Restoring a legendary Ferrari F40 LM

Built to do battle in the GT classes at Le Mans and the BPR Global GT Series (forerunner to today’s Blancpain Endurance Series), the F40LM took Ferrari’s wildest supercar and turned it up to 11.

Nostalgia plays its part, of course, but these were surely the glory days of modern road-based GT racing. How could you think otherwise when BPR grids pitted F40LMs against Porsche 993 GT2s, McLaren F1 GTRs and Callaway Corvettes, not to mention a weird and wonderful array of rare groove machinery, including quick and quirky cars such as the Lister Storm, Marcos LM600 and Lotus Esprit Turbo. All F40LMs started as road cars, but the first 19 were pulled from the production line and taken to Ferrari’s trusted race-car developer, Michelotto. Ferrari being Ferrari, more cars (another 27 to be precise) would be sold to go racing, but these weren’t built by Michelotto, instead going to privateer teams who in some instances used kits of Michelotto-supplied parts.

The car you see here (you can stop drooling, by the way) is chassis no. 84326. It wasn’t one of the 19 ‘factory’ cars, but it was one of that later27, bought by a privateer race team and built to LM/GTE specification with some Michelotto parts. Of those 27 privateer-built cars, no. 84326 was one of 19 that went on to enjoy international racing careers, when it was acquired and further developed by German team Hamann Motorsport for the 1996 season. As ever with small outfits, funding was tight, but Hamann engaged the services of a certain Peter Sauber, who developed the motor to use twin KKK turbos and twin wastegates – a unique spec that boosted power to 537kW in race trim and top speed to a claimed 370km/h. A lap record at Hockenheim backed up the boasts, but reliability proved as patchy as the funding. Two outings in the 1996 BPR series yielded a DNF at the Nürburgring and a 26th-place finish at Spa.

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No. 84326 continued to race until the end of the 1998 season, in the Kumho Ferrari-Porsche Challenge, after which it was retired and converted back to road-legal specification, albeit with most of the racing modifications still in place. And that’s how it remained – tired, unloved and for a period stored in a barn – until a true enthusiast and lover of Ferrari heard about the car in 2012. Having done his research he arranged a viewing and then took the plunge, but not before convincing himself the car would only need a bit of a refresh and tidy-up. A full three years later the car has just been finished. This tells you all you need to know about the reality of what he had purchased, but to fully appreciate the passion for Ferrari and the blood, sweat and tears it’s taken to return no. 84326 to as-new condition, you need to hear it from the man himself.

‘‘My love affair with Ferrari started in 1967, when as a kid I was given a lift in a 330 GTC,’’ he explains. ‘‘We’d driven down on our family holiday in a Hillman Minx, so riding in the Ferrari was like something out of S t a r Tr e k.

From that moment I was hooked. ‘‘My bond with the F40 dates back to the year of its launch. I wasn’t fortunate enough to have secured an allocation, so I decided to write to Enzo and ask him if he might be able to help. This was only shortly before he died, but amazingly he bothered to pick up his pen and reply to say I could have a car. I’ve still got the letter today, complete with his signature in fading purple ink.

‘‘I sold that car in the mid-’90s, but almost from the moment I did so it was always in the back of my mind to get another. They get you like that. Purely by happenstance – rather expensive happenstance, as it turns out – I came across no. 84326 being sold in the north of England. After some research I found that it wasn’t an original Michelotto car but one of the subsequent privateer cars. And it had competition history – international competition history. Having owned and loved my F40 road car I thought a proper race car could be an interesting progression, so I arranged a viewing.’’

What he found was a rather sorry-looking car that had been languishing in a barn: ‘‘There was mould on the seats and a pungent smell of petrol. The vendors wouldn’t let me drive it – in retrospect I’m very grateful as it would have caught fire! – but they did start it for me. It sounded okay, so while it was obvious the car was somewhat past its best, it didn’t seem unreasonable to think we could refresh the brakes and suspension, give the engine a service, fit new fuel tanks, give it a general clean-up and go do a few trackdays.’’A deal was duly struck and the proud new owner arranged for the car to be transported to F40 restoration experts Mototechnique in Surrey, where proprietor Kevin O’Rourke (an old friend who had restored a Daytona Spyder for him some 30 years previous) unloaded the car and spares to determine just what he had to work with. His answer was ‘‘not a lot’’.

