As I approach the entry gates to the rapidly renovating Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (CTMP), something occurs to me. I'm about to join a select group – drivers who have been sponsored by Ferrari to race at the track formerly known as Mosport.
No, I wouldn't be driving the Ferrari F138, the car maker's challenger during the 2013 FIA Formula One World Championship season; I have it on good authority that Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa had their places confirmed some time ago.
I also wouldn't be behind the wheel of a Ferrari 312B, the car raced by Mario Andretti in the 1971 Canadian Grand Prix. Similarly, the Ferrari 312T2, piloted by Niki Lauda at Mosport in 1976 and Gilles Villeneuve at the same venue a year later, would not be at my disposal either.
I wouldn't be racing a Formula One car at all – but I would be racing a fast Ferrari. To be specific: the Ferrari 458 Challenge, a race-prepared version of the Ferrari 458 Italia supercar.
Now, make no mistake, the Italia is a spectacular car – one that needs no modifications to stamp its authority on the nearest open piece of tarmac. Armed with a 4.5-litre V-8 engine and a seven-speed F1-style dual-clutch transmission, it hurtles from zero to 100 km/h in a scant 3.4 seconds before going on to achieve a stratospheric top speed of more than 325 km/h.
No question, that's fast.
However, take that same 562-horsepower car, adjust the gear ratios and recalibrate the transmission so that the engine develops more torque at lower revs. Bolt on a carbon-ceramic brake system from Brembo. Apply sticky racing slicks from Pirelli. Strip away excess weight by removing the interior and replacing steel and glass with, respectively, carbon fibre and Lexan.
What remains is, simply, an even faster car.
This is the car that is campaigned in the Ferrari Challenge, a spec racing series that celebrates its 20th anniversary this season. Over the years, the series has expanded from Europe to North America and then to Asia. In that time, the race cars changed as new road-going models were introduced – the series started with the Ferrari 348 before moving on to the F355, 360, F430 and, since 2010, the 458.
The philosophy of the series seems to have changed as well, and I was afforded the chance to discover this for myself. In the process, I became the first journalist in Ferrari Challenge series history to secure a guest ride from Ferrari North America. Ergo: Mosport.
This would be the sixth round in a championship consisting of eight races in 2013. The schedule includes supporting roles at big events such as the Canadian Grand Prix, as well as stand-alone race weekends; the Mosport experience was of the latter variety. While the crowds wouldn't be there, drawn by the likes of Fernando Alonso, there was more track time available for all the Ferrari Challenge drivers to fine-tune their performances.
This suited me just fine – although I'd tested the car a few weeks prior at a track south of Houston, and I'd raced at Mosport a few times before, there's no such thing as being too familiar with what happens when 500-plus horsepower is brought into play. The organizers of the series know this all too well, and this is the reason why every Ferrari 458 Challenge sports something entirely unexpected – a passenger seat.
This seat is designed for on-the-fly driver coaching; the driver can either be behind the wheel or can study the technique of a coach at the controls. This setup makes the series well-suited for aspiring professional racers and weekend warriors alike; there's nothing like having a driving coach right next to you showing you the ropes.
The team that prepared my car, Ferrari of Houston, was running six different drivers over the course of the weekend. They also had three different coaches in constant attendance in the garage area, discussing race strategy with drivers, analyzing in-car video, and studying lap times and data traces. The attention to detail and the diligence were impressive.
The day before that first race was spent becoming familiar with the car and the improvements made to CTMP over the past year. There were eight practice sessions scheduled; I participated in six, learning about the slick tires, testing the power of the anti-lock braking system, going back and forth among the three settings on the traction control system. Traction control and ABS, along with paddle shifters to operate the transmission, are crucial aspects of the Ferrari 458 Challenge that free the driver up to focus on technique.
Which brings us to Saturday: race day.
It was a daunting prospect to be entering a race with 20 other drivers, none of whom I'd raced against before. It was more vexing still to be racing a fast car that remained, largely, foreign to me. Then, to make matters more interesting, the weather took a turn for the worse – yes, it rained. In dry conditions, in a fast car, Mosport can be a concern; there are three corners that require plenty of nerve and a back straight that sees the speedometer surge past 260 km/h.
Rain merely adds an exclamation point to the proceedings.
The morning practice went better than expected. Wet-weather tires were fitted to the Ferrari, the suspension system was adjusted for the conditions and the new pavement on the track generated more grip than expected. The result: I set the fourth-fastest time, my local knowledge definitely coming into play.
But the weather provided more disruptions than I would've hoped for; the afternoon qualifying session was cancelled because the track was flooded in parts. Accordingly, the starting grid for the Saturday race was based on championship points; as a first-time driver, my grand total of zero points netted me 19th place on the grid. Ugh.
My objective for the start was to keep the nose of the Ferrari clean; my 458 Challenge was wrapped in a striking, 20th-anniversary golden graphic treatment and I wanted to keep it as pristine as possible. As the pace car pulled into the pits after a solitary pace lap on a then-dry track, the sound of 21 Italian V-8 engines reverberated across the land. At least, I believe they did – the roar of the V-8 engine set immediately behind my ears and the sound of my mechanic Evan yelling "Green, green!" drowned everything else out.
My conservative approach to the start paid off: I avoided some bumping and a few dust-ups as the others jostled for position. But, as the opening laps clicked away, I was too patient in making my way past slower drivers ahead. The drivers at the sharp end of the field, meanwhile, had genuine pace – they sprinted away, I lost touch and never regained it.
Ultimately, I managed a reasonable comeback, finishing 12th overall, third in the Coppa Shell category for "gentleman drivers." But this result left me believing more speed was possible from the car and, more critically, from me.
This hunch proved to be true: A day later, a sequence of more laps in the Ferrari 458 Challenge added up to more confidence, higher speeds and quicker lap times. The car proved to be, in a word, glorious. Never have I driven a race car so quick, so predictable and so comfortable.
I qualified for the second race just outside the top-10 and finished just inside, claiming another third place in class along the way. By the end of the weekend, my lap times were much closer to those of the overall leaders and my consistency over the entire 26-lap race was a source of pride.
I've raced before – I've won some and I've lost some. But I've never had an experience like that weekend in the Ferrari Challenge series. As I climbed from the car for the final time, I felt a combination of sheer joy and utter sadness that I've never experienced before.
The races had gone well. The car was unscathed. I had earned two trophies and sipped some champagne. But it was all over – for the time being, at least.