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Becoming a Ferrari 488 Challenge Race Driver

Learning to ride the prancing horse at Ferrari’s Corso Pilota racing school

CIRCUIT MONT-TREMBLANT, Quebec, Canada I can see it in the distance, a black and green dragon waiting, hungry, practically drooling for a chance to swallow me whole and spit me out in tattered, racing-red shreds. Turn 8. And I’m blasting toward it so fast it feels like I’ve just exited a bazooka.

Flat out in sixth gear, the mechanized fury of the turbocharged V-8 behind my ears pummeling me like a hailstorm inside the stripped-bare cockpit, the first in a row of LED redline indicators on the wheel alights—then another, then another. A rivulet of sweat plops into my eye, and I fight to blink away the sting. Still I’m flat on the gas. Then, within a single heartbeat, furious drama: I reach my braking marker, the dragon leaps out to devour me, and at the last possible second … now! I hammer my right foot on the pedal harder than I’d kick an IRS collector, and the Ferrari slams into an invisible catcher’s mitt, my helmet straining forward against the HANS restraint straps. I crack off two downshifts with the left shift paddle, begin easing off the brakes, and in a crush of lateral g’s, I turn into the apex.

My helmet crackles as my passenger in the right seat—instructor and pal Anthony Lazzaro—barks through the intercom: “OK! No brakes! No throttle! No pedals! Just coast!”

Coast? Isn’t the old adage, “In a race car, you’re always either on the gas or the brakes”? Doesn’t coasting mean losing time? Since my very first racing school 30 years ago I’ve followed the cornering mantra: in slow, out fast. I’ve been a practitioner of trail-braking, turning in while gradually trading the tires’ stopping power for cornering grip. I’ve used light throttle to balance the car before acceleration. But never have I simply coasted. Without me saying a word, Lazzaro seems to grasp my bafflement. “It’s one of the biggest myths in racing, the always-pedaling thing,” he says. “People watch an onboard camera from a Formula 1 car, but they aren’t understanding what they’re seeing. I guarantee you Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel is coasting into the apex before getting back on the power.” Well, if it’s good enough for Seb. I do as Lazzaro says (nobody’s ever explicitly told me this before), and it works! With zero throttle the Ferrari’s nose doesn’t lift a millimeter—maintaining front-end weight so the front tires bite harder—and the 488 Challenge race car turns in as if it’s on a leash. Eureka! It’s a bona fide lightbulb moment, as if I’ve finally been given the password to enter the Racing Secret Circle & Grille. Moreover, with the car now so perfectly set up at the apex, I’m able to get back on the throttle harder and sooner, which equals more speed at corner exit.

No brakes! No throttle! No pedals! Just coast!

Later, with instructor Jeff Segal (the only man with class wins at Le Mans, the 12 Hours of Sebring, and the Daytona 24 in a Ferrari), I review the onboard telemetry from my laps. “See here how you’re giving up a little speed on the way in but gaining more speed on the way out?” Segal asks. “You’re not fighting the car on the exit. You’re blasting out of the turns and gaining time all the way down the straight. On this lap you got blocked by traffic near the end, but you still were more than two seconds quicker than yesterday.”

It’s working. I’m becoming a Ferrari 488 Challenge race driver.

Superman in a Supercar

Ferrari race driver. Can three more evocative, seductive, aspirational words exist for a motorsports enthusiast? Who hasn’t watched Le Mans or the Monaco Grand Prix and thought, “Man, that should be me inside that beautiful machine with the Prancing Horse.” Who hasn’t at least asked themselves, “I wonder if I could even do that?”

Red, white, and Whew! St. Antoine catches his breath after another lapping session in the ferocious 488 Challenge. Below, he reviews telemetry with Corso Pilota instructor Jeff Segal.

Since 1993, Ferrari’s unique Corso Pilota training program has been answering “what ifs” and turning fantasies into realities for hundreds if not thousands of Ferrari owners and aficionados. Now offered in three locations in North America—Circuit Mont-Tremblant in Quebec; Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas; and The Thermal Club track near Palm Springs, California—Corso Pilota is a series of four courses, each a step up in speed and advanced techniques. The program is designed to train even novices to a skill level where they’re fully qualified to race in the ultracompetitive, seriously fast Ferrari 488 Challenge series, which attracts everyone from future pro racers to entrepreneurs to celebrities such as actor Michael Fassbender.

For 2017, that meant six race weekends at tracks across America plus the opportunity to earn a spot in the Ferrari World Finals in October at Italy’s Mugello Circuit. “The best part about Corso Pilota is you can test the waters,” says Ian Campbell, head of a research firm in Boston and a classmate of mine at Mont-Tremblant. “It’s certainly not an incidental expense, so you don’t want to jump in and then find out you don’t like it. Instead, the program gives you a chance to sample the 488 Challenge race car in a controlled environment and work your way into it before you commit to the full race series.”

Ah, the 488 Challenge. Monica Belluci in metal. Ours is the first North American class to pilot the new machine (the previous Challenge cars were based on the 458 Italia). That means about 100 more horsepower (at least 661 hp, but Ferrari won’t say for sure) from its 3.9-liter twin-turbo V-8 paired with a seven-speed dual-clutch shifter, which is essentially the same combo as in the 488 GTB road car (the race transmission gets shorter ratios). But the 488 Challenge is thoroughly reworked for track duty: slick tires, wings, a roll cage, racing brakes, a gutted interior with a new race-optimized panel, deep buckets with six-point belts, vastly reworked bodywork with a more aggressive aero package, and revised electronic driver aids with a new, two-phase traction control system. Using a knob on the wheel, the driver can select when the system intervenes and how aggressively it does so.

To sample life in Corso Pilota, Ferrari jumped me straight into the third level of the program, a two-day class dubbed Evolution. Mind you, life as an aspiring Ferrari race driver doesn’t come cheap; just the Evo quarter of the course costs $20,000. For that sum you get two long days in the $250,000 488 GTB road car and the even-pricier 488 Challenge racer, tutelage from some of the best racing instructors in the world (these guys are busy race drivers who teach, not the other way around), all meals (including adult beverages at the end of the day), and first-class accommodations. In Quebec, that means the superb Hôtel Quintessence on Lake Tremblant. Also included is a custom-tailored Sabelt racing suit (probably worth $2,000) plus Nomex gloves, driving shoes, and a few Ferrari goodies.

There’s no shortage of 488 GTBs at this school.

All 14 of my classmates have already done the required first two levels. I get nods all around as one tells me, “When you put on that red Corso Pilota suit, you feel like Superman.” I must say, it does feel pretty good—at least until I try to climb into the Challenge car’s passenger seat. We’re broken up into groups, and I’m assigned to Challenge No. 1 for a few demo laps with Lazzaro at the wheel. The trouble is, I can barely get inside. The space is tiny (worsened by a big fire-suppression bottle on the floor). I try a few entry techniques and finally fold myself halfway in, but as I do, my HANS device hangs up on the roll cage and pins my chin to my chest. For a moment, I really cannot breathe. Eventually an assistant helps shove me in, and it’s claustrophobic as hell in here. It’s hot and as cramped as a broom closet, and no way am I getting out quickly if I have to. I take a slow, deep breath as the assistant locks in my belts (no room to do it myself). Then I’m plugged into the intercom, and Lazzaro is talking in my helmet earphones: “We’ll do a few quick laps to reacquaint you with the circuit [he trained me here years ago] and show you what the Challenge car can do.” He gives me a thumbs up. “Ready?”

Instructor Anthony Lazzaro shows the author the secrets of the Challenge race car’s cockpit.

Seconds later, I’m being subjected to a ride that feels more like a round with Floyd Mayweather. Holy mother of Enzo! This isn’t a car, it’s a NASA training device gone berserk! I’m already black and blue, and we haven’t even reached Turn 5. The speed is freakish. The grip is literally breathtaking. The braking is … life-changing. Every corner feels like we’re going to fly straight into the Armco, then Lazzaro finally stomps on the binders. It’s a virtuoso performance. Lazzaro is a five-time national karting champion, a Formula Atlantic champ, and since 1988 he’s raced everything from Indy Cars to Trans Am to NASCAR. It’s an education just to watch the guy work.

