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Story and photos by Laurance Yap
The process of getting ready to go in a Ferrari Challenge car is what focuses you. It isn’t so much the clambering inelegantly over the roll cage – which I have done before – or the tortuous cinching up of the five-point harness. It’s when you stare at the dashboard and find that instead of a bunch of gauges you have one big multifunctional digital readout. That in place of the radio and climate controls are simply switches for the car’s various electronic systems (ABS, traction control) and a giant red kill switch in case things go wrong. You look over to the instructor in the passenger seat and notice the huge fire extinguisher behind him, and you wonder for a moment whether or not you’re ready for this.
No time to think: a quick pull on both the paddles (for 360 Challenge cars only come with the high-tech Ferrari F1 gearbox) to engage neutral, then a quick tug on “up” to engage first. We’re off.
First impressions are that this is a noisy, clunky, nervous car. Heading down the pit lane at Adria Raceway, the smallest pieces of dust ping loudly off the car’s aluminum undercarriage, and the steering wheel wanders from side to side. The car has no mufflers and no sound-deadening, so you hear and feel everything, particularly with the steering wheel connected to a pair of Pirelli racing slicks. The engine is insanely, incredibly loud, but that’s okay: it’s thrilling to listen to, and has instantaneous throttle response.
Surprisingly – or not – the faster you go, the better it gets. Even at 3000 rpm, the Challenge car’s 4.0-litre V8 produces impressive torque, shoving you back in your seat.
That is, once you’re into second and third gears, all you feel because the car is so stable. Keep accelerating and it gets only better, as the sophisticated aerodynamic design of the car – there are no big wings, but check out the huge under-body venturi tunnels – literally sucks you to the road. Your brain starts to filter out all the noise, and you start to concentrate on driving quickly, making your braking points, turning in when the instructor tells you to, feathering the throttle as you turn before absolutely hammering it on the way out.
The abundance of grip from the slick tires is what’s the most impressive thing about these cars. There are faster road cars, but there are few that can corner this well, or with such stability. The way it speeds through turns is almost anticlimactic, because even when you’re going as fast as you dare, the car still has so much more to give. Boot the throttle at a stupid moment just to see what happens, and the car’s traction control helps to keep things in line; it is the smoothest and the most unobtrusive such system on any car I’ve driven. The F1 gearbox only contributes to the slightly video-game sense you get when driving this car: each shift is picture-perfect, no matter what the throttle opening or speed. During upshifts, you don’t need to lift off the throttle (the computer is now so smart it does that for you), and when you shift down, the computer automatically gives the throttle a loud, almost gratuitous blip. The response time of all the electronics is amazing.
How close is this race-bred Ferrari to its road-going counterpart? Pretty close. The engine and gearbox are essentially the same (though the engine’s in a slightly higher state of tune and breathes through an unmuffled exhaust). The body has been stiffened by the addition of a roll cage, but remains essentially stock. The interior shapes and surfaces are familiar – there’s still leather on the dashboard and on the “transmission” tunnel – except for the new gauges and switches. It’s the suspension that has probably been modified the most, with a much lower ride height, increased negative camber, and those slick tires.
All of which means that in a 360, you’re getting an experience that is pretty close to what you’d get in a race car. Which you can read in a couple of ways: either race cars are getting so advanced and so easy that anybody, even a goof like me, can drive them fast, or that the cars that we get to drive today are better than they have ever been. In the case of this Ferrari, it’s probably a little bit of both, but more of the second than the first.