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How Slow is Fast Enough?

Knowing when to go fast is just as important as knowing how— perhaps even more so

Arthur St. AntoinewriterTim Marrsillustrator Andrew Trahanphotographer

"My aunt drives faster than you—and she doesn't drive." An old friend was visiting from out of town, and by sheer luck I happened to be piloting a brand-new Ferrari 488 Spider for a few days (timing that did wonders for maintaining my "I live like this all the time" ruse). Yet my pal wasn't completely joking; I even detected genuine irritation in his voice. "That Bimmer just blew past us and made the stoplight while you were slogging along in second gear." He looked over at the dashboard in front of me. "Dude! You're barely breaking the speed limit!"

I could only sigh. We were ambling along L.A. 's Wilshire Boulevard on our way to Malibu, and yet again I was dispelling a myth as old as my career: namely, that I, as someone who test-drives cars for a living, am always wheeling on the ragged edge, tach needle blasting through the redline, tires on fire, fishtailing from every stoplight and sideways on every highway entrance ramp. But then, a leisurely 45-minute cruise later, we found ourselves at the foot of one of my favorite mountain roads, a wriggling climb boasting turn after turn, great sight lines, and only the occasional glimpse of other vehicles. I gave the Ferrari the spurs.

For almost 30 seconds, my friend was silent. Then: "Stop! We're gonna jump the cliff!"

"We're not going fast at all," I soothed as the 488 knifed through another bend, the V-8 howling through the open cockpit. "The tires aren't even singing and—"

"Stop this car right now or I'll tell everyone the New Orleans story!" I pulled over into a turnout and looked over at the passenger seat as I raised an eyebrow. "I thought you were displeased with my auntlike pace?" My buddy, now green-faced, shook his head, frowned, and gave me the finger.

Fast, you see, is a relative thing. For most of the driving public, "fast" means flattening the gas pedal on a city street or zigzagging through highway traffic. Both are the hallmarks of an amateur. Let's face it: If you dropped a potted cactus on the gas pedal, you could make a Ferrari accelerate at max speed. Zero skill is required. (Often, there's even less than that on display. Search "supercar fails" on YouTube. Potted cacti would've performed better.)

My point is this: The notion of driving an automobile fast on a public road is ludicrous. It cannot be done. Period. If you're well trained and prudent and on the right open ribbon of asphalt, at best you can drive an automobile briskly—completely in control and with lots of margin in hand (which is still more than the 90 percent—my friend included—have ever experienced). But actually attempting to drive fast on the street … that's not a testament to skill. That's a yellow flag signifying a "driver" with something to prove.

Let's face it: If you dropped a potted cactus on the gas pedal, you could make a Ferrari accelerate at max speed. Zero skill is required.

I've been extremely fortunate in my career to have benefited from the wisdom and insights of some of the world's best drivers—among them, three-time world champ Jackie Stewart, Trans-Am champ Dorsey Schroeder, and, at the Elf Winfield school in France, Simon de Lautour, the man who had previously taught future four-time F1 champion Alain Prost how to drive a race car. One lesson I learned from every one of them: There's a Grand Canyon-wide gulf between driving on a track and driving on the street. Stewart is renowned for his calm pace and impeccable, "ultimate chauffeur" polish on public roads. Once, after participating in a race at Road America in Wisconsin, on the highway I came up behind Schroeder (who'd been my coach that weekend). As I slowly rolled by, there he was: fingertips lightly grazing the wheel, eyes up and looking far down the road, cruise control probably set right on 55 mph—the very picture of a consummate driver with nothing to prove to anyone.

Yet even on a racetrack, as I've learned in 30-some years in the business, there are degrees of fast to consider. Many times in my career I've found myself on a circuit at the wheel of a high-powered sports car or a priceless prototype, and always the conundrum arises: How fast do I push this thing to learn what I need to learn (and do the car's engineers justice) but bring the machine and myself home in one piece? How slow is fast enough?

Recently, I flew to the Silverstone Circuit in England to test a prototype of the coming McLaren Senna supercar—a 789-hp, 2,900-pound, active-aero monster that can leave even McLaren's vaunted P1 sucking its exhaust fumes. True to its impressive stats, the Senna proved mind-blowing—just shockingly quick, one of the quickest road cars I've ever driven. Indeed, after the first of our two lapping sessions, one journalist in our group—a veteran in the biz—stripped off his Nomex and headed straight back to the hotel, mumbling something like, "I'm not driving that thing anymore." Naturally, there were a few snickers up and down the pits. But then I had a realization: "To hell with the peer pressure. Better to stand up and say, 'Maybe I'm not up for this,' than risk crashing, destroying a precious prototype, and possibly harming yourself and the McLaren test driver bravely riding shotgun." It was a gutsy call on my fellow scribe's part.

The next morning, the twin-turbo V-8 still ringing in my ears, I brought up the previous day's Senna test with a McLaren exec flying back to the States with me. "I wish I could say I was an Ayrton Senna kind of driver," I admitted. "Always on the limit, valiantly risking it all to be the fastest man on the track. The cool guy. But I'm not. I'm an Alain Prost kind of driver." Prost, "The Professor," was a master at the wheel—the epitome of smoothness and control—but he made a point of driving only as fast as he needed to go to win races, a methodical mindset he'd displayed even in his early days at the Elf Winfield school (where he won that year's student competition). Anything more, in Prost's view, was needless risk. Mind you, in my case, lapping in the McLaren Senna, "only as fast as needed" still meant 163 mph at the braking marker at the end of Silverstone's Hangar Straight and flying through Turn 1 in fourth gear at 120 mph, the Senna nibbling for grip as the g forces threatened to suck my head right through the driver's window. "Slow" is a relative thing, too.

I'm content letting others set pole position. I'm not putting food on the table with my lap times; there's no added reward for going faster than necessary. Besides, in the back of my mind I always remember the best driving advice I ever got, which came not from Jackie Stewart or Alain Prost but from Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry: "A man's got to know his limitations."