The Ferrari Challenge bills itself as a series for “gentlemen” drivers—and that’s true insofar as no professional racers can be found on the grid. But professionalism rules every other aspect of the series, and none of the drivers, engineers, and mechanics competing for race wins takes their job any less seriously than their equivalents running in IMSA’s WeatherTech (formerly Tudor) SportsCar Championship.
Spring is in the air as I walk through Sonoma Raceway’s paddock, gently serenaded by the hum of people talking, the clank of tools, and the occasional chatter of an air gun. A long line of closed transporters, adorned with the legends of various Ferrari dealers and stuffed with 458 Challenge Evos and the gear to make them go, sits directly across from the track garages. It’s the second round of the 2015 North America season, and I’m here to talk with former (and, by the end of the year, current) champion Emmanuel Anassis about his recipe for success.
My destination is the small courtyard between two Ferrari of Quebec transporters. There, under a translucent fabric roof, sit four gleaming Challenge cars. Two uniformed mechanics are working feverishly on one of them, which has gone off track and speared a barrier. They’re busy removing damaged parts—front bumper, hood, headlights—and trying to assess if the front-mounted radiators have been damaged. It turns out they have, but all it takes is a trip to Ferrari North America’s support trailer to source brand-new replacements. The parts bill will likely top $30,000, though.
Anassis and his crew chief, Anthony Massari, stand nearby, watching the action. Behind them, another mechanic drains the fuel from Anassis’ car. I don’t think much about it until later in the day, when I spot the same mechanic doing the same thing.
“We do that after every session so we can weigh the fuel left in the car,” Anassis explains. “We know how much we used, so we compare that to the number of laps and get a fuel-consumption reading. Then we weigh the car to make sure we’re within the [allowable] limits, and then we calculate the exact amount of fuel we’re going to put in for the race. You don’t want to put in too much, because weight is your enemy.”
Anassis takes a few minutes to show me around. “I only have two guys working on my car: a race engineer and my crew chief,” he says as we weave around the cars, in and out of the transporters, “but we share. There are probably about ten guys here working on these four cars. There’s a tire guy, an engine guy, a data guy, so the team is pretty lean.
“Between sessions, they are constantly checking and rechecking everything,” he adds. “They have a checklist that goes under the windshield wiper. After qualifying, they found a cut in a tire, which might have caused an accident or cost us a race, so they changed it. Another team probably wouldn’t have found that.”
This is amateur racing?
ANASSIS’ FIRST EXPERIENCES in the Ferrari Challenge were a little less choreographed. “My first event was here in Sonoma, in March 2003,” he recalls. “It was just an incredible, phenomenal experience, but I remember sitting on the grid, in my first race ever, and I got on the radio and asked my crew chief, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ The pressure hit me all at once. This was serious; this was real.
“I’d qualified sixth or seventh, even though I’d never driven a car with slicks before. The race starts and I get on my radio again and say, ‘They’re hitting me! What do I do?’ and he says, ‘Hit them back!’”
After spinning multiple times on the opening lap and falling to the back of the field, Anassis fought his way forward to finish roughly where he started. The next day, in his second-ever race, he ended up on the podium. He finished the year second in the championship, then won the title in 2004 and ’05. In 2006, he switched to an F430 Challenge and clinched his third consecutive championship.
“But then in 2007 and ’08, the financial world came crashing down,” he says. “We had to lay off some people [from my aviation company] so it was very tough for me to rationalize doing this wonderful thing, and I went back to work flying airplanes. But then, in 2009, I got shot and couldn’t fly, so I took some time off. I came back in 2011, bought the 458, and started doing a few races here and there. This is my first full season back in the series, although I competed extensively in 2013 and ’14.”
