Fashion and Beauty

Test-driving the Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano: Speed thrills

If you are a really good boy, Christmas could come in May and Santa could reward you with an early gift.

For me, Santa came in the form of my good friend Jason Ang, editor of the online car magazine Motioncars.com, who told me we would have the chance to test-drive the brand-new Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano! As if that wasn’t enough, our lifetime opportunity would come not on some traffic-congested road where you couldn’t push the limits of the car – or your courage – but instead at the Pista di Fiorano in Italy, Ferrari’s test track after which the new super-car was named. At the time, little did I know that it would be my guts to give out first – well before approaching the limits of the car.

Everyone knows that Ferraris are fast cars. But just how fast does the new Fiorano go? Equipped with the latest evolution from the legendary Enzo Ferrari’s engine, this 5,999 cc V12 is the largest production engine in the world and delivers 620 hp, 608 Nm at 5,600 rpm of torque and a weight-to-power ratio under 2.6 kg/hp. In English all of that translates to 0 to 100 kph in 3.7 seconds and a maximum speed of 328 kph. And if none of those numbers make any sense to you, take it from me, it all just means that the Fiorano goes very fast. From a cold start, you could be roaring past the speed limit in less time than it takes to read this sentence.

As per usual when driving in and around tiny Italian towns, we got lost upon arriving in Maranello – home of the world’s most coveted automobile brand. A couple of gas station stops to ask for directions later, we found ourselves at the gate of the Pista di Fiorano where security is tighter than Fort Knox. I can imagine that the racing world’s version of paparazzi trying to steal "spy shots" of future automobiles is probably rather common in these parts.

Located adjacent to its manufacturing facility and built in 1972 to provide the Ferrari company a suitable test track for both their street cars and Formula 1 racers, Fiorano is the epitome of "Ferrari Town." Even the service vehicles – appropriately Fiats, which now owns the majority of Ferrari – were painted Ferrari red and emblazoned with the ubiquitous "prancing horse." Although our test car wasn’t the traditional red, that wasn’t a reason for any complaints as we waited for our turn in nervous anticipation to feel exactly what 620 horsepower feels like.

Arriving at the pit area, we could hear the distinctive scream of the 599’s engine in the distance as it was already on the test track, piloted by one of Ferrari’s test drivers. Standing trackside as the Fiorano blazed down the straight, I was unsure of just how fast it was going, but any high school science class would get a marvelous demonstration of just what the Doppler Effect really is… Ferrari-style!

Eventually pulling into the pit area, we felt a palpable layer of heat emanating from the car’s carbon-ceramic brakes. No wonder they told us to do a "cool down" lap after driving around the track! Although I remember thinking that our fastest laps would probably be about as fast as the test driver’s cool-down lap, so heat build-up would not likely be a problem for us. The test driver called us over and after a few pleasantries and a discussion about the car’s history and technical specifications, it was, as they say, "Off to the races."

Once we were strapped in our bucket seats, the guy told us in a distinctive Italian accent, "I will take you around first to show you the lines, do a cool-down lap, and then it will be your turn." Lines? In race-speak that basically means where to accelerate, brake and turn on this three-kilometer track.

We came out of the pit in a scream as he floored the accelerator and made his way up the gears of the paddle-shift-controlled/Formula-1-derived sequential gearbox. I was pinned to my seat and we were approaching the first right-hand turn when I heard him say something like "brake here and turn." As he cranked the wheel right, I got my first taste of the kind of beating that racecar drivers must endure throughout a race. Throughout the course, your head is bouncing on your neck like a bobble-head doll, occasionally hitting the window if you forget to brace yourself. You also learn to appreciate the side supports of the seats and the central passenger grip located on the console as without them you could easily end up on the lap of the driver after just the first right turn.

The rest of the lap was more of the same. He said, "Be patient on this corner… brake here… that’s good…" and then he zipped around the corner at a hundred-plus kilometers an hour, flying over the chicane in the process.

"The car is in sport mode," he said. "Now it offers the best compromise, but you can put it on race mode and you have more control." He switched the Manettino to "race," and the computer yielded more decision-making to the driver. Driving at these speeds with minimal computer assistance, you’d better really know what you are doing!

The Manettino is just one of the multitude of technologies in this car that has come straight out of Formula 1 racing. Having been originally used in Ferrari’s 1996 F1 car, the Manettino controls the car’s "brain," which in turn manages the 599’s sequential gearbox, traction control and suspension control to maximize comfort and performance depending on the driving conditions present. Nearly complete control can be turned over to the computer, including controlling the car’s speed in "ice" setting and nearly none in the "CST off" option.

After our cool-down lap, he pulled into the pits and said, "Okay? Two laps plus one," and then got out of the car. It was my turn. Help!

After buckling up and fumbling with my sunglasses, not knowing whether to wear them or not, I depressed the brake pedal and tapped the right-hand paddle shift towards me. With the gear indicator changing from "N" to "1," I slowly stepped on the accelerator and inched towards the track. With a combination of uncertainty and excitement, I considered the possibility of wrecking a $300,000-plus car. Maybe that’s why the test driver didn’t ride around with us while we drove.

Being waved onto the track by the marshals, I figured since this is probably the finest sports car in existence today, I might as well find out what it can do, and literally put the pedal to the metal. The tach jumped from 2,000 rpm and approached the 8,400 red line in a matter of seconds. The gear shift indicator lights built into the steering wheel (another derivation from F1 racing) lit up in sequence, indicating it was time to shift to second just as I reached the first corner and started applying the brakes.

I didn’t really know how fast I was going because I didn’t have time to look at the speedometer as the track just kept coming at me so quickly. As a matter of fact, the only thing you have time to look at is the large tachymeter in the middle of the dashboard console. I guess when to shift gears is the most important thing to know when driving performance cars. Who cares how fast you are going as long as you’re in the right gear? I doubt speed limits are too high on the list of priorities of super-car designers.

Hitting the chicane coming out of a turn further into the track, I remembered thinking about the "lines" and where our test driver told me to brake and accelerate. Was it full power out of this upcoming corner? I was still unsure how he expected us to remember everything he said, but at that point I was too busy just trying to keep the car in the middle of the road and avoiding an embarrassing spinout. In retrospect, however, I think the fear of going too fast into a corner and losing control is largely due to your own fear that the car cannot handle any more when it actually can. But when you are in the moment, especially when you are unsure of exactly what the car can do, it really becomes a matter of how fast you dare to go.

I think I only got past third gear once in the course of two laps, which was on the long straight, never daring to go any faster around the rest of the course. Forget about the "lines," I was just concerned about staying in the middle of the road and not crashing the vehicle. Needless to say, the two laps came and went far too quickly – pun intended. I wish I had an afternoon with that car so I could really get comfortable with what it could do and really push it and myself to the limits.

As Jason and I made our way back to the parking lot and back to reality in our rented Fiat Punto – which Jason specifically requested from the rental company in an attempt at subtle humor – he told me, "Check off one item on our list of things to do before we die."
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For more information, visit www.motioncars.com. For comments, e-mail me at [email protected].











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