In just two racing seasons, a Ferrari racecar logged more than 21,748 mi (35,000 km) competing at tracks in the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship Pro-Am class.
“I’d be surprised to find Ferrari 458 street cars with that many miles,” Ian Willis, Technical Director for AIM Autosport in Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada, quipped to an SAE Magazines editor from inside the team’s paddock trailer at the 2014 Detroit Grand Prix.
On the track, drivers transition from full-throttle acceleration to heavy braking over and over again.
“Components have to work together under the highest stresses,” said Willis. “We did the 2013 Grand-Am season with the same engine the whole season—14,000 km, no engine change. That engine was rebuilt for the 2014 car. And even though it is de-tuned slightly from the street car engine, which helps, it’s all racing miles.”
AIM’s Ferrari racecar is a subdued version of the Italian automaker’s 458 street car.
“In this case, there’s a set of rules that try to match power for a bunch of different street cars. You have front-engine/rear-wheel-drive cars, rear-engine/rear-wheel-drive cars, mid-engine/rear-wheel-drive cars, and different engine displacements. It’s just not possible to go ‘free reign’ like the good old days,” said Willis, who along with brother, Keith, and former Indy Lights racecar driver Andrew Bordin, are partners at AIM Autosport.
In the TUDOR Championship’s GT Daytona (Pro-Am) class, Ferrari cars compete against Porsche 911 GT America, SRT Viper GT3-R, Audi R8 LMS, BMW Z4, and Aston Martin V12 Vantage cars. TUDOR Championship races frequently run the Prototype (Pro) class simultaneously with the GT Daytona class. These specifically designed and engineered Pro class racetrack cars include entries from Honda, Chevrolet, Nissan, Ford, and Mazda.
‘Success can come from failure’
The mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive Ferrari 458 production car is the start point.
“There’s an upgraded version of that car used for the Ferrari Challenge Series, and this car is a further evolution of the Ferrari Challenge car,” Willis said. “Ferrari hands that car to Michelotto, a company that works hand-in-hand with Ferrari to build racing cars.”
Two Michelotto engineers work with the AIM team throughout the race season. The shortest race encompasses two hours while the longest race lasts 24 hours.
Prior to the fifth race of the 2014 season, AIM and Michelotto engineers had an up-close look at a failed part.
“A manufacturing tolerance item has resulted in some random failures, and we had a random failure here in Detroit before the first practice when we were warming up the engine. It was fortunate that it was in a situation that didn’t cause irreparable damage,” said Willis.
The damaged part was not entirely bad news.
“Some things get destroyed, and you can’t analyze what happened. Of the four random failures that they’ve had, two were complete destruction and two were not. We had one of the failures that didn’t completely destroy the part. That’s good because Michelotto can take the parts back to Italy and figure it out. We have a suspicion of what it is, but now we have the physical part relatively undamaged to determine exactly why it’s happening,” Willis said.
There are other reasons why failure is not always a naughty word in the racing world.
“Some of my best racecar setups have come from bad tests. You can have a horrible test and nothing you try works, and you can’t find the speed. Then you go back, look at it and say, ‘That cake mix wasn’t right. We gotta change the ingredients and go 180 degrees from where we were.’ And then all of a sudden, bang, you find the magic,” Willis said. “Success can come from failure.”
From street car to track
Success has been sweet, with the Ferrari 458 GT winning race championships in 2012 and 2013.
“It used to be that if you built a better mousetrap, you won the race. Now we take the mousetrap we’re given, we optimize that mousetrap, and we win the race,” said Willis.
The #555 Ferrari is similar to Ferrari’s street car, which uses a naturally aspirated 4.5-L V8 producing 562 hp (419 kW) at 9000 rpm and 398 lb·ft (540 N·m) torque at 6000 rpm.
“Rules look at the power-to-weight ratio, so that’s a reduction of power in our case. And that’s accomplished by just reducing the engine rpm to 8000 and adding an engine air inlet restrictor,” Willis said.
Aerodynamics are another way to control the racecar’s performance.
“Actually, the racecar has a much higher Cd than the street car’s 0.35 Cd because we want to create downforce. There are not many tracks where we’re running extremely long straightaways. But there are a lot of corners. And the faster you can go around the corner, the faster you earn a lap time.”
The merger of the American Le Mans Series and the Rolex Sports Car Series formed the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship for the 2014 season.
“For us, we essentially took the Ferrari Grand-Am spec car and modified it slightly. It wasn’t a big change for us from a car point of view. We’re still running Continental tires, but now it’s a slightly different tire spec. The new series also moved the rear wing position to make all the cars more similar, and that upset our aerodynamics a little bit,” Willis said.
Change is definitely a racing constant. AIM fielded one Ferrari racecar in 2012, two Ferrari cars in 2013, and one car for the 2014 race season.
“It’s just the ups and downs of the economics of motorsports,” said Willis.
Grooming young engineers
Since the company’s formation in 1995, many young engineers have spent time with the AIM crew.
“We’ve had several engineering interns over the years,” Willis explained. “When we had multiple cars and multiple programs, we had a need for engineering interns. Many of our engineering interns participated in Formula SAE, and a number of people now employed with us participated in Formula SAE. We’ve found that program to be a prerequisite for us because it provides the hands-on experience of building the car, taking it to the competition, and managing all of that.
“Racers are very passionate, and I think that the people involved in Formula SAE or Baja SAE programs are very passionate and focused on what they do. And that’s also what manufacturers look for when they get involved in racing—engineers who understand the ‘you can’t wait’ environment of racing,” said Willis, a mechanical engineering graduate of Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada.