Jan. 9 (Bloomberg) -- The Formula One racetrack in Austin, Texas, is bristling with Ferraris.
There are F12 Berlinettas, each worth $315,000, and a flock of $233,000 458 Italias. The bright red exotics are splayed down the pit lane like a schoolboy’s fantasy.
These are our toys for today.
The setting is Ferrari’s first-ever driving school in the U.S., with two days of instruction on the racetrack and two nights hanging out with fellow Ferraristi. Not just anyone is invited to the party.
The school, officially dubbed the Corso Pilota, costs $13,500, which includes hotel and meals. And every single participant owns a Ferrari.
So, yes, it’s exclusive. You’d figure that with all the Ferrari owners, plus spouses and friends along, it would be a bunch of chest-thumping A-Types. In reality, you’d never pick out the guy who owns a rare Enzo and has a $1.4 million LaFerrari on order. The group is easygoing and collegial. Friendships are made, car collections compared. On the first morning, the shuttle bus from the hotel pulls up to the Circuit of the Americas racetrack and the participants (17 men, one woman) take a look at the assembled cars and start giggling. It’s going to be a good day.
Few companies are as skilled at instilling brand loyalty among customers as Ferrari SpA. The Maranello, Italy-based automaker strives to create a Ferrari familia. If you want buy the newest, hottest model in a timely manner -- less than a year or even two -- you’d best already own another Ferrari and be on a first-name basis with the local dealer. The Corso Pilota experience and its exclusivity are in lock-step with that philosophy. It’s a chance to drive all of the cars at high speeds and meet like-minded owners.
The school began in Italy and is also offered in Mont-Tremblant, Canada, a former site of the Canadian Grand Prix. Austin’s brand-new Circuit of the Americas held its first F1 race in late 2012, making it an ideal U.S. venue for the Ferrari school. I took part during the final school in December of 2013; new dates will be announced for 2014.
This was not a racing school, the instructors emphasized, but rather an opportunity to teach customers how to safely operate their very fast cars, and understand the vehicles’ extreme capabilities.
I’ve taken more than a few turns in Ferraris around racetracks, but this was still unique. We would get to drift the California 30 model (490 horsepower) around a skid pad, and pilot both the mid-engine 458 Italia (562 hp) and the F12 (731 hp) on the circuit itself. (As for safety, Ferrari says that during eight years of classes in Canada, they’ve never had so much as a scratch on a car.)
After a short time in the classroom, the Texas air fills with the sounds of vibrato as the Ferraris are woken into violent life. No other automobiles in the world have as much aural anima.
Other car companies like Porsche offer similar courses, and while the cars and the track matter, the greatest factors to success are the curricula and instructors. Ferrari’s group of professional racers are a mix of French Canadians, Americans and Europeans. By the end of the second day, I’ll have improved on several minute skills that have long eluded me. These guys are good.
It is also my first chance to experience the new F1 track, a complicated 3.4-mile (5.5 kilometers) road course with 20 corners. The 1,500-acre (607 hectare) complex is massive. The 251-foot-high (77 meters) observation tower rises above it all like Tolkien’s dark tower of Mordor.
The instructors first drive each student around the track, talking about technique and the sequence of turns. Then they switch seats so the instructor can observe the student from inside the car. This one-on-one approach segues to lead-and-follow sessions, with students driving directly behind a teacher’s car.
It’s an ideal trinity. The only downside is that, with 18 students, everyone spends a fair amount of time waiting between full laps of the track on the second day.
Speed builds gradually, but the Ferrari guys will let you go just as fast as your experience and competency allow. By early afternoon I have a decent sense of the complicated turns. The 133-foot uphill to Turn 1 is the course’s most notable feature. It’s got a sharp bend at its end, then swoops back downhill. A thriller.
On the day’s final session I’m rifling a 458 down the front straight, the scream of the V-8 engine blossoming behind me. I’m right on the tail of the instructor as we zing up the steep hill. The speedometer touches 150 miles per hour and then I transition to brakes, hard, and the blurring landscape slows. The 458 is beautifully balanced, a fine-tuned instrument on the circuit’s nuanced corners. I don’t think this would ever get old.
That evening, participants and instructors alike share barbecue and swap car stories. Titans of industry listen, rapt, to tales of wild races. There’s a discussion what it would feel like to pilot an actual Formula One car at the track. Speeds in the street cars are incredible as it is.
“Tomorrow will be even better,” says one instructor. “You’ll go faster, feel more confident, and understand the cars even more thoroughly.”
He’s right, of course. Tomorrow will be a good day indeed.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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