20/20 - Veni, Vidi, Vici: How the Maserati MC12 became a GT legend at Spa

19 March 2020

The Latin phrase Veni, vidi, vici – I came, I saw, I conquered – is generally attributed to the Roman emperor Julius Caesar, who is believed to have been reflecting on his swift and dominant victory at the Battle of Zela. 

Given its origins, the phrase could just as easily be applied to another all-conquering Latin winning machine: the Maserati MC12. Indeed, few cars have arrived, dominated and then departed with such style and swagger as this mighty GT1.  

The favoured field of battle for the MC12 was, of course, Spa-Francorchamps. The car contested the 24 Hours just five times between 2005 and the final race in which GT1 machinery was permitted in 2009, announcing its presence with a one-two finish on debut. This was followed by another win in 2006, runner-up in 2007 (when four MC12s were among the top-seven) and another one-two in 2008. 

Runner-up in 2009 was a disappointing conclusion to its campaign, insomuch as MC12s had swept the top-three in qualifying and were some 1.5 second faster than the nearest challenger. Still, a final record of three wins and two second-place finishes – as well as a clutch of FIA GT titles – make this a bona fide titan.  

Though it carried the Maserati name into battle the car owed much to parent brand Ferrari, which had acquired its former rival during the late nineties. The MC12 borrowed a great deal of technology from Ferrari's Enzo, including its 12-cylinder 6.0-litre engine. A total of 50 road-going models were built for customers, who could place pre-orders at $670,000 – not bad considering it can now fetch in excess of $2m at auction.  

But the car's true destiny from the very beginning was the track and a GT programme was quickly launched. It would be led by Giorgio Ascanelli, former race engineer to Ayrton Senna among others, whose dedicated team was tasked with transforming the road-going version into the MC12 Corsa.  

Little discussion was required when selecting a lead development driver. Andrea Bertolini was already embedded at Ferrari, working on a variety of projects that included the all-conquering F1 programme. He also knew his way around a GT car, having campaigned the Ferrari 360 Modena with success in FIA GT. And so, in 2004, Ferrari bosses Jean Todt and Antonello Coletta presented Bertolini with an intriguing new assignment. 

"They asked me to 'move' to Maserati," explains the Italian. "At the same time, I was the official test driver for the F1 programme. One week I'd do four days testing the GT1 at Paul Ricard, and the next week I'd spend four days in the F1 car at Fiorano or Monza or Mugello. I was always in the car!"

This was the period when Ferrari was breaking records in Formula 1 and some of that magic clearly transferred to the MC12 project. Indeed, a certain Michael Schumacher found time to put the car through its paces at the brand's Fiorano test track.

The MC12 made its competitive debut late in the 2004 season, running the final four rounds of the FIA GT Championship and quickly reaching the top step of the podium. The results kept coming during the opening events of the 2005 campaign: second and third at Monza, one-two-three finishes at Magny-Cours and Silverstone, plus further podiums at Imola and Brno. 

"We were always focussed on the handling and tyre degradation," explains Bertolini. "If you look, we always made the difference with consistency. The car was really good from the beginning, really fast straight away. It immediately had the performance."

The next stop was Spa. The 2005 race saw 37 cars line up for the start – the fewest of the GT era – yet the calibre of the grid more than made up for this temporary dip in entrants. In particular, a quartet of MC12s, two each for Vitaphone Racing and JMB Racing, drew admiring glances from those seeing them in the flesh for the first time.

Larbre Compétition was back after missing the 2004 race, the French squad's iconic Vipers replaced by a pair of Ferrari 550 Maranellos. Aston Martin deployed two DBR9s that featured the likes of Pedro Lamy, Darren Turner and Stephane Sarrazin behind the wheel, while Corvette's C5-R, the Saleen S7-R and fan favourite the Lister Storm were also up for the challenge.             

But, while the opposition was fierce, the Maseratis made a major statement in qualifying by locking out the front row of the grid. The #9 Vitaphone car of Bartels/Scheider/Van de Poele took top spot from the #15 JMB entry shared by Bertolini/Wendlinger/Peter, while the second Vitaphone MC12 started fifth.