Shot? Anassis laughs. “The biggest part of our business is humanitarian support, flying into all these war-torn and famine-ravaged countries: Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo, West Africa,” he says. “We’re the first in, last out, so to speak, bringing food and medical aid and doctors, equipment. We fly into these war zones with helmets and flak jackets, getting shot at, getting bombed, getting mortared. I’ve been shot six times, ended up in the hospital with a few bullets in me.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he concludes, very modestly. “It’s a very, very difficult thing.”
Not surprisingly, Anassis sees the Ferrari Challenge as a way to relax from his day job. “A friend originally recommended the series to me because he knew I was busy growing my business, I didn’t have a lot of time, and I wanted to bring my family along,” he says. “Ferrari has an incredible setup where [my wife and kids] can come in and participate in various ways and be included. That was a big priority for me.
“I’m always bringing family and friends to the events, so I’ll have a nice lunch with them and chat with the other drivers. Around a half-hour before I need to get ready, I’ll go to my room in the transporter, put on some music, put my feet up, and visualize the start of the race, visualize the strategy I’m going to use. Then I get up, I get dressed, get in the car, and go.
“It never used to be like this,” he admits, grinning. “To be honest, when I started it was a whole lot of drama, a lot of anxiety, a lot of ‘Oh my God, maybe we should change this,’ a lot of driving the team nuts. Now I just sort of leave it in their hands. It’s a combination of a lot of things, but it’s mostly knowing we’ve gone from A to Z already, and that any change we make at this point won’t make a lot of difference.”
THE TEAM’S “A TO Z” BEGINS as soon as a given race ends. Back at Ferrari of Quebec, the Challenge cars are torn down and checked over. “We call it a ‘set down,’ and it’s to make sure there are no potential problems, nothing’s broken, nothing’s worn down,” Anassis says. “There’s a lot of work that happens behind the scenes.”
The team’s race engineers and other drivers run test sessions at every track, collecting new data to add to their knowledge base from years past. The cars then receive an initial setup to suit their owners’ driving styles before being transported to the next race.
“When the cars show up, we map out every session,” Anassis explains. “It’s highly technical and extremely structured. In practice, I’ll go out and do two-three-four laps, then brief the crew over the radio where the car is. I’ll go in the pits and we’ll make some changes, then I’ll go back out and do some more laps.”
This format holds true no matter how many times he’s raced at a given circuit. “Everything changes, from lap to lap, session to session, year to year,” says Anassis. “The track also changes; now we have a bump in Turn One we never had before, so the suspension we had previously doesn’t work because the car bottoms out and gets loose.
“We’re constantly changing all these variables—ride height, alignment, anti-roll bars—and trying to improve so that everything converges on the moment I qualify. So all day on Friday, I’m not trying to go fast; I’m trying to get the car as good as possible so that I can qualify well and, ultimately, race well.”
The Ferrari’s final setup is always a compromise. “Look at ride height,” says Anassis. “Raising the ride height adds more roll to the car, and more roll gives you more mechanical grip. But if you’ve got so much roll the car rolls over on itself, the other tires lose their grip. And while that roll is great in a long corner, if there’s a turn in the other direction at the end you now have to transition all this lean the other way. That’s what we are always fighting, trying to get the most roll without compromising the left-right transition. If you make the car very low and very stiff it transitions beautifully, but then it starts to slide because you don’t have that mechanical grip, and when that happens you overheat the tires. It’s a balancing act.”
The car is only part of the equation, of course. The driver has to perform at his or her best, as well. “When I’m out there I try to be completely in tune, totally focused on reference points,” Anassis says. “Like, if I usually come out of this corner and shift at that crack in the road and now I’m shifting three feet earlier, or if I’m having to brake a split second earlier, I can see that and know we’re improving.
“I’m also constantly talking to the crew, saying, you know, the car’s unstable mid-corner in Turn One, it’s pushing mid-corner in Turn Six. They’re also giving me information, telling me what the other guys are doing, giving me space from other cars so I don’t get bunched up in traffic. There’s a lot going on, I’m constantly working when I’m in the car.”
