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Turning the Ferrari 550 Maranello into a Le Mans winner with Peter Stevens

In addition to the McLaren F1 and the BMW V12 LMR, the renowned automotive designer Peter Stevens can count another Le Mans-winning sports-racing car on his résumé: the Ferrari 550 Maranello Prodrive. We recently reunited Peter with the scarlet V12 sensation…  

Versatile and influential – those are the adjectives we’d use to describe Professor Peter Stevens’ résumé. The affable, pin-sharp, enviably knowledgeable and infectiously enthusiastic Englishman has had the kind of career today’s budding automotive designers could only dream about.

The roll call of road, racing and rally cars Peter was instrumental in the design for is extraordinary. Sure, anyone with the slightest whiff of automotive interest will know he designed the mighty McLaren F1, a car that’s assumed a near-celestial status among collectors today. But did you know he was also responsible for the Lotus Esprit Turbo, the Jaguar XJR-15 and the Subaru Impreza?

It’s the latter which ultimately led Peter to be tasked with transforming the soft, sultry Ferrari 550 Maranello into an aggressive, aerodynamic, race-winning GT racing car. He worked with Subaru and, in turn, Prodrive on the ultra-successful Impreza World Rally cars, you see. So when David Richards’ Oxfordshire outfit got the Ferrari gig from Frédéric Dor, Peter was the perfect candidate for the exterior design modifications, working in collaboration with Martin Ogilvie and Prodrive's technical director George Howard-Chappell. 

For the forthcoming book about the final twelve-cylinder Ferrari to win at Le Mans (find out more details and register your interest in buying a copy by clicking here) we invited Peter to Belchers Farm to see a 550 Maranello Prodrive in the metal for the first time in years and discuss his memories from working on what was the most successful GT sports-racing car of its era.

“David was a little awestruck by the fact we’d be working with a Ferrari. But he didn’t think for one moment that we wouldn’t be able to make it better.”

Peter, how did you come to be involved in the Ferrari 550 Maranello Prodrive project?

I was entrusted with the design of the 550 Maranello GT racing car that Prodrive were developing, as I had a good and successful working relationship with David Richards on a number of projects including the successful Subaru rally cars. It was a straightforward project because there were only a few people involved.

What was the atmosphere at Prodrive like – was David Richards confident the car would be a success?

David was a little awestruck by the fact we’d be working with a Ferrari. But with his boundless confidence, he didn’t think for one moment that we wouldn’t be able to make it better. He had an uncanny ability to motivate people and, of course, he was fantastic on the commercial side of things. Prodrive produced a great little book on what marketing strengths you could gain from doing a race programme – after all, it had turned a Subaru from a staid farmer’s car into a sought after enthusiast’s car.

What was your brief from a design point of view?

Everybody agreed that we wanted to create a car that was aesthetically pleasing – we didn’t want fussy aero bits and pieces that were lazily stuck on and ungainly. If Ferrari takes a car racing, the purpose is to sell Ferraris. But here the aim was to sell Prodrive’s ability to develop a track focused GT competition car. In that respect, it was important that it looked convincing, professional and, most importantly, beautiful.

Look at the minimalistic liveries in which the 550s ran – they were mostly all red, which sent a great message and worked in Prodrive’s favour from an image point of view. We were able to be voluptuous with the hips etcetera and let the fundamental design of the 550 do the talking – in line with the spirit of GT racing.

“The aim was to sell Prodrive’s ability to develop a GT competition car. In that respect, the car had to look convincing, professional and, most importantly, beautiful.”

Was the road-going 550 Maranello a good starting point?

The 550 Maranello was a good starting point, but it was heavy and surprisingly draggy. Certain features such as the car’s signature air scoop in the bonnet were not particularly effective from an aerodynamic and cooling point of view. We actually blocked the bonnet intake on the racing car, which wasn’t a disaster at all – we just redirected the air intakes to run from the front bottom corners of the radiator opening to the plenums.

Which are your favourite design aspects?

Whilst we kept the recognizable face of the road car, we definitely had lot more going on aerodynamically there than meets the eye. The intricate front bumper and splitter arrangements, which I modelled with clay in the wind tunnel with the help of my good friend Harris Mann, were especially interesting. For example, instead of the splitter being a flat plank, it deliberately takes in air through the centre section, which flows through to a smaller wing and generates downforce.

It’s much more efficient than a plank. Incidentally I also designed the wheels for my friends at OZ in Italy. They were very good at explaining what you need from a race car wheel in terms of where you need the strength, but also where you can gain the lightness and reduce the un-sprung weight.

Where does the 550 Maranello Prodrive rank on your extraordinary résumé?

Looking back it was a project that gave me much satisfaction, especially as our endeavours translated into great successes on the race tracks of the world!

Photos: Tom Shaxson for Girardo & Co.

Did you know we’re helping to create the definitive book about the Ferrari 550 Maranello Prodrive? If you’d like to find out more about Ferrari 550 Maranello Prodrive – The Last V12 Ferrari to Win at Le Mans or register your interest in ordering a copy, please click here.

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