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Introducing the Ferrari 637, built to win the Indy 500

In 1986 Enzo Ferrari announced he was leaving F1 to compete in the American CART Championship. To do that, he would need to build a unique machine
Words – Ross Brown

As the 2021 IndyCar Series comes to an end at the formidable Californian street circuit of the Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach, it’s worth remembering a time when Ferrari very nearly abandoned F1 to compete in the American CART Championship.

To understand why Ferrari threatened to jettison their F1 ambitions you first need to understand the racing landscape of the turbocharged decade of the last century. 

It began in 1978, at the United States Grand Prix, when Renault’s French driver, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, became the first person to finish a race in a turbocharged car, crossing the finish line fourth in his RS01. It was a result that would change everything: the era of turbo had arrived. 


Using the Truesports CART March 85C as a starting point, the 637 proved instantly competitive and of course, very fast 

By the start of the 1986 season every single car on the grid was turbocharged, and the astonishing horsepower being extracted from the machines had attracted the concerned attention of the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile), who planned to introduce a slew of new regulations, including a ban on turbos in favour of eight cylinder, naturally aspirated engines. 

Unhappy with this news, Enzo Ferrari made an announcement that would shock the racing world: If the FIA refused to negotiate, Ferrari would abandon F1 completely to compete in the CART Championship.

For many, including the FIA, the news was regarded as a simple ploy designed to force a rethink on proposed F1 regulations, and few took it seriously.  

To test the Ferrari 637 in 1986, Ferrari turned to their F1 driver, Michele Alboreto, who had challenged Alain Prost for the F1 Championship the year before

But Ferrari were serious enough to dispatch the Scuderia’s sporting director, Marco Piccinini, out to the United States to get a better understanding of the championship and meet the organisers and competing teams. It was decided that if they were to race at a competitive level, Ferrari would have to, for the first season at least, collaborate with an existing CART team. Truesports, the racing team headed by driver Bobby Rahal, were chosen for the task. 

Back at Maranello a top-secret team led by young Austrian engineer, Gustav Brunner, took ownership of Rahal’s single seater March 85C and immediately began testing at Ferrari’s private Fiorano circuit, both on the track and in the wind tunnel, to get a better understanding of CART performance and aerodynamics. Brunner, like Piccinini, flew out to the United States to watch testing, racing and of course the main event itself, the Indy 500. 

Powered by a turbocharged 2.6 litre V8 engine, the final 637 proved too much for the FIA, who wanted Ferrari to remain in F1

By September 1986, the turbocharged V8 637 was ready for track testing and Ferrari chose their current F1 driver, Michele Alboreto, to put it through its paces. Radically different from existing CART cars, the 637 was an immediate success, proving to be both competitive and above all else, incredibly fast. 


Unsurprisingly, news of a new CART ready Ferrari travelled quickly, helped by the fact that Enzo had invited a member of the international press to witness the test, and the FIA realized that perhaps the Scuderia were serious after all. 


Enzo’s plan had worked, and the FIA allowed turbos to remain for two more seasons. As a result, Ferrari announced that they were now fully committed to continuing in F1: all CART plans were shelved, and that was the end of the short but exciting road for the Ferrari 637.