On the trail of Ferrari 250 GTOs in Tuscany

The 2017 Ferrari 250 GTO tour was an event so private that very few knew of it in advance. After all, it is quite understandable to want to keep your plans to yourself when those plans are to gather together 19 of the world’s most important, iconic and valuable cars (of the 32 built in total), and have them take to the open roads. These are cars that are often owned by the “rich and powerful”, who tend not to crave visibility; indeed, considering that everything about the 2017 250 GTO Tour, organized to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the classic car world’s most legendary car, was absolutely top secret, just managing to be there, in the right place and at the right time to see the convoy go by, was an achievement in itself.

Researching the 2017 Ferrari 250 GTO Tour with investigative talent

We first got wind of the 2017 250 GTO tour a few months ago, talking with Ferrari collectors, but back then the details were still limited: it would take place in the Chianti area of Tuscany (one of its most beautiful parts) at the end of September, and no press would be authorized to cover the event, except for Ferrari’s official photographer. Despite this, we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to see, and hear, those GTOs on the road, so we decided to get on their trail! We knew that the only hotels in the area that could accommodate the number of people that would be involved in a tour like this are in Florence, and we reasoned that there are few roads between Florence and Chianti able to provide a suitably beautiful setting. When we spotted some tell-tale red arrows taped at junctions on one of these roads, we knew we were on the right track. A Ferrari red minivan, with 250 GTO written on it, passing by, confirmed our suspicions. All we had to do was wait….

The 250 GTO

People often ask why the 250 GTO is so important. There are many reasons, and they are all connected. When Enzo Ferrari famously stormed into the office of his technical director, engineer Giotto Bizzarrini, demanding he create a new car capable of winning GT class races, he was really only looking for a way of revamping the 250 SWB and, in so doing, of getting rid of the many parts and spares he had piled up in the warehouse. Bizzarrini, not an easy man to deal with but undoubtedly one of the best, if the greatest, car engineers of his time, started thinking outside the box, as he himself recalls: “Up to that moment, we had all been racing considering only the maximum output of the engine. It was all about generating more power, and everything else was secondary. Aerodynamics was not even a concept: it was generally accepted that in order go fast, you needed horses under the hood, and Ferrari, and Mr Ferrari himself, believed in this idea more than most.”

Bizzarrini felt that the time had come to come up with something different, something revolutionary: “I had to go down a different route” he says “because I faced so many limitations. The 250 engine was already so well developed that it would have been impossible, or too expensive, to get enough extra horse power from it. So I had to work on the weight, but that alone, was not enough.” The need to overcome air resistance, now a physical science called aerodynamics, was a concept first developed in the airplane industry, originating in the late 1920s with the fashion for seaplanes speed records. In the years before the Second World War, Italy was a leader in this field, and one of the very few countries to have its own wind tunnels. But the benefits of overcoming air resistance were forgotten for a while after the war, when the availability of new materials led to exponential increases in engine power and the extensive use of aluminum alloy allowed the weight of racing cars to be considerably reduced.

But soon, by the early 1960s, these advances, too, were no longer enough to be sure of beating your competitors. “I was using my company car, a 250 GT, as a test bench,” says Bizzarrini, “and but even after upgrading its engine, transmission and suspension, I wasn’t getting the performance levels I was after. So I went further, reducing its weight, but the results were still far from satisfactory. That’s when I decided to reduce the frontal area, widen the wheel arches to make room for bigger tires, and raise the back, and we liked what we saw”. Herein lies the importance of the GTO: from the early days of automobile racing though to 1962, when it made its debut, racing was essentially a matter of engine power, but  the GTO switched the emphasis to aerodynamics, a concept still is hot even today, 55 years on!

The “O” in the Ferrari 250 GTO

The “O” in GTO, is the result of a wire sent to Ferrari confirming that the “new” 250 GT was, finally, homologated (Omologato in Italian). To send a wire, you had to pay per letter, and simply writing GTO saved some cents. Homologation of the car was a fundamental step, and far from straightforward, given the extent of the modifications done: the risk was that the car would be classed, by the racing bodies, as a prototype (and thus pitted against far more competitive cars)  rather than simply an evolution of an existing model that was already homologated for racing, namely the GT which competed in the “Categoria Gran Turismo” class.

