The ultimate gift HORSE


Words Joe Sackey
Webb Bland Paul Harmer

In 1986, multiple Formula 1 World Champion Niki Lauda was given this specially built Ferrari 288 GTO. Now Octane drives it.

 

Andreas Nikolaus Lauda is the first name on the ownership document for Ferrari 288 GTO 58329. That’s right: the Austrian F1 driver who was World Champion in 1975, 1977 and 1984 – still the only driver to have been champion for both Ferrari and McLaren.

Lauda’s relationship with Ferrari began in 1974 when his BRM teammate Clay Regazzoni left to rejoin Ferrari, and put in a good word on Lauda’s behalf. Ferrari wasted little time signing him, and Lauda joined the Maranello-based Scuderia at one of its lowest ebbs – yet he succeeded in bringing Ferrari back into the limelight with a World Championship win in 1975. Enzo’s number one pilot, it seemed, could do no wrong.

But it wasn’t always the case. You can read more about Lauda’s turbulent and often astonishing race career on page 74, as well as his relationship with Enzo Ferrari – which reached another peak in 1986. That year, he was again taken on by the Scuderia, only this time as a consultant, rather than a driver. And he would need a company car…

Lauda liked the idea of the 288 GTO with its F1-inspired twin-turbo technology. Problem was, production of all 200 cars (to satisfy FIA homologation) had been spoken for already. In fact, more cars had been individually authorised by Enzo Ferrari’s purple ink for royalty and VIPs, the last of which had already been sent to a faithful USA enthusiast and concessionaire. Lauda inquired of the works whether a late order could be satisfied. ‘Impossible!’ came the response.

Never one to give up, Lauda used his restored relationship with Enzo Ferrari to make his request to Fiat CEO Vittorio Ghidella – and Enzo saw the opportunity to show his appreciation to a driver he greatly respected. Fully six months after production had ceased, in March 1986, Ferrari 288 GTO (chassis no ZFFPA16B000058329) was finished at Maranello and signed off by the boss himself. It was a significant gesture, especially given that this GTO was especially costly, thanks to its individual build post production-line.

Lauda’s friend, the Austrian journalist Herbert Völker, recalled his trip with Lauda to collect the car: ‘Although the Lauda-Ferrari relationship had its ups and downs, Niki got a kiss on both cheeks in Imola four or five years before, from which point on things improved considerably. Then, instead of just a kiss, Ferrari gave him a whole car.’

Völker also recalls Lauda asking if he was free for a day-trip. It would involve taking Lauda’s Learjet from Vienna to Bologna, then driving the new 288 GTO back to Salzburg. After landing at Bologna, they were whisked away in an Agusta helicopter to a guarded airfield in Reggio Emilia. Says Völker: ‘The presentation of the GTO took place secretly because the cost of the car had been split between Fiat and Ferrari. Although it would have been grander to stage the event in Maranello, with more kisses from the boss, at least this way the exclusivity of the proceedings was guaranteed.’ The Italians like to be discreet when they can.

Völker recalls that first drive from Reggio Emilia to Salzburg with Lauda behind the wheel as both epic and fast. ‘As a writer one feels professionally obligated to try and find some kind of striking image to describe the impression created by the raw power and thundering musicality of the GTO’s 395bhp twin-turbo engine. The sound is something like the effect of sitting in the middle of a herd of stampeding buffalo, with Indians charging at you from all sides, and 16 coyotes howling in the background.’And it wasn’t without physical drama, either. ‘Niki had to keep both hands firmly clamped on the wheel. “See how the handling is working?” he had to shout above the engine sound to make himself heard. “Working” in this case meant that the steering wheel was giving Niki a complete shorthand account of the of the road surface. “Can you feel the tail trying to swing out?” asked the champ. Yes I could, and I wish I couldn’t.’

And as for the occasion of driving with a Formula 1 legend: ‘You find you have friends at every toll-booth on the Autostrada, and filling up with gas turns into a party every time you stop. There isn’t an Italian born who doesn’t start twitching when Niki hovers into view.’

