It all started with a high-pitched scream, followed by the tell-tale booming thuds and crackles of rapid deceleration.
We were expecting a prototype-style hill-climber or open wheeler to round the corner, halfway up the 5.2-kilometre hill climb course at St. Ursanne Les Rangiers. But instead I was surprised by a bright flash of orange through the trees as the unmistakable profile of a Ferrari F355 as it hugged the inside line like a runaway coal cart.
We watched as the Ferrari ripped past and not-so-politely announced its arrival into the wooded section above us, before disappearing over a rise, shrieking and banging as it went. This was not your average Ferrari. This was raw, rude and entirely uncouth – and we were definitely going to have to see it up close.
Though Ferraris have always been known for their amazing V8 soundtracks, something wasn’t quite right. Even a 458 doesn’t sound this good. And once we found the ’90s icon and its owner, René Ruch, hidden away in a small pit area in the shadow St. Ursanne’s famous viaduct, we quickly figured out why.
After introductions were made, René, who now runs his own exotic car workshop Sportgarage Ruch in Switzerland after many years spent working as a technician for Ferrari, was happy to show us his car. Though he was quick to point out that this Ferrari was no show pony; it was built to drive fast, something which it has been doing since it first rolled off the Maranello production line nearly 20 years ago. It has the weathered carbon fibre exterior details to prove it too.
A peek past the well-worn wing and into the engine bay reveals a sight that is distinctly un-Italian. René explains that although the F355’s 3.5-litre V8 motor is great, he had worked with it for years and had reached the limits of its abilities. He needed more power, and especially more torque, something these cars are well-known to lack.
The original motor was pulled and replaced with an English-made Zytek ZJ458: a fuel-injected, 500hp, 525Nm 90-degree alloy V8, backed up by a Hewland NMT transaxle sequential gearbox and Geartronic paddle shifter system. These motors usually sport a 4.5-litre capacity, but Rene had his particular engine sized down to 4000cc to fit in with class limits.
When asked about that beautiful sound that we had quickly become so enamoured with, René laughed, saying that he can’t really hear it with his helmet on inside the car. But he puts it down to the custom exhaust system that he has developed over the last year.
Considering that the original Ferrari engine makes 380hp and 363Nm, the race-bred Zytek is a big step up, and would turn an otherwise-stock F355 into an extremely fast car. But this Ferrari isn’t your vanilla-flavoured example in the least. It’s a genuine F355 Challenge, originally built to run in the Trofeo Pirelli Italian Challenge Cup back in 1996.Pure Racing Roots
The F355 certainly has an interesting history. René originally picked this car up after reaching the limits of what his previous machine, a 308 Group 4, was capable of. After time spent racing in Italy, the Ferrari was sold to professional German driver Franz Engstler, who modified it for long distance racing and competed in the German VLN series at Nürburgring, as well as other well-known circuits across Europe.
The F355 eventually found itself embedded in the armco, and although Engstler pulled the car apart and began to repair it, a new sponsorship deal to race in the Super Touring Car Championship meant that he no longer had the time for the Ferrari. And thus it sat dormant in many pieces for the next few years until René snapped it up, picking that it would make the perfect machine to use as a big step up from his 308.
He was right, too. Being a Challenge car, the Ferrari was already lightweight and featured many other factory improvements with pure performance in mind.
The car was still too heavy for René though, so he began systematically pulling more weight out of it wherever he could. Carbon fibre fenders, doors, bonnet and boot were added, and jobs like changing from a endurance fuelling set up to a tiny sprint-capable fuel cell saved plenty of pounds. Eventually, René ended up with a 975kg (wet) F355, far down on the quoted 1,350kg weight of a standard road-going model.
The car sits surprisingly low to the ground on 18×10 and 18×11-inch BBS E28 wheels, thanks to excellent KW competition coilovers.
A look behind the big centre-lock rims reveals some serious stopping power in the form of 370mm ceramic rotors working with Girling calipers up front and AP Racing calipers in the rear.
The interior is sparse at best, and came so from factory. A simple suede-lined dash houses a Stack ST800 instrument/data-logger cluster.
The seat, harnesses and rollcage have all been upgraded by René to align with modern standards.
Altogether, the light weight, big grunt, perfect handling and brutal stopping power culminates in a fantastic hill climb car. René has been competing here at St. Ursanne every year since 2003, and both experience and a lightning-quick car showed through during the 2014 race, with the Ferrari ending the weekend as the third quickest touring car on the hill, just behind a pair of late model Porsche GT Cup cars.
While yes, the Ferrari is exceptional through the tight, winding hill climbs of Europe, it’s about more than that. This is a car that has seen more than its fair share of hard battles over its 18 years in existence, and thanks to the perfect marriage of brilliant Italian and English engineering, it’s not only still going strong after all this time, it’s going much, much faster than ever.
Want to hear and see exactly what got us so excited when we first saw this car? Check out this video of the Ferrari shot at this year’s Course de côte at St. Ursanne – thanks to Markus and Andreas at MPZRACEVIDEO for the submission!