As I write this, Fernando Alonso has just taken the Ferrari F1 team to its first victory of the 2012 F1 Season hopefully its the beginning of a good season for him and for Ferrari.
Now Ive had a little time to digest and review my experience behind the wheels of some of Italys finest machinery and I am not going to lie, I still giggle from the memory of squeezing the accelerator coming out of some of the Yarra Valleys best corners and being thrown at the next.
As many will know, Skylines Australia has a strong link to Shell Australia, with Ash (R31Nismoid, our esteemed Admin) having attended several key events for the brand over the last few years. Once again, SAU was invited this year to be involved in the Shell Formula 1 show. Ash will be covering the other aspects of the event, my contribution will be covering a Shell Ferrari drive day where I was able to test some of the finest machinery in the world, through some of my favourite driving roads.
The week leading up to the GP is always exciting for me. Its hoon week. Cars that live under covers are out and about on the roads and Melbourne has a real carnival feel. I always make the time to hit up the GP on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I follow Ferrari. Always have. Although Ive never been fortunate enough to have one grace my garage, theyre in my blood so the Thursday evening before the GP, I was working away as normal and looking forward to heading to the launch of the new Tag Heuer watch that night with Jenson Button doing the unveiling that was about the biggest thrill I was expecting for the week, then on to the track on Friday for some support races and F1 practice when I got a phone call.
Due to reasons of not being old enough to meet the insurance criteria, Ash was unable to complete the drive day and after much arm twisting, he finally convinced me to go in his place. I wont lie, I didnt sleep much on Thursday night its not every day you get 12 hours notice that youre required to take 3 Ferraris through their paces.
Arriving at Shell Corporate HQ in Hawthorn, I was greeted by the guys from Prancing Horse (www. prancinghorse.com.au) who had brought three of their stable along. Spending time in one Ferrari is a fantastic day. Spending time behind the wheel of 3 different Ferraris.. well thats many many Christmass all in one.
The other guys were still on their way from the track, so I took the time to have a look over these stunners and get some photos.
Line em up!
Before too long the rest of the guys arrived from the track, assuring me that Ash was being shown the best of Shell hospitality on turn 1. We were taken into the Shell facility for a run down on the days activities and the guys expectations of our behaviour. Basically to enjoy the cars, but obey the law logical stuff and to ensure we didnt get too carried away there was an Alfa for a pace car and a Corolla as a chase car. Next we signed our disclaimers and also submitted to a breath test. The guys from Prancing Horse said theyve had 3000 drivers through the doors and not one single insurance claim. With a $10000 excess,l I sure didnt want to be the first! With my breath test returning a 0.00 result (and everyone else's too) we went back out and the guys introduced us to the cars formally.
First in the line up was a California convertible. The first thing that grabbed my attention, after its stunning visual appearance, was the enormous carbon ceramic brake package hiding behind the 20 rims. I am assured that the 285/35/20 Pirelli P Zero up the back get replaced VERY regularly. While the 4.3 litre V8 up the front puts out 340kw, its the way the car gets it to the ground that gives it a 0-100kmh time of 4 seconds. But more on that later. I thought this car was beautiful with the roof up, but I reckon that roof took no more than 4-5 seconds to come down and fold away seamlessly into the bodywork. With the roof down, it took on a whole new look. So rare for a convertible to look as good with the roof on as it does with the roof off.
Talking us through the way the California worked took more time than the rest of the cars combined with the dual clutch gearbox and electronic park brake, there were a few things to get used to. No manual handbrake here which was a surprise to me, would be a tough car to drive on the skid pan at DECA!
Looks good in pictures.. so much better in real life
Enormous carbon ceramic brakes behind 20 rims. hot
This is a very nice place to be. Note switch on right hand side of steering wheel turn it two clicks clockwise and say goodbye to those 285/35/20 Pirelli's in a heartbeat (we werent allowed to do that)
The middle car was an F430 Spider, packing 4.3 litres of V8 right behind your head with 490hp ready to be unleashed. The performance of these cars is only beaten by the way they look. This car was equipped with the F1 gearbox and I was looking forward to giving the old "flappy paddle" box (thanks Mr Clarkson) a go.
On the end was the car I was looking forward to driving most. Another F430, but this one was the Berlinetta. Hard top with a proper six speed manual box, complete with clutch. Pure, old school. I couldnt wait.
