Swinging a wrench and singing the blues
By IAN HARVEY Ernest Lee’s life is etched on his face and hands.…
Maranello, Italy – It’s true. Even in Italy people look at you differently when you cruise by in a Ferrari. Or an Alpha or a Maserati. And when 18 exotics in a cavalcade roar through the narrow ancient streets of Tuscan villages, it’s a spectacle no matter who you are.
“Yes, it’s a big deal,” smiles Alessandra Neri, my driving partner as we cruise past admiring glances in a Ferrari California, with its elegant lines and purring 4.3 L V8 pushing 454 of those prancing horses through a seven speed transmission.
My pick of the pack as it turned out. Me, a blonde and a Ferrari. What’s not to like? Big check on the bucket list.
Truth be told, Neri is also a big attraction: she’s a well known face on Italian racing TV as a commentator and host of car show. She’s also racked up some hours racing EGTS European Championships, GT Italian Championships, Formula Azzuara Championships and Italian Carting Championships. She’s a star, I’m the schlub beside her and the Ferrari is the icing on the cake.
“In Italy everyone wants to be a race car driver,” she smiles. “I think it’s because they put gasoline in the babies’ milk.”
A day earlier I was zipping around Ferrari’s Fiorano Circuit in Maranello in the sunshine behind the wheel of a 458 Italia, that sweet exhaust note in my ears.
Instructor Paolo Necchi, like Neri, a professional from the Centro Internazionale Guida Sicura, a pro driving school, is incredibly calm and patient as I lurch around the first few laps none too smoothly. I’m awed by the 4.5 litre V8 with 562 horses on tap at 9,000 RPM.
“Okay, good, now let it out,” Necchi coaches. He’s a 20 year veteran of some 51 races over his career, with 11 wins and 29 podium finishes and now works as a TV journalist and consultant. “But not too fast, the neighbours don’t like the noise above 200 kmh, so we have to keep it down or we get shut down.”
Apparently, even in the town that Enzo Ferrari built, home to the car factory and Formula One racing team, there’s NIMBYism.
And so began three days driving of a King’s ransom of exotics: the Ferrari 458 Spyder and Italia, the Alfa Romeo 4c and 8c, the Ferrari California, (my personal lottery win choice) and the Maserati Gran Turismo Cabriolet.
I can’t say much cuz it’s a big secret. Let’s just say it all began with an email from a guy I know who knows a guy. They had me at Ferrari. We kicked off on the Sunday with a briefing from the Guida Sicura team on how to drive fast and how to be safe. Then it was off to Modena for a private tour of the Museo dei Motori Ferrari, the restored workshop of Enzo’s father where it all began.
Dinner was next door at the Museo Enzo Ferrari, with it’s bright yellow roof, symbolic of Modena and designed by Jan Kaplicky as homage to a Ferrari front bonnet where there’s a jaw dropping selection of Ferraris past, present and future.
The museum is a smaller version of the main museum in Maranello and it does not disappoint with a splendid audio-visual presentation on a giant screen about the marque and the man. There’s even a wax figurine in Enzo’s office just the way it was, though it is a little creepy.
Monday morning it’s espressos and biscotti and a tour of the Ferrari factory, a ballet of men and robots, producing 25 cars a day, 7,000 a year, employing 2,200 workers, something which won’t change despite Ferrari’s IPO. Nor will their investment in F1 which employs another 900 people.
With Ferrari going public, do you think they’ll make an SUV model, I mischievously ask.
“Never,” retorts Nigel Wollheim, Ferrari’s effervescent Major Domo of things corporate and publicity looking as if I’ve just scratched my name into the gleaming paintwork of a million-dollar Ferrari America prior to delivery. “Never, never, never.”
The work areas are divided by living green plants set in small gardens, “because it’s better for the air and workers,” we’re told as we pass Romeo and Juliet, a pair of robots, one dipping valve guides into liquid nitrogen to shrink it by a couple of microns, while the other presses it into the cylinder head. Everything is pristine, clean and gleaming as if they were making surgical equipment.
There may be 50 Shades of Grey, we’re told, but over the years there have been 11 shades of Ferrari red though it’s been deposed as the hue of choice by silver and grey and custom colour mixes. Options abound if you order from the factory, right down to the type and colour of stitching on the leather seats and interior fittings.
Tuesday we’re up early and greeted by a bevy of beasts. The Alphas, Italias, FF, F12, California and Maserati are waiting in the gravel courtyard at the resort carved out of an 11th century estate perched on the top of a Tuscan hill surrounded by olive groves and vineyards.
For the next two days and nights we take turns driving these works of art through the countryside, roads twisting and turning up and around the hills, through ancient villages with sightseeing stops along the way.
It’s all beautiful. The cars, though, remain the centre of attention. The Maserati Gran Turismo cabriolet, probably the most affordable of the exotics with a 454 hp 4.7 V8, It’s a luxury sports car in which comfort and ride come first. Big up front with tiny jump seats in the back.
Up front, you could drive 1,000 kilometers in a day and still feel fresh and perky on arrival; Power on tap, smooth, elegant, tight in the hairpins, responsive but restrained and always calm.
Ahhhhhh yes…..even in Italy works of art on wheels turn heads.
My escort in the Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione is young Eddie Cheever Jr II. Yes, that Cheever who raced F1 and Indy for 30 years winning as a driver and an owner.
He acknowledges the mention of his father, now living in the U.S. but the conversation quickly shifts to the Alfa with its 4.7-liter V-8.
“Listen to that,” Cheever says cocking his head to the exhaust. Indeed, it’s a virtuoso solo virtuoso of fine tuning from 444 horses and 354 ft-pounds of torque.
It’s tight, low and cramped, more go-kart than granturismo, similar to the 4C, the little brother with its 1.75 L, four cylinder engine cranking 240 h.p.
In Italy, the conversation starts either with cars, food or calico and not surprisingly we get on to Toronto FC and phenom Sebastian Giovinco, the MLS MVP, formerly of Juventus.
“Oh, I love that guy such a player,” enthuses Cheever, his face lighting up. “I met him when I was working in Turin. He’s fantastic. Too bad they didn’t play him there.”
Sadly, you can’t buy this experience unless you order a Ferrari from the factory and go there to pick it up. You, as a normal schlub like me, can’t go inside the factory or take it on the track with a professional driver.
Money, talks. And for a lot less than buying a Ferrari, however, you can rent a Ferrari in Tuscany, for a price, stay at the same resort, visit the same restaurants, go to the museum and tour the factory grounds. You can even sign up with Guida Sicura and take one of their advanced driving courses at their own track and facility. Or maybe, win a contest or a place on corporate incentive program. Or check out the Grand Viaggo. Or maybe hit Dubai’s Ferrari World, a step above Wallyworld. Or splash out the lottery winnings on a package tour including a Ferrari.
Or even rent an exotic car around the GTA at $6,000 a week.
Better, yet, you need to know a guy who knows a guy.