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1958: At home against Indycars


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Stirling Moss, Maserati Eldorado Special, 1958 Monzanapolis

Although not at Indy there was one other occasion when Ferraris faced Indycars: at the 1958 “Monzanapolis“.

More detailed information can be found elsewhere but here's the big story in brief. The board of the Monza track had made an agreement with USAC to invite ten Champ Car drivers and their cars for a 500-mile race on the fearsome, steeply banked Monza oval, to be held in June 1957. The field would be extended with suitable European cars and drivers. The Italians preferred to invite national champions and Indy 500 winners but due to fate as well as other circumstances many of these weren't available. After the first Firestone tyre tests by Pat O'Connor the European Grand Prix drivers decided to stay away from the event due to the outrageous speeds and the fear for massive high-speed accidents. Eventually just five European-built cars entered the event, and only three of them actually started the event: the Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar D-types. Jean Behra had practiced with a Maserati but didn't start since his car was too slow. Another entrant was Italian Mario Borniggia who had entered a Ferrari V12. His qualifying speed was 138+ mph while polesitter Tony Bettenhausen in a Novi had reached 176.818mph, reaching trap speeds of 195mph! Borniggia was kindly told he wasn't permitted to start the event. That was it for any possible Ferrari contribution to the 1957 Monzanapolis. Due to the absence and lack of interest by the Europeans many believed the event to be a one-time deal but surprisingly enough, one year later the so-called “Race of Two Worlds” was held again.

Unlike the year before, Ferrari was represented with three cars in the 1958 Monzanapolis. The potentially best of this threesome was a new car built especially for the occasion and designated 412MI (MonzaIndianapolis). It was powered by a V12 engine. The following specifications have been published about this engine:

Bore and stroke 77x72 mm
Capacity 4023.32cc
Compression 9.4:1
Max. power *) 415hp
Engine revs 8500rpm
Carburetion 6 Weber 42DCN

* Data found in Prunet, Ferrari Sports Racing and Prototype Competition Cars. For the Monzanapolis car a power output of a little under 400hp is given elsewhere.

According to one source, this particular engine had a dark history. Before being fitted into the Monzanapolis single-seater, the engine had been installed in a 335S sportscar, serial nr. 0646. Ferrari specialists know that we're talking about a car that wrote a piece of sad racing history. It was the car that is responsible for the end of Italy's most traditional events, the Mille Miglia. Driven by Alfonso de Portago and navigated by Eddie Nelson, the car killed its crew and ten spectators in a crash during the 1957 event. This accident spelled the end for the Mille Miglia. The engine was taken out of the wreck, repaired and prepared for its next assignment: the Monzanapolis in spring 1958.

Rule changes for Indycars effective since 1957 limited the maximum capacity of unblown engines to 4.2 litres. Since the mid fifties Ferrari had been active in sportscars with four-cam V12 engines of various types, the 290 (3.5 litre), 315 (3.8 litre) and 335 (4.1 litre). The latter was, capacity-wise at least, indeed a suitable starting point for a car that would be represented in that 1958 event. Given the results obtained with the V12 engine there may be some doubts about the suitability of the V12 concept. On the other hand, due to the track's high banking cornering speeds were much higher than at Indianapolis. Acceleration out of the corners became less of a problem, so the V12's torque handicap compared with the Offy was much less of a concern than at the Speedway.

However, by that time Ferrari had shifted its focus for sports car racing to a new type of engine: the two-cam 3-litre V12 that would become legendary under the name Testa Rossa. The reason behind this change was simple: the World Sports Car title had recently been restricted to cars with an engine with a maximum of 3 litres. Nevertheless, the Monzanapolis was reason for some activity with a larger-capacity V12.

The 412MI chassis had coil springs, a wishbone at front, while at the rear a transverse leaf spring was mated to a De Dion axle. The car had a five-speed gearbox but two of the gears were taken out. As if to prove how traditional Ferrari still could be: as in 1952 at Indy the team stuck with Borrani-made wire wheels.

Because of the tremendous stress on the cars when driven flat-out on the Monza banking the race was divided in three heats and maintenance on the cars was permitted to enable getting the cars to the end of the distance. Every heat had its own prizes but the overall winner was the one who had the shortest time over the three heats combined. In the three heats the 412MI car was driven by three drivers: Luigi Musso, Phil Hill and Mike Hawthorn. Luigi Musso had surprised just about everyone by being the fastest qualifier with the 412MI. The year before, the polesitter (Tony Bettenhausen) had been the first retirement of the event but the Ferrari was saved that embarrassment. In fact, the car acquitted itself fairly well in the overall race.

During the first heat Luigi Musso took the start but a little before halfway he pitted because of difficulties coping with the (methanol-based) exhaust fumes of the opponents he was racing. (Ferrari used 130 octane fuel for its cars.) Mike Hawthorn relieved Musso and brought the car to the finish in 6th place, after 60 of the 63 laps.

Musso also started the second heat but again the opposition's exhaust fumes took him out and after 19 laps he was relieved by Phil Hill. Again the two men in the 412MI had managed to do 60 laps but this time they were classified 9th.

Hawthorn took the start for the third heat and about halfway he handed over the car to Phil Hill. Hill eventually finished third in the heat with again 60 laps done. On aggregate for the overall standings, it turned out that the Ferrari was classified third with 180 laps, 9 short of the 189 that the two cars in front of them had done. The third place was really an achievement gained through stamina. Certainly in the first two heats cars finished ahead of the Ferrari but when some of those retired it moved up to a surprising third place overall. Combined with the pole position one could say that the car had performed reasonably well. The first two cars were out of reach, but without its drivers being intoxicated the car could have ended closer to the leaders.

