It is at once the easiest thing in the world to explain, and yet the most difficult. At every Formula 1 race, the grandstands are awash in a sea of red; half the crowd turns up in Ferrari caps and tees rooting for a team that, even with the best driver in the field, has been steamrollered by a five-year-old upstart. In no other sport does a team that hasn’t won the championship in years, that has no chance of winning, command such slavish devotion. But for millions of fans that hardly matters, red after all is a suitably unsubtle colour.
Me? I have never owned a Ferrari cap. Or T-shirt. The Ferrari stores at airports with their rip-off prices; the Ferrari theme park at Abu Dhabi; Ferrari perfume, for gods sake, it disgusts me. And yet I worship Ferrari. This is a little harder to explain.
As you will rightly point out, cars are inanimate objects. And you might justifiably consider me a tad unbalanced when, over dinner, I recount how I was moved to tears the first time I drove a Ferrari. Very, very few people get to drive Ferraris. I am one of the very, very few. I'd be lying if I said I became a motor-noter to drive Ferraris. Back when I started, I didn’t dare dream of it. A Ferrari was a blood red F40 on my bedroom wall: Something to be ogled while I dreamt of something more attainable. Like a Mercedes. Eleven years later, I have been to Ferrari three times, driven every modern day Ferrari and have been privileged enough to be given the (almost) all-access tour.
It all starts at Milan airport where a rakishly Ray-Banned Italian picks you up in an awkward-looking Lancia Phedra minivan plastered with Ferrari logos and the Italian tricolore and you get cozy in an interior so sumptuous it’s bewildering. The Phedra chauffeurs you to your hotel right across the Ferrari factory gates, which are festooned with evocative Ferrari imagery, and then your afternoon siesta gets repeatedly interrupted by Ferraris being road-tested just outside your bedroom window. It sets the mood for the factory tour, a privilege in itself (you can't just waltz up at Maranello and demand to see a Ferrari being built).
Every tour begins with a million pictures at the main gates, under the giant Ferrari sign with the plumbing for the wind tunnel forming a dramatically techy backdrop. The historic entrance with the old red brick facade still exists, which we shall later exit from, ensconced behind the wheel of a Ferrari.
But first we have to pay attention as we are guided through the engine shop that looks and feels like a green house. The abundant plants—
and trees!—are there to maintain humidity levels optimum for the building of a great engine; a side benefit being ideal conditions for preserving historic cars. The Ferrari museum across the road makes full use of it, parking dozens of historic road and race cars that it doesn’t have space for in the museum itself. Watch the finest V8 and V12 road car engines being hand built and then ogle at Villeneuve's 1980 F1 car: It’s an engineer’s wet dream!
The site is a brilliant amalgam of the old and new. Historic buildings share space with cutting edge edifices designed by such eminences as Norman Foster and… I didn't catch other names as a 599 GTO descended the lifts and our jaws dropped.
Unless you’ve been living in a hole under the North Pole you will know the 599 GTO is The Best Supercar in the World: 670 horses from the mighty V12 engine, 0-100 kmph in 3.35 seconds (real world reference: The biggest engine in the new Audi A6 takes 8 seconds), top speed of 335 kmph (the highest ever for a Ferrari road car) and a name steeped in history, adorning the rump of only the greatest Ferraris. The original Gran Turismo Omologatos—250 GTO and 288 GTO—were homologation specials, built by hand in extremely low numbers so Ferrari could go sports-car-racing.
The 599 GTO will be similarly exclusive, limited to just 599 units, at $426,000 apiece to customers invited by Ferrari to own one. (Do not rush to the phone: All 599 have been spoken for.) Not so similarly, the 599 GTO hasn’t been built to go racing. But it has been developed from a track car: The 599XX.
Ah, the XX programme, a trick only Ferrari can pull off. The FXX was the first of the series, a hyper-tuned variant of the Enzo hyper-car bristling with active aerodynamics and race-derived technologies. Twenty-nine pre-selected past Ferrari customers were invited to be a part of the programme at $1.8 million a pop; not own, be a part of. But what do you do with a non-road-legal car?
That's the Ferrari mystique! For an extra fee, Ferrari stores and maintains all the FXX cars at Maranello and, at five or six track events a year, kindly allows customers out in their own cars (not to race against each other, but to better their own times) where they provide ‘feedback’ to Ferrari’s engineers. Right. Like a billionaire hedge fund owner could give useful ‘feedback’ to Ferrari's battalion of F1 drivers and ace engineers.
Yet the programme was so successful that it was extended to the 599 XX, again limited to 29 hyper-tuned non-road-legal 599 GTB Fioranos. The programme is rumoured (nobody knows for sure!) to cost in excess of $2 million. And all those cars are stored in a shed at Maranello that our tour guide permits us to drool over: 50 examples of the most exotic and exclusive supercars in the world, parked bumper to bumper, grubby from the last track session, many with a busted fender and bent nose. Makes you weak in the knees, but then they buckle completely at the next shed, which is jammed solid with Formula 1 cars of varying provenance, testimony to Ferrari's glorious racing history spanning all 50 years of the Formula 1 world championship.
