Manufacturers of high-end sports cars collectively face a big challenge. No, it has nothing to do with the cost of entry—people will always have money for toys, whether times are good or bad. No, it’s not the environment—the modern sports car is cleaner and more fuel-efficient than ever before and there’s no sign of progress in this slowing down. The challenge is to find venues where people can drive these cars as they were intended.
After all, if you offer a car that can come close to quadrupling the local speed limit on the highway in a given jurisdiction, how do you separate that product from a competitor that’s capable of only tripling that same limit? It would seem to be a problem worthy of Pythagoras, but the solution is relatively simple: Bring the customers to your cars, bring the cars to the track.
In order to keep their customers engaged—and to prevent them from being engaged by a competitor, it must be said—manufacturers are working overtime to launch, fine-tune and perfect one-make race series of their own. Almost every current super sports car you can name now lays claim to a bespoke venue for motorsport competition.
Aston Martin has the GT4 Challenge in the UK, with plans to launch a similar series in North America in 2014. Lamborghini has the Super Trofeo Championship, which just launched in North American this year following successful introductions in Asia and Europe. There is the Maserati Trofeo World Series, which, as per its name, is a single championship that takes place in various countries around the world.
But the pacesetters in this particular arena are the Porsche Carrera Cup, which was established in 1986, and the Ferrari Challenge, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. In the interests of investigative reporting, yours truly landed a guest ride in the latter series for the sixth round of the championship at Bowmanville, Ontario’s Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (CTMP) in early September.
This year, the Ferrari Challenge championship consists of eight races, including a supporting role at the 2013 Canadian Grand Prix and stand-alone race weekends, such as the round at CTMP. The car used in the series, the Ferrari 458 Challenge, is a race-ready version of the 458 Italia. Armed with a 4.5-litre V8 engine and a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, the bone- stock Italia hurtles from zero-to-100 km/h in just 3.4 seconds to a top speed of over 325 km/h.
The Challenge car takes these same underpinnings—including the same 562-horsepower engine, sealed to ensure fairness—and adds a few tweaks in the form of revised gear ratios, a recalibrated transmission, Brembo carbon- ceramic brakes and Pirelli racing slicks. To complete the picture, the usual race modifications have been made to ensure lightness and safety.
A few weeks prior to the race, I had the opportunity to test the Ferrari 458 Challenge at Motorsport Ranch, just south of Houston. The Texas track is nothing like CTMP in terms of layout, tarmac quality or top speed, but any time spent in a race car is time well spent. I spent the day becoming accustomed to its handling and straight-line acceleration. A good start.
Representatives from Ferrari North America were out in force at CTMP, offering guidance at every turn, creating an atmosphere that encourages competition, but in a friendly manner. They brought their own transporter where all the timing and scoring activities took place, with organized drivers’ meetings under the awning outside. At a table nearby, the trophies for the top finishers were on display and they were sizeable— the type of thing Fernando Alonso would be pleased to have in his display case.
I had heard the series places an emphasis on driver coaching; this makes perfect sense when you consider that many are relative newcomers without much prior knowledge of how to go fast in a crowd. But, I was amazed at how seriously everyone took the idea of coaching and how authoritative the coaches were: in the paddock were stars of the Canadian racing scene including Lee Bentham, Robin Buck, David Empringham and Richard Spenard.
The Ferrari of Houston team ran six cars during the weekend, mine included, and four driving coaches were in constant contact. The Challenge has a passenger seat and a number of drivers took advantage by having coaches in the right- or left-hand seat for the opening sessions. When the cars weren’t on-track, the drivers gathered in the transporter, studying in-car video footage, poring over data traces and sharing set-up strategies with their coaches.
Bentham was assigned to one of the Ferrari of Houston drivers, so whenever I caught him in a free moment, I asked for some advice myself. After figuring out that my entry speed to turn two was greater than others around me, but my exit speed was slower, he said something in a way that I hadn’t considered before: “Don’t try to be a man at every point on the track.” That, ladies and gentleman, is the kind of dead-simple analysis that pays dividends for years to come.
Ultimately, my Ferrari Challenge experience went almost as well as I could’ve hoped for. My objective for the weekend was to keep the car’s nose clean and to improve in every session. I had notions of doing extremely well, but having never raced with any of the series drivers previously, I had little sense of how competitive they would prove to be.
The qualifying session on Saturday afternoon was rained out due to flooding at some points on the track; this was a mild disappointment, to say the least, as I’d posted the fourth-fastest time overall in the similarly wet morning practice session. The grid for the first race on Saturday was decided by championship points, so I was slotted near the very back, 19th out of 21 starters.
When it came time to race, the track had dried sufficiently for us to start on slick tires, although there was not enough time to adjust the cars’ suspension settings for the conditions. I played it safe at the start, waited for the dust to settle and then worked my way forward. It would make sense that the drivers at the back of the grid would be a bit more erratic than those at the front and this proved to be true. I lost a fair amount of time working through the pack and was never able to regain as much ground as I would’ve liked. My reward was 12th place overall and third place in the Coppa Shell category for “gentleman drivers.”
The race the following day went much better. The qualifying session ran under sunny skies and I posted the fourth fastest time in class, 12th overall. A conservative approach at the start caused me to drop two places immediately, but I gained those back, and two more, to come home third in class again, 10th overall.
By the final laps of that final race, I was finally feeling comfortable with the car and my lap times had me well inside the top-10 overall. A mix-up with some backmarkers near the very end prevented an even better result but, as the saying goes, that’s racing. In the end, I took home two Alonso-sized trophies, a bunch of great memories and a big desire to race the Ferrari 458 Challenge again.
A brilliant car, a fantastic series and a great way to help racers get to where they want to go.