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The Globe and Mail

To pilot a Ferrari for the first time is a seminal experience

The 458 Italia is one of three cars you can drive at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Tex.

Among car brands, Ferrari is the most exclusive – the ne plus ultra of exotic marques. The waiting list to purchase a new model is about two years long and that's just for the "regular" cars, not limited-edition offerings such as the LaFerrari. To get on the waiting list, you need to be a Ferrari owner, a veritable chicken-and-egg dilemma.

The officially sanctioned Ferrari driving school had been equally exclusive, offered only to Ferrari owners until recently. Now, "select non-clients" can get behind the wheel of a Ferrari on a certified race track with near one-on-one instruction, at the starting cost of $10,000 for two days. Known by its flavourful moniker, Corso Pilota, the experience is available at only three locations worldwide: next to Ferrari HQ in Maranello, Italy; at Le Circuit Mont-Tremblant, the former Grand Prix track northwest of Montreal; and now at the Circuit of the Americas (COTA), the spectacular Formula One facility in Austin, Tex.

Only on a super-smooth paved surface with no speed limits can the driver even begin to understand what makes the Ferrari such an automotive icon. When that racetrack is a modern F1 circuit with high-speed straights, diabolically challenging corners and plenty of run-off area to accommodate driver error, you have a recipe for motoring ecstasy.

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Ferrari put three models at our disposal in Texas: the California 30, the racy 458 Italia and the thundering F12 Berlinetta, with the bulk of my time spent in the 458, simply one of the elite cars in the world in any category, a joy to drive at any speed and wickedly easy to drive at elevated speeds.

The Ferrari F12 Berlinetta is 740 horsepower of sheer aggression, leaving so much in reserve when travelling at over 200 km/h it forces a re-evaluation of every other road car in history.

For the true driving enthusiasts, and especially fans of F1 racing, it is a seminal experiences to pilot a Ferrari for the first time because the road cars evoke their racing brethren like no other. The F1-inspired instrument panel, steering wheel and controls are flat-out cool, designed to ensure the driver is focused on the task at hand – driving.

The steering wheel itself has an engine start button, coloured red for dramatic effect, with other switches for the windshield wipers, headlights and turn signals. A further button selects the modes of the adjustable suspension system. Finally, and most importantly, a lever called the manettino controls the traction control system settings. One of the settings is labelled "race" – and it's not even the most extreme one.

While the road cars are no match for the F1 cars in terms of outright pace, they're no show ponies prancing around on borrowed reputation either. The California 30, the "most leisurely" of the modern Ferrari fleet, sprints from zero to 100 km/h in a scant 3.8 seconds and rockets to a terminal velocity of 310 km/h. Ferrari produces nothing but incredibly fast cars.

The purists out there contend that a "true" Ferrari needs to be powered by a V12 engine. But the V8 nestled in the middle of the 458 Italia can make the most stalwart of traditionalists change this tune. Under power, this engine produces a symphony of mechanical sound that is the motorized equivalent of methadone – it's sound and fury that signifies everything.

Powering across the start/finish line at COTA, the increase in elevation approaching Turn-1 – a 12-storey rise, no less – barely registers as a ripple in the pavement. The Ferrari chews up and spits out a football field's worth of tarmac at an astonishing rate of speed whether going uphill or downhill. As the V8 nears the red line, a quick grab of the right shift paddle takes it to the next gear, and a whooshing-whistling sound declares that the process is set to begin anew.

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Plenty of braking is required for Turn 1, even though the car is going solidly uphill by this point. In the 458 Italia, the terminal velocity at the end of the front straight crests 240 km/h, while negotiating the turn at anything more than 70 km/h is a plan that needs reconsidering. Angling the car to the apex on the left is met with a level of G-force that makes you yearn for a six-point racing harness–or perhaps a child seat that buckles up for added security. The standard seats on the Ferrari are good–very good indeed–but the car easily ventures past 1-G of cornering force at many points on the track, including the sweeping right-hander that immediately follows the first turn.

"We carefully evaluate our Corso Pilota offering to make sure that we are able to propose a truly unique experience, up to the Ferrari standard," says Marco Mattiacci, formerly president and CEO of Ferrari North America, Inc., now head of the company's F1 team. "We pursue perfection. We want the best cars in the best locations and on the best tracks."

The back straight, a significantly longer piece of tarmac without any hills, was bisected by a temporary chicane for fear that speeds would be excessive when approaching the 90-degree Turn 12. This was a wise decision; even with the pylon-marked obstacle in place, the 458 Italia ventured past 210 km/h before the brakes were required again.

"The purpose of the course is aimed precisely at allowing the client to take full advantage of their Ferrari and learn how to exploit its performance and driveability in a safe and professional environment," Mattiacci says.

A critical difference between the Corso Pilota and other advanced driving programs is the ratio of students to instructors, which is close to one-to-one. At most advanced driving programs, this ratio is at best three-to-one. The quality of a course hinges on the quality of the instruction. Here, again, Ferrari makes a case for being the best with a team that includes racers Nick Longhi, Anthony Lazzaro and Jeff Segal.

There's also a strong Canadian flavour with Jean-François Dumoulin, a two-time class winner at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and his brother Louis-Philippe, a leading light in the NASCAR Canadian Tire Series. And the principal instructor is Philippe Létourneau, another Quebec native who moonlights as the resident expert on the TV program Canada's Worst Driver.

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A number of these courses use a training technique called follow-the-leader, which sees the instructor (in his/her own car) lead students around the track (in their own cars) in what constitutes a high-speed train. This technique allows the instructor to control the pace of the group and to teach students the racing line.

However, the car in front isn't always being driven by an instructor, sometimes it's being driven by another student, someone who may not know the racing line. This isn't a factor when there's a dedicated instructor for every student. This allows for more personalized and effective instruction – it goes beyond the instruction offered by other programs.

For the record, there were no "worst drivers" in attendance at the Corso Pilota in Austin – Canadian, American or otherwise. The location, the cars and the instructors made everyone look brilliant.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker.

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