From the 12-cylinder cars to the turbo era to Schumacher’s championship-winning car, they’re all there, all kept in running condition, and all owned by customers. This could be one of the greatest museums in the world. Except that next door is Galleria Ferrari, with the largest collection of Ferraris under one roof, which, by extension, makes it among the top must-visit automotive museums in the world. Road cars, sports races, F1 cars, they’re all there, charting the course of not just Ferrari’s history, but the technological progress of the motor car. And for €8, you can waltz in and have a look.
That should be enough Ferrari for one little sleepy village in Italy. But Maranello bleeds Ferrari. Apart from the scores of merchandise shops, there’s the Cavallino restaurant opposite the Ferrari gates, where employees and race drivers have lunch, and little further away Ristorante Montana, where every inch of the walls is covered in framed posters of racing drivers and celebrities who’ve dined on Mamma Rosella’s pasta. Alonso walked past me as I tanked up on the Lambrusco, and after dinner I bumped into him having a chat with his mates in the parking lot. Racing and Ferrari are inseparable after all, and where there is racing there has to be a race track.
On the outskirts of the village is Fiorano, the historic track where all Ferrari road cars are tested and developed, where Michael Schumacher used to pound his Formula 1 cars until regulations drastically cut down on testing, where Enzo Ferrari had his offices. Those offices are still preserved right down to the telephone over which results from races around the world were conveyed to him. Famously, Enzo never travelled to races and in the days before live television, the Internet and mobile phones, that red telephone was the only way of knowing which driver to sack. Drivers, the greatest racing drivers of every generation—Fangio, Ascari, Farina, Hawthorn, Hill, Surtees, Ickx, Villeneuve, Andretti, Lauda, Mansell, Prost—all came down to Maranello to pay their respects to the old man. Over that red telephone Enzo schemed and plotted, forced regulation changes in his favour, built that aura around Ferrari and made it the greatest automotive brand in the world, helped in no small measure by those great drivers, many of whom died racing his red cars.
Racing built the brand, its mystique. Enzo often said his road cars were only a means to fund his racing activities and all those racing cars were developed at Fiorano (and Mugello, another circuit not far away).
Few people get to drive Ferraris, even fewer get to drive a Ferrari at Fiorano. Two years ago, I tested the California at Fiorano, though my pace was crippled by a Grande Punto camera car and our track time was cut short by a super-secret test prototype that I was forced to keep quiet about. (Enter Ferrari's bad books and you will be banished from Maranello, the worst thing that could happen to an automotive journalist!) I can say I drove on the same track as my boyhood heroes. Two years later, parked in the shade of the old brick wall is the finished version of the prototype I saw being tested: The 458 Italia, the car that has just seen off the challenge of the McLaren MP4-12C for the honour of the world’s best mid-engined V8 supercar; a car that marks a return to form on the style front. Mine’s a virulent yellow, and I set off behind a red 458 for the hills around Maranello, on the same route used by Ferrari's test drivers, on the same roads that F1 drivers used to blast down on their way from Monaco to meet Enzo. Yellow 458 chasing red 458 up the Apennine ranges.
There is no better thing in life.
Back then there were no speed limits; these days speed traps are everywhere. But in a Ferrari, Italian cops rarely trouble you. And so, at the exit of Maranello, I floor it and shatter the peace. The wail from the triple exhausts is the most soul-stirring automotive note ever; the closest a road car will get to sounding like an F1 car. It makes the hairs on the back of your neck rise, your pulse quicken, every nerve-end quiver in excitement.
The exhaust note is an integral part of enjoying any automobile, and the 458’s is pure sensory overload. And there's go to match the show. Nestling behind the driver is a 4.5-litre direct-injection flat-crank V8 that churns out 570 horserpower at 9000 rpm, the highest specific output of a naturally aspirated engine in the world.
Approaching those revs, the 458 makes the most ungodly noise in the world, cracking 100 kmph in 3–4 seconds and going on to a top speed of 324 kmph. It’s a road car, yet it has active aerodynamics: A flap in the front bumper deforms at speed to alter the aero-balance of the car.
More F1 tech? The steering wheel features the Manettino switch with different traction-control modes ranging from totally docile for wet conditions to a full on Race mode that allows massive tyre-smoking oversteer. Provided you’re a driving god. The top of the steering wheel has shift lights to tell you when to pull the right paddle and select a higher gear on the seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox. There’s launch control. And the steering is telepathic in response and demonic in eagerness. This is a no-holds-barred road racer; the most intoxicating, exhilarating and evocative road car I've had the privilege to drive.
That’s the magic.
A storied past filled with great triumphs and even greater tragedy, a museum stuffed with the fastest and most gorgeous cars in the world, a factory steeped in heritage yet at the cutting edge of automotive technology, a racing team that—one day—will reclaim the F1 world championship, and the best supercars on the planet. It’s enough to forgive the Ferrari Barbie dolls and roller coaster rides.
(This story appears in the 16 March, 2012 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)