A Ferrari 360 Challenge car slides gently into the pit lane. It stops, a door opens and a technician leaps forwards to download the data that will describe the last half hour. Thirty seconds later, the laptop has worked its magic and a tall, gangly figure, dressed in an ill-fitting racesuit steps out of the car. The helmet and balaclava are quickly removed and the supermodel's face lights up with the broadest of grins.
"That was just brilliant," says Jodie Kidd. "I'm still making a mess of a couple of corners, but I'm learning fast." The 6-ft 2-in. blonde, more usually found on the cover of glossy magazines, is bereft of makeup and her "helmet hair" could best be described as eccentric, but she doesn't seem to care. Kidd isn't here to pose for the camera; she's here to learn how to drive a Ferrari...quickly. Welcome to the surreal world of Club Fiorano.
Established 5 years ago by Ferrari UK and former Grand Prix winner, Peter Gethin, the Club is named after Ferrari's test track could easily be described as the ultimate track day experience. Several times a year, a limited number of Ferrari owners are given the opportunity to drive Maranello's finest on some of the world's most famous racetracks.
Today, the Club has assembled at Magny-Cours, the challenging circuit 2 hours south of Paris, which hosts the French Grand Prix. There are eight members present and one gate crasher--yours truly.
As I await my turn, Gethin explains the club's philosophy. "We wanted to offer Ferrari owners something more. It's our way of saying thank you to for buying a Ferrari, and of helping customers to make the most of their cars." It's admirable, heart-warming stuff, but Gethin admits that Club Fiorano also serves a commercial purpose.
"Directly or indirectly we sell a lot of cars through these days," he explains. "Some of our members have so much money that if they like something, they'll buy it. We've had people step out of a car and say, 'I have to have one of those'." Such has been the club's success that Gethin is hoping to export the concept to other regions of the world.
My first session is about to start and Gethin hands me a helmet. I confess to feeling a little apprehensive. The 360 Challenge cars we're using today are normally found competing in a one-make racing series and sell for the trifling sum of #116,031 ($211,921).
Their 400-bhp, 3.6-liter V8 engines are shared with the standard 360, but the removal of such niceties as air-conditioning, a stereo and leather seats has lopped 545 lb off the Modena's curbweight so that it now weighs just 2,646 lb. As a result, the racer sprints from 0 to 60 mph in 4.0 sec., 0.5 sec. faster than the road car. Flat out it will pull 183 mph and even on the tight, technical Magny-Cours Circuit, we're expected to hit 130 mph.
Colin Boal, my instructor for the day, pinches the driving seat and proceeds to demonstrate the correct racing line. An experienced racer, Boal explains that, "this first session is really about learning the circuit and getting a feel for the car. The main thing is to try to be smooth and consistent. Then we can start going faster."
We return to the pits, swap seats and reconnect the helmet intercom system. "Right," says Boal, "nice and easy, no heroics." Flicking the paddle-shift gear changer, I select first and then second as we trundle out of the pit lane. The Ferrari 360 has always boasted a magnificent soundtrack but the effect is amplified in this pared-to-the-bone racer. On the back straight, where it's possible to accelerate through fifth gear, it sounds awesome.
Boal offers encouragement from the passenger seat and I improve steadily throughout the session. "Next time, we'll try to build on that and push the car and yourself that bit harder," he says as we return to the pits. I confess that I don't envy his job--sitting beside a bunch of enthusiastic but inexperienced Ferrari drivers on a grand prix circuit must be absolutely terrifying.
There's an hour's gap before the sec.ond of my four half-hour sessions, and it affords me the opportunity to talk to some of my fellow drivers. Club Fiorano is far from cheap--there's a #3,431 ($6,266) joining fee and the Magny-Cours day costs #1,775 ($3,242)--and I'm intrigued by the motivations of its members.
Brian Birkenhead is a retired Finance Director, who owns a Ferrari F355 Spyder road car. "For me it's just the most enormous fun," he says. "It was a lifetime's ambition to own a Ferrari and then to take one around this sort of place. When I was in my thirties and forties I kept telling myself that eventually, all the hard work was going to be worth it."
Rob Taylor, a civil engineer, agrees. "We're all here because we have a passion for Ferraris. It's very exclusive--it's like a little gentlemen's club. Many track days can be swarming with people and dangerous. This is very safe." In order to maximize his track time, Taylor has bought his own Challenge car, which the Club Fiorano staff service and transport to each event.
