Fickle Fish - 1981 Ferrari 512 BBB

In 1976, the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile introduced a new category to the world of GT racing: Group 5 Special Production Cars. This was the fourth time the FIA had used the Group 5 moniker, as it had previously referred to as Special Touring Cars, 5 Liter Sports Cars, and 3 Liter Sports Cars.

However, the latest iteration constituted an entirely new breed of racing car. Traditionally, GT racers had been road cars modified to survive on the world's tracks. With the fourth generation Group 5 formula however, the FIA intended to liberalize this concept substantially.

Traditional GT cars were still little more than modified road cars.

In an effort to deal with the economic aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, the FIA chose to distance top level GT racing from the road car market on a technical level. For any manufacturer wishing to compete, it would be far easier and cheaper to build a thoroughbred racer with a passing resemblance to a commercially sold model, rather than having to design a compromise between road and race car.

A pure competition machine would not have to comply with the many regulations governing regular vehicles, which would not only make it a more focused machine, but also saved the company an enormous amount of budget normally spent on developing both versions of the car.

A clear example of Group 5: the Zakspeed Capri is modified in every area but those disallowed by the FIA.

As such, the FIA allowed any car already homologated in Groups 1 through 4 to compete in Group 5. However, very little actually had to be retained from the base production model. Only the roof, bonnet, doors and the front rail panels of the unibody had to correspond to the original car, everything else was completely free.

With this in mind, manufacturers were essentially invited to create fire-breathing tube frame monster dressed in a slight approximation of standard bodywork. This idea was a success, as soon models from Porsche, Mazda, Ford, Lancia, Toyota, BMW, Triumph, Nissan, Chevrolet, Lotus and even De Tomaso and Aston Martin appeared.

Ferrari's flagship model was selected to defend the brand's honor in Group 5 racing.

A company slightly slow to adopt the formula was one of the most revered in the business: Ferrari. The illustrious firm had focused more on top level prototype racing and Formula One in the years leading up to Group 5's creation, and were as a result a little rusty when it came to developing GT cars.

Instead, Ferrari relied on the services of American Ferrari importer racing fanatic and Enzo's close associate Luigi Chinetti, who fielded a variety of privately modified, but often factory supported machines under his North American Racing Team banner. Chinetti was also the main force behind the racing version of Ferrari's flagship, the 365 GT4 Berlinetta Boxer in 1974.

The NART 365 GT4 BB Competizione.

His NART Competizione version sparked Ferrari's interest, and the factory decided to build their own version for Group 5 racing in 1978. However, the resulting car, based on the updated 512 BB, was little more than a tuned-up production Boxer with some lights and the wing from a 312T3 F1 car added to it

Though the 4.9L 180-degree V12 had gained 100 horsepower for a grand total of 440, the car still weighed a hefty 1200 kg (2645 lbs). With a mostly stock body, the car was wholly unprepared for the rigors of racing and the onslaught of better-prepared weaponry. As a result, the BB LM project was considered a failure.

The original 512 BB LM was a rather clumsy attempt to enter Group 5.

For 1979, the factory learned from its mistakes, and the proper BB/LM was born. Featuring an almost entirely new, Pininfarina-designed elongated body, the car looked like serious business. Taking a page from Porsche's handbook, Pininfarina deleted the clunky, draggy and heavy pop-up headlights, and substituted them for large units mounted low down in the new nose.

Further improvements came in the form of an electronic fuel injection system, which bumped power to 470 horsepower, and a healthy diet. Through the use of lightweight tube frame construction and fiberglass and kevlar body panels, weight went down to 1050 kg (2315 lbs), despite the overall increase in size.

The 1979 update elevated the BB/LM to true Group 5 status.

In this guise, the big Ferrari finally became a viable Group 5 competitor. Though reliability became an issue throughout the first few seasons, it became a welcome addition to the sport on both sides of the Atlantic.

However, the 512 was never able to deal with the might of the turbocharged cars in the series, in particular the savage Porsche 935 and its many derivatives. Since the car was the product of a customer program, Ferrari had no real incentive to come with a major update or even a new model. As soon as the sale was made, the teams were essentially on their own.

Bellancauto's 512 BB/LM.

