The initials MC mean “Maserati Corse”, while the number indicates the number of cylinders hidden under the bonnet: twelve. In the plan to relaunch the historical Modena-based brand, the then-management of Ferrari decided unconditionally to focus on a prestigious project, in line with the Trident traditions: the GT1 series. A “monster” car came from a team effort that also involved Dallara: this is the story of the car and the men that created it
Words Alessandro Giudice
Photography Paolo Carlini
Anyone who loves racing cars will not only have memories but also emotions linked to a series of sensations that sometimes they are not even aware of. And so the sound of a far-off engine or the smell of petrol or sharp braking, or why not, some music, a word, a special light instantly takes us back to a moment in our lives buried who knows where, surprising us with all its strength. When in 2003 Giampaolo Dallara was asked to work on the aerodynamics of the racing Maserati MC12, he probably just had to hear the name to take a step back 60 years in time. He did this reliving all the emotions he felt back in 1961 from behind the walls of the pits in Sebring, Florida, when, aged 25, a young, enthusiastic yet inexperienced engineer, he was catapulted into the USA as sporting director of the Maserati Birdcage with Bruce McLaren, Walt Hansgen and Stirling Moss. And here he is, many years later with an extraordinary reputation in competition car design, dusting off his youthful enthusiasm to bring his extensive experience to the development of a name which, for him, meant fascination, pride and opportunity.
In 2002, Luca di Montezemolo, then-chairman and managing director of Ferrari, after the Maranello-based company had bought out the Trident in 1997, set up Maserati Corse which, led by Claudio Berro with the technical management of Giorgio Ascanelli - former F1 track engineer with Berger, Piquet and Senna - intended to help relaunch the brand image with a focus on sport: the racing tradition that had created the Maserati legend, but which the company had abandoned in the 1960s with the Birdcage, the nickname given to the car because of the tight mesh of aluminium pipes typical of the sports prototypes 60, 61 and 63. While the small committee including Montezemolo, Jean Todt, the engineer Amedeo Felisa, then-general director of Ferrari Granturismo, Berro and, on demand, Ascanelli, decided that the Maserati Vodafone Trophy - the single-brand championship fought with the GranSport coupé - would launch the new sporting season, everyone realised that the Modena-based brand needed a more prestigious stage, in line with its history. And so, among the various alternatives offered by the Motorsports panorama, the GT1 series was chosen, as it was thought that this would soon become a world championship. Montezemolo wanted to design a limited edition of a Maserati supercar, based on the contemporary Ferrari Enzo model but with a spider set-up.
And this is where the MC12 adventure starts. The name not only includes the initials of the Maserati Corse, but also identifies the number of engine cylinders, the 6-litre V12 taken from the Ferrari Enzo, catalogued in Maranello with code F140.
The MC12 also had the Enzo chassis, although during the design phase this was extended by 150 mm. The underlying idea was to build a road car but which could also be used for racing.
Thanks to the personal relationship between Claudio Berro and Fabrizio Giugiaro, the Turin-based designer was asked to produce what was known as an artist’s impression, a sketch of how he would have interpreted the car, the only rule to respect being the measurements and sizes set by the FIA for GT cars: “Because there was no point working twice on a car that would be raced on the track: I might as well have set it up right from the start of the project,” Ascanelli says. The young Giugiaro was the right man for this kind of advice, as he had already been involved in the production of the Saleen S7, the American car that successfully raced in the GT championship.
This was the style basis that came to Dallara and on which the team, with Luca Pignacca and Dialma Zinelli, in their respective roles as project manager and aerodynamics manager, worked, supported from the very beginning by Giorgio Ascanelli. And these were the last two who began to adapt the model to the technical and aerodynamic needs of the wind tunnel: “As I didn't how to draw, so I gave Dialma the instructions: ‘put an air intake there, lower the front, a bit wider, a bit narrower’,” - Ascanelli recalls, “and that’s how we managed to defined the car. It was great fun.”
