When Ferrari first launched its Challenge spec racing series a decade ago, the program came in a box. Well, not necessarily the program itself, but the components required to turn your Ferrari 348 into a sort-of race car came in a shipping crate no larger than a medium-sized refrigerator. It consisted of safety gear and a few handling and go-fast goodies, to be installed by your dealer, or at home if you were of moderate wrenching capability.
The series has matured considerably in 10 years time, so much so that by the time Ferrari was ready to spec out the 360 Modena in Challenge form, it became a separate model, ordered factory direct, and was no longer street legal. Ferrari Challenge did much to bridge the gap between the customers who wanted to race and the company's own racing efforts, centered around the Formula One program.
Maserati has effectively been out of the racing business for 40 years, and now is seeking the same magic that Challenge has afforded Ferrari. Today's Gruppo Ferrari Maserati management, particularly one group president named Luca di Montezomolo, knows the value of racing, and he knew Maserati had to get back in the game if the marque were to fulfill its renaissance and future sales goals. The program, like the car itself, is called Maserati Trofeo.
Trofeo for 2003 is a seven-race series, being run as a support program to FIA GT and Formula One race weekends throughout Europe. It's a true "arrive and drive" deal: Maserati supplies the cars, crews, spare parts, tires, vehicle transportation, lodging, meals, hospitality, insurance, PR...even the gas and cheering crowds. The driver need only bring a helmet. The factory schleps and maintains all the hardware and provides each car with its own mechanic; there's also a team of race engineers and other technical staff to assist with setup and support. Running the season costs 120,000 Euros, or about $150,000 at current exchange rates.
Maserati had about 50 serious, qualified inquiries for the 26 cars/spots that make up a Trofeo grid, so this first season is sold out. And the venues are major spectator facilities, not club tracks. Among them are Magny-Cours, the Nrburgring, Silverstone, Mugello and Monza. At give or take 20 grand per event, this is expensive racing, and you never do get to own the car. But the program parameters, hardware and execution are first class.
A Trofeo begins life as a Cambiocorsa Coupe chassis and receives a substantive yet straightforward transformation to a race spec that's not unlike that-big surprise here-of a Ferrari 360 Challenge car. The Maser powerplant is internally stock yet enjoys the aforementioned free-flow exhaust system and revised engine mapping. The result is 413 bhp compared to the stocker's 385 SAE net rating. Ride height is lowered, and all the suspension's "tuneables" (shocks, springs, bushings, anti-roll bars) are uprated for track duty. Those beautiful 18-in. BBS alloy wheels are wrapped by Pirelli racing slicks. The lower front fascia is a unique piece, and the high-mounted rear wing comes from the Challenge car as well. Huge Brembo brakes mean it'll be tough to overdrive the Trofeo, with the factory ABS and driver-defeatable traction control systems remaining operable.
Considerable attention was paid to reducing the largish Coupe's weight. To that end, the hood and doors are replaced with composite pieces, and the side windows are swapped for Plexiglas. Much of the cabin is stripped, along with carpet, sound deadening, climate control system, etc. The leather that lines the instrument panel and console is exchanged for a racy blue shade of Alcantara suede; should Maserati ultimately decide to offer a Corsa or sport version of the street car, it would do well to use this same stuff.
All stock seating is long gone, replaced by a single Sabelt racing bucket with multi-point harness. Safety gear includes a revised electrical system with an external shutoff, a bladdered fuel cell, a multi-element rollcage and an on-board fire system. Even with all the safety hardware aboard, the Trofeo is a significant 550 lb-about 15%-lighter than a stock coupe. Ferrari's F1 test drivers Luca Badoer and Luciano Burti helped test and develop the Trofeo, and Sunday regulars Schumacher and Barichello have done their share of laps in them, too.
My first laps were slow and exploratory, as I regained familiarity with the track and built heat into the car. My initial suspicion that this might be another twitchy, tailhappy race car was unfounded. It's neutral, stable and communicative. As temps and comfort levels increased, I pushed harder, but the Trofeo remained a consistent and predictable piece. The power steering is light and quick thanks to a slightly faster rack ratio. There's no bump steer to upset its apple cart. I'd ask for 10% more feedback, but otherwise, it's fine. Body roll, as you'd expect, is minimal, as the stiff anti-roll bars and lower cg keep things flat and even. There's no squat under acceleration, and only a bit of dive under hard braking.
