A major player on the international rally scene, the 308 GTB was created during the early 1980s by Giuliano Michelotto. Carlo Cavicchi, Editor-in-Chief of the Italian car magazine Quattroruote, and one of the car’s drivers, reveals all about this little known chapter in the history of Maranello
Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
In the late 1970s Enzo Ferrari was still in his prime, galvanised by two world titles won with Niki Lauda and with another on its way courtesy of Jody Scheckter. So, this really was not the ideal time to go making any moves that might potentially bother him; something that Giuliano Michelotto, a young and already very capable preparer of successful rally cars, knew all too well.
However, Michelotto had got it into his head that he could enter a Berlinetta model from Modena, the 308 GTB, in rallies; a racing discipline that was never even tolerated, let alone liked, by il Commendatore.
It was a rather crazy idea, because at that time rallies were very different from today: they were very long, run on very uneven terrain, and required very quick and nimble cars.
The car to beat was the Lancia Stratos, a compact coupé with a very short wheelbase, which also had a 2.4-litre, six-cylinder Ferrari engine. Michelotto handled a number of Stratos cars in his workshop in Padua, and they all did very well on both the Italian and international competition scene.
For all that, he was still determined to work with Ferrari: he loved the firm from Maranello and drooled over its fast cars. So, he decided to approach the Company, thinking it best to do so without first asking the Ferrari team for any help or suggestions, partly in case he actually received some, but also for fear of being prevented from getting on with his work.
Those who experienced that adventure first-hand remember the sleepless nights inventing ways to tame the 308, to make it driveable even onhostile terrain, and the days spent convincing possible wealthy customers to finance this risky, but fascinating, adventure.
However, the car was eventually produced, and the first specimen was soon followed by a second and then a third, because those who raced them were always the most admired among their fellow drivers and, more importantly, because success came quickly and often.
History tells us of many victories across Europe and of great champions sliding into driving seats that offered a rare comfort when compared with the cramped positions in rival cars, set high up around the steering wheel, where you almost always needed to improvise rather than drive.
Björn Waldegård and Jean-Claude Andruet (the latter was a winner at Ypres, the Targa Florio rally, Quattro Regioni and the Tour de France in 1981 alone) were the most prestigious of the drivers from abroad.
Tonino Tognana (an Italian rally champion in 1982), Mauro Pregliasco, Adartico Vudafieri and Nicola Busseni were the best among the Italians, even if there will always be a place in Michelotto’s heart for Lele Pinto, the man who took care ofthe car’s development right from the very beginning, and Roberto Liviero and Nico Grosoli, the two drivers who enabled the project to become a reality with their financial contribution (and the first victories in national rallies).
This writer had the opportunity to race the 308 GTB in the years when he was able to divide his time between work as a journalist and his hobby as a racing driver; he can therefore remember it with the enthusiasm of that time, also with the help of a notebook where he always used to jot everything down.
First, the engine. It was the heart of the car and also the most exciting thing of the time, when eight cylinders in rallies were rare birds indeed. It feels a little scary to even think about the 3.0 litres and 300hp, without today’s electronics. In reality, once behind the wheel, they were pretty much the least of your worries.
The huge thrust was modulated with ease, the exact opposite of the abrupt four cylinders of the cars that dominated at the time. You only understood it had power when the needle of the rev counter touched 8,000rpm in fifth, and this happened as soon as you hit a straight of more than 200 metres. Yet, it was the torque that was the most thrilling: the engine got there already at 3,000rpm and after that everything was easier.
The front coupling gearbox worked excellently, provided it was used with extreme decisiveness: only that way did the gears slip in naturally, because if you were too delicate changing gear you could end up missing one and it was a real problem finding a decent driving rhythm again.
This along with the curious fact that it was more difficult to get in gear when going up through the gears than going down, but perhaps this was because there was a greater need to do everythingquickly when braking and decisive gear changes were more spontaneous.
The car was really light, just 970kg (although there were some versions weighing even less), yet when driving you never had the impression of the interior being too spartan. Plastic, Ergal and even some Kevlar were greatly in evidence, but there was no compromise on safety. The best example of this was the roll cage, with the addition of a providential crosspiece above the drivers’ heads, which saved Andruet’s skin when he crashed at the Hunsrück Rally in Germany.
Everything superfluous had been removed, yet the large aluminium Prancing Horse that decorated the rear of the car was never taken away. It was an affectation, but also a point of pride. When driving, the car would always be incredibly neutral in its reactions, with the rear only breaking traction when starting or accelerating violently.
The important thing was never to go slowly, which is the only condition when a racing car worthy of the name becomes undriveable. When you put your foot down, the 308 did its duty with a natural predisposition to give its best where you least expected it: on slippery roads and in the fastest curves, where the power decreased delicately allowing trajectories without the need for corrective steering.
We must, however, reserve our judgement about the heat inside the car, present partly because so much horsepower boiled your brain somewhat, but above all because the engine, which was positioned immediately behind the seats, transformed the environment into a kind of Finnish sauna, a sensation that eventually debilitated the driver.
However, can you ever hope to compare that minor inconvenience with the joy of driving a Ferrari in the heat of competition?
As for the Drake, it seems that after initial fits of anger at the very idea that one of his fast cars would end up being used in a series that, in his view, was vastly inferior, he later gradually got used to it, because the cars were very successful and because everyone praised them.
Those who were there even said that the first time he met Michelotto he smiled at him; those present understood that this was a promotion. From then on the Paduan preparer has always worked for the Maranello firm.
Da issue 19, yearbook 2012