Ferrari entered another newly built car, powered by a 3-litre V6. This was said to have been derived from the 2.4-litre Dino V6 engine that had made its debut in Grand Prix racing the same year. Other reports state that the engine came from a 296 Dino sportscar. With a bore and stroke of 85x77.5mm the 65-degree V6 had a capacity of 2880cc, sacrificing some 1.2 litres and the power that those could provide. The car was driven by Phil Hill but he was an early retirement in the first heat.

Luigi Chinetti had taken his 375-based car, chassis 0388, out of the mothballs and shipped it over to Italy to have it modified for the Monza race. Among the things he had done to it was that it got a 4.1-litre engine said to be a four-cam 335 Sport engine, although other sources mention that the engine was a destroked version of the 'regular' 375 engine.

Besides that, the right-side fuel tank pontoon was removed, the one on the left still remained. It made the car look a bit better when seen from the right. Harry Schell drove the car and finished the first of the three heats in 12th place but retired during the second one.

Given its age as well as the fact that the American entrants all came with more recent cars that were specifically designed for oval racing, it was no wonder that the car stood no chance unless it had been utterly reliable. In both years that the Monzanapolis race were held the durability of the roadsters was put to the test but their retirement rate was high nonetheless. However, Chinetti's 375 conversion didn't last either. This ended whatever chance the car might have had to make a honourable impression as the Ecurie Ecosse Jaguars had done the year before.

Jim Rathmann, Leader Cards Watson-Offenhauser, 1958 Monzanapolis

Jim Rathmann was victorious at Monza in 1958 and all-dominant as well. He won every heat so there was no doubt whatsoever who deserved to be the overall winner. He drove this car, one of the earliest Watson chassis, the near-classic shape of the Watson-Offy already visible. (photo HG)

The reasonable success of Musso/Hill/Hawthorn didn't result in another attempt at Indianapolis by Ferrari. Maserati had also fielded a car in that 1958 Monzanapolis: the Stirling Moss-driven Eldorado Special. In fact, the Maserati had done better in the first two heats than any of the Ferraris. A horrifying crash with some 20 laps to go in the third heat prevented the Maserati from being the third-place finisher.

Maserati Eldorado Special, 1998 Festival of Speed

Seen at Goodwood Festival of Speed in 1998, the Eldorado Special Maserati in the colors as it raced in the 1958 Monzanapolis. (photo HG)

Maserati was lured to Indy with their Monza car in May 1959. Stirling Moss wasn't interested in driving at Indy so the car was assigned to rookie Ralph Liguori. The Maserati, however, would be among the cars contributing to Liquori's sad statistic of never qualifying for a 500 despite a number of attempts over the years. To improve their chances of success Maserati also provided one of their 4.2-litre engines to the Arciero team, which fitted the block into a Kurtis 500C of 1954 origins.

Kurtis-Maserati 1959

Apart from the Eldorado Special, Maserati was also represented at Indianapolis in 1959 by the Arciero Racing team, which fitted a Maserati V8 in their Kurtis 500C. Shorty Templeman failed to qualify the car. This particular 500C retained the larger V8-modified bodywork but was converted into a street-legal hotrod fitted with the running gear of a Triumph TR3. Looking ungainly yet innocent, this particular Kurtis-Kraft chassis is the centrepiece of a dark page in Indy history. This is K-K serial number #372, best known as the Hopkins car, in which Bill Vukovich was killed in the 1955 race. I didn't know that in 1997 when I took this picture in the Nationaal Automobiel Museum at Raamsdonksveer in the Netherlands, these days moved to The Hague. (photo HG)

However, it appears as if Ferrari never had any intention of entering the 412MI at the other track whose name was used in its abbreviated type registration, since the 412MI engine was taken out and found its way into a sportscar derived from the 335S, using a 312S chassis. The car (chassis number 0744) was named after the engine and got its engine from the 412MI. As early as October 1958 the car was active in the USA already. There was no 3-litre limit in US sports car racing, which is why this 4-litre car ended up in the States.

Ferrari most likely saved themselves from yet another embarrassment by staying away from Indianapolis because they weren't fooled by taking third in a race with ten American-built opponents. Or rather, nine, as the tenth car was the Dean Van Lines Special that was to be driven by Juan Manuel Fangio but due to engine problems only started in the third heat and had to retire after 2 laps.

Since the three Ferraris and the Maserati only had to qualify they were assured a starting spot. Should any of the three Ferraris cars have the journey to Indianapolis in May 1959, they would have been up against at least 40 of those American-built roadsters in order to become one of the 33 fastest cars to start the race. No way that the 3-litre V6 or the Chinetti 375-based hybrid could have done that. It remains a question whether the Musso/Hill/Hawthorn factory car might have succeeded. If placed in a well-organized team run by Indy experts who took things seriously and had plenty of time on their hands to sort the chassis, who knows what may have happened. But one thing is certain: somewhat fragile as the roadsters may have been at Monza, Indy was the home ground for which they were created, and as long as there were over 33 roadsters competing for starting spots, the chances of an outsider making the race looked marginal, unless the outsider carried an advantageous innovation the roadsters were lacking, as would Jack Brabham's rear-engined Cooper-Climax in 1961.

But now we are speaking of 1961…