Perhaps the Trofeo's best attribute in terms of handling is how nicely it manages transitions. In spite of the diet, this is still a relatively large and heavy machine in race-car terms, but good weight balance and just the right rear suspension setup means it's easy to thread through rapid transitions. Mid-corner bumps affect the car more than I expected, though they won't throw you off line. The car's overall handling persona is neutral, with mild understeer checking in as you near the limit. You can, however, counteract it, and even swing the tail out a bit, with some right foot (traction control off, naturally).
Remember, the engine, transaxle and Cambiocorsa sequential gearbox controls are stock, but they appear fully up to the job. As noted, the thing just sounds fabulous; it's not the high-pitched blare of a Ferrari Challenge car, but is a deep, throaty, and positively loud gurgle that only comes from a big V8 with a 90-degree crank. It's fun to cruise along at about 5000 rpm, and just about the time onlookers think you're about to lunch it, you stab the gas and then snap off a 2-3 shift at 7500 rpm. The engine makes power everywhere on the tach. Maserati purposefully left the traction control in place, to assist under wet conditions and as a safety mechanism for less experienced drivers. But it kills the acceleration out of tight corners, as it takes what feels like days to feed the power back on once wheelspin has been counteracted.
The transmission proves a willing partner and is one that allows the driver to focus on cornering and braking. Upshifts are crisp and reasonably quick, though not as snappy as those of the race-inspired, yet street-legal, Ferrari Challenge Stradale. The up-shift paddle on the right side of the steering column is about 1.5 in. longer than the stock piece, to ensure the driver can reach it mid-corner. Down-shifts, on the other hand, are superb; everyone sounds like Schumacher as they grab a few gears in preparation for a slow-speed corner.
For most street machines, the smart braking point at Fiorano is at or just after the first braking marker ahead of each corner. The Trofeo can go comfortably to the last marker before jumping on the binders is required. This took some time to build up to, and I must admit I never quite got there in the case of the first turn after the fast front straight. Yet, each time, the Brembos delivered hard, consistent, fade-free (if somewhat squeaky) stops, lap after lap.
The Trofeo is one of those race cars that a driver can come to nearly master quickly-then spend the rest of a season working on the last 10- to 15%. The engineers admit they could have tuned the Trofeo to be more aggressive, and ultimately faster, but they wanted to ensure a high level of predictability and user-friendliness. Given the range of backgrounds and experience levels that Trofeo series participants are likely to possess, this seems like a smart balance.
Look for an even racier Trofeo to compete in the FIA N-GT class next year, and I hear that a ACO/IMSA-ALMS GTS class contender (Corvette, Saleen, Viper and, ahem, 550 Maranello), based on the next generation Coupe, is under consideration. Want to follow the Trofeo series as it completes its first season in Europe? You can do so at www.maserati.com.
The factory and Ferrari-Maserati North America will bring the Trofeo Series to the United States. The working plan was to launch the series here next year, and that has not yet been ruled out. But I also heard a few insiders say "2005 for sure," so that's the more likely timetable. Venues and costs are still being sorted out, and official announcements will follow soon. Spec racing has seldom been as successful in the U.S. as it has in Europe and Asia, although Ferrari Challenge has proven the popular exception. These folks know how to do this kind of thing and are hoping the Trofeo program will take root and support Maserati just as Challenge has done for Ferrari. By the way-got an extra hundred and fifty grand I could borrow?
Maserati Trofeo Specifications
Vehicle layout: Front engine, rear drive, two-door, one-pass spec racer
Engine: Naturally aspirated 90 V8 dohc, four valves per cyl, aluminum block and heads
Displacement: 259.0 ci/4244cc
Horsepower: 413 bhp @ 7000 rpm
Torque: 340 lb -ft @ 4500 rpm
Compression ratio: 11.0:1
Transmission: Six-speed sequential manual gearbox
Curb weight, dry: 3,020 lb
Wheelbase: 102.4 in.
Tires: Pirelli P Zero slicks
Brakes: Brembo vented discs, front and rear, ABS
0-60 mph: 3.6 sec. (est)
Top speed: 177 mph