There’s something already inherently nerve-shredding about taking someone else’s quarter-million-dollar supercar and letting it all hang out on a race track. Add heavy rain and you’re tempting a mental meltdown. And so it was on a recent gray day at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., when Ferrari of San Francisco organized an event driving Ferrari 458 Italias for a few dozen clients, would-be clients and one fortunate journalist. The result? Thanks to that rain, one of the most memorable driving days ever.
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First, some scene setting. That Ferraris have long been bred for track use is common knowledge. Famously, Enzo Ferrari built road cars just to finance his Formula One racing efforts. That attitude still persists with much of the company’s product line, particularly when it comes to the new 599 GTO, the granddaddy of the V-12 line-up, and the 458 Italia, a V-8 rocket that racers and pundits alike feel is a quantum, F1-inspired leap ahead of its predecessor, the eminently capable F430.
But these are tough economic times, and Ferrari is feeling the heat along with the rest of the auto world. As a result, the fabled firm from Maranello is taking a two-pronged approach to keeping customers happy. The first is to create vehicles that actually conform to their clients’ lifestyles; with its folding hardtop, the California is aimed squarely at the women in the family, while the genuine 2+2 seating in the forthcoming-if-oddly shaped, four-wheel-drive FF has designs on marque faithful who have children and want to go skiing.
“We are providing consumable luxury now, not just toys,” says Greg Minor, president of Ferrari of San Francisco, whose terracotta-roofed dealership looks as if it was air-lifted out of the Tuscan countryside (in fact, it was for many years the only U.S. dealership owned by Ferrari). “The California is a particularly big hit for us. Women who wouldn’t consider heading to a track in one of our other models will gladly hop in a California and drive away.”
Minor, who used to run Boardwalk Ferrari in Dallas, says another challenge is posed by the fact that Boomers are thinking twice about discretionary spending because of the economy. Meanwhile, the Gen X crowd (those born between 1965 and 1976) is simply a much smaller group, some 50 million compared with 80 million Boomers. “Those of us in the high-end markets have a customer pool that’s just shrunk by almost 50 percent,” says Minor. “That means we need to find new ways to get people excited about what we are selling.”
And that leads to the second prong, and the day in the rain: Organizing events that showcase a Ferrari’s racing heritage. Ferrari itself offers North American car owners a pair of two-day Ferrari Driving Experience courses, one at a track in Mont-Tremblant, Canada, and a winter-driving course in Aspen, Colo. (both ring in at around $10,000; experienceferrari.com). Such wine-and-drive trips, whose upscale settings are meant to satisfy husband and wife alike, mirror those offered by companies such as Porsche (porschedriving.com) and BMW (bmwusa.com). There are also numerous companies, such as World Class Driving and Gotham Dream Cars, that organize a day of motoring on public roads in a range of exotica.
But Minor felt there was an opportunity to provide both existing Ferrari drivers and those hoping to buy into the family with an event that was neither as demanding as the company’s two-day trips nor as demure as simply toodling around on cop-strewn streets. Twice now he’s brought a hand-picked group of Ferraristi to California racetracks - he won’t reveal the price, but suffice to say it’s nowhere near what a full Ferrari Driving Experience will set you back - in order to get a sense of why this is one of the most storied brands in automotive history.
The overcast day started with a typical classroom session that explained the unusually tricky aspects of Infineon Raceway, which features drastic elevation changes and hairpin turns. All this happened to the tune of a range of older Ferraris, from 512BBis to new GTOs - brought by their owners for some track fun - ripping past us on the nearby straightaway. Next up, taking turns in a pair of Californias on a cone-delineated slalom course to get a feel for high-speed braking and cornering. Shifting wasn’t an issue as the cars never left second gear, but it was a quick way of getting a sense of the dynamics and sounds of what was to come.