With the run-down on the cars complete, we then paired up and as it turns out, my first drive was of the California. From Shell head office in Hawthorn, we headed out to the Shell service station in Eltham. Not much in the way of twisty roads, but plenty of traffic lights and a bit of freeway driving was enough to give me a good feel for how this car accelerates. Looks, power, huge brakes… the best thing about this car was that magical gearbox. Despite being down on power and also heavier than either of the F430s, the California does the 0-100 dash faster purely due to the gearbox. The changes were lightning quick yet very smooth. Driving in traffic was so easy, I could see that this car would make the ideal daily driver for the true Ferrari fanatic. It was comfortable, fully equipped and with the trans set to auto and the suspension dialled in to comfort you could drive all day without getting fatigued. But stick it in manual mode and flex the right foot and it was an absolute monster. In my world, 340kw isnt a hugely impressive number. Ive owned and driven cars with quite a lot more power than that at the wheels. Yet I never once felt like this car lacked for power. Nor did the traction control, as it works overtime to get that power down even with the 285/35/20 Pirellis.
Which brings me to the traction control. My experience with traction control to date has been negative. Ive always found it to be far too intrusive and to kick in too early, sometimes with scary results like being left stranded exiting a gravel road and onto bitumen, where the trac kicked in too late and left me sitting with oncoming traffic in both directions and the car going nowhere for 2-3 seconds. The California is not like this. The back end squirms a little but you keep going where youre pointing the front wheels and the power gets to the ground with imperceptible corrections. If you didnt know, youd think youd just become the best driver known to man but its all the car. Youd never switch it off unless you were at the track, it really is that good.
The brakes are simply incredible, though without any heat in them they grabbed fine, there was almost nothing in the way of pedal feel which felt odd at first but didnt take long to get used to. With some heat in them, the pedal feel was markedly better and these things would just pull up time and again. Carbon ceramic brakes FTW! Though the cost for these brakes would buy you a small Japanese car, if you can afford the car then you can afford to tick that box and youd be a nutter not to.
Id be lying if I said I wouldnt love to own this car. Its looks, the sound from the V8, the brakes and that magical gearbox all of these things add up to make this an amazing car to drive. Ive never entertained the thought of owning a convertible before but rolling in a California with the top down is something I will never forget.
In what seemed to take around 5 minutes, we got to the Shell in Eltham and it was my turn to be a passenger, once again in the California. I was passengered with Chris from Perform Progressive Sports Media. Chris has a VE R8 Clubsport for a daily, so hes no stranger to V8 power but seeing someone else coming to grips with the car was entertaining. Not as entertaining as being behind the wheel of course, but it allowed me to appreciate the car as a passenger and it reconfirmed my feelings that if you want a Ferrari daily driver, this would do the job beautifully. As this drive was from Eltham out to Yarra Glen, I was initially a bit annoyed that Id got the boring drive out of the city very shortly however, we got stuck behind a taxi. Yep, a taxi on the road from Eltham to Yarra Glen. That fair was probably close to the cost of doing a Prancing Horse drive day I know what car Id rather be in! So all in all, the drive from Eltham to Yarra Glen was sedate with a bit of dropping back and catching up. The California loved it, she was composed on even the most ordinary bit of bitumen, though that stretch of road overall is in pretty good shape. Soon we got to Yarra Glen and it was time to stop for a bite of lunch at Balgownie Estate. Torture to have lunch there and not have a glass or two of wine, however the policy is a strict 0.00 blood alcohol reading and theres no way I was going to sacrifice a drive of the F430s for a glass of Vino.
While we had lunch, the Ferraris were parked artfully on the grass for some photo ops. After lunch came my favourite drive of the day. I hopped in the F430 Berlinetta with the same feeling I had when I got my first R34 GT-R butterflies and a smile from ear to ear. As we peeled out of Balgownie Estate heading towards Healesville the skies were looking ominous the dry roads werent going to last long and I wanted to make the most of them.
What can I say about the F430 that isnt clichéd? Not much, but here goes. Firstly, you can instantly see the heritage in the interior. Apart from a few modern touches, rounder edges and of course 11ty switches the cockpit feels exactly like a late 70s 308 GTB. Nothing unnecessary, nothing out of place. The six speed box is precise. That gate in any other car would just see the shifter bouncing off the gates while hunting for the next cog, this just slots smoothly from one gear to the next. No play, no hunting for gears. A couple of people said the clutch was really heavy, but I thought it was perfect with good feel though Im used to a triple late OS clutch so no surprise there. The pedals are close together. Really close. I thought it would be a pain but they are perfectly placed for easy heel and toe downshifts. The car hugs the road.. it inspires so much confidence under brakes and never feels unsettled except when the road surface is REALLY bad, then it tends to bottom out which is more off putting than anything else. Into the corner and as soon as you turn in you know you could have gone so much faster. Punching the accelerator out of the corner, the car just goes and goes you feel it and you hear it, that exhaust sound behind your head reminding you exactly where you are in the rev range.
The weight over the rear wheels means it just gets the power down and the next thing you know youre arriving at the next corner. I let the lead cars get away from me for a bit and notice the California is coming up rapidly behind me. I punch it, 2nd, 3rd, brakes, downchange back to 2nd turn in and go again after a couple of corners I cant see the California and Im coming up behind the F430 Spider quite quickly. Every corner could be taken quicker and the car is completely composed. I could do this all day, every day. I am loving life and running figures in my mind… if I sell everything I own, can I afford one?