A traditional summer downpour hit the Ardennes on race day, drenching the circuit for the start. The Astons set off on wet tyres and quickly disappeared up the road, but as the track dried the intermediate-shod MC12s returned to the front. By the time darkness fell on Spa-Francorchamps normal service had resumed: the Vitaphone cars were one-two, the lead Aston slipping to third and the JMB Maserati three laps down in sixth. 

By half-distance the JMB machine had recovered to third and the race could well have ended with a Maserati podium lockout had the #10 Vitaphone entry not been forced to retire with a broken gearbox. It pulled off to the right of the Kemmel straight, flames licking at its rear, perhaps igniting fears about the MC12's reliability. Bertolini recalls being told that the positions should be maintained to the finish, with the #9 Vitaphone crew thus remaining ahead of the charging JMB effort. With the instruction coming direct from Ascanelli, he wasn't about to argue.  

And so Scheider brought #9 Vitaphone MC12 home for the win, performing doughnuts for the crowd at Les Combes as he celebrated a dominant debut for the car. There was just as much excitement on the pit wall as Bartels embraced Van de Poele, the latter becoming a three-time Spa 24 Hours winner. 

"It's not so easy to find the right words, because to be here now after this race is like a dream," Bartels said in the wake of his team's victory. He would later call Spa 2005 the "outstanding memory" of his time in GT racing, taking particular satisfaction in winning with a new car. The numbers were impressive, too. The victorious Maserati had completed 576 laps, 18 more than the previous year's total, while the best time – a 2m15.598s set by the #10 car – was a phenomenal 2.6s faster than the previous year. Veni, vidi, vici.

Victory in 2005 began a golden age for Maserati at Spa. Another win followed in 2006, with Bertolini joining Bartels and Van de Poele in the triumphant Vitaphone entry. It was a richly deserved reward for the Italian after his work developing the MC12 – and he thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

"That was a really hard race, and it was my favourite because it was like qualifying from lap one until the end," Bertolini recalls. "With half an hour to go we were just eight seconds in front of the Aston."

In 2007 there were four MC12s in the top seven, but it was the Carsport/Phoenix Corvette that took top spot. The Italian marque returned to winning ways with a one-two in 2008 as Bertolini/Bartels/Van de Poele clinched victory. With the Belgian becoming the race's first (and to date only) five-time winner that day, Maserati's place in Spa 24 Hours history was secure. 

2009 looked likely to deliver more silverware as the Vitaphone squad swept the top three places in qualifying, but after two cars hit problems a runner-up finish was all they could manage. With GT1 machinery no longer eligible from 2010 onwards, the brief but brilliant era of the MC12 drew to a close. A decade later it is still fondly remembered, not least by Bertolini.

"I was lucky to work with some really strong, professional people," says the Italian ace. "Giorgio Ascanelli was like my motorsport father; I learned a lot from him. As a driver, too, I learned about the best way to manage the tyres, how to develop and manage race cars. 

"Sometimes we even achieved a perfect stint," he adds. "For me, a perfect stint at Spa is when you can improve on your time from the first two or three laps and set the best time at the end [of the stint] due to the fuel effect. To do this, you need really strong balance and consistency. Normally it's impossible in a GT; with a formula car, yes, but with a GT it is really difficult." 

In the years that have followed the MC12 has become one of the defining cars of the GT era. It is an instantly recognisable machine, especially in the striking black and turquoise Vitaphone livery. Strip the paint way and it is still unmistakable, combining the aesthetics of a prototype with a GT car. A small example of its enduring popularity can be found in the Maserati store, where miniature replicas of the car are still sold more than a decade after its last participation.

"When we speak about the MC12, I still feel very proud," says Bertolini. "When you are there, it feels normal. But after many years, I think about the time when we would leave the pits to go to the grid before the start; the noise of car really made people look. It was amazing. The people had Italian flags, Vitaphone flags, it was a really special time." 

It took just a few years for the Maserati MC12 to become synonymous with GT racing at Spa. It came, it saw, it conquered. Caesar himself would have been proud.

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20/20 Total 24 Hours of Spa

This year's Total 24 Hours of Spa will be race's 20th running since GT rules were adopted in 2001. To mark the occasion, this 20-part series explores the moments and themes that have made the event what it is today. 

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Tickets: www.total24hours.com

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