One of the most significant new cars of the Formula 1® Melbourne weekend took to the track on Thursday, with few people registering its importance. Yet this quiet debut may well signal the start of a remarkable chapter of success in motorsport history, thanks to Pirelli as well.
In recent years, the Ferrari 458 Italia has been dominant in its class at Le Mans as well as many other endurance races all over the world. But all good things must eventually come to an end, and the car that is set to take over this mantle of GT3 success is the new Ferrari 488 GT3, based on the 488 GTB road car launched last year.
The new 488 GT3 had its competition debut on Thursday at the Australian Grand Prix, following in a tradition of landmark Pirelli-equipped Ferraris, such as the original Ferrari F40: the car for which the very first P Zero tyre was created in 1987.
Pirelli on the track with Audi, Aston Martin and BMW
Some 30 years later, this latest Ferrari ran as part of the Australian GT championship: exclusively supplied by Pirelli and also featuring other prestige manufacturers that rely on Pirelli tyres as original equipment, such as Audi, Aston Martin and BMW.
It was a debut that went largely under the radar, but the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist…
At the wheel was former grand prix driver Andrea Montermini: a man whowould be forgiven for not harbouring especially fond memories of Albert Park.
His last appearance in a Formula 1® race in Australia came exactly 20 years ago, at the wheel of the 1996 Forti-Ford FG01B: a reheated 1995 car whose most attractive feature was its distinctive blue and yellow Parmalat livery.
In an era that already featured some embarrassingly bad machinery (who remembers the Footwork-Hart?) the Forti-Ford was undoubtedly the worst, a fact underlined by its emphatic last place in the constructors’ standings.
Montermini failed to qualify for the 1996 Australian Grand Prix – a result that set the tone for the entire season– although he later valiantly wrestled the recalcitrant Forti to 10th in the Argentinian Grand Prix (naturally from last on the grid): by some way the team’s best result of the season.
But Montermini had seen enough of F1®, and went off to achieve success both in Indycar and in GT racing, where he won the International GT open title with Ferrari.
Sitting front row to the Endurance of the stars
And this, indirectly, is what led him back to Melbourne to give the 488 GT3 its debut many years later: driving one of the first of the 150 or so cars that are expected to be produced over the next four or five seasons.
The fact that this remarkable debut happened at the Pirelli-backed Australian GT championship is just one sign of the strength of endurance racing in the southern hemisphere, with the Italian tyre company at the forefront.
Fresh from his victory at the Bathurst 12 Hours at the start of the year, running on Pirelli rubber, Shane van Gisbergen was another famous face in the support race paddock – although this time he was racing in the mighty Australian V8 championship, featuring cars that are about as subtle as a brick thrown through a window.
“You can’t really compare driving a GT3 to a V8 but they’re both good fun,” he pointed out (in fact, surprisingly, the lap times are quite similar). “The GT3 is a sophisticated racing machine with all the electronics you need. The V8 is much more of an old-fashioned muscle car.”
And this is a huge part of the appeal of the Australian Grand Prix, being not only the season-opener for F1® but also the venue with arguably the most packed and varied support race programme of the entire year. Including, this time, a very important debut. You heard about it here first.