The final corner comes up and we drive into Healesville. The car is completely unruffled. Not me though, I feel like I had a no-doze sandwich for lunch. I love this car.
Next drive, I am a passenger in the Spider with Jill who is the retail product manager for Shell. We have a drive back to Balgownie Estate and as soon as the words I think well be ok come out of my mouth, it starts to rain. HEAVILY. We are ok at speed, but as soon as we stop we are getting soaked. I cant get the roof to work. Unlike the California, where you just press the button and it takes care of itself, this roof has a bit of a knack to it. A knack I dont possess. Eventually Stewart from Prancing Horse gets it sorted and were on our way again, somewhat damper for the experience. Back through to Eltham we go at a fairly sedate pace.
I take the opportunity to quiz Jill about a few fuel related matters before we end up talking about her time at Fiorano, being taught by Ferrari test drivers how to take an F430 around that track in the quickest possible time. I am silent for a few mins after that, absolutely jealous as hell. I could recount the conversations I had about refinery capacity, fuel density, floating LNG processing plants but that wasnt what today was about what today was about was the partnership between Shell and Ferrari and how deeply it runs. It strikes me then how seriously Shell take their partnership with Ferrari and vice versa. Jill isnt a hoon at heart, but Shell sent her to Fiorano shes raced where some of the biggest names in Motorsport have raced. How many people can say that?! And all due to the close partnership between Shell and Ferrari.
Its clear to me now that this is genuinely a partnership, it isnt just a Pecton sticker slapped on a racecar and throwing sponsorship dollars around as is the case with so much corporate sponsorship. Shell get in there and get their hands dirty on these cars. To Shell, Motorsport is as much a part of life as it is for me. And it might sound tacky for me to say this, but knowing how much time, effort and money Shell are putting into the sport I love makes me want to put Shell fuel in my tank and Shell oil in my engine. Especially if that engine happens to have a prancing horse on the rocker covers some day.
We reach Eltham Shell for the final swap and the drive back into Hawthorn. Were running an hour or so later than anticipated, an extra hour in a Ferrari? Oh woe is me, such an onerous burden. We fill the cars with Shell V Power (naturally) and then I get behind the wheel of the F430 Spider. The rain has subsided so the roof goes down and off we go.
This time I have Alex from Shell in the car with me. Alex handles Media Liaison for Shell and in between taking phone calls from the Govt and Media, she confirms that she is indeed an absolute petrol head. Were going to get on great. I get to grips with the F1 box in the Spider easily. She eggs me on. If I hadnt driven the California earlier, Id be impressed by this flappy paddle unit, but compared to the dual clutch box, it really is quite antiquated. Its noticeably slower and less refined than the DSG. The car definitely feels less solid around corners than the Berlinetta due to the missing roof and the rigidity it provides the chassis. The drive back is less about the handling though and I feel lucky to have got the F430b on an uninterrupted road with no rain. Alex and I are in hysterics. I think partly because we are the funniest people on earth at that time and partly because Im coming down from a nervous high. Either way, we are making the most of that delicious exhaust note at every opportunity. It bounces of retaining walls. All the while Im thinking of all the times Ive heard that exhaust note before, my head whipping around to see where its coming from. This time, its ME. Oh yeah!
We had 30+ kids at a school hanging onto the fence yelling out 30 of them! I pop it in neutral and give it a rev and they go nuts. Kids hanging out of their parents car drooling. Parents hanging out of their own cars drooling. Me drooling. Alex drooling. These cars have that effect, even on people who dont know what theyre looking at. I get thumbs up from guys in STI Imprezas, Evos, Skylines. And I get studiously ignored by a guy in a Porsche. I love a 911 as much as the next guy, but rolling up in a Ferrari next to one is an experience Ill never forget. I wish to god someone with a Supra would roll up so I could re-enact the infamous Fast and Furious scene. No luck there.
When we reached Shell HQ in Hawthorn, I felt like a kid on Christmas day after all the presents are opened and the grown ups are passed out on the couch - slightly over awed by the whole day, tired but the grin.. it didnt leave my face until much, much later that night. After Id finished calling everyone I ever met and casually mentioning OMG FERRARI like it aint no thang.
My life henceforth is ruined. I spent the last 36 years of my life without a Ferrari and that pained me badly enough. But now, well now I know full well what I am missing out on. If anyone needs me, Ill be on Ebay selling everything I own.
Thanks to Shell and Edelman for the opportunity, thanks to Prancing Horse for the cars and their expert knowledge and special thanks to Ash of course.
PS. I still smile every time I think about that Berlinetta. That car with a dual clutch box... well, thats the 458 Italia and Ash, any time you cant fill the drivers seat of one of those for any reason, you wont have to twist my arm too hard