Twenty years after Ferrari had last built a bespoke sportscar, a man who’d spent three decades in a mostly fruitless pursuit of major racing honors convinced Maranello to build a car to win Daytona … what happened next was an opening chapter to the American Dream …
The last IMSA GTP championship that featured cars even quicker than those in the IndyCar series was in 1992. By 1993, escalating costs and a stumbling world economy saw manufacturers abandon the crown jewel of US road racing, leaving a bitter taste for a generation of motorsport fans who rightly believed they were witnessing the death of one of the world’s premiere racing championships.
For 1994, IMSA was to be replaced by new, cost-efficient regulations that came along with a new name: the World Sports Cars series. No-one who watched the first of these cars in action during the 1993 season held out much hope for a quick return to the glory days.
In late 1993, though, rumors began circulating of an open-cockpit sportcar being tested on Ferrari’s test-track. With no denials from Maranello forthcoming, by January 1994, there was a genuine feeding frenzy in the motoring press: were Ferrari really plotting a return to sportscar racing after a 20 year absence?
Mr. MOMO and his American Dream
Giampiero Moretti was a young man when he began dreaming of a motor racing career. Scion of a well-to-do Milanese family, the 24-year-old Moretti began racing in hillclimbs in the early ’60s. As a political science student, Moretti spent his weekends racing his Lancia Appia Zagato, and it soon became apparent that its massive wooden steering wheel was impeding his performance. Moretti drew a design and had a friend craft a steering wheel for him.
Moretti’s new wheel was a breed apart; schooled in the art of abrupt changes of direction, Moretti’s wheel was a world-away from the mostly British-derived wooden, large wheels of the ’60s. Smaller, with leather, ergonomic shapes, Moretti’s wheel was noticed by fellow competitors, and he was soon supplying his wheels to small custom teams and individual drivers in such volume that it necessitated opening a small business.
In 1964, that small business was about to hit the big time when Moretti received an order from the Scuderia Ferrari in Maranello, signed by team manager Eugenio Dragoni. The order was for a custom steering wheel: one wheel, with the Cavallino Rampante branding, three-spokes, leather-bound, small diameter, and destined for use on Ferrari’s Formula One car, the 158, and its driver, John Surtees.
“That steering wheel turned out to be a huge success, and to top it off, John Surtees won the world title in 1964 using that steering wheel,” Moretti recalled five decades later when he spoke to Sports Car Digest. That was the start of an intimate relationship with Ferrari that saw Moretti begin supplying steering wheels to both the racing division and, by the 1970s, production cars as well, from Moretti’s new factory based in Verona.
With orders flooding in, Moretti’s business expanded quickly; in search of a name, he came up with an amalgamation of his name, “Mo”, and the first two letters of the circuit on which his steering wheel clinched a famous win with Surtees doing the wheel-work—Monza.
In the years that followed, MOMO became synonymous with the “Made in Italy” aesthetic. It was through these years that Moretti also began a close friendship with Enzo’s son, Piero Lardi Ferrari. For Moretti, though, business may have been on the up, but his real passion was not making wheels, but turning them in anger.
In 1970, he finally made it into the big-time. With Ferrari’s new 512 S, Moretti chased his dream of glory in the World Sportscar Championship as a privateer. Results, though, were not as expected. Still, Moretti, with his business ever-expanding into new markets and new areas—helmets, shifter knobs, racing shoes—kept racing throughout the ’70s and ’80s, mostly in the US, where he entered hundreds of races while his MOMO brand became ubiquitous at racing events around the globe.
“He was a very flamboyant, likable guy,” Mario Andretti told the New York Times in 2012. “He didn’t win too many races [though]. We would kid him about it; we kept needling him.”
Moretti, needling aside, kept racing. And kept believing in the dream. He couldn’t have guessed that he would be nearly 60 when finally he would win one of the biggest endurance races in the world. But as it turned out, there was not much luck involved in that—it was Moretti himself who, behind the scenes, convinced Ferrari to return to sportscar racing.
The Return of the Cavallino
For 1994, the new rules for the IMSA-replacement series, the World Sports Car Championship, heralded a new era and new cars that were a lot more ‘primitive’ than the IMSA GTP monsters of lore; flat-bottom floors, limited aero’, open cockpits, and most importantly, engines that had to be production-vehicle based.
Moretti, who’d been running in the US since 1970 with his failed bid to win the Daytona 24 Hour in the 512 S, saw in the new rules a golden opportunity for Ferrari to return to sportscar racing. New rules meant everyone started from scratch. Chief of Ferrari North America Gian Luigi Longinotti-Buitoni—another close friend of Moretti’s—was a quick believer in Moretti’s plan, and in Maranello, he found his old friend Piero Lardi Ferrari equally enthusiastic. Helping matters, of course, was the Formula One-derived lump that would power the new production-based F50 road-car (the GT version is coming to Project CARS 2), an ideal solution to power a new sportscar in a series that stipulated the use of a homologated power unit.
