Last month, we left off with my introduction of Ferrari’s Pilota performance driving school, which is held at the Mugello F-1 track near Florence, Italy. Ferrari owns this world-class track in addition to the smaller one at Fiorano, close to Maranello. The team F-1 cars are tested at both facilities, but whereas Fiorano is very private and never used for races, Mugello hosts a calendar of events each year, including the world finals of the Challenge series. The driving school is another of their programs intended to be a unique opportunity for Ferrari’s customers. There are only about twelve sessions held each year, and in true Italian fashion, the scheduling process is Byzantine. Like a factory visit, one must apply through a Ferrari dealership far in advance and hope that a vacant slot will be allotted to you. You don’t choose the date—they do!
To briefly recap, the school is run by Andrea de Adamich, an ex-Ferrari F-1 driver from the 1960s, who has built a faculty of young, very accomplished drivers active in Formula 3, European sedan racing and Pro Rally. The biography given us on these drivers was very impressive, listing many, many successes. Each speaks reasonably fluent English and was quite proficient at teaching Ferrari’s clients how to get the most out their cars. We were divided into groups of six, with two instructors for each group.
Much of the school’s focus is on car control when things start getting out of control. While two groups were practicing technique on the track itself, the other two worked at specific driving exercises in a large paved parking lot right behind the pit garages. In one, a 360 with its ABS disabled, was to be driven flat out in second gear into a cone chicane under hard braking. Huge golf course-style sprinklers were employed to keep everything plenty wet, although it rained lightly during the entire session, anyway. After much slithering around and terrible cone attrition, ABS was restored along with an appreciation for how beneficial this technology is.
Reacting correctly to a skid, when oversteer is trying to swing the car’s rear end around, is a crucial skill to master, and was taught initially with a couple of Alfa GTV coupes. These were a limited series built for a race series during the early ‘90s, with 240-horse V6s, rear drive and short wheelbases. Again, on a flooded surface, you were told to fly into a sharp cone-curve, turn sharply and gas it! The following day, these same Alfas were used in an even wilder control exercise. A ring of cones about twenty feet in diameter was placed out in the center of the wetted arena. The trick was to dive in hard in first gear, set up a full opposite-lock skid and keep the car sideways for a full lap around the circle! This was hard work, as you had to furiously saw at the wheel and fan the throttle to maintain the skid. Among my accomplishments that week was to be the only one to make four consecutive laps.
The off-track exercise I enjoyed the most also involved the big wet parking lot. A serpentine course of cones was set up that had a large, sweeping curve at each end. Using both 550s and 360s—with the traction control switched off--you would whip through the single-lane-wide cones and initiate a skid with the throttle into one of the big 180-degree curves; then try to hold the car hung out that way until time to collect the skid and reenter the next row of cones, doing this twice on each lap. It was a tremendous amount of fun, but I noticed that several of the students were not at all comfortable going sideways in an expensive car, unlike those of us who know how to have a good time driving in snow!
Between these drills were sumptuous sit-down lunches each day, which made me wonder how frequently all that pasta wound up on the floors of those Alfas soon after. A buffet of other goodies and drinks was always available in the trackside garage, and I found the buzzy high produced by several of the powdered sugar-sprinkled chocolate croissants to my secret weapon. In fact, any function Ferrari is involved in always includes deluxe eats, and the night after the first day’s classes, we were taken to a catered dinner in the restored great hall of a 17th century castle on a nearby hillside overlooking Florence.
When on the race track, your instructor would coach you in proper steering wheel control and the fine points of corner entry lines, apexes and exits, all the while critiquing your smoothness with downshifting and other inputs. Ever-greater speeds were encouraged as skill levels developed, and I finally had the additional distinction of being the first in the group to spin a 550 off the track on a downhill third-gear turn—in the rain. Countersteering arrested the loop, but the rear end still got off into the wet grass, so I just tucked it in tight to stay away from the wall. We pirouetted nicely down the hill, splattering mud and grass all over, but once headed back in the right direction were able to pull back out without getting stuck.
Rather than recriminations, this simply elicited an analysis of what precipitated the spin, how it could have been avoided--with greater finesse, not less speed--and the go-ahead for several more laps to practice the new skill.
A cone chicane was put across the main straight to limit speeds entering the first turn to about 100 mph—until the second day. Then, we would be alone in the Ferrari while the instructor led in another car, delivering a running commentary over a radio system in the cars. My favorite, Fausto, always lapsed into Italian, but it wasn’t hard to figure out. The instructor would adjust his speed to the ability of the student in tow. When it wasn’t our turn, we could ride in the instructors’ cars and it was evident that some students were noticeably quicker than others.
After lunch the second day, students were paired according to ability and would run behind the instructors’ cars two at a time. This was great fun, as the instructors allowed you to go as fast as you were capable of, and with the chicane removed, we were often bumping against 200 kph before braking for the first turn. During one of these runs, I was the last car, following another student who ran a bit wide in one of the faster turns and took out the whole row of cones marking the exit path. Naturally, at lots ‘o miles per hour and being only thirty feet behind, I had no choice but to stay on the gas and follow the line. Cones went everywhere, and while I’ve certainly knocked over my share of them over the years, I’ve never hit one with the windshield before! The instructor’s cars all have video cameras mounted to the roll bars facing backward, so each student received a tape of his performance while running directly behind to take home. I’m proud of mine, but I’d like to see that footage on my track partner’s tape!
Following the course’s conclusion was the let-down of returning to life-as-normal and the reverse of the trains/planes routine for an eventual jetlagged landing at DIA. Funny, though, despite the fact that my Jeep has a V8 a lot bigger than a 360’s, the drive back home from the airport somehow wasn’t as exciting as pushing a Modena around Mugello.
-- Bill Orth --