If you know me well, this might be hard to believe. I’ve been struggling with what to say about my drive in a Ferrari F430. Seemingly for the first time in my life, I’m at a loss for words. So, I’ll start with the facts. If you’re not much into cars, skip the next paragraph, I’m going to start talking about the stuff that makes people walk away from me at parties.
As I mentioned before, I had signed up to drive a 430 Scuderia, but it looked like the company providing the cars were out of Scuds for the day, and I “only” had a normal F430 to drive. No big deal, still quite a car. Just so we’re on the same page, we’re talking about a two seat, fixed roof GT with a 4.3L midmounted V8 producing 490 horsepower at 8500rpm and 343lb-ft of torque at 5250 and a curb weight of only 3,197 pounds. In contrast, my Z4 has an inline 6 making 215 horsepower, 184lb-ft of torque, redlines at 7000rpm, way before the Ferrari is even making peak power, and weighs 3,020 pounds. There’s also a considerable size difference between the two cars, with the Z4 dwarfed in length and width by a measure of 17” and 5.6” respectively, and only about 3” taller than the Ferrari. I don’t mean this to be a direct comparison between the two, just a way of putting what we’re dealing with in perspective. Like I said earlier, these cars do not play on the same planet of specs, and I’m under no disillusion that they do. On a bad day, the F430 runs to 60 in 4 seconds. On a good day, I’m a second and a half behind and by the quarter mile mark, we’re talking about at least a two second difference. By the time the Z4 would cross the line the Ferrari driver would be sipping a cup of impossibly stylish espresso and chatting up two Victoria’s Secret models and eyeing a third.
Thank goodness for these websites like Groupon and LivingSocial. I’ve been able to experience so many new things through them. Kayaking and wine tasting? I’ve done the two separately (well, canoeing), but together in one 9 hour trip? Hell yes, I’d like to try that. What an experience, too. Then the “Drive a Supercar on a Race Track” came across my email. I jumped at the opportunity, because, well, why the hell not? Unless this blog really blows up and my Twitter following increases exponentially, I’m probably not going to be buying a Ferrari any time soon (though I am catching Ashton Kutcher; only 12,735,852 more followers to go and we’ll be tied). So, I drove an hour and a half out to Englishtown, NJ, after getting up at 6AM on a Saturday, a day where I hold sacred the fact that I can stay in bed until 1PM, to Raceway Park, where I met a friend and we waited for hours to get our seat time in the Ferrari.
Just as an aside, the Ferrari wasn’t the only car there. They also had a pair of Gallardos, both in silver. There were a couple of odd things I noticed about the Gallardos, formerly one of my favorite entry-level supercars, which has now lost some of its luster in my eyes. For one, they are quiet. Shockingly quiet. My Z4 is louder. I’m not saying that I need a car to set off car alarms as it rolls past looking for a parking spot, but I’d like to be able to hear it at full throttle. Another thing that was worrying is that after every few laps, they’d pull them off the track and open up the hoods to let the engines cool down. The Ferrari didn’t need this special treatment. I guess all those photos of burning Gallardos really made an impact. I sort of expected a certain level of fragility when it comes to supercars in general, but to see the historically fragile Ferrari (after all, I grew up in the era of Testarossas, 348s, and 355s that were only driven about a thousand miles a year; in contrast, this 430 had over 40K on the clock) taking the abuse with such noticeable aplomb made me wonder why the German/Italian mash-up weren’t more durable. Still, the Lamborghini is a good looking car that I would hack someone’s limbs off in order to own, but for the first time in a long time, I see it as less desirable than its Ferrari counterpart.
And on to the Ferrari itself. Sitting in pit lane (well, pit area, more like it) in a color that can only be described as Cliché Red, it proved itself still a provocative shape. While newer Ferraris suffer from being the size of small houses and styled after things I’d squash with my shoe (the 458 Italia looks a bit like the back end of a stinkbug), the 430 draws on the shape of the 360 and refines it with some Enzo styling cues. It occurred to me, looking at it from the rear ¾ view, that this may very well be the last truly good looking Ferrari we see for a long time. I know there are plenty of people out there who really love the 458, but I just don’t see it. One parks by where I live quite often, so I see one regularly, and it just holds no visual appeal.
Jumping (or rather, carefully positioning myself) into the driver’s seat, you’re greeted by a host of buttons and switches, most of which make no sense. Over and over, seasoned drivers tell you that the first and most important thing to driving effectively is comfort. I usually take a standard racing position; slight bend in the knee when the clutch is all the way in, and a slight bend in the elbow at 9 and 3. And doing so in the 430 resulted in my unflattering open-face helmet rubbing against the headliner. No one looks like the Stig in an open-faced helmet, scrunched over so you don’t keep hitting your head on the roof; that fantasy goes out the window. And it’s not like I’m exceptionally tall. I’m barely of exceptionally average height, at 5’8”. Next time, I’m bringing my own full-face helmet, so at least I can look the part. I leaned the seatback so I could have a little bit more headroom. While they tried to figure out who would sit in the passenger seat while I drove, I took a look around the interior, but not with the normal discerning eye I usually have when I get into a new car for the first time. What can I say? I was excited. I was like a little kid going to Disney World for the first time. My heart was racing, I was focused on the drive.