So the technical surface we had to work on was ready, including the “Targa” style solution of the road version which turned the car into a spider, with a detachable roof between the roll-bar and the windscreen rim, both in carbon. Pignacca says: “The chassis, engine and Enzo gearbox had come from Maserati. Everything else we made ourselves: the suspension arms, pedals, radiators, the tank. Even the steering box, which we fitted a different pump to.” The body was the Enzo carbon chassis, which we extended by 150 mm for sporting needs: “Extending the chassis was practical for eliminating the front wheel vortices. Because if you have to position a 12-cylinder engine longitudinally, with the straight gearbox and the boot, which was required for both road and racing cars by the regulations, you certainly couldn’t have a short tail,” Ascanelli confirms. And, talking about the engine, the F140 65° V12 had been turned into a dry sump engine with a different timing gear, heads and crankcase. All that remained of the original were the cylinders, pistons, camshaft, connecting rods and crankshaft. It was then depowered, with smaller intake ducts, probably as the MC12 could not be faster than the Ferrari Enzo, which had forty or so more HP. These strategic positioning issues did not however affect the clear success - in commercial and image terms even before its sporting success -, in the slightest.
When Zinelli and Ascanelli had developed a shape that considered all the aerodynamic needs of the MC12, at Dallara and directly at Ferrari, in charge of the style, along came Frank Stephenson, a talented designer who, among others, had created the BMW-era Mini.
“He came to Varano and we spent a few days together, him working on the details of the MC12 to remove all the rough and overly “tracky” features of the the car, seeing as it had started out as the design of a technical surface,” Dialma Zinelli says. Adding: “One curious thing was that, due to the origin of the MC12 project and the long and close friendship between him and Dallara, Piero Ferrari brought us his own personal Enzo and left it in the workshop for a couple of months, and we dismantled it to study all the solutions that had been adopted.”
Stephenson’s job was to make the car type-approved for road use: “For instance, by shielding the large air vents on the front bonnet with longitudinal strips (one of the style features of the MC12, ndr), which were necessary, in the event of collision with a pedestrian, to prevent a ball the size of a child’s head from getting inside. And then the narrow front with rounded corners, similar to the oval “mouth” of the historical Maserati Sports like the 200S and, of course, the shape of the front headlights, the position of the rear lights and so on.” These changes were far from marginal, and were what made Stephenson say that the MC12 was “the car I had most fun designing”; the only compromise on the Enzo style he had accepted was the shape of the roof.
Giorgio Ascanelli comments on the shape and size of the car: “It’s hard to pinpoint the paternity of the MC12 style: what with Fabrizio Giugiaro's very immature initial sketches, and the aerodynamic improvements made with Zinelli, I think that Frank Stephenson’s work was decisive in adding grace to the design of this large car".
"In any case, when Sergio Marchionne, who liked the MC12 so much that he bought one, asked me who had designed it, I told him, it was the wind."
Even though a few “stolen” pictures were making the rounds and a racing preview had been seen on the track in Fiorano, both the road and the racing versions of the MC12 were presented at the Geneva Motor Show in February 2004. The road version had been announced to dealers the previous September, and when the sales opened in early November Maserati instantly received 174 bookings and as many deposits for a car that hadn’t been seen and which at the time cost 720,000 Euros. When it was confirmed that only 50 cars would be produced (25 in 2004 and as many again the following year), the company was forced to refund most of the advance payments, even though this did not stop the constant flow of purchase requests from all over the world.
It had a huge impact on both the public and insiders, also on the brands racing in the GT championship, who were worried about the entrance of a top-level competitor. Smiling, Ascanelli recalls: “When I met my German colleagues, everyone asked me what kind of monster we were building in Modena!”
A “monster” that began to cover miles and miles driven by another key name in this project, Andrea Bertolini, test driver and symbol of a car that he was able to develop into an absolute GT benchmark.
Bertolini’s adventures in and around Modena began way back in 1992, when, aged 19, he was hired to test GT cars in Maranello. In 2002, the engineer Amedeo Felisa assigned him to the new “Corse Clienti” department, developing competition cars like the 360 GTC, in partnership with Michelotto and in which Bertolini ran a few races. In late 2003, Todt and Michael Schumacher saw him on the track in Fiorano, and Todt called him into the office: “From next year you will also be testing the F1 single-seater.”
“They told me that Michael had strongly supported this choice. 2004 was really tough, it was tiring work but really great,” Bertolini states. “In the first part of the year I only worked on the MC12 tests. Twice a month we did four test drives a week, and when I wasn’t working on the MC12, I was on the track with the F1.” Ascanelli confirms: “Bertolini and I went out at night to find the most winding routes, to see if and how the MC12 handled the road; after a few tests he told me that he thought we were 4-5 years ahead of the competition, thanks to the great work that had been done on the handling, balancing and traction.”