‘‘So far as Kevin was concerned I’d bought a rather fetching red plastic box containing parts, history and a chassis number,’’ explains the LM’s owner. ‘‘The bad news simply didn’t stop coming. It was like unpeeling an onion, and a rotten one at that! When the first layer came off we wondered what we were going to do about the suspension. The answer was all-new suspension. It was the same with the brakes. Then we took the fuel tanks out. They were in terrible shape. Then we found evidence of an electrical fire from an arcing cable located beneath one of the fuel tanks…’’

At this point a few of us would have been tempted to rekindle that fire, but our hero was made of sterner stuff. The autopsy continued.

‘‘When we got to the engine we found endless leaks and other issues. The more it came apart the more it was clear this was a race car that had lived a tough life, with race teams that never really had the money to properly look after it.

Consequently it had not had the constant care it should have had, and this showed in everything we inspected. Where work had been done it was to change or evolve things, so the front and rear bodywork had been altered considerably.

By this point we knew we had a big job on our hands, so the big question was whether we restored the car to original or restored and evolved it with 21st century knowledge.‘‘We knew it wasn’t a truly significant car race-wise. It hadn’t finished first at Le Mans or second at Daytona or anything like that, but it did have some rather unusual modifications and it was a very quick example in period. It didn’t have reliability on its side because it had been pushed to the max by underfunded teams. We decided to remain true to the car and follow the restore-and-evolve route. Somehow it seemed to deserve another chance.’’ Opting for the evolution route also meant that the car could remain road-legal…

By this stage it was clear no. 84326 would need to be taken back to its bare chassis. No mean undertaking considering the F40LM was extensively modified over the road car and fitted with bespoke components. The only way they could hope to get the job done was to secure the support of Michelotto, so the owner sought out the man himself: Cristiano Michelotto.

‘‘Attempting to contact Signor Michelotto was the start of a long and mysterious process. Bizarrely, I would only ever seem to get hold of him at his office between the hours of midnight and 2am. The good news was he remembered no. 84326 and wondered what had happened to it. Best of all he then agreed to collaborate with us and provide the correct parts. That started with four new corners – suspension, brakes, the lot. As you can imagine, it took months to finally secure the parts, then more months as the parts were hand-fabricated from the original blueprints. Nothing was off the shelf. The whole process took a good six months, but when the parts finally arrived they were sensational. The quality of the fabrication was glorious, all these wonderfully welded and machined pieces of Avional, magnesium, and titanium.’’

Another part of the onion-peeling process was learning just how extensive the differences were between F40 and F40LM. Fundamentally they look pretty similar, but as the owner and O’Rourke discovered, when you get under the skin you find a huge array of detail changes and endless tiny differences. He may have been hard to track down, but without Michelotto’s knowledge and co-operation the project would have been nigh on impossible.

With the car completely stripped, O’Rourke finally had some good news: the chassis was the straightest they’d ever had on the jig, which is saying something given the number of F40s Mototechnique has rebuilt. Buoyed by the first chink of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel, the engine was given a precautionary bore scope. What they found gave enough cause for concern to remove the cylinder heads, which led to more concern and further investigation.

When they looked at the big-end bearings, scoring was found on the bearings and the crankshaft itself. The engine would need nothing less than a full rebuild. The chink of light had been brutally snuffed out, yet still no. 84326’s owner refused to despair.

‘‘I consoled myself with the knowledge that we were down to the bare bones. If it was going to be done, it was going to be done properly. No corners cut, no compromises made. I suppose you could say I now had the excuse to go back to the beginning, and when I go back to the beginning I have to make things perfect. ‘The actual restoration was a relatively easy process because we had all the parts. Okay, so most of them were broken or worn out, and the new ones cost a ferocious amount of money, but we weren’t trying to track down missing pieces.