And what was to come had no precedent. For starters, the dozen or so blood-red 458 Italias assembled in pit lane looked less like fancy road cars are more like parked fighter jets. Low, wide and bristling with angles, the mid-engined 458 may not have that famous Ferrari front-mounted V-12 pedigree but it has few family peers on the track. Perhaps more to the point, it is a well-balanced, tech-filled sensation that makes a driver of modest abilities feel like an heir to Michael Schumacher. Which, as we all quickly found out, is a problem. Especially when it’s raining.
My first few lead-follow sessions around Infineon were a mixed bag. I got light in an uphill turn, rolled too heavily on the brakes and the car violently fish-tailed as I spotted the yellow traction-control light flickering like mad. (Memo to self: the feather-touch pedal in a 458 has nothing in common with even a regular sports car.) Then there were simple logistical issues, like how do you turn the wipers on? (Answer: a tiny button barely the size of a finger tip nestled on the steering wheel.) And also some passenger issues, including one gent who confessed to almost throwing up during the last hot-lap. (Solution: you drive slower than you’d like so as to avoid fouling the carbon fiber and leather interior.)
But on my last go-round, while the sun didn’t smile, luck did. I did half a dozen laps as a passenger with pro driver and instructor Nick Kunewalder. We talked about the proper racing line in the wet (forget apexing; too much rubber and oil in that groove). We marveled at the late Ayrton Senna’s expertise in such muck (“He was just supernatural in the rain,” said Kunewalder. “No one could touch him”). And, perhaps most usefully, I was shown just how much grip existed thanks to the 458’s wide track and overall road-holding prowess by a few otherwise imprudent stomps on the brakes and shakes of the steering wheel (the car seemed to grunt audibly in response to Kunewalder’s hi-jinx, as if to say “Nice try, Bozo, but I’m sticking to the track”).
Throughout the six laps, Kunewalder slowed so as not to lose the car in his rearview mirror. Then it came time to pit. I got out and buckled into the 458 behind Kunewalder’s, but all the other participants were finished, so neither my leader nor I had passengers. I wondered if the pro was thinking was I was: let’s push it. He was.
My track skills are solid but unpracticed. So I was grateful that the first lap simply tracked our two Ferraris through the proper rain-influenced driving line, which was far more middle of the road than it would have been in the dry. But on laps two through six, Kunewalder increasingly picked up the pace as I managed to stay on his tail, focused laser-like on sticking my front tires in the fading imprint of his rears on the rain-soaked track. By lap five, I was feeling good enough to know that lap six would take every shred of skill and concentration as Kunewalder tore down the straightaway in sixth gear.
I follow: Downshift with the blip of my left hand, up the first hill and over a blind rise. Kunewalder’s red brake lines flash through a rooster-tail of rain as he prepares for a ninety-degree right that leads to a long, off-camber carousel turn that funnels into another roaring straightaway.
On we went, up through the final hairpin that led back to pit lane. Before I could unbuckle I saw Kunewalder’s left hand shoot out of his now open window. Big thumbs up. We talked for a bit but I can’t say I heard all of what he said beyond “Great driving, if we had more time …” If my modest ability to keep up with a pro - who admittedly was likely driving at half speed - wasn’t enough of a surprise, so was the 458 Italia.
I’d seen the car plenty of times, and experienced it on the street. But one thing is clear now. This machine on a milk run is a bit like a thoroughbred cantering with kids on his back at a birthday party. Silly. But its very charm lies in not demanding Senna-like skills of its drivers. In fact, beyond the forgiving nature of its traction control and other safety systems, the 458 has a way of making those new to its interior feel at home. All great cars become extensions of the driver’s senses, but this car seems to have achieved that with virtually no meet-and-greet time.
Ferraris are, like other exotics, preposterously pricey machines that make non-car people rightly summon “it’s the price of a house” comparisons. And then there’s the fact that perhaps too often they are purchased as ego ornaments. But those things said, it’s just nice to know that beneath the gleaming Rosso Ferrari paint and the sculptured Pininfarina exterior is a track-eating beast that, were he alive today, Enzo would be proud to call his pet.