Naturally, most of my classmates are highly successful individuals with the wherewithal to indulge their racing dreams. Bill Kemp, a home builder from St. Louis, owns a Mercedes SLS AMG and a Ferrari 458 and plans to do the Challenge series in 2018. “The program is really in-depth,” he says, “very demanding. Admittedly, it’s a huge leap going from zero race-driver training to Corso Pilota. But I went to one of the Challenge races and immediately got hooked. And now here I am, in Course 3 and taking my passion for motorsport to the next level.”

Vroom Closet: The 488 GTB and 488 Challenge share powertrains but that’s about all. The race car’s passenger seat is a sardine can.

Three women are also taking the Evo class. Riley Ryen, an event planner from Calgary, Canada, owns a Lamborghini Aventador and a Ferrari 458. “Well, I used to race horses when I was younger,” she says about her plans to compete in the 2018 Challenge series. “Now it’s just more horsepower!” When I ask Sabrina Galanti from Toronto what she does for a living, she laughs and says, “Race car driver! Actually, I have raced a few Porsches before, and I have a Ferrari 812 Superfast on order, which I plan to take to the track. Right now the plan is just to learn more, and eventually maybe I’ll try racing in the Challenge series.”

“You’re ready to do a Challenge series race right now. You should think about it.”

Over the two-day program, my classmates and I spend a lot of quality time lapping in the Challenge cars, plus a number of slalom and wet skidpad exercises in the 488 GTB and a few F12tdf road cars. Incredibly, the instructors ride with us when we’re lapping—even in the Challenge cars at full tilt. It requires, as former racer David Hobbs would say, “large attachments,” but it’s also the best way to give us instantaneous feedback and guidance. In fact, lapping the 488 GTB is actually scarier than doing so in the 488 Challenge. The street car is every bit as fast in a straight line but has nowhere near the cornering or stopping power of its racing cousin. And it’s got none of the extra safety protection, just a standard seat belt and some air bags.

Corso Pilota costs big—around $76,000 for all four classes—but that sum includes overnight stays like at the Hôtel Quintessence in Quebec.

By the afternoon of the second day, I’m lapping the 488 Challenge at a pace I wouldn’t have believed the previous morning. I mean, we’re going really freaking fast—around 160 mph at the braking marker on the back straight. At the same time, it all feels totally under control. Logical. Almost mathematical. Do this, do that, follow instructions, and the speed just comes. The guidance I’ve received from Lazzaro and the other instructors (including pro racers Mikel Miller and Jean-François Dumoulin) has been game-changing. Despite the countless schools I’ve attended previously and all the racing I’ve done, from now on I’ll forever be a better, faster driver, thanks to this Evo class.

Ferrari ownership is a course prerequisite, and student Riley Ryen qualifies via her own 458 Italia. Below, St. Antoine chases a 488 Challenge in a 488 GTB.

I have to admit: By the close of the second day, it’s something of a relief to complete my final laps—me, Lazzaro, and the incredible 488 Challenge unscathed. Yet along with the slowly ebbing adrenaline, my brain is awash in a blissful bath of endorphins and satisfaction drawn from two days amid the wail of a Ferrari V-8—the acrid tang of hot rubber ripping across sinuous asphalt, the tension of pushing a high-strung machine to the brink, the sheer violence of the speed, and the hammer braking and relentless g-forces assaulting my every corpuscle. Lazzaro walks over as I’m stowing my helmet and slaps my back. “Hey, nice work out there,” he says with a smile. “You’re ready to do a Challenge series race right now. You should think about it.”

Think about it? Wow. I’ve long fantasized about such a thing, but actually competing in a Ferrari race car? That’s way, way up there in Motorsport Valhalla. Yet Corso Pilota exists to say, “You can get there.” And after two days behind the wheel of a Ferrari 488 Challenge, flat out on one of the most beautiful circuits in the world, I am a little bit closer to the point where “you should think about it” doesn’t sound crazy. Maybe it’s the red Nomex suit talking. But right now I can’t think of anything else.

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