Today’s supercars are nothing short of astounding. Their handling and speed surpass the performance of yesterday’s quickest race cars, yet they offer modern niceties like comfortable interiors and air conditioning. Of all the many and lust-worthy supercars on the market today, therates among the best. With 661 horsepower and a 205-mph top speed, the GTB is a proper racetrack weapon — and it’s a shame that so few of them will ever see the track.
Most Ferrari owners would never dream of risking their precious cars on a racetrack, and so thank goodness Ferrari offers a range of driving schools giving well-heeled owners with heavy right feet the chance to safely get up to speed. The Ferrari Corso Pilota program will take owners (or wealthy would-bes) from track-day-curious to race-ready, culminating in some serious seat time in the 488 Challenge, the caged and competition-focused version of the GTB. The two cars are largely the same, but many safety- and performance-related upgrades on the Challenge elevate it to another level of intensity.
To get a feel for just how the Pilota program comes together, and to get some quality time in that Challenge, Ferrari was kind enough to let me sit in on one of its classes, a two-day program that put every other educational experience in my life to shame.
Ferrari’s training courses run the gamut, starting with basics like when to shift gears, then going all the way up to the finer points of forcing your racing opponent into a mistake. The introductory Sport course covers the base elements of performance driving, while the Advanced course focuses more on car control, with greater time on the track.
After that, things get serious. The Evolution course begins the process of making you fast in a proper race car like the track-only 488 Challenge, and then finally comes the Challenge course itself, where you learn the fine points of proper racecraft, like getting a good start and setting up a clean pass.
Completing one class is typically required before you can move to the next, but Ferrari was kind enough to let me begin with Evolution. I’ve spent a few days at the track over the years and have done a bit of racing myself, so that felt like the right place to dive in. Headfirst, as it would turn out.
The Evolution course includes classroom discussions, skidpad and slalom, track sessions in the road car, telemetry reviews and finally, track sessions in the race car. While classroom sessions can surely be useful, nobody comes to these things to stare at a whiteboard. Thankfully, those bits are blissfully short.
We started with some laps in the road-going 488 GTB to figure out the somewhat ornery layout of the Thermal Club, a private circuit located in the desert just outside of Palm Springs, surrounded by the palm tree groves that gave this area its name. Things started at a fast but controlled pace through the series of hairpin bends that tested my patience as much as my driving abilities. And, with no shortage of walls, most within easy reach of the racing line, any momentary losses of concentration could be very painful indeed.
Later, we switched over to the F12 Berlinetta, seemingly just for variety’s sake — perhaps to sample the sonorous wail of what is the sweetest-sounding of all the modern Ferraris.
The first skidpad session ran on a wet patch of asphalt, a guilty indulgence out in the middle of the desert. We were asked to kick the tail out of a 488 GTB farther and farther, eventually getting to the point of controlled drifting. On the second skidpad session, the asphalt was dry and the tire smoke flew.
Drifting a 661-horsepower, $250,000 supercar is a thrill I’m not likely to forget soon, but all the above were merely a series of tasty appetizers, precursors to the main event: hot laps in the brutal 488 Challenge.
To get in a 488 GTB you open the door, sit in the seat, buckle the seatbelt, and press the red Engine Start button. Starting the 488 Challenge is a little more complicated. First, you need to get in your Nomex racing suit. You’ll need gloves, too, and a pair of slender driving shoes. A helmet is required, of course, as is a HANS device, to support your neck in case of a crash.
Once suited up, open the impossibly light carbon-fiber door and shimmy through the opening in the roll-cage, dropping yourself into the deep bucket racing seat. Then it’s time to connect the six-point racing harness, cinching it down tight enough so that you can breathe but not much else. Connect the intercom to your helmet, because this thing’s loud enough you won’t be able to hear anything otherwise, flip the military-style ignition switch, wait for the dashboard to finish booting and then, and only then, can you finally press the engine starter. The 3.9-liter turbocharged V8 directly behind your head barks with authority.
Where the 488 GTB is calm and precise until provoked, the the 488 Challenge is loud and angry from the start. As proper race cars go it’s actually relatively well-appointed with nice materials and a clean cockpit layout, but swapping between the GTB and Challenge is quite a shock to the system. There’s no subtlety: this thing is designed to go quick and so you’d better be ready.
The driving technique required is vastly different, too. While the GTB offers oodles of mechanical grip from an adaptive suspension setup and meaty tires, aided by Ferrari’s latest and greatest driver assistance systems, the Challenge car’s grip is on another planet. Its tires are sticky slicks and they’re bolstered by a massive wing on the back and giant splitter on the front that shove the car into the track at speed.
It’s braking that requires the biggest change in approach. In a road car, you need to let the suspension settle under braking for just a moment before you really lean on the brake pedal. In the Challenge car, your maximum grip is at top speed, so you want to absolutely stomp on the brake pedal as hard as you can, gradually easing off as the car loses speed and, therefore grip.
As the two-day course progressed, that shift between cars began to feel somewhat natural and I started to get comfortable strapped down low in the cockpit. The gaggle of incredibly talented instructors got comfortable with me, too. On my final run on the final day I was joined by Alessandro Balzan, 2013 Rolex Series GT champion. He sat to my right and calmly but forcefully pushed me to ignore my previous limits and really go for it.
As the sun began to fall and the mountains around glowed red, the lap timer on the 488 Challenge’s dashboard flashed green again and again as I kept setting and resetting new fastest times of the day. At the end I was exhausted, exhilarated and totally, utterly addicted. Balzan optimistically said that I maybe have the talent. Now all I need is the budget.