Beyond Anassis’ driving skill and experience, the science of setup relies heavy on the Ferrari’s data-collection system, which can record hundreds of parameters. “Data is like walking naked through the gymnasium: It lets you see every scar, every wart, every white hair,” he says. “But what the data really does is quantify exactly what you’re feeling. So if I say to the guys, ‘The car is really pushing in that corner,’ we can go to the graph and look at the steering angle, at the speed sensors to see which wheel is working more, which is working less.”
After new tires are put on the 458, for example, Anassis discovers he’s slower in one corner. “I was faster on the old tires because I ran a different line,” he says, peering at the overlapping graphs displayed on a laptop.
“You’re getting the power down sooner,” says Massari, pointing at different spikes on the screen. “Whatever you did in Turn One looked better that time, you’re getting out of the Carousel better, but the kink on the back straight, the Bus Stop, should be flat, it’s been flat.”
“I’m trying, but the car’s pushing,” Anassis replies. “You can see the lift.”
“Think about the entry there,” Massari advises. “Don’t go all the way back left, just get your tires on the line and drift back to the right and get your eyes way up, far to the inside, get it over the apex, and deal with it. You’re not going that fast there, and you can move your hands faster.”
This detailed analysis happens after every session, and complements the radio back-and-forth between driver and crew while the car’s on track. It’s a gruelling mental game: “After all this, I’ll sleep like a baby tonight!” Anassis jokes. Yet even after all this effort, even for a team and driver as experienced as these, things can and do go wrong.
IT’S SATURDAY MORNING, and Anassis has qualified on pole for the first race. It’s a success, but one that almost didn’t happen.
“Yesterday, in the last practice session, we basically realized everything we had done led to the car being slower,” he says. “We came with a package for a soft setup, because this is a low-grip track, and all day we had a problem with car pushing. To dial out the push we had to keep going higher and softer [on the suspension], we put more rake in the car to get more weight on the front, and unfortunately got into a situation where the car began to roll over on itself. So last night we threw a Hail Mary and went full stiff, and this morning in practice I got a completely different car. It’s twitchy but it’s blisteringly fast. We broke a record and we were half a second faster than anyone else.”
A couple of hours later, Anassis wins Saturday’s race by 1.8 seconds over Ricardo Perez, who won both races at the Daytona season opener. Shortly afterward, he sits down with the team to debrief and plan for Sunday.
“I wanted a little bit better drive out of the corners when the tires started to go away,” he tells me the next morning. “We tried a little setup change this morning, but doing that destroyed the grip at the front of the car so we had to put it back the way it was.”
Sunday qualifying doesn’t go to plan, either, with Anassis ending up third on the grid. “In the warmup this morning, I went through the Bus Stop three or four times and everything was great,” he explains. “Then, in qualifying, I braked exactly where I did in the morning, but as soon as I put my foot on the brake I thought, I’m not going to make it. I was on a brand-new set of tires, and sometimes you get a good set, sometimes you get one that’s not so good. I missed my turn-in by one meter—literally one meter; we can see it in the data—and that was it. I lost two positions! That’s crazy, but that’s what happens when everyone’s so close.”
With Perez on pole, Anassis isn’t confident about his chances for scoring a second win of the weekend. “The tires have a five to seven-lap window, so unless you do something early you’re probably going to be stuck,” he says. “It’s hard to make up time on a racetrack, although it’s really easy to lose it. Basically, you have to hope the other guy makes a mistake.”
In the race, Anassis picks up one position after a long battle with Saturday’s third-place finisher, Wei Lu, but ends up in second place, 2.2 seconds behind Perez. He’s a little disappointed with the result yet pleased with his performance and looking forward to the rest of the season.
“The element of competition has never changed since I’ve been in the series,” says Anassis. “You’ll see the top-ten cars within a half-second, maybe less. You get different names and different faces, and there’s always someone coming in who’s really fast, really good. It’s very serious.”