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Inside the Ferrari museum: a 500F2.

Bob English

Every year, more than 200,000 people view – with a mixture of excitement, awe and some true reverence – the exhibits in the Maranello museum of legendary sports car builder Ferrari, and for each it's a unique experience.

For me, it was one that linked the tourist's Italy – of ancient Roman ruins, leaning towers, and Uffizi galleries lined with anatomically correct statuary – to a modern Italy that has contributed something every bit as wonderful – fast red cars.

Ferraris, although I've only driven a few, have thrilled me, and countless others, with their ripping V-12 racer reality and their glamorous mystique for more than six decades now. And made the industrial suburb of Maranello hallowed ground.

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For the true-believer Ferrari-faithful the factory "Cittadella" – comprising a mix of original buildings freshly painted traditional, late 1940s era, pale yellow, and new-century designs by prominent architects – might be seen as akin to that other long-revered bit of real estate down the Autostrada in Rome, the Vatican, where the "business" of another religion is conducted.

And that would make the nearby museum the automotive equivalent of St. Peter's Basilica, a sanctuary where you can quietly commune with the great works and sporting achievements of the now semi-mythical deity of speed – called by some back in the day "The Pope of the North" – Enzo Ferrari, who founded the company in 1947. On one of the museum's upper floors, his lifelike effigy still looks out across his original office desk at a replica of the first car to carry his black-and-yellow prancing horse emblem, a 125S of 1947.

There you might also pay a quiet personal tribute, as my wife and I and our two travelling companions did, to a feisty little Canadian racer from Quebec, Gilles Villeneuve. He won just six grand prixs for Ferrari, but a place in "Il commendatore's" case-hardened heart with his consummate car control skills and breathtaking bravery.

On the museum's top floor is the 1981 Ferrari 126 C Villeneuve drove to a pair of wins that year.

Ferrari's first turbocharged F1 racer was powered by a 1.5-litre V-6 that made 570 hp, which was delivered, suddenly, after lengthy turbo-lag. That, along with a lack of down-force and other issues, made it dreadful to drive, according to period accounts.

That Villeneuve managed to put it in the winner's circle twice was attributed by Formula One historian Doug Nye to his "intense application and irrepressible competitiveness." At Zolder that year, Nye says, the Ferrari's adjustable suspension jammed, leaving "the car hurtling around nose-high like a power-boat. Its driver persevered, apparently unconcerned, foot flat as ever …"

It was drives like this that endeared Villeneuve to Ferrari's hard-bitten boss and the Italian "Tifosi" who fanatically follow Scuderia Ferrari's fortunes, and still revere him today. Some recall him as "crazy;" others as a racing demi-god.

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Later, my companions and I stood on the street leading to the entrance to the Pista de Fiorano test circuit just down the road from the museum, after experiencing a sedate lap in a small bus that had also carried us around the factory grounds. And there we spent a moment or two standing before the bronze bust – nestled in a green hedge that reminded us of victory laurels – which honours the memory of the young Canadian.

Pictures of Villeneuve – who raced for Ferrari from 1977 until his death in 1982 at 32, following a crash during qualifying for the Belgian Grand Prix at Zolder – also front buildings near the museum, and a street is named after him in the factory complex. Reckless daredevil or other-worldly talent, Villeneuve was the embodiment of the true "Ferrarista," and for that he is not forgotten.

On walking into the ultra-modern museum, assembled like an F1 car from carefully crafted, high-tech pieces, the first Ferraris my eyes were drawn to were all about its early racing history.

A pair of wire-wheeled, skinny-tired monoposto racers from 1951, a V-12 engined 166 F2 and a four-cylinder 500F2, with behind them the 1987 Indy car prototype that survives Ferrari's aborted move into the North American series. And over by the far wall a 250GT competition car dubbed "The Breadvan" for what is likely the ugliest bodywork ever draped over a Ferrari. Others, including a pair of 250 GTOs, are prettier but just as potent. And the F40 brought back memories of a couple of quick laps of Mosport in the passenger seat of one. There aren't a lot of cars on display, but a just-opened extension expands the collection on view.

Deeper in the building, you enter its most emotion-generating feature, the Sala delle Vittorie. Here eight of the most recent cars to add to Ferrari's tally of 16 World Championships are displayed in a dimly lit space, the bright-red racers arrayed nose-down, in an amphitheatre-like semi-circle, and dramatically highlighted by spotlights.

On the wall above, video screens replay highlights of past glories. Another wall displays ranks of silver trophies and racing relics, such as Mike Hawthorne's helmet. And a small booth lets you hear in surround-sound what a Ferrari F1 car sounds like going up and down through the gears.

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For me, there was one more treat in store, a €25, seven-minute drive in the museum's Formula One simulator, a cockpit on gimbals, facing a three-screen display of the circuit at Monza. It was more intense than you might imagine – or maybe it was just my imagination – and a cool way to end a Ferrari museum visit.

Back in 1947

The Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Montreal Canadiens to win the first of three straight Stanley Cups, and Barbara Ann Scott wins the Ladies World Figure Skating Championship.

Canada’s first two nuclear reactors are fired up in Chalk River, Ont., the transistor is invented, the Polaroid Land Camera launched, the United States sends fruit flies into space and Saab builds its first cars.

Archeologists find the Dead Sea Scrolls in a cave at Qumran, in the West Bank, and Thor Heyerdahl takes 101 days to drift across the Pacific from Peru to Polynesia on a balsa wood raft called Kon-Tiki

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