useless, anyway, thanks to the shape of the engine cover. Starting is easy: the 12 cylinders fire readily after a few seconds’ buzzing from the electric fuel pump. It’s not as loud as I’d expected, but as soon as I rev the engine the voice gets deeper and the volume increases. The air-conditioning is working well, which is much appreciated under the summer sun. The gearshift paddles behind the steering wheel are large and easy to trigger. Of course, there is no risk of stalling with the automated clutch but I’m surprised at its smoothness, even when manoeuvring back and forth for the photographer’s benefit.

The power from behind makes its presence clear as soon as the MC12 is rolling. As the engine passes 4000rpm its voice becomes a loud scream, drowning everything else. The gearchanges are amazingly fast; the power pushing you forward seems endless. The brakes are, well, perfect, at least at the speeds I reach in my test. As with every supercar, speed-humps represent a risk; more than once I’m forced to use the hydraulic lifter for the front suspension, managed by a lever in the cockpit, to avoid scraping the front valance. At the end of my journey all the temperatures inside both cabin and engine bay are still perfect, despite the traffic jam encountered while crossing the city of Monza.

I’m amazed at how many people, most of whom have probably just seen it for the first time, seem absolutely stunned by the MC12. And then, as I touch the buttons in the cockpit to open a window or activate an indicator, I realise they are sticky. It’s a common problem in Ferraris and Maseratis of the time, and easily fixed with a plastic lubricant once the buttons have been detached and taken out of the car (not an easy task in itself). Changing them for new ones is not an option because there aren’t any; too young to be catered for by Maserati Classiche, too old to be a recent production model, the MC12 is in a spare-parts limbo.

Technical expertise, however, is readily available. ‘I joined Maserati in 2014,’ says Francesco Stevanin, nowadays at Lamborghini Polo Storico. ‘I was a technical trainer and I remember very well that, when I went looking for the previous year’s material out of personal curiosity, I discovered that the MC12 had the same training programme as every production Maserati of the period. So every service dealer was trained on it. It was an amazing effort, considering the tiny quantity manufactured and the chance of them entering a Maserati shop, but today it’s very useful because there is a much wider knowledge of the car than you would otherwise suppose.’

Many would declare the 1962-64 Ferrari 250 GTO to be the most symbolic and valuable classic car in the world. There is no single reason for this, rather a combination of factors mixed together to create the perfect recipe. The GTO is rare, with only 36 built. It is beautiful to look at and sublime to drive. It can be used on the open road, yet was successful in racing. It was manufactured by perhaps the most iconic car manufacturer in the world, and it won everything it was entered for during its racing career.

It’s a combination that sounds impossible to repeat but, if we look into the more recent classic car world, we find another with those same ingredients. It’s the Maserati MC12. Praise indeed.