The pro gets in and we exchange pleasantries until I get the green flag. I let him know that I’ve had a little bit of time on a track (I didn’t tell him that it was driving a Toyota MR-2 on dealership-owned ¼ mile long private track), and driver training (I also didn’t tell him that I did the driver training at a BMW class almost 10 years ago behind the wheel of a then-new X3, where I did emergency lane changes, emergency stops, and drifted in soapy water), and a depressing amount of time behind the virtual wheels of cars in Gran Turismo and Forza. He thought that was funny, which is the reaction I was going for. He ran down the rules with me. No shifting. Even after I assured him that I know how to shift and I’ve driving nothing but stick for years and a paddle shift is like a toy to me. He said it was company policy. So it would run in automatic mode. Traction control stays on and in the normal setting (I was hoping for a loose setting or Race or something of the sort). No overtaking. 55mph past pit lane. Yellow flag is caution, red is bring it in. He gave me a little advice about the track and I tore off.
I took it somewhat easy, focusing on mechanics rather than speed. I wanted to get comfortable with the car, see how it would react, and more importantly, make sure the pro was comfortable with me, so he wouldn’t boot me when I got more aggressive; but I attacked the apexes on the opening S-curve, hit the apex on the hard left going into the straight, and experienced full throttle in a Ferrari for the first time. And I have to say it was….well, it was something else. The run to 60 out of the corner was quick, but oddly calm—sedate even. Over 60, the engine really started to scream and I had to fight to stay upright in the seat. It was so ferocious once you stepped past 70 that it became hard to breathe (I honestly don’t know whether it was nerves or g-forces). Soon after 80 I had to hit the brakes for the hard left leading into the banked corner. I started outside on the bank, pushed in towards the curbing, and full throttle again towards pit lane, where I got the caution flag. I had caught up to the Gallardo and they didn’t want me to crowd or overtake him, so I had to back off. The pro had me come to a stop and let him gain considerable distance. I sat at the corner before the straight, waiting less-than-patiently, tapping my fingers on the wheel. The pro gave me the go ahead and I just slammed on the gas with reckless abandon. I wanted to see what this car could do and what would happen if you just go nuts. Traction control stepped in as the rear end wiggled about, I pushed the car as far as I felt comfortable before backing off at the end of the straight to take the complex of corners. Through the banking, I got the caution again. Caught the Gallardo. Again. Same deal, but after negotiating an extra lap, this time I took it easier through straight and penultimate complex (still hard through the S-curves after pit lane). The plan was to hot dog one lap so I can get a really intense, stupid, knock-on-death’s-door-and-wipe-your-feet-on-the-welcome-mat lap in for my last trip around the circuit. I still caught the Gallardo. Oh well. Time to go at it like a teenager.
Got the back end out again going into the straight, traction control dutifully keeping me in line. It’s funny how much you begin to rely on it, making decisions you normally wouldn’t because you know that this electronic safety net will step in to wrap you in a blanket and give you a bottle of warm ba-ba should things go wrong. Pushed hard through the straight which had a slight kink in it. This time, instead of lifting for the kink, I stayed flat on the throttle to see if I could break the 80mph ceiling the instructors said wouldn’t be surpassed. I saw the needle flick past 80, past the tick mark representing 90, past the smaller tick mark indicating 95, but just before I got to 100, I stood on the brakes for the abrupt left hander, got to the apex, and immediately got back on the throttle to attack the banked left. It was my last go and I paid for $5,000,000 of insurance, so I figured I might as well end it with an anecdote. The car held on through the turn and I approached pit lane where a man was waving a red flag, telling me this was all over. Hours of waiting for just a few minutes of seat time.
Disappointing that I couldn’t shift on my own. Disappointing that I kept getting stopped because the driver of the Lamborghini insisted on driving it like real Lamborghini owners, which is to say, quite slowly (at least compared to me). But I still stepped out of that car with a stupid grin on my face. It absolutely is an intoxicating feeling to be able to push a car that hard without the fear of losing your license or taking out a nun pushing a stroller (clearly, it’s not the nun’s baby, she’s just helping someone out…not that the imaginary nun needs a cogent backstory, but still) or whatever innocent bystanders may be crossing the street without looking.
But at the same time, it was shocking to experience the car in moments when you couldn’t push the limits. It felt completely normal. Like any other car out there. Sure, it was exciting to be behind the wheel of a Ferrari even while driving slowly, but that’s because the badge has so much allure and so much history and so many feats to its name (men like Michael Schumacher drove a car with the same prancing horse on it into the history books), not because the experience of driving slowly was anything special. When a car is built to such a high spec and has to be able to cope with speeds nearing 200mph, it makes sense that there’d be a dulled sensation when driving slowly. The car is built for so much more; at 70mph it was just beginning to wake up. Even on this track, less than 1.5 miles long, you just knew that the 430 was barely stretching its legs, rather than going for a full-on sprint. Even this track wouldn’t allow me to fully exploit the car. What can you do with it on a road with a 45mph speed limit?
What really is the point of power you can’t use? All that power harnessed, tamed, and ready to be unleashed, only to see its driver rendered impotent by such menial concerns such as safety and law.
It was an amazing experience. But to be honest, getting back into my Z4 was like going home. I’ll take my 215 over the Ferrari’s 490 any day.