After making it back to Salzburg for a late lunch, it was on to Niki’s home: ‘Niki has a garage built into his house, almost like an artist’s studio. You can see into it when you come down the stairs from the living area. Every time you go down the stairs there is a Ferrari waiting to greet you.’ And not just any Ferrari, but a 288 GTO, one specially commissioned by Enzo himself. This writer cannot recall Enzo Ferrari ever bestowing another of his drivers with such a gift in this manner and, in that regard, this GTO underscores how Ferrari felt about Lauda.

Since then, no 58329 has led a charmed life. After spending a number of years in the Lauda garage (it featured in Autocar magazine and the Lewandowski book on the model), it made its way to Ferrari’s own museum, from where its current owner, a US-based collector, bought it. It remains as Lauda collected it from Ferrari, down to the same Escursionisti Esteri 304.AK plates that Lauda used on that drive from Reggio Emilia to Salzburg.

The GTO has benefited from a full mechanical refurbishment at Ferrari Classiche in Maranello, so it is as fit as can be. Perhaps not surprisingly, given that it was purpose-built months after production had ended, this GTO seems to have been built to a standard of fit and finish beyond that of any other. Climbing into the leather-trimmed Kevlar-framed seats, I’m filled with anticipation. It looks, feels, and smells special.

 

‘‘Get the car out in the hills and the driving experience is transformed from sports car to supercar’

 

Press the starter button and the engine barks. The air-conditioning blows cold, ground clearance is sufficient that you’re not scraping over every bump, and visibility is fantastic by supercar standards: this car invites you to get in and have a good time. Driving at low speeds in town is easy, the car feels small around you, and the ride is firm, jiggling nervously, but smoothes out as you gather pace. The clutch effort is relatively light for a car with 395bhp, and, after it has properly warmed up, the gearbox operates easily and precisely.

As the going gets faster and twistier, you realise that Ferrari positioned the engine far forward in the chassis to achieve exceptional balance. The car feels rigid, and its non-assisted steering provides amazing feedback. There’s precision and neutrality, but lack of weight is the 288 GTO’s real magic.

Get the car out in the hills and the driving experience is transformed from sports car to supercar. The power is controllable, as the turbos spool-up powerfully but predictably, and they make the car feel even more lightweight and nimble, in a way that makes it difficult to compare to a modern sports car that might be almost twice as heavy. Yet, in contrast to steering that would put any modern electric-racked equivalent to shame, while the brakes are strong and progressive they are nothing like as powerful as those of a modern supercar – and that’s the one area that gives this away as a classic, almost vintage car.

But even that can’t detract from the joy that driving a GTO on a sun-kissed winding road gives the driver. And not just any GTO, this is Lauda’s GTO! A GTO the Old Man himself commissioned for a Formula 1 driver who won the World Championship for him. Twice.

It’s easy to get carried away between a flickering boost gauge, crisp downshifts, blips, and overrun crackles. The photographer, following in the chase car, notes a glorious display of flame-throwing exhaust. It’s going to be hard to top this one for iconic car experiences.

Drive over, I climb out and take a long look back. From behind, you enjoy the car’s width, the curves of the fenders punctuated by the sharp Kamm tail and the sight of the open gearbox. Unforgettable! All the Ferrari supercars that have been developed in the last 30 years have not taken anything away from the allure of the GTO. In many ways, they pay homage to it. Three decades ago, Ferrari hit this one out of the ballpark.

 

‘288 GTO: the making of an icon’

 

A few years ago Ingegnere Nicola Materazzi told me: ‘Il Commendatore had realised, to his considerable disappointment, that customer disenchantment was due to the undeniable fact that the performance of his cars had become more ordinary or mainstream – a term Ferrari himself had used to describe the production models of the early ’80s. This prompted Ferrari to ask for my personal intervention in turning around a situation that had taken a disturbing turn. As a result, I engaged myself in developing models that carry my unequivocal style and signature, starting with the GTO itself.’

The creation of the 288 GTO was a deliberate attempt by Ferrari to hark back to the glory days of its ancestor, the iconic 250 GTO, and generate more interest with a special super-sports line of cars as Materazzi says. It was also built as a homologation series (originally it was intended that no more than 200 would be produced) to qualify for the FIA’s Group B racing series – only for the series to be cancelled.

