To the casual observer, car racing must seem like an activity for only the most simple-minded of people or, perhaps, for those whose time and money would be better spent on a therapist’s couch. On the surface of it, racing is a ridiculous activity for any number of reasons, including the cost, the flagrant use of finite natural resources and the inherent danger. Plus, to quote three-time Formula 1 World Champion Niki Lauda (albeit when he retired from the sport in 1979, before returning a few years later), it all boils down to “driving around in circles.”
But those intimately familiar with car racing know that there’s more to driving around in circles than there appears to be—the sport has allure to spare. At least, this is my belief.
I’ve been fascinated with racing for a number of years and have participated for nearly as long. When I was younger, I quickly ran short of the funds needed to pursue the sport in any serous way—a very common story. So, the fact that I have a career that allows me to race in a serious way (I’ve driven in the Targa Newfoundland four times, the Canadian Touring Car Championship and, as part of the Aston Martin factory team, at the Nürburgring in the VLN series) is something I find astonishing.
That level of astonishment soared to new heights when Ferrari North America invited me to drive a 458 in the Ferrari Challenge. It was a noteworthy day; I was the first journalist in the 20-year history of the series to land a guest ride.
THE FERRARI CHALLENGE is, of course, Maranello’s spec racing series. The Challenge debuted in Europe in 1993, ran its first full season in North America the following year and later expanded into Asia. The series’ cars have changed over the years as new road-going Ferraris were introduced; the Challenge started with the 348 before moving on to the F355, 360, F430 and, in 2010, the 458.
The grid has changed in other ways, as well. Initially, the series was more of a venue for gentleman racers who just wanted to have a good time. But with the establishment of two separate classes—one for weekend warriors, the other for budding professionals—and an increasing focus on driver development, the Ferrari Challenge has also become a serious platform for up-and-coming racers.
I was scheduled to join the action at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (CTMP), the track formerly known as Mosport. Mosport hosted the Canadian Grand Prix several times in the 1960s and ’70s, and driving there allowed me to join a pretty exclusive club of Ferrari racers who had also done so—Lauda, Chris Amon, Pedro Rodriguez, Jacky Ickx, Clay Regazzoni, Mario Andretti, Arturo Merzario, Carlos Reutemann and, of course, Gilles Villeneuve, who made his Ferrari F1 debut there. None of them had ever won at the track in a Ferrari, however; could I?
CTMP is a circuit I know well, but I’d never driven a 458 Challenge before. So, a few weeks prior, Ferrari North America graciously arranged a test day at the Motorsport Ranch in Texas, designated home track for the Ferrari of Houston team that would be preparing my car.
While I’m not a professional driver, I try to approach racing in a professional manner. From my perspective, this boils down to eliminating as many excuses for not performing as well as humanly possible.
This test was full of excuses.
Flying the day before from Los Angeles home to Toronto then down to Texas, where my head hit the pillow at 1:30 in the morning, was only the first of them. The test was challenging for other reasons, such as the usual familiarization process when working with a new team and a new car in a new place. This was made all the trickier by the weather: The air temperature was a scintillating 107 degrees Fahrenheit. The objective for the day almost changed from finding speed to finding shade.
Another new facet to the day was working with a driving coach in the right seat. Although I’ve gone through countless driving programs and worked with coaches before, this was the first time I’d had one riding shotgun in a proper race car.
Ratcheting up the heat even further, my coach came armed with some serious credentials: It was Anthony Lazzaro, past Formula Atlantic champion and current GT driver for a number of teams, including Risi Competizione, sister company to Ferrari of Houston. Coming into the test day, I had expected something a bit more casual, I suppose, but the entire Ferrari of Houston team was very much focused on bringing me up to speed as quickly and as safely as possible.
My first impression of the car was very positive. I was a little surprised that the 458 Challenge was so quick, and I was truly surprised at how easy it was to drive. These feelings were magnified as I became more familiar with the car. A lot of times, a car that is very quick will not be comfortable and will beat you up before you get real speed out of it—but this was not the case with the Ferrari, which was incredibly civilized.
This isn’t to say that the 458 Challenge is somehow not a proper race car—it certainly is. For starters, the Ferrari is very powerful, as well as a real screamer high up in the rev range. Its civility doesn’t translate into a sanitized experience, either, for even with the traction control on its most aggressive setting, the car will instantly go sideways when the tires are cold. Once the rubber is up to temperature, however, the grip is fantastic.
By the end of the day, it was mission accomplished: Lazzaro had taught me all the functions of the car and provided a wealth of information on how it would respond in various situations, and I had logged close to three hours of seat time. My approach was to disregard lap times altogether and to push the Ferrari only when I felt completely comfortable doing so. My instincts told me that the team was less than impressed with my speed (of course, they were far too polite to say so), but that was all part of the plan.
I RESUMED THE ROLLOUT of said plan on the first Friday in September, when the Challenge arrived at CTMP. The day was earmarked for practice sessions. More track time is the main benefit that Ferrari Challenge drivers experience on weekends when the series is not the undercard to, say, Formula 1, and it was an ideal schedule for a series that focuses on driver development.
