'The Last V12 Ferrari to Win at Le Mans' might be the most expensive car book you'll own – but it'll also be the best
By Matt Bird / Tuesday, 5 December 2023 / Loading comments
For fans of V12 racing Ferraris – of which there must be plenty on PH – there would never be a bad time for a glorious deep dive on the Prodrive 550 Maranello. With the 499P’s triumphant return to Le Mans this summer, however, this stunning book – a collaborative effort between Girardo and Co. and DK Engineering, authored by Keith Bluemel – holds even greater appeal. There’s not much more romantic in motorsport than a red Ferrari winning at Le Mans, and this two-volume tome covers the tale of the Prodrive 550 – a story that arguably doesn’t receive enough attention – in sumptuous detail.
‘The Last V12 Ferrari to Win at Le Mans’ is not a book to pick up and put down casually. Merely unwrapping is an event in itself, admiring the 550 Maranello wrapping paper and the beautiful presentation case. There’s a sense of eagerness and anticipation about getting stuck in that never materialises with a video, film, or reading on a device. In an increasingly time poor society, there’s something quite liberating (and hugely enjoyable) about setting aside some time, pouring a nice drink and clearing the table for these mighty treatise to fully geek out on one of the great modern motorsport achievements.
The Ferrari 550 Maranello was never meant to be a race car. It’s important to stress, in fact, that this was not a factory backed effort, which makes what Prodrive achieved with the iconic V12 even more remarkable. To cut a long story short (and not spoil the book), sportscar racing needed a boost in the late 1990s; the GT1-spec Mercedes CLKs had decimated all before them, so the other manufacturers left. Without competition, so did Mercedes. Stephane Ratel, founder of the SRO, which organised the FIA GT Championship, is quoted in the book saying: “I was a desperate motorsport promoter who had a dying championship that only had Chrysler Vipers and Turbo Porsches. It did not interest anybody.” Ouch. Ratel was sufficiently influential (and the allure of Ferrari so great) that homologation rules were changed and a 550 Maranello could be made into a race car.
The first ones weren’t great. Built by Italtecnia and called the 550 Millennio, it was first seen in 2000 but wasn’t reliable enough to compete. Frederic Dor was a Millennio customer, and was so determined to see it race that he took his car to Prodrive (having rallied their cars in previous years) to have it sorted. It was decided to abandon the Italtecnica car and begin again with a standard 550 Maranello road car bought from a dealership. Just 15 weeks later, the first Prodrive 550 – with a Care Racing Developments chassis number, as that was Dor’s company – was complete.
From there the Prodrive cars (10 chassis were built in total, all extensively detailed in the book) embarked on a period of genuinely incredible dominance. Of course, it’s the GTS class win at Le Mans in 2003 that’s most famously recalled, though the 550 was far from a one hit wonder. It raced in the United States, Japan and all over Europe; between 2001 and 2008 across 343 races, it notched up 60 pole positions, 151 podiums and 69 victories. Even when cars like the Maserati MC12 arrived in GT1 racing, a car explicitly designed to make the most of the regulations, the old front-engined Ferrari remained competitive.
Volume two is dedicated to every race the 550s entered, with a record of each result, drive lineup and location. With some glorious photography as well; there’s little more evocative to fans of this GT era than seeing the Ferraris up against Vipers and Lister Storms in the early days, then cars like the Aston Martin DBR9 later on. Girardo describes the book as ‘lavishly illustrated’, with 830 pictures for 592 pages – they aren’t exaggerating. Once more, there’s something immensely gratifying about poring over printed images that can never be replicated by pinching to zoom.
Though volume two is interesting, it’s the first part of the book that’s most captivating. It focuses on the development and history of the Prodrive 550s, explaining where it fits in the pantheon of great Maranello V12s and how this extraordinary racing car came to be. There are contributions from all the key people involved, from Prodrive engineers to racing drivers, providing fascinating insight into what it took to win in the first front-engined Ferrari V12 for a quarter of a century. The book also includes correspondence with the factory, the homologation papers, the Ferrari Classiche certification – everything. It’s an obsessive study of a wonderful car that’s very hard to be torn away from. The images of a Maranello in its component parts are pure art. They belong in a gallery somewhere, next to the race liveries.
Of course, it’s easy to look more favourably on a book when its subject matter is one of your favourite Ferraris in a memorable era for one of your favourite motorsports. But in truth, such is the level of detail here, the against-all-odds nature of the story and the stunning photography on offer (including some previously unseen images), even more casual enthusiasts will appreciate The Last V12 Ferrari to Win at Le Mans. You wouldn’t even need look between the covers to be impressed.
Now, it’s an expensive book – even those who’ve been really, really good this year will be fortunate to receive one from Santa. There will be just 550 individually numbered copies made, each costing – appropriately enough – £550. Transporting both volumes in my Mini added a significant amount to its overall value, which was sobering. So this isn’t really for the average enthusiast, unless they’re willing to sacrifice something else. What it is, however, is absolutely brilliant, accessible yet absorbing and a fitting tribute to what was, by all accounts, an amazing racing car. Those that can afford it, with a coffee table strong enough to hold it, will not be disappointed.
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Image credit | Girardo archive
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