This inaction didn't sit right with every team, as they were steadily losing the war against the likes of Porsche, BMW and Lancia. As not only outright speed but particular reliability was still lacking by 1980, one team decided they could do better. That team was Scuderia Supercar Bellancauto.

The small Italian team originated from a Roman Talbot garage, but was pushed into racing by Fabrizio Violati, a former championship winning factory Vespa racer. Violati came from a wealthy family who dabbled in agriculture and the production of mineral water.

After obtaining a degree in geology, he took the helm of the mineral water side of the family business, helping him acquire the funds to support his first and foremost love: collecting vintage Ferraris.

Fabrizio Violati, the driving force behind the team.

As an 11-year old boy, Fabrizio had witnessed the rise of the Prancing Horse with his own eyes, as he attended the 1947 Grand Prix of Rome. There, he saw Franco Cortese guide his V12-powered 125S around the city's public baths on the street circuit of Caracalla, recording Ferrari's first ever race victory. From this moment on, he lost his heart to Ferrari.

Eighteen years later, he would secure what is now known as the crown jewel of Ferrari: an original 250 GTO. He saved the car from being cannibalized for its engine by a powerboat racer, and it became the centerpiece of his growing collection.

His cars were maintained by Bellancauto staff, which he convinced to support him in vintage racing under the Scuderia Campidoglio Motori banner in 1979. Together, they operated the GTO and Violati's recent purchase, a 1960 aluminium-bodied 250 GT SWB.

For 1980, the partners decided to jump into the top level World Sportscar Championship with a 512 BB/LM, chassis 26601. Inevitably, the team was plagued by mechanical issues. Engine, gearbox and brake failures were a disturbingly common occurrence.

Fed up with the car's tendency to barbecue vital technical components, the team went in search of a solution. To this end they contacted renowned engineer Armando Palanca The 76-year old aerodynamicist had made a name for himself in aerospace engineering, but had also consulted for racing teams like Taraschi, De Sanctis and Giannini.

Palanca was given a new rolling chassis direct from the Ferrari factory, designated 35529, which he then modified to correct the flaws of the standard Pininfarina design. As the goal was to race the car at Le Mans, his design brief centered around reducing the 512's drag, to increase top speed and decrease fuel consumption on the long straights of Circuit de La Sarthe.

Additionally, he was tasked with improving cooling, the root cause of almost all of the standard car's problems. With this in mind, he designed a peculiar-looking rounded bodyshell, making the car appear like some sort of exotic fish.

A large passage had been crafted between the two prongs on the leading edge of the nosecone, which fed fresh air to the front-mounted radiator, remedying the overheating problems seen with the old model.

Care was taken to revise airflow inside the rear clamshell as well to further aid engine and transmission cooling, while a special system of tubes and vents was fashioned around the brakes. To complete the picture, the engine received strengthened pistons, connecting rods and valves.

In an ultimate attempt to reduce the car's coefficient of drag, the 312T3 wing was left off the redesigned rear section, with the car instead relying on the downforce generated by its flat floor. The finished car was evocatively named 512 BBB, standing for Berlinetta Boxer Bellancauto.

An initial version of the car was seen testing at Vallelunga and Monza, where the team tried several different configurations in preparation for the 1000 Kilometer race. Two tail sections, one with the wing and on without, were tried, as well as various ride height settings. Under Armando Palanca's expert guidance, airflow meters were used to judge the differences, include the various amounts of rake applied during the test.

The car suffered a debilitating crash during testing.

Drivers Carlo Ambrogi and Pierluigi "Gigi" Pantaleoni drove the BBB in a two day test, driving conservatively to gather data rather than record outright fastest lap times. As such, the F102 flat-12 was limited to 8000 rpm, just 750 from its peak power output, and the car was fitted with used, hard compound tires.

Despite this, Ambrogi managed to set a fastest time of around 2:00, and 2:03s at a consistent pace. As a testament of the 512 BBB's improved performance, Ambrogi's fastest lap was about two seconds slower than the outright qualifying time set by the team's old 512 BB/LM at the 1980 race.

Even Pantaleoni, who had never driven a car of this caliber before, was able to clock 2:05 laps. Sadly though, a flat rear left tire sent Carlo Ambrogi tail-first into the barrier at Parabolica, ending the test and forcing the team to return to Rome for emergency repairs. As a result, third driver Maurizio Micangeli was unable to get seat time.