Walking into the paddock, I quickly reconnected with the team—and promptly sat out the first practice session. This decision was met with a chorus of raised eyebrows, but there was method to my apparent madness: I wanted to ease into the day, understand the environment, sit in the car and get comfortable again.
Here’s the reason: Over the past year, CTMP has undergone some massive changes designed to make the notoriously difficult track safer and more suited to modern race cars. For example, paved run-off areas have been added in a few places and the barriers have been pushed further back from the track.
Nevertheless, this track still requires plenty of nerve. There are three corners—2, 4 and 8—that are fast and extremely daunting. The back straight sees fast cars like the 458 Challenge achieve top speeds in excess of 160 mph. Ergo: Comfort was key.
While others set out on track for the opening session, I took some photos of “my” special 20th-anniversary car, adjusted the seating position with the help of the genial Mike Perko and conferred with Evan Chance, my chief mechanic and a gentleman with vast racing experience. (Although new to the Ferrari Challenge series himself, Chance had a 17-year stint with the Arrows Grand Prix team from the late-1970s to the mid-’90s.)
Truth be told, though, the Ferrari 458 Challenge is a dead-simple car to set up—another aspect of the series that makes it so incredibly appealing. There is a very limited number of adjustments allowed on the car—namely, ride height, tire pressures and a few suspension settings—and this effectively frees up the driver to focus on the job of going fast.
Though the 570-hp 4.5-liter V8 is sealed to prevent an unfair advantage, the street car’s gear ratios have been adjusted and the transmission has been recalibrated to allow the engine to develop more torque at lower revs. In a nod to both safety and drivers with less experience, the car’s Brembo carbon-ceramic brakes are equipped with ABS. The traction-control system has three settings, including fully off. And the transmission is, of course, a dual-clutch, seven-speed manual, so expertise in the ancient art of heel-and-toeing is not required.
BY THE END OF FRIDAY, I had participated in four of the six practice sessions, becoming more comfortable with the car each time out. I did not look at my lap times over the course
of the day, a strategy that has served me well in the past. I even ignored the instrument panel, which has a digital readout showing lap times, choosing instead to focus on the tachometer and the water- and oil-temperature gauges.
While it was dry all day Friday, Saturday was a different story altogether. The day started out wet and conditions remained tricky throughout. In the opening practice session, a soggy one conducted on wet tires, I recorded the fourth-quickest time overall. (The series organizers dictate whether conditions call for slicks or wet tires, removing yet another distracting variable from the driver’s responsibilities.) The car once again proved very easy to drive—with the traction control again in its most aggressive setting—although there were four or five crashes due to the conditions. However, the weather did not fully play into my hands.
The qualifying session was washed out due to standing water on the track. As a result, the grid for the first race was decided based on championship points and, this being my first Ferrari Challenge race, I had none. As a result, I lined up for Race One in 19th place, very much towards the wrong end of the 21-car field.
The race played out much as I expected, and almost as well as I hoped. The driving at the back proved to be a little more ragged than that at the front, and many of the drivers around me during the opening laps had never raced at CTMP before, so were still learning the line. It was certainly exciting at the start, as the field moved around and jostled for position.
By the time I had worked my way clear of the slower cars, however, the race leaders were far, far off in the distance. I ultimately finished in 12th place overall, third in the Coppa Shell class for gentleman drivers. Standing on the podium and receiving a beautiful trophy for my efforts was a pleasing result, but it left me wanting more.
Sunday was the day to get rid of all remaining excuses: I was now familiar with the car and the team, I knew the track and I was not jet-lagged. The weather was cooperating, too, which gave me a chance to push the Ferrari closer to its limits. It remained very easy to drive even when I turned off the traction control, but I began to wish the brakes, which were overall very good, were a little stronger. At CTMP, you have to brake very hard coming into corner 5A, and a few times when I tried to carry more speed into corner entry, the brakes didn’t have quite enough power to pull it off. The stoppers were nonetheless extremely consistent throughout the races, with no hint of brake fade or any other foible.
In the dry qualifying session, I posted a time just outside the top-10 overall. With my better starting position, I finished Race Two just inside the top 10, claiming another third place in class along the way. As I pulled into the pits after the race, the Ferrari of Houston guys gave me an enthusiastic welcome—a moment I’ll remember forever. By the end of the weekend, my lap times were well within the top-10 overall and my consistency over the entire 26-lap race was a source of pride.
In the final analysis, I don’t know what I expected from the experience of racing in the Ferrari Challenge series, but I know that it delivered far more. The car was an absolute joy to drive: It’s the fastest car I’ve ever raced and, I believe, the easiest to drive fast. The organizers and teams are professional, through-and-through. The camaraderie among the drivers was impressive, as was the diligent way in which they worked with their coaches.
For anyone who thinks the idea of driving around in circles is a good thing, and is committed to becoming better at it, the Ferrari Challenge is a perfect place to call home.