When Ferrari Almost Came to Indy
Tucked into a corner of the Gilles Villeneuve exhibit at the Museo Ferrari (Ferrari Museum) in Maranello, Italy, is a most unusual single-seat race car. It’s a Ferrari, naturally, but it’s slightly bigger than the plethora of Formula One cars on display.
Meet the Ferrari Type 637, designed in 1986 to compete in the CART PPG IndyCar World Series and the Indianapolis 500. Details about the car are hard to come by, because it never was actually entered in a race. The car has rarely left Italy and has run on only a couple of occasions on Ferrari’s private Fiorano test track.
In the final stages of his life, Ferrari patriarch Enzo Ferrari was as feisty as ever. So when Formula One impresario Bernie Ecclestone proposed changes to F1’s Concorde Agreement, Enzo Ferrari fought back. He threatened to pull out of Formula One, and to back up his threat, he commissioned a Ferrari Indy car.
After seeking advice from Goodyear Racing general manager Leo Mehl (who was later Indianapolis Motor Speedway vice president and executive director of the Indy Racing League), Ferrari contacted leading Indy car team Truesports as a potential partner in the venture. In mid-1985, Truesports sent one of its successful March-Cosworth Indy cars to Ferrari, where it was disassembled and inspected. Truesports driver Bobby Rahal traveled to Italy and put in two days of testing in the March at Fiorano.
“This was right in the middle of the racing season, and I went over there to test in September while the racing season was still going on,” Rahal recalled in his biography, “Bobby Rahal: The Graceful Champion,” by Gordon Kirby. “We tested our March-Cosworth at Fiorano, and (Michele) Alboreto drove the car a little bit. Of course, Ferrari copied everything, or tried to.
“We took a skeleton crew over, and we tried to convince (race engineer) Adrian Newey to leave March and design the Ferrari Indy car, but we didn’t know March had committed Adrian to Kraco Racing for 1986.”
Instead, Gustav Brunner was contracted to pen the car, which bears a striking resemblance to the F187/88 Formula One car that Brunner subsequently produced for Ferrari. Installed in the back was a 2.65-liter turbocharged V-8 engine, designated Type 034 and built to CART specifications, with the unique feature of exhaust pipes exiting through the vee at the top of the engine, similar to the arrangement used by Ferrari’s 1.5-liter turbo V-6 cars in F1 from 1981-88.
Meanwhile, Enzo Ferrari continued to battle with Ecclestone, issuing a statement in the summer of 1986.
“The news concerning the possibility of Ferrari abandoning Formula One to race in the United States has a basis in fact,” Ferrari said. “For some time at Ferrari there has been study of a program of participation at Indianapolis and in the CART championship. In the event that in Formula One the sporting and technical rules of the Concorde Agreement are not sufficiently guaranteed for three years the Ferrari team (in agreement with its suppliers and in support of its presence in the US) will put this program into effect.”
The car was completed in the summer of 1986, and the engine was demonstrated to the media in September. Alboreto even tested the car on a couple of occasions at Fiorano, where it reportedly compared quite favorably to the Truesports March 85C that Ferrari still retained. However, the legendary marque was struggling in F1 at the time, and newly recruited chief designer John Barnard decreed that work on the Indy car project must stop at least until Ferrari was sufficiently competitive in F1 again.
Enzo Ferrari, keen to see an end to the 1.5-liter turbo formula in F1, brokered a deal with Ecclestone. If F1 would switch to a 3.5-liter normally aspirated formula for 1989, allowing his beloved 12-cylinder engines to compete again, Ferrari would cease work on the Indy car project. That’s exactly what happened. Sadly, Enzo Ferrari died in August 1988, so he never saw or heard Barnard’s V-12-powered 640 chassis with driver Nigel Mansell win on its debut in the 1989 Brazilian Grand Prix.
“In the end, Enzo was just pulling everybody’s chain,” Rahal recalled. “He was fighting with the FIA, as he did so often. But it was an interesting time and an interesting experience.”
Although the Ferrari Indy car was stillborn, the Type 034 engine survived and was ultimately re-engineered and badged as an Alfa Romeo. Installed in a March chassis, the Alfa was raced by Roberto Guerrero, Danny Sullivan and Al Unser, but without any real success. In 1991, Sullivan managed a fourth-place finish at Surfers Paradise, Australia, and fifth at the Milwaukee Mile. But by then, the engine was essentially a 5-year old design, badly underpowered compared to the contemporary Cosworth and Ilmor/Chevrolet engines.
But the Ferrari 637 Indy car finally did make it to Indianapolis. In 1994, it was loaned for a time to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall of Fame Museum, where American racing fans saw it and marveled about what might have been if Ferrari entered Indy car racing.