Well, apart from discontinued oil filters, Scuderia shields for the front clam – finally sourced from Australia – and a reverse gear, which had to be manufactured at huge expense by Crosthwaite & Gardiner. The major thing was the amount of hours it was clearly going to take to complete the build. Things like fuel tanks and suspension were mounted and dismounted countless times to perfect the fit, both pre- and post-paint. I’m not complaining – it’s the only way Kevin and his team work, and that’s why I put the car in their hands – but the right way to do things is the long way to do things. I think we stopped counting at 6000 man-hours…’’

As you’d expect of a race car, the bodywork had been through the wars. Where it had been repaired or modified, it was done so in fibreglass, not carbon-Kevlar. The front clam was particularly bad and was much heavier than it should have been, so Mototechnique remade it in carbon-Kevlar. The other panels were better, but still needed years of paint removing. That you can now see the carbon weave grinning through the fresh paint, as on factory-fresh cars, is testimony to Mototechnique’s skill.

With the engine down to nothing, Crosthwaite & Gardiner were enlisted to go through it from top to bottom. It was another painstaking process, but the consolation was that once the components were back at Mototechnique, the engine could be reassembled with 100 per cent confidence in its soundness. It was decided to run the engine with a Motec management system, calling on the knowledge of Simpsons Motorsport and Nathan Sanders at Race Data Systems to dial in the electronics and arrive at the three switchable power modes for maximum reliability and drivability.

And so, after three years of extraordinary dedication, heartache, expertise and expense, no. 84326 is ready to run in anger once more. Not only is evo here to capture the moment, but thanks to the owner’s remarkable faith and generosity, we’re actually here to drive it. Before he does. If ever there was a time to use the word ‘privileged’, it’s now.

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THERE’S A WORSHIPFUL SILENCE when the unmistakable slice of scarlet rolls out of its transporter. Even those who have done little else but slave over it for the last 36 months stare as though seeing it for the first time.

But when a car looks this good, is it any wonder? Noticeably wider at the front than a regular F40, the LM’s stance is jaw-dropping. Those beautifully simple magnesium starfish wheels fill the wheelarches to perfection, making it seem as though the aero kit is pushing the chassis into the ground even at a standstill.

The wide-eyed headlights, smattering of NACA ducts and larger vents accentuate thE cartoonish appearance. From every angle it looks sensational.

Everything about no. 84326 is pristine. It’s been driven, but only gently and not for long. The slick tyres are unscrubbed, the huge discs yet to feel the savage bite of those brick-sized calipers, the turbos still waiting to boost the V8 to its full 537kW fury. Even as I pull down the harness – tight, then tighter still – I still can’t believe the owner is yet to drive this car in anger. Reaching for the starter, the weight of responsibility adds to the pressure of the shoulder straps. My heart thuds. The funny thing about this car is the ease and simplicity with which you can get in and drive. There’s no fuss, no laptop, no befuddling array of switches or start-up protocols. Instead you click-click on a few toggles and push the starter. The engine fires readily, settling into a busy, boosty idle overlaid with a distant whirr of gently simmering turbos that chatter like a pair of steampunk crickets hidden deep within the engine bay. It almost sounds lazy, such is the mellow tone, but a prod of the throttle bares the V8’s teeth, a gnashing punch of sound smacking from the exhaust and wastegate with a bark and crackle.

My mouth goes dry. Rolling out onto a track in an F40LM is as close to being royalty as you can get. No matter what else is out on circuit at the same time, this car bestows an inherent superiority. It has a regal swagger that garners respect and reverential gazes in equal measures. Professional race teams can be a chopsy bunch, but as I head down the pitlane at Donington then come by the pit wall to complete an installation lap, the assorted GT and BTCC teams who are also here testing forget themselves, poking their heads through the catch fencing to get a better look.

The LM’s gearing is superbike tall, each ratio offering an increasingly indulgent stride even when just stroking along while everything comes up to temperature. This is one car you want to take your time with, not least because there’s so much drama and occasion to enjoy simply being sat in the thing. I’m fortunate to have driven a number of road F40s. Each one has made me realise that some are much better than others. When they’re good they’re very, very good, but when they’re bad they really are horrid. Early impressions suggest this car will put the very best of those firmly in the shade.

Apart from the Motec display and race-car switches, the cockpit of the LM is very similar to that of the road car. There are swathes of that grey-blue felt-like material on the dashboard, and your head feels perilously close to the windscreen header rail. Three drilled alloy pedals sit proudly in the footwell, a spindly chrome lever sprouts from the classic open gate, topped with a plain white plastic ball where a road F40’s would be black with the H-pattern in white. Ancillary controls are few and far between, but the one switch I’m itching to play with is the three-stage engine map controller that steps from 410kW to 485kW and then, fi nally, to the full 537kW.