One of the issues most hotly debated between Ferrari and the racing federation was the modification of the chassis (which featured smaller, shorter pipes, in a different position). A rule stated that this could be modified only after the production of at least 100 cars; the 250 GT already met this criterion, but even so getting the chassis approved took some doing: Ferrari was able to exploit the updated 250 GT homologation, incorporating the dry sump lubrication of the engine, the 6 carburetors, and the gearbox with the fifth gear. Meanwhile, the new Watt suspension, a modification created by Forghieri, to be approved, required a small stratagem: to match the official technical sheets of the 250 GT, as required by the rules, the old springs remained in place, and could easily be spotted by marshals, but they were so small and thin as to be absolutely ineffective.

Mauro Forghieri and the art of metal shaping

If Bizzarrini conceived the idea for the 250 GTO, then engineer Mauro Forghieri must surely be considered the father of the car in real life. After the “palace riots” of October 1961, and the subsequent firing of the entire Ferrari management, Bizzarrini included, young Mauro Forghieri found himself in charge of the technical development of the car. After the first tests in Monza, in September 1961, when the 250 GTO prototype lapped faster than an F1 racing car — the GT had an engine with twice the capacity of the single seater’s — the car underwent many other modifications. First of all, a “wing” was cut in the thin alloy at top end of the car, just where the trunk lid finished. Done directly in Monza using an ordinary pair of scissors, this “crude but effective” modification  immediately improved the stability of the car at high speeds. Later, the inclination of the windscreen was decreased (it was later returned to its original inclination on the GTO-1964 version). “Stability was one of the main issues” recalls Forghieri, “but the set-up of the Watt suspension, the rigidity of the damper, the shape of the tail and the presence of a flat spoiler under the fuel tank improved the situation”.

The racing prowess of the Ferrari 250 GTO

Even just to list all the races in which GTOs have competed, not to mention the successes the model has achieved, we would need a book, and a big one at that! GTOs had the capacity to win everything a GT car could win. In most cases, GTOs were raced by privateers, and this makes their success even more remarkable, given that these are cars that depend on the skill of their drivers, who, in turn, could not rely on the speed  enjoyed by professional racers. As John Surtess put it, the “GTO is a car that a driver can trust. It is not always the fastest, but is, by far the easiest to drive to the limit, especially when compared to the Jaguar E-Type Lightweight or the Aston Martin DB4 Zagato.”

The 2017 Ferrari 250 GTO Tour

Going back to the 2017 Tour, this was, as we have said, an opportunity not to be missed. Indeed,  a single GTO is nowadays capable of fetching something in the region of EUR 35–50 million, depending on its past achievements, history and condition. Therefore, to see one of them, let alone a convoy, being driven on open roads is a very rare event indeed.

A GTO is an impressive car, not only esthetically, but also because of the way it stimulates the senses: on its approach, even from a distance, you can smell the mix of fuel, burned oil, Ferodo brakes and clutch, while the music of its 3-liter V12 engine is simply magical. If you are lucky enough to step inside the cockpit, you find yourself facing the steering wheel, the lines of the two front fenders and the gear lever, which is set so high that you can’t help seeing it, also because is less than a hand span away from the steering wheel.  Seeing these cars on the twisty Tuscan roads, you immediately realize that, compared with modern cars, they are very low. They are so amazing looking that normal drivers, even without fully appreciating what they have on their tail, stop and let them pass, just to get a better look. An observer will also note that they sit very, very low on the road, with the rear-end sinking even lower when they are pushed hard during accelerations.

The magic

To pick out just one special moment after a day spent with these 250 GTOs is very difficult indeed. The owners, during their stops, were pleased to talk about their cars, and they were also happy to salute onlookers at the side of the road with a friendly wave and a “ciao”. Some of the cars looked truly amazing in their resplendent livery, freshly restored or repainted (mostly from a “regular” Ferrari red) in colors worn long ago, perhaps in a successful race. What is more, the setting was absolutely ideal. Nevertheless, a truly perfect moment from the day does spring to mind: after lunch, while waiting for the cars to arrive and roar past, I found myself “suspended” for a moment in the perfect silence of the late summer Tuscany countryside. Suddenly, a good five minutes before the cars passed by, I began to hear a distant rumble, like that of an approaching storm.

The sound reverberated round the valleys and gentle hills, growing louder and louder with each turn of a corner, and it was an absolutely amazing feeling to listen to them approaching. Sometimes, it was even possible to discern the revving of a single engine, or the double declutching of a “gear down” passage. Noisy cars disturbing the quiet of the countryside are normally rather annoying, but this mechanical symphony was so perfect, and so in harmony with the scenery, that it could well have been a wonderful movie soundtrack.

All photos courtesy of the author.

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