Over the past three decades, Ferrari has released special edition models that sit at the top of their lineup periodically. Each of these cars at the time of their release are leagues beyond anything else the company has released in terms of both performance, price and availability, and they continue to be well loved and highly sought after models by those who can afford the hobby. The latest of these, the Ferrari LaFerrari, sported a price tag of over $2-million and could hit 120 mph about the same amount of time it takes an average car to hit 60 mph. The previous model, the Ferrari Enzo, was one of the craziest cars the world had ever seen when it was released, as was the case with its F50 and F40 predecessors. But this line traces their roots back to the original Ferrari hypercar: the 288 GTO.
The 288 GTO was initially developed to compete in an FIA racing series that never got off the ground known as Group B Circuit. In the early 1980s the FIA had four classes for various types of cars, including Group N for normal, unmodified street cars, Group A for touring cars based on four-seat passenger cars, Group B for grand touring two-seat sports cars, and Group C for prototypes. While Group C became known for their sports car prototypes that ran in endurance races like Le Mans, Group B became synonymous with the most hardcore era for rally racing. If you’re not familiar with rally racing, it essentially involves driving cars on a variety of surfaces like gravel, dirt, tarmac and snow at high speeds on courses the drivers are experiencing for the very first time. A co-driver helps by reading course notes to help the driver prepare, but there’s little room for error and crashes are usually spectacular.
During this time, manufacturers like Audi, Renault, Ford, and Lancia developed huge followings as they pushed the limit of what their cars and drivers were capable of due to Group B’s largely open rule set. Turbo boost was unregulated, and the average power of cars in the class doubled from 250 hp to 500 hp during Group B’s tenure. The major restriction on these cars was they had to be homologated, meaning manufacturers had to build a certain number of road-going versions that were available to the public.
While rally was gaining all sorts of attention, the FIA worked to develop a circuit racing series based on the Group B formula. The cars for this period could be crazy powerful, but unlike other high-end racing series at the time, the cars had to be homologated, requiring 200 cars to be built and sold. Ferrari was on board almost immediately, and thus began the development of the 288 GTO with GTO standing for Grand Tourismo Omologata (Grand Touring Homologation).
The 288 GTO was derived from the Ferrari 308 GTB that was already in production, but little of the 308 remained by the time they were done. The 288 GTO featured bulging fender flares for larger racing tires with vents for brakes, more aggressive spoilers on the front and rear, a wider and lighter body made from mostly kevlar and carbon fiber, and an adjustable suspension. The engine was based on the V8 in the 308, but it was de-bored by 1 mm to meet series specifications and gained a pair of turbochargers, boosting power to 395 horsepower and 366 lb.-ft. of torque, allowing it to become the first street-legal production car to hit 186 mph (300 km/h). Enough GTOs were produced in 1984 that it officially became homologated for Group B in 1985.
Unfortunately, the Group B circuit formula never really took off, as most normal manufacturers couldn’t justify building a special edition road car to compete on a circuit. Like Ferrari, a few exotic manufacturers found it a highly attractive concept, leading them to create several high-end models which would serve as their brand flagships. These models included the Porsche 959 (which was also adapted for off-road Group B rallying in addition to the circuit), Lamborghini’s Countach LP5000 Quattrovalvole “Downdraft” and the Jaguar XJ200.
Despite the buy-in from exotic manufacturers, the Group B circuit concept still never got off the ground. While these manufacturers were creating models for circuit racing, the rally side of Group B continued to develop almost without restraint. Cars became insanely powerful for the unpredictable nature of rally racing, and the propensity of fans to crowd the track in order to get as close as possible to the speeding cars lead to the inevitable. In the 1986 Portuguese Rally, driver Joaquim Santos lost control of his Ford RS200, killing three spectators and injuring 31. Later that year in Corsica, Henri Toivonen and co-driver Sergio Cresto were tragically killed when they went off an unguarded cliff side in their Lancia Delta S4. The car caught fire quickly and by the time rescue crews made it to the location 30 minutes later, all that was left of the the vehicle was a blackened frame. With these accidents, Audi pulled out completely and the class was banned in FIA competition. The ban involved the circuit side of Group B as well, so the racing series the 288 GTO was built for never materialized.
While Group B circuit never materialized, the 288 GTO did leave an important legacy. A special edition of the car known as the 288 GTO Evoluzione meant to compete in the series was developed. That car heavily influenced the Ferrari F40, with its upgraded engine and updated aerodynamics, particularly the new wedge-shaped front end and large NACA ducts. The Ferrari F40 itself was envisioned as the purpose-built supercar successor to the 288 GTO for Group B circuit racing, but the series died before it was unveiled. The success of the F40 lead to the Formula One inspired F50, which all but guaranteed the continued inclusion of a special edition hypercar as a part of Ferrari’s legacy.
While the 288 GTO was never intended to leave the pavement, it’s fun to think of what could have been. Thankfully, a YouTube channel known as TaxtheRich100 has given us an idea of what that might have looked (and sounded) like in a gymkhana-style video. So here’s a video of a 288 GTO being driven at high speeds through an English farm for your viewing pleasure.
Wikipedia – Ferrari 288 GTO
Rally Group B Shrine – Group B Circuit Racing – Why It Never Came To Be
Rally Group B Shrine – The Rise and Fall of Group B