Monza, 1981.

Thankfully, the car was back on its wheels in time for the 1981 1000 Kilometers of Monza. Fabrizio Violati was joined by Maurizio Flammini and Spartaco Dini for the event, giving the Ferrari an all new driving team. Qualifying yielded slightly disappointing results, as the 512 lined up 16th on the grid.

The time recorded during the session was rather worrying, as the 1:59.990 was 1.52 seconds slower than the BB/LM managed a year earlier. Race day was similarly demoralizing, as the Bellancauto squad finished 15th, 46 laps adrift of the winning Porsche 935 K3 of Edgar Doren (GER), Jurgen Lassig (GER) and Gerhard Holup (GER). Though the car scored a class victory in GTX, it was the only car entered in the class, making it a hollow victory.

The BBB in the pits at Le Mans, 1981.

After Monza, it was time for the main event: the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The rather naked, all-red body was dressed up with the team's trademark green and white livery. Aside from a few small sponsor decals, the car prominently wore its name on the bodywork, featuring the 512BB logo with an added B.

With Group 5 on the verge of being phased out in favor of Group B as part of the industry wide regulation overhaul imposed by the FIA, the car was entered as an American IMSA GTX machine. This pitted it directly against a Sauber BMW M1, a Porsche 935J, three Porsche's 935 K3/80 and four Ferraris 512 BB/LM.

Violati, Flammini and Dini were present once again, as well as Maurizio Micangeli and new addition Duilio Truffo. In the end, Violati, Flammini and Truffo were selected to form the driver contingent for the race proper.

The trio qualified 34th overall and 7th in IMSA GTX, 9.44 seconds slower than the IMSA GTX pole-sitting Preston B. Henn Porsche 935 K3/80, which qualified 17th overall. Considering the highly professional nature of the event, and the onslaught of IMSA GTX and Group 5 machinery, Bellancauto's performance wasn't half bad.

However, as anyone familiar with Le Mans will tell you, the race isn't won on qualifying pace alone. With this in mind, Scuderia Supercar Bellancauto prepared for the long, arduous ordeal of racing at the Les Vingt Quatre Heures.

Palanca's exotic body seemed to work like a charm, as temperatures remained manageable throughout the car's run. Unfortunately, the electrics weren't as durable this time around. A total electrical failure would boot the 512 BBB out of the race on lap 118, less than half the distance of the winning Porsche 936/81 driven by Jacky Ickx (BEL), and Derek Bell (GB).

The disappointment of Le Mans was followed by an appearance at the high speed circuit of Enna-Pergusa, a near oval encircling a snake-filled lake on the Italian island of Sicily. The same driving team as used at Le Mans saw action on the island, recording a fifth place finish.

However, the low level event had failed to attract a healthy amount of competitors, as only ten cars started the race. Once again, the Ferrari was the only GTX entrant, gifting it a class victory and closing out the car's first season on a vague high note.

Mugello, 1982.

The 1982 season kicked off with two botched entries for the Bellancauto team, as they were no-shows at both the 1000 KM of Monza and the Silverstone 6 Hours. Third time was the charm however, as the team resurfaced at Mugello for another 1000 kilometer event.

Again running as the sole IMSA GTX entry in the first season of Group B and Group C, the 512 BBB qualified 14th overall in the hands of Fabrizio Violati and Duilio Truffo. The all-red machine was able to climb up the order during the race, eventually bagging 10th overall, 43 laps behind the victorious Lancia LC1 of Piercarlo Ghinzani and Michele Alboreto.

A heavily revised version appeared in 1984.

Following the appearance at Mugello, the car was sidelined for an entire season as the team tried to work out what to do with a Group 5 car in the dawn of the Group C. Since Group B GT racing was reliant on homologation of a street car, and the heavily modified BBB had little hope of being seen as one, the decision was made to convert it into a top level Group C prototype instead.

Though the idea sounded somewhat sensible, the prevalence of ground effect in Group C made it virtually impossible to turn the Ferrari into a competitive prototype. Not only would it be very difficult to integrate the venturi tunnels needed to generate ground effect into the car's chassis, the cylinder heads of the wide flat-12 would actually block them completely.

Along with this handicap, the engine's design date back to 1976, and left very little room for development. Pushing it up to a power level on par with that of cars like the dominant, 620 horsepower Porsche 956 would not only be extremely hard to do, but would likely come at the cost of reliability.