Ferrari’s in-house engine guru Mauro Rioli was put in charge of the program, with Gian Paolo Dallara hired to supervise. It was at Dallara’s windtunnel where the shape of the new car was developed by Riola, with Tony Southgate—the man behind the Porsche-slaying Jaguar XJRs of the 1980s (also coming to Project CARS 2)—on-board as consultant.
In January of 1994, amidst a buzz of anticipation, Ferrari unveiled their first sportscar in over 20 years—the Ferrari 333 SP—at Daytona. Ferrari had no intention of racing at the 24 Hour event, nor at Sebring’s 12 Hour event that followed, as the car was not at the point in its evolution to take on long distance events. Still, the news was a shot in the arm for the new series.
Ferrari chose to debut the car, in race spec’, at the third round of the WSC championship, at Road Atlanta.
Four cars were brought to the race, shared amongst three teams, one of which was the MOMO Corse car with Moretti and Eliseo Salazar turning the wheel. By the time the checkers fell, the new Ferrari 333 SP had just begun life as a winner. In second was the man to whom the Ferrari 333 SP owed its very existence, the 54-year-old MOMO magnet, Mr. Moretti.
The 333 SP went on to dominate the championship in imperious style, finishing 1, 2, 3 at the next round at Lime Rock, and only failing to win the championship (losing to Oldsmobile) due to the 333 SP’s late start to the season.
For 1995, the championship belonged squarely to Ferrari despite failure at the Daytona 24 Hours. Five wins, though, including the Sebring 12 Hours, showed the car was in a class of its own, with the constructor’s title augmented by the driver’s title for Fermín Velez. The 333 SP entered that season’s Le Mans race, too, to mixed results.
In the years that followed, the competition inevitably caught up, and by 1997, the Riley & Scott prototypes were too quick for the now four-year-old Ferrari. For 1998, the car was updated and entered into the International Sports Racing Series (which would evolve into the FIA Sportscar Championship), and won every single race. Meanwhile, at the tender age of 58, Mr. MOMO’s dream, of motor racing success, after 30 years of failure, was about to become an improbable reality.
In 1998, the MOMO Corse Ferrari 333 SP came to Daytona with new updates and a slightly tuned engine. It had been 31 years since Ferrari had won the race in 1967, with a 1, 2, 3 sweep with the P4s that are coming to Project CARS 2. Indeed, that 1967 race was the last time Ferrari had won a 24 Hour endurance race.
The MOMO Corse car, with Gianpiero Moretti, Arie Luyendyk, Mauro Baldi, and Didier Theys sharing the cockpit, qualified second and, in a race of high attrition, found itself leading with the clock counting down to zero. That’s when Theys pulled the car slowly into the pit and vacated the seat for Mr. MOMO to drive to the checkers.
There wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Moretti was captured on the TV cameras celebrating a win that had taken him almost 40 years to achieve, along with a little help from his friends at Maranello. Asked how he felt about winning his first major race on a track and a race that had always meant to much to Ferrari, Moretti said, “With all of the money I have spent at Daytona, I could have bought one thousand Rolexes easily, but I wanted to win this race.”
Moretti’s dream, his America dream, had finally come true.
Buoyed by that success, Moretti then went and made it two in a row when he clinched the Sebring 12 Hour a couple of weeks later, thereby giving the 333 SP two of its most important victories, and two of Ferrari’s most important sportscar victories in 25 years.
As American dream stories go, this one was just too good. It kept on giving, too, as Moretti went on to clinch the Glen 6 Hours that season as well.
Moretti, season’s end, hung up his gloves for good and retired. A man who had built an empire off the back of one steering wheel, sold it off for a fortune, and whose only remaining dream, one that he had sustained through a life-time, was finally fulfilled.
The end of the 333 SP
Daytona being what it is for Ferrari, it was hardly surprising that the 2002 24 Hours of Daytona would be the final official race for the Ferrari 333 SP.
The 333 SP enjoyed eight glorious years at the very top of sportscar racing both in North America and Europe. It’s not hard to see why: from the windtunnel-designed aero’ to the 4.0-litre V12 F1-derived engine pushing 641hp at a wailing 11,000rpm (at the Glen, that engine could be heard all the way around the track), from the carbon composite panel-built body to the five-speed sequential box, this car was built for winning. Weighing in at a slender 862kgs, the 333 SP was capable of 370kmh, and 0-100 in 3.2 seconds.
All told, 40 333 SPs were produced—chassis 001 to 004 by Ferrari, 005-014 by Dallara (there was no 013), and the rest built by Michelotti.
In 1998, it won Daytona and Sebring, and in 144 races entered, the 33SSP picked up 56 wins, 69 poles, and over dozen international sportscar championships between 1994 and 2003.
And it all started because Mr. MOMO would never give up on his dream.
Project CARS 2 releases worldwide, September 22 for PS4, Xbox One & Pc. Pre-Order now.