Still, demand was so great on its launch in 1984 that Ferrari eventually built 272 of them. It didn’t need to prove itself in competition. Its performance, rarity and beauty, not to mention those three letters on its rear, meant its instant-icon status was set.

This car epitomised a new beginning for Ferrari, serving to popularise its roadgoing cars in a way that previous models had not. It was the last car Enzo Ferrari had any direct influence on: he personally named it and set a mandate for his men. ‘What we have to do is build a new version of the Berlinetta. We shall call it the GTO.’ The GTO is the original ancestor in the line that leads to today’s LaFerrari.

Former F1 world champion Phil Hill, who had a 250 GTO on hand for comparison, found the Ferrari 288 GTO’s cornering prowess ‘phenomenal, noticeably increasing with speed’. ‘In total,’ Hill concluded, ‘the new GTO is miles ahead of its 22-year-old predecessor in performance, yet offers the option of air conditioning and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in stereo. As pleased as I am to see Ferrari competing strongly in Formula 1, I am delighted they will once again have gran turismo with true competition potential.’

 

‘There’s precision and neutrality, but lack of weight is the 288 GTO’s real magic’

 

The 288 GTO remains significant as the first of Ferrari’s roadgoing supercars that employed racing technology adapted for road use. It was fitted with a longitudinally mounted 2855cc V8 equipped with twin IHI turbos (its name denotes 2.8 litres, eight cylinders). Its bodywork was styled by Pininfarina design chief Leonardo Fioravanti, and built from Kevlar and glassfibre honeycomb composite materials for the ultimate combination of strength and lightness, as used on Ferrari’s F1 cars and introduced to the GTO by the company’s F1 designer Dr Harvey Postlethwaite.

Producing 395bhp at 7000rpm through a five-speed gearbox and a limited-slip differential, the GTO could hit 60mph from a standstill in just 4.8sec and would go on to 189mph (in ‘Evoluzione’ race-spec it could produce 650bhp and, depending on gearing, a top speed of 225mph). Even so, Ferrari pragmatism decreed that type approval of the all-new 288 GTO could be expedited by simply applying for a modification of the original 1975 308 production homologation.

It’s often thought that the engine for the all-new 288 GTO was a turbocharged version of the Type 105/6 series unit from the 308. In fact, the twin-turbo V8 was an engine developed from scratch with Group C Le Mans-winning intent. Accordingly, the 288 GTO’s engine is a direct descendent of the one that Ferrari developed for the 1983 Lancia LC2 racing coupés, using its own 126C Formula 1 engine for reference.

 

‘Subsequent supercars pay homage to the gto. Three decades ago, Ferrari hit this one out of the ballpark’

 

The new power source had no relationship with the existing 308 unit. It even had to be mounted differently, requiring longitudinal location, with the gearbox fitted to the rear. In fact, it was set so far forward within the chassis that half the engine lay ahead of the bulkhead and nestled between driver and passenger!

Although the new engine sported a plethora of state-of-the-art performance components, the structure of the car came from the tried and tested steel-tube 308. Vented disc brakes, double wishbones and adjustable damping would take care of the forces meted out to it. Inside were Kevlar seats and the dashboard was covered with non-reflective fabric.

During development, Fioravanti worked two or three days a month at Maranello, helping to package the car. Cooling the twin-turbo engine was high on the agenda. Says Fioravanti: ‘The air inlet in the lower part of the body below the door provided fresh air for the brakes and engine compartment. I vented the rear side windows as I’d done on the 512BB Le Mans car: they’re curved in plan view, creating a gap through which air is vented into the engine compartment.’

New rear wings were required, due to the lengthened wheelbase and wider track. However, the car’s strongest visual link with the 1962 GTO came from Fioravanti. ‘It was my choice to add the three cooling outlets aft of the rear wheels. They’re set at the same angle as those on the original [250 GTO], although the engine positioning was different.’

At the Geneva Salon on 1 March 1984, Enzo Ferrari’s new GTO was unveiled – one on Ferrari’s stand, another on Pininfarina’s – and the rest, as they say, is history.