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Let there be light

Ferrari has long been a lightweight pioneer, using materials from advanced alloys to carbon fibre. From the very beginning, the mission to make a car as light as possible was an engineering priority
Words: Gavin Green - Video: Ollie McIntyre

Soon after its birth as a sports car maker in 1947, Ferrari displayed the race-winning advantages of lightweight. The most emphatic early demonstration would come at the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1949. 

It was the first post-war Le Mans (when parts of the circuit grounds were still off limits, for fear of landmines) and the famous round-the-clock race saw a clash between big-engine tall-body pre-war monsters and a new breed of lighter, smaller sports cars. 

This exclusive video tracks the history of Ferrari's innovations in weight-saving from the racetrack to the road

David would beat Goliath. The recent world war had brought huge technical strides and, showcasing many of those, the lightweight Ferrari 166 MM convincingly beat the bigger cars. 

The victorious Ferrari had the smallest capacity engine ever to win Le Mans – just 2.0 litres. Why was it so fast? First, it was far more aerodynamic than the bigger pre-war monsters. And second, it was much lighter. Total dry weight of the 166 MM was just 650 kg. (By contrast, the winning car of 20 years earlier weighed 2000 kg.)

The Ferrari’s engine also revved with greater zeal and zest than any previous winner: maximum power was developed at a heady 6600 rpm.

Its V12 configuration was an important reason that it revved so high, for 60-deg V12s have perfect rotating balance. (It was the first V12 to win Le Mans.) Also crucial was the engine’s widespread use of lightweight alloys: lighter engine components translate to higher revs and more power.

From the very start, Ferrari were putting the combination of power and weight-saving at the forefront of their engineering: the 166 MM that won the 1949 Le Mans weighed just 650 kg

The 166 MM’s body was also built using the innovative new Superleggera (or Superlight) method. Developed by the Milanese coachbuilder Touring and first used on aircraft, Superleggera used thin diameter tubes to form the body’s shape. These were covered in lightweight alloy panels to add strength. 

Throughout its storied history, Ferrari has been a pioneer in lightweight construction, from post-war Superleggera to today’s carbon fibre. And it has innovated on both track and road. 

The early 308 GTBs of 1975 used fibreglass bodies and weighed just over 1000 kg. (Later models used more conventional pressed steel and aluminium.)

The legendary Ferrari GTO of 1984 was one of the first road cars to make widespread use of composites, following the lead of Formula One. Much of the body was Kevlar or carbon fibre. At 1160 kg dry weight, it was extraordinarily light for a V8 turbo-powered supercar.

The early 308 GTBs of 1975 were constructed using a fibreglass body, allowing a total weight of just over 1000 kg

Ferrari’s next limited-edition supercar, the F40, elevated the use of lightweight composites a stage further. It was the world’s first production road car to use a body constructed almost entirely of composites (Kevlar and carbon fibre). The first road car to exceed 320 km/h, its dry weight was just 1100 kg. 

Its replacement, the F50, was one the world’s first road cars to use an F1-like carbon fibre monocoque (as used by F1 Ferraris since the early ‘80s). The limited-edition Enzo supercar of 2002 was the world’s first production road car to use carbon fibre-reinforced ceramic brake discs. 

The legendary Ferrari F40, launched in 1987, was made using kevlar and carbon fibre in order to become the first road car to break the fabled 320 km/h barrier

Lightweight engine components were also important. Titanium alloy conrods were used on the F355 of 1994 to help its V8 rev faster and higher. (The F355 developed its maximum power at an exhilarating 8250 rpm and its redline was 8500 rpm.)

From the wheels to the roof, today’s Ferraris continue to make extensive use of innovative lightweight alloys and composite materials.

They include lightweight carbon fibre wheels (first used by Ferrari on the 488 Pista) to the carbon fibre roof of the latest Purosangue – saving overall weight and lowering the centre of gravity. 

With the new Purosangue, Maranello brought their weight-saving engineering knowledge into a new era

This lightweight ethos makes for faster and more agile road cars, benefitting performance and driver enjoyment.

As with so much of Ferrari’s philosophy, it is influenced by motor racing. Enzo Ferrari knew that to win races you needed more than powerful engines. Cars also had to be as light as possible. 

As one rival F1 team boss once observed – powerful engines make you go faster on the straights, lighter weight makes you go faster everywhere.