Articles

Michael Sheehan's Ferraris-online.com Article

The 512 BB LM

Finally a Winner, After All These Years

As appeared in:

Sports Car Market—March 2003 issue

Sheehan Speaks

by Michael Sheehan

Ferrari’s philosophy has always been to incorporate, when possible, their racing technology into their road cars. In the early 1970s, the flat 12 “Boxer” technology used in the early 1970s Ferrari Formula One and Ferrari 312 PB Sports racers found its way into Ferrari’s flagship 12-cylinder sports cars, the 365 GT4 BB (“Berlinetta Boxer”) and the 512 BB/BBi that followed.

There was no factory effort to campaign the 365 GT4 BB, for it was simply too big and heavy, and the engine sat too high over the transaxle for competitive racing. The rival Porsche RSR Carrera of 1974-75 was already a highly developed race car that excelled in endurance racing.

With the introduction of the 5-liter 512 BB engine, and with substantial encouragement from wealthy privateers who wanted to race a Ferrari GT car (and who were willing to pay $80,000 plus spares to own a Ferrari-built race car), Ferrari produced a series of 25 silhouette race cars based on the 512 BB. Called the BB LMs, the first three were introduced at the 1979 Daytona 24-hour race.

These cars benefited from all-new Pininfarina-designed and windtunnel-tested bodywork. They were 16 inches longer than the production 512 BBs, with smooth bodylines and fender fairings. The roofline extended to the tail, thanks to a plexiglass rear window, and a rear wing added much-needed downforce. Ten-inch-wide front wheels and 13-inch-wide rears put the rubber to the ground.

But all of these modifications were too little and too late. While the 1979 Ferrari 512 BB LM’s Lucas-injected flat-12 produced a claimed 480 horsepower, the engineers at Porsche had evolved the Porsche 935 IMSA into a 700-plus-horsepower twin-turbo rocket. With brakes from the 917, the 935 IMSA was able to out-brake the 512 BB LM into the corners, go through the corners faster thanks to wider tires and lighter weight, and then leave the Ferrari a speck in the mirror on the straights. Non-competitive in 1979, the 512 BB LM was even less competitive by the end of its racing career in 1983.

S/N 26683, ex-NART team car, as raced by the author.
S/N 26683, ex-NART team car, as raced by the author.

In the mid-late 1980s, 512 BB LMs became a popular choice for the Ferrari club member who wanted a factory-built race car and could afford the $75,000 price tag. The Ferrari market madness of the late 1980s soon escalated 512 BB LM prices, with 512 BB LM S/N 35527 selling for $1,300,000 at the Coys Nürburgring auction in August 1989 and S/N 29505 selling for $1,000,000 at the Orion Solo Ferrari auction in Monaco in November 1989.

Prices of BB LMs collapsed in 1991, along with everything else. By 1995 you could buy a decent BB LM for around $300,000, and it was once again popular as a Ferrari club track day car.

In 1996, Jean Sage and Jacques Swatters started the Shell Historic Ferrari Challenge in Europe, creating an event where one could see and be seen driving a historic racing Ferrari, with eligibility restricted to Ferraris up to the 365 GTB/4C Competition Daytonas of 1974. Thanks to a worldwide economic boom and stock markets rising almost everywhere, the Historic Ferrari Challenge quickly became very popular, with hundreds of entrants eager to participate in a Ferrari factory sanctioned series. As a result, prices of eligible competition Ferraris started climbing.

Still a speck in a 935’s mirror.
Still a speck in a 935’s mirror.

In 1998 Ferrari of North America hired David Seibert, organizer of the American 348 and 355 Challenge, to add a US Historic Ferrari Challenge to the 348-355 Challenge race weekend. The US organizers included models up to the 512 BB LM to offer more owners a chance to exercise their cars. Ferrari owners, always looking for the unfair advantage that would allow them to trounce their wealthy buddies on the track, discovered immediately that the 512 BB LM was the car to have if you wanted to win in the US Ferrari Historic series. But as you can imagine, no BB LM owner would think of racing his car today without spending mountains of money to make it faster and more reliable than it ever was when new.

The BB LM engine was rated at 480 horsepower in 1979 but recent dyno tests have shown 460 horsepower to be a more realistic number. Today’s engine builders add titanium connecting rods, titanium valves, valve springs from an IRL car and many hours of cylinder head porting work. This, combined with a modern, equal-length, pulse extractor exhaust system and a triple-disc Quarter Master clutch, can result in 520 honest horsepower from the same engine tested on the same dyno.

When originally raced, brakes were one of the weak spots. Consequently, the original cast (as in heavy) 15-inch wheels and Girling brake calipers have been replaced with much lighter 16-inch modular wheels, modern, lighter brake rotors and bigger and better four-puck Brembo calipers. The transaxles, another problem area on the 512 BB LMs, are now updated with new main shafts and transfer shafts made from space-age materials, closer ratio gears and modern racing syncro rings.

The entire chassis has been stiffened by replacing the 1-mm aluminum riveted floor pan with a 3-mm floor pan bonded and riveted in place, the muffler-tubing-quality roll bars are replaced with a much stronger cage assembly, and bracing is added to the engine compartment to reinforce the rear chassis/suspension area. Modern Eibach springs and double adjustable shocks allow a lower ride height and suspension fine-tuning simply not possible when the BB LMs were new.

While the factory quoted 2,400 pounds as a racing weight for the 512 BB LM, 2,500 plus was a more realistic number. Today, using lightweight aluminum radiators, modern heat exchangers in place of oil coolers and thin carbon-fiber panels, BB LMs weigh in at 2,400, track ready.

While a well-driven 512 S, 512 M or 612 Can-Am Ferrari should easily dominate the US Historic Ferrari Challenge, none have been entered on a regular basis. Today’s 512 BB LMs are very fast, easy to drive, dependable race cars. After all these years, they are winners at last—at least in the US Ferrari Historic Challenge.

If it were possible to put a modern, evolved 512 BB LM into a time machine and return it to the 1979 Le Mans race, it would be a much better car in every way than when it was new.

Sadly, on the Mulsanne straight, it would still be just a speck in the rearview mirrors of the 700-horsepower Porsche 935s. Which is partly why the Ferrari-only Historic Challenge was created in the first place. If the big guy from Stuttgart wearing the silver jumpsuit keeps beating you up, just don’t let him play in your sandbox anymore.