This story is one of the strangest and most debatable in Ferrari’s history. It’s not clear if Ferrari was once about to dump Formula One in favor of America’s greatest race, or if the company was so petty that they built an entire car for a bluff.
This is a difficult story to explain in 2016, because the contexts of Ferrari, Indy, and F1 have changed so much since this all took place back in the mid-1980s.
It’s important to remember, first and foremost, that the Indianapolis 500 and its surrounding CART/Champ Car series was not a declining operation filled with cookie cutter cars. CART was running the very fastest single-seater cars on the planet, cars that were getting faster and faster as the years wore on, attracting top drivers from around the world and top manufacturers as well. Porsche was working on its entry into the series, as was Alfa Romeo and Lotus. Basically, shit was going well for America’s open-wheeled series.
Over in Europe, things were going backwards.
FISA, F1's regulatory body at the time, was busily trying to slow down its cars and make them less cutting edge. It was the midst of the power-mad turbo era, when a 1000-horsepower engine was considered uncompetitive and underpowered. FISA ordered that by 1989 it would ban turbos in favor of naturally-aspirated engines of 3.5 liters.
Maximum number of cylinders? Eight.
This doesn’t make a ton of sense to me, though. Ferrari was campaigning a V6 in F1 at the time and they had long raced and won with four, six, and eight cylinder engines. Years after this ruling, Ferrari went on to compete with tens, eights, and now sixes.
But it’s certainly true that Enzo was fed up with Formula 1 at the time. He was getting into arguments with FISA on the regular, his cars were uncompetitive, and they only raced two or three times in America, which was Ferrari’s most important sales market for its road cars. What’s more, Enzo had dreamed for decades of winning at America’s most prestigious race, as the extremely well-sourced 8W notes.
Enzo was also old enough to have seen his cars compete at Indianapolis all the way back in the 1950s. Here’s driving great Alberto Ascari in a “Ferrari Special” that ran in ‘52.
With these thoughts of a struggling European F1 team, an under-advertised American car market, and struggles with F1's officials, it’s understandable why in 1985 Ferrari sent his competition director to America to talk to existing CART teams. He was tasked with building up a staff to complete a Ferrari CART team and car to run at Indy. Enzo even attempted to conscript then-young Adrian Newey, who was already on track to become one of the greatest race car designers of the modern era, to design his car for him.
And Ferrari really did build a car. That’s it pictured above at Ferrari’s factory. It’s an exceedingly good looking car, simple and unadorned in a way that modern Indy and F1 cars are not.
At first Ferrari tested another manufacturer’s chassis, and they initially discussed borrowing an engine from Lancia’s Le Mans racing team, but by the end of 1985, Ferrari committed to making its own chassis and its own engine. It could not have been cheap or easy, but they completed what was called ‘Project 637' in secret. It was a state-of-the-art vehicle, as clean and as beautiful as single-seater race cars get and powered by a 700 horsepower V8. Particularly cool was that the engine ran its intake on its sides and routed the exhausts into an exquisite mess of tubing nestled in the middle of the vee. That all routed back to a single turbocharger, which is how the 2.65-liter engine made so much power.
Pictures of the engine are extremely rare, but you can see it here and here. The only photo I think I can legally use that even comes close to showing it is below, where you can see the turbo mounted directly back and behind the center of the engine.
It didn’t take long for rumors of Ferrari’s secret CART plans to spread, as IndyCar officially remembered, and Ferrari officially recognized that they were looking into something, or maybe going to halfway review something else, generally admitting that they were serious about racing at Indy.
What they weren’t clear on was just how far along they really were.
Legend has it that this all changed in 1986, when Ferrari supposedly invited all of the people who had given him a hard time about F1 and made his intentions about Indy as clear as possible, as 8W recounts:
The story goes that somewhere in the second half of 1986 FIA and other F1 representatives came to Maranello to speak with Enzo Ferrari about the future of F1 and tried to persuade him to remain in F1. It is said that Enzo told them he was willing to do so but if V12s would be disallowed he couldn’t guarantee his company not pursuing other options. Hardly had Enzo spoken these words or everyone in the room heard an engine being started, which could be identified as a turbocharged V8 of about 3 litres, with Ferrari pointing out to the people in the room what they were hearing. The attendants supposedly all of a sudden realized that Ferrari was indeed in an advanced state with its Indy project. At that moment, the deal was struck that V12 engines would be allowed in F1, under the condition that Ferrari wouldn’t further pursue its Indycar plans. The project 637 came to an instant standstill as a result.
Firing up your secret engine in the middle of negotiations! That is why Enzo was Enzo.
But I think that story is a little too perfect; remember that it was not cheap by any means for Ferrari to construct and test a new car, from engine to chassis, only to give it up in a single meeting about V8s versus V12s. There has to be more to it than that.
Certainly, if Ferrari was only trying to blackmail FISA, it could have done it for a lot cheaper. Again, Ferrari might be a financial juggernaut at the moment, but back in the ‘80s its finances were nowhere near as rosy. It didn’t have a ton of cash to blow on some regulatory leverage.
And that’s the second theory for why Ferrari never raced Project 637, why it remains so obscure even today; Ferrari just didn’t have the funds to run it. Ferrari barely had enough money to compete in F1 alone, and they definitely didn’t have enough to compete in a second and overlapping single-seater series at the same time.
Ferrari did everything that a serious team trying to win at the Indy 500 would do; it only looks like they were politically, financially, maybe even conceptually forced to choose between Indy or F1. Certainly they could have ditched F1. Certainly they could have switched to CART, possibly completely changing the motorsports landscape forever. But Ferrari stuck with F1. It was their established program, one that even Ferrari insiders wanted to remain with.
But it came close. Ferrari had devoted serious resources to Indy, enough to potentially change the entire landscape of global motorsports. And in 1986, they walked away from it. All that remains is this car and dreams of what could have been.
Read more about this beautiful failure at forix.8W.com, they have a seriously in-depth look at the car, its development, and on Ferrari’s background at Indy. Their stories on Porsche and Alfa Romeo’s efforts are also worth a read.