Remembering The Ferrari 637
The current dispute between the FIA and Formula One teams had an interesting twist last week. Before Thursday night’s latest bombshell that a breakaway series will be formed, Ferrari actually threatened to pull out and go to the IndyCar Series. Very few people actually believed this to be anything but mere posturing on Ferrari’s part. First of all, with Ferrari’s penchant for spending money on innovation, a spec-series like the current IRL would not be a logical step. However, it does beg the question…how well would they do?
Contrary to popular belief, money doesn’t always translate into instant success in sports. Ask any fan of New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys or Washington Redskins how well a large bankroll has worked out for their organizations. The Penske and Ganassi teams didn’t get to where they are simply by opening up their checkbook. There are a lot more ingredients to the secret of their success, other than cash.
Well-funded foreign engine manufacturers have a mixed track record while attempting to run open-wheel racing in the US. Before Honda came to dominate this sport in the mid to late nineties through today, they certainly had their growing pains. They were almost laughed out of the sport in 1994. Toyota had similar struggles in the late nineties before finally getting it right, only to be driven out of the sport by Honda in 2005.
The late eighties and early nineties saw monumental failures by Porsche and Alfa-Romeo. Porsche’s struggles may have been pinned on being paired with the slow March chassis, as March was trying to regain its foothold in the chassis department. That also coincided with the loss of team owner Al Holbert in a plane crash, who had teamed with Derrick Walker to spearhead the Porsche factory effort. From that point forward, the project seemed doomed before it started. Alfa-Romeo simply just didn’t seem to have a clue. They are one of the manufacturers rumored to be supplying engines to the IRL in 2012. Hopefully, they’ve learned something.
Of course, the sixties proved to be very fruitful for teams making the crossover. Lotus was competitive every year they competed in open-wheel races in the US, winning Indy in 1965. Lola began their successful run in 1965, also. McLaren showed up in the seventies with great success.
Beginning in the mid-eighties, an American-made chassis had become a rarity, as the British-made March chassis came to dominate. Bobby Rahal made his infamous attempt in 1993 of running an American car, by buying the Truesports chassis from the estate of Jim Trueman. Dan Gurney made an ill-fated try at reviving his Eagle chassis in the mid-nineties. Riley & Scott provided some chassis to the IRL in the late nineties, being the first Indianapolis-based company in years to provide cars for the Speedway. Technically, the Panoz was made in Georgia after Don Panoz bought G-Force, which was based in England. One IRL chassis that never turned a wheel was the Falcon, which was built in Charlotte, NC by Michael Kranefuss. But by and large, foreign chassis and engines have ruled open-wheel racing since the eighties. Even the Fords and Chevy’s in CART were actually English built by Cosworth and Ilmor, respectively.
Getting back to the Ferrari situation…without getting into Formula One politics, the FIA headed by Max Mosley and the Formula One teams are engaged in a bitter dispute over next year’s rules. FOTA (Formula One Team Owners) are now supposedly following through on a threat to start a new series (sound familiar?). Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo, has also threatened to leave Formula One entirely, cross the pond and join IndyCar, instead.
Most everyone, including myself, sees this as nothing more than Ferrari using the IndyCar Series as leverage. If this sounds familiar, it has happened before. In the mid-eighties, Formula One had proposed rule changes that the Scuderia bitterly opposed. Enzo Ferrari hired Steve Horne, who was team manager at Truesports and later owned Tasman Motorsports, to run the Ferrari IndyCar program.
The plan was in discussions for over a year. Finally, a Ferrari was built to run the Indianapolis 500. Michele Alboreto tested the Ferrari 637 side-by-side with a 1985 March chassis, in the summer of 1986. The Ferrari reportedly came out favorably. According to Horne, the 637 had impressive windtunnel numbers and was very innovative.
The 637 was scheduled to make its CART debut in the season finale at Laguna Seca in October of 1986. However, new chief designer John Barnard decided to scrap the plans in order to focus on Formula One. Steve Horne insists to this day that this was no bluff tactic. Horne is certain that Ferrari had every intention to run the car in CART, yet changed their mind at the last minute.
Sadly, the Ferrari 637 never turned a wheel in competition and has become just a footnote in history. It has gone the way of the IRL Falcon chassis, the Spruce Goose and other untouched relics. It was a good-looking car compared to the other IndyCars of its day. It surprisingly shares one of the characteristics of the present-day Dallara. Rather than having a small Plexiglas windshield, which was common in those days, it featured a bulbous rise just before the cockpit – just like the Dallara, to deflect the airflow from the cockpit.
It is hard to imagine a great team like Ferrari racing in the IndyCar Series. It is even harder to imagine Ferrari agreeing to run an ancient Dallara chassis that cannot be re-engineered, powered by a Honda engine that they cannot touch. One can only imagine that this is just one giant grandstand ploy that no one really takes seriously. Even though a team with the budget of Ferrari would be the deathblow to most current IRL teams, it’s intriguing to think about how well they would do…while remembering the Ferrari 637.