Apparently it was tempting – and entirely feasible – to run considerably more power, until Michelotto warned running anything beyond 560kW means a mandatory crankshaft replacement every 5000km. Keeping power at 537kW gives the owner the reliability and historical symmetry he desired. To be honest, Stage 1 feels pretty darned lively, a big swell of early shove growing in intensity as all that torque and horsepower get on top of each gear.

Hardly surprising when you consider this base level is around 60kW more than an F40 road car. With some heat in the tyres, the brake pads bedded-in nicely and a quick once-over in the pits to check there are no silly leaks, I’m given the okay to head back out and try Stage 2. I’m sure if you could see my face at the moment I first begin to squeeze the throttle pedal, I’d have my tongue poked out and a look of focused apprehension, but as the revs rise and the turbos fill the V8’s lungs, the feared explosion of boost actually comes as a rapid, ever-increasing squeeze, like a bear hug of longitudinal G-force.

The acceleration is much more intense – much more intense – but unlike the road F40’s nothing-nothing-EVERYTHING! delivery, this car has thoroughly modern manners. Yes, part of me wishes it had the Tasmanian devil-spec character it surely possessed in period, but we shouldn’t forget it was the owner’s wish to continue no. 84326’s evolution and allow it to benefit from some contemporary thinking without erasing the essence of what this car is. It might not bite your hands off when it hits boost, but this is a sub-1100kg car being thrown towards the corners by an unholy amount of power. The laws of physics never lie.

Of course, the motor dominates your fi rst impressions – and to be honest you wouldn’t want it any other way – but once you get beyond the fantastical reality of being let loose in an F40LM you begin to appreciate the rest of the car. The chassis is perfectly balanced, all that power kept in check by wider front rubber, and the unassisted steering has just enough physicality and a sharp yet measured rate of response. The shift quality of the rebuilt gearbox puts even those of the sweetest examples of the road car to shame. The way that slender stick slots through the gate is a joy.

Perfectly weighted with just enough resistance to know you’re moving reciprocating cogs but never a hint of a snag or tight spot, each shift slots home with absolute precision. Downshifts come with their own rewards, too, never better than when you’re approaching the end of a straight and you charge into the embrace of the colossal brakes. Roll your ankle across from brake to throttle so as to punctuate each gearshift with a helping snap of revs, then begin to chase the throttle as the corner opens out, feeling for traction as tyres and turbo boost engage in an arm-wrestle. This is the lost art of race-car driving; feet dancing on the pedals, hands working independently between steering wheel and gearlever. Potent machine played like a musical instrument. You might hit a bum note or two along the way, but that’s what makes it so sweet when gears, revs and hand-eye co-ordination mesh to perfection.

Do I try Stage 3? What do you think? As you’d expect, 537kW means there’s even more performance to call upon. In fact, it feels like riding a firework, right down to the flames that belch from the exhausts in every braking zone, filling the cockpit with an orange glow in broad daylight. The time between upshifts is shorter, the rush of acceleration even more vivid. I’d love to offer more incisive feedback, but by now I’m drunk on adrenalin and falling increasingly under the seductive spell of this siren-like supercar. It takes every scrap of self-control I can muster to fight the urge to brake that bit later and light the touchpaper that bit earlier in the corners. Better to exhale, back off to give the LM a lap or two to cool down and me a chance to reflect on what I’ve just experienced.

Cars like no. 84326 are rare indeed; enthusiasts like its owner rarer still. Together they encapsulate the thing we call ‘evoness’ to perfection. It would have been easy – forgivable, even – for him to have cut his losses and run from the heartache and expense of bringing this thoroughbred back to life, but he dug deep and did what he knew he had to do. ‘‘It was never the intention for it to be such a monumental project,’’ he says, ‘‘but when you start a project like this and you get to the point we did – that’s to say, conceding pretty much everything needs doing – there’s only one route you can take. The cost of doing it has been horrendous, but what’s the alternative? I’d like to think the end result speaks for itself.’’ It certainly does. Cars come no more intoxicating than this.