Bertolini tested everything, even sitting in the internal scale model to check the arrangement of the controls and the driving position. At least until the first shake-down of the racing car, in Fiorano on 12 January 2004.
Ascanelli tells how the début went: “We didn’t make a very good impression. After a lap and a half we had to stop because of a design error, the drive shaft was too short. The whole world was at the track to see the début of the much-awaited Maserati, and we were embarrassed. We sorted everything out and it was already evening when we went back onto the track, also to test the headlights. At 4 in the morning I told the guys to go have a shower, and we would meet again at 8, and one of them said: ‘Who cares about a shower, men have to stink!” Everyone laughed, and we all got back to work.”
Schumacher also tried out the car on the track, and Prost too, for a couple of days: “I got on well with him, he was one of my Formula 1 idols as a teenager, and I wanted to know as much as possible about how he worked, and I did that with Michael too. From Alain I learned how to check the worthiness of the technical works: for example, how the bars had to be adjusted, repeating tests over and over with and without the changes, in order to be fully aware of the differences."
"From Michael I learned the importance of attention to detail, even in the passenger compartment, and I applied this immediately to the MC12: starting from putting the switches in the right place so that they could be found intuitively. One indispensable thing about a racing car: if the race conditions change, such as rain, the controls needed couldn’t be all over the place on the dashboard. Michael was very firm about this: the switches for a given function all had to be aligned and the same colour.”
Mika Salo started to work with Bertolini on the MC12’s track début in 2004. After the tests that had kept the whole team busy from January to July, in September the Maserati finally got on the track in Imola, taking part with two cars (Salo-Bertolini and Herbert-De Simone) in one of the last championship races, but out of classification as it was not type-approved yet: “It took the FIA three races to judge whether the car was a real GT or rather a monster that would have killed the series,” Ascanelli says. The result was in any case excellent, with the two cars finishing in second and third place. The next two races in Oschersleben, Germany, and Zhuhai, China, went even better, with Salo-Bertolini winning twice.
Type-approved at last, the participation in the 2005 season marked the start of the MC12’s extraordinary career, which began precisely by winning its début championship.
To celebrate its success in one of the most important races of that year, the 24 Hours of Spa-Francorchamps, which the MC12 won twice more in its career, in 2006 Maserati released a limited edition of the car called the “Corsa”, reserved for the most enthusiastic - and wealthy - clients, seeing as it cost a million Euros. Only 12 cars plus a prototype, shown here, were produced.
The car was based directly on the racing MC12 and was designed exclusively for non-competitive use on the track. As it wasn’t type-approved for road use, nor subject to the restrictions of the GT technical regulations, the car was the purest expression of the MC12, in terms of both performance and aerodynamics.
In the following years, the MC12 won 22 races and 14 Driver, Manufacturer and Team titles, with the crew members Andrea Bertolini-Michael Bartels winning the drivers titles in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010, the latter having become the FIA GT1 World Championship in the meantime. The only regret was that the 12-cylinder never had the chance to take part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. “That was a shame,” Giorgio Ascanelli states, “because the MC12 had all that it took to win. Unfortunately, the ACO (Automobile Club de l’Ouest) which organised the race, decided to spoil things for an FIA GT World Championship winner by increasing the minimum number of road cars built on the basis of the GT model from 50 to 100, so the MC12 was left out. It was a political issue, but that was the result.”
Andrea Bertolini reckons that, in his day, the road version of the MC12 was the best super sports car on the market for easy driving, predictability and performance: “We always made the difference in terms of pace on the track, the tyres had the best performance throughout the race.”
And he continues: “I remember everything about the MC12, as if it were yesterday. It’s the one car that personally changed me, my own progress and my career, it was a tailored suit that helped me win a lot of races. It was the central focus of a close-knit group of people: I remember all the mechanics one by one, all really motivated guys.”
For him, the most thrilling win was the 2010 World Championship in Argentina: “It was my fourth title and we all knew that the MC12 adventure was over. We had already announced that Maserati was withdrawing from racing and wouldn’t be taking part in the 2011 championship. It was the end of an extraordinary run, after seven years, with a great car still leading the field".
"I often think of Michael Schumacher and when he tested it. He complimented me on the work done, and said: ‘Andrea, you're going to have fun with this car.’ He couldn’t have been more right.”