With the Group C plans falling through, Scuderia Supercar Bellancauto decided to wait for Ferrari to finish the promised 288 GTO, a homologation special intended for Group B GT competition. However, progress was slow on the project. When word came from Modena that the car would not be ready for 1984, Violati and his crew became restless.

Not content on skipping another season, the team revived the dormant 512. Though the Group C conversion had been halted, the car had still undergone an extensive transformation. The original elongated bodywork had been abandoned in favor of an extremely short affair.

The extended twin prong nose was changed to a shorter, shovel-like model with a pronounced square protrusion housing the radiator. A similar treatment was given to the tail section, which was drastically shortened as well.

In an apparent effort to visually reclaim some length, the BBB was given faux rear quarter windows in black paint, accentuating its roof line. Finally, the narrow, hand me down Formula One rear wing was finally abandoned in favor of a much wider twin element example.

The now just 4.4 meter (14 feet) Ferrari was promptly dressed in a new livery, combining Rosso Corsa with the tricolore of the Italian flag, and the bubbles of "Ferrarelle", a brand of carbonated mineral water sold by Violati's firm.

For the first time since 1981, the car returned to Vallelunga for another pre-season test. Unlike the previous visit, the test went by without incident, and yielded encouraging results. On average, the BBB was some four to five seconds quicker than it had been three years prior.

However, the new short body was better suited to mid-speed tracks like Vallelunga, rather than the relentless unbroken straights of La Sarthe. The reduction in length directly corresponded to an increase in drag, a fact immediately apparent from the car's qualifying times.

With Maurizio Micangeli, Roberto Marazzi and Dominique Lacaud (FRA) at the helm, the 512 clocked a 4:00.200. This compared unfavorably to the 1981 performance, a 3:55.660. This made the updated car a painful 4.54 seconds slower. Ultimately this lead to 43rd place on the grid, partly owing to Group C1/2 and IMSA GTP taking up most of the field.

Sadly, once again the race would end in tears for Scuderia Supercar Bellancauto. After just 65 laps, the gearbox disintegrated, and there was no hope in repairing it. It seemed the car's exploits at Le Mans were cursed no matter the shape it took.

The BBB's retirement was made extra painful by the fact it was once again running as the sole GTX car, meaning it missed out on a guaranteed class victory.

The 512 BBB behind the next best GT car at Imola, the Group B BMW M1.

The second drama at Le Mans didn't end the car's checkered career however, as it was dragged to the 1000 Kilometers of Imola three months later. Brothers Maurizio and Marco Micangeli were joined by a man racing under the synonym of "Gero".

The trio qualified 23rd overall, .690 of a second clear of the closest competitor, the Helmut Gall Racing BMW M1 Group B. The race would be a carbon copy of Le Mans however, as the engine failed early on. And with that final disappointment, the car's career was finally over.

Following its final showing at Imola, the 512 BBB became part of Fabrizio Violati's personal collection. Violati had just been asked to form the Ferrari Club Italia on personal request of Enzo Ferrari, who also allowed him to call his collection hall Maranello Rosso. It was in this hall in the tiny principality of San Marino, not far from the track where it had last raced, that the BBB found a home.

The BBB at Maranello Rosso next to a 365 GTB/4 "Daytona" Competizione.

The car moved to the hall in 1989 and, came with good company, as it rubbed shoulders with Violati's 250 GT SWB, 250 GTO, a Goodwood TT-winning 1964 330P driven by Damon Hill, an ex-Gilles Villeneuve / Carlos Reutemann 312T3 Grand Prix car with a familiar rear wing, and countless other priceless Ferraris.

The car remained in Fabrizio's possession until his death in 2010. Four years later, it was rolled out onto the auction floor by reputable auction house Bonhams Fine Art Auctioneers & Valuers. There it eventually sold for 990.000 dollars to a private collector, bringing an end to a long and varied history of a truly unique car.

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Comments (14)
  • I was reading one of my dad's books he picked up from Le Mans in 1984 and saw this car, amazing to see an article on it!

    12 days ago
    1 Bump
  • "a former championship winning factory Vespa racer" YMMD! I never knew that such a championship even existed...

    12 days ago
    1 Bump

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