This exclusivity is also why celebrities, such as Kidd, find it easy to come to Club days. Having set the fastest time in a celebrity challenge series, the model is heading for a second career as a racing driver. She's preparing for her first race in the Maserati Trofeo series and I find her in the pit garage, scrutinizing a telemetry print out that provides a lap-by-lap analysis of her performance. It seems strange to be discussing braking points with a pin-up, but Kidd's enthusiasm is genuine. "It's a nice group of people," she says, "and the instructors are brilliant--they really take you up to a different level."
We're both due to complete four half-hour sessions throughout the day and by mid-afternoon, our lap times have tumbled. There's some light-hearted banter, but Gethin is anxious to discourage too much competition. "The Club's not about who sets the fastest time," he says. "We want it to be fun but safe. We had one guy who thought he was Schumacher and wouldn't listen to the instructors, so I threw him out."
It seems a sensible philosophy. While Club Fiorano boasts the ultimate in boy's toys, it avoids the excessive machismo that blights so many track days, and it's surprisingly unpretentious. That really is its secret--it's an exclusive club for exclusive people in which supermodels mix easily with supercars. There really is nothing else like it.
Ferrari 575M F1 Maranello
With the arrival of the 612 Scaglietti, Ferrari's 575M Maranello is faced with something of an identity crisis. If the 612 is the consummate Italian GT and the 360 is the thrill-seeking road racer, then what, exactly is the point of the 575? It is a tricky question but thankfully, I have a thousand miles in which to find an answer.
The route from London to the Magny-Cours circuit in central France is exactly the sort of trip that this car was designed for. Long and fast, with a mix of high-speed autoroute and sweeping country roads, it should offer plenty of scope to stretch the potential of the 5748cc, 515-bhp V12.
First impressions are mixed. The 575M has never been a thing of beauty but time has been kind to it sculptured lines and when dressed in the graphite grey of our test car, it adopts an understated yet purposeful edge. And the interior is terrific. A beautifully appointed blend of tan and black hide, it is further enlivened by the optional (#1,470, $2,685) Daytona-style seats with their pleated inserts. At first, they feel excessively bolstered, but their long distance comfort is peerless.
Less gratifying is the engine. It seems absurd to describe a Ferrari V12 as soulless, but that's exactly how it feels. There's no questioning the performance of a car that can reach 202 mph and achieves 0 to 62 mph in 4.2 sec., but the soundtrack is insipid. Where is the exhaust bellow, the rich, deep-throated timbre that makes an Aston Vanquish such an engaging companion? The 575M sounds apologetic by comparison.
But it's still a Ferrari and the badge succeeds in making every journey an adventure. On our arrival at the Channel Tunnel, we're greeted by two 20-something female customs officers who take a giggling delight in asking me if the car has an LPG tank. They're dismayed to discover that it's a two-seater--if only we'd brought the Scaglietti.
Later, on our approach to Magny-Cours, we pause in a tiny village and immediately draw a crowd. They speak no English and their heavy dialects prove too much of a challenge for my basic French. The only word we share is "Ferrari" although I do understand their warning about "les gendarmes." In sleepy rural France, the arrival of the Prancing Horse is still an epic occasion.
After the rampant exhilaration of the 360 Challenge Car, it is almost a relief to climb back into the 575M and commence the return journey. Our car boasts the Fiorano Handling Pack, which lowers the car by 15mm and adjusts the steering and suspension for a more aggressive set-up. It helps to make this huge car even more responsive without compromising the cosseting ride quality.
If only the F1 gearbox was equally refined. The Magnetti Marelli system has improved dramatically since it was first introduced on the F355, but while the upchanges can now be perfected with a feathered throttle, the downshifts could still be smoother. If it were my car, I'd save #7,000 ($12,785) and stick with a stick.
It's still early morning when we stop at a vineyard in the Sancerre region to grab a memento. The owner is so excited by our presence that his daughter is dispatched to prepare an impromptu tasting. She seems somewhat bemused when we depart with four bottles of the cheapest plonk.
Heading north, with the speedo nestling at 100 mph and the 23-gal. fuel tank eating up the miles, I am at last able to fathom the appeal of this car. Despite this car's #168,311 ($307,406) pricetag, the 575M F1 is not a Ferrari to grab the senses and seduce in a moment. Instead, it's a car to appreciate for its depth and subtlety. If it has a role in the current Ferrari range, then it is as the consummate driving tool.