I’m experiencing waves of heat coursing through my body and my pulse is racing at 150. It can’t be true. But it is. I’m in the middle of a nightmare. The Austrian Airlines ground crew at the Vienna airport is refusing to let me board. It’s the plane to Munich with a connection to Bologna. I have an appointment to test drive the 1,000 hp (!) Ferrari SF90 Stradale Assetto Fiorano. My dance with the devil. I’ve been looking forward to this day for what feels like an eternity. But the stewardess says no! She has no idea what she’s doing to me.
I’ve got a negative Covid test with me, but I don’t have the registration form for travel to Italy. Because at the Foreign Office they told me that I could do that just as well at my destination. I have to act now and put all my cards on the table. I bend over the counter and make an ugly face like Robert de Niro in Taxi Driver. I look the young lady deep in the eye and say, “If I’m not allowed on this plane, a disaster will be inevitable.” She gasps, struggling in vain for words. She wasn’t trained in how to deal with mentally ill passengers. “Don’t get me wrong,” I say, “I won’t harm a hair on your head. I’m the star of this show. I’ll strip down to my birthday suit. Do you know, young lady, what that is?”
My dance with the devil. I’ve been looking forward to this day for what feels like an eternity. But the stewardess says no! She has no idea what she’s doing to me.
The young woman picks up the phone, visibly distraught. Now she’s calling the police, I think. But she only has her supervisor on the line and explains my case to him. I need a supervisor like I need a hole in the head. But he obviously has grasped my plight. He tells me to register online right then and there on my phone. The woman gives me an Internet address. I start typing and find the website. There is no end to the questions. Endless fields to fill out. What now? What was the temperature in your left ass cheek during the last solar eclipse? It’s enough to drive you up a wall. At some point it won’t let me go any further: “Your data is incorrect.” I abandon all hope. The ground stewardess says she has to close the flight now. “Call your supervisor again,” I say. And I can hear the threat in my voice myself. I’m just channeling Robert de Niro now. She’s actually doing it. I would have bet anything she wouldn’t. “The gentleman is having a problem entering his data,” she says into the receiver. After half a minute, she hangs up again, saying “You may fly, but you must also assume responsibility yourself for whatever happens. But in Munich, they will most likely send you back.” I take a loud breath, my lips vibrating. “I don’t think so,” I say. And I board.
What the heck was the big deal? Neither in Munich nor in Bologna does a single person ask for any kind of registration. When I arrive safely at the Executive Spa Hotel in Fiorano, I say to myself, “Don’t get so bent out of shape. It’s not good for your heart. If need be, you could have driven. The action on the Circuito doesn’t start until tomorrow.” I go to bed and read another chapter in my book, The Unknown Kimi Räikkönen. It feels really good after such a stressful journey. Ferrari’s last F1 world champion (2007) gives a highly detailed and entertaining account about his drinking benders and how he was drunk non-stop for two weeks before the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix. Think I’ll treat myself to a whiskey from the minibar before bed.
The next day I set foot on sacred ground, literally. Pope John Paul II was here in 1988 and gave it his benediction. Ferrari’s test site in Via Gilles Villeneuve, a three-kilometer circuit with all the proper infrastructure, is just a few streets away from the main Maranello plant. I’m standing in the middle of the track at the Piazza Michael Schumacher in front of a whitewashed two-story house with red shutters. This is where Enzo Ferrari, the lone Commendatore, lived. The godfather of Maranello. The tyrant. The schemer. Aloof, misanthropic, genius. It’s worth wondering whether the old man had not gone deaf from the constant engine noise. Parked in front of the building’s entrance are almost three million euros in the shape of six models of the beast at the center of today’s action. In silver, blue and red. Price tag for each: €491,670. To be honest, I find the word “price tag” highly inappropriate in connection with one of the most expensive supercars of the present day, as if we were talking about a tomato, a rubber duckie or a toothpick holder, but unfortunately, nothing else comes to mind.
Parked in front of the building’s entrance are almost three million euros in the shape of six models of the beast at the center of today’s action.
And since we’re on the subject, I ran the numbers purely out of personal interest even before this trip began, and it goes like this: How long would a furniture maker in Germany earning an average wage have to work to be able to buy this car? The answer: twenty-four years. Assuming he sacrificed his entire net salary of €1,700 a month. But that’s impossible, because he would starve and freeze to death and would not even be able to buy a sandwich or the cheapest pair of polyester underwear at the local store. So, I crunched the numbers some more. Let’s assume that he puts €500 aside per month. How long would it take him to scrape together the €491,670? A total of eighty-two years. But that won’t fly either, because he’d be long dead by then. I hear you grumbling, “Our furniture maker couldn’t even buy this Ferrari with a fat million-dollar inheritance. They’re only available to exclusive customers anyway.” Wrong. Unlike the LaFerrari, the Assetto Fiorano is not a limited edition.
So where does that leave us? In the land of hope springs eternal.
By the way, there’s someone else here who everything revolves around: me! I have my black, long-sleeved Niki Lauda shirt to thank for that. Our champion in the Ferrari 312T, born in 1975, spread all across my chest. You can’t get more Austrian than that at a test drive for journalists in Fiorano like this. Chassis and engine engineers, aerodynamics specialists, men and women from the press department alike, they all smile at me, give me a thumbs up, pat me on the back. The sight of me sends them into raptures. Two mechanics in Ferrari red shirts and pants even applaud. One of them calls out to me, “Sembri molto veloce!” (“You look very fast!”). But why does the comment suddenly make me feel uncomfortable? Because I’m under pressure now. They must think I’m going to race circles around the other motor journalists, relegating them to the risible also-ran category. They think I’m a shoo-in for the fastest lap. But what happens if their shoo-in wipes out, smashing half a million euros in one fell swoop? Then they would run him out of town in disgrace, as is so often the case with Ferrari.
The shoo-in therefore seeks distraction by striking up a conversation with a Ferrari hostess. She has an even forehead reminiscent of Nefertiti and asks him if he is not perchance Italian and has mistakenly joined the group of German-speaking journalists. No, no mistake here. He is a merda del burrone, a Schluchtenscheisser from beyond the Alps and cannot explain just how he got these unlawfully dark circles under his eyes. The hostess, who is old enough to be the shoo-in’s daughter, claps her hand over her mouth and laughs out loud. She then says that she has never heard the expression merda del burrone. It’s an insult that the Germans made up for the Austrians, the shoo-in explains to her. The literal translation from German is “gorge shitter”, and since he lived in Germany for many years, it has automatically entered his vernacular. And as she has just seen, he has now gone so far as to refer to himself in these derogatory terms.
Two mechanics in Ferrari red shirts and pants even applaud. One of them calls out to me, “Sembri molto veloce!” (“You look very fast!”). But why does the comment suddenly make me feel uncomfortable? Because I’m under pressure now.
While the two continue chatting, let’s now turn our attention to the car. Two years ago, Ferrari unveiled the SF90 Stradale, a plug-in hybrid with four motors. Maranello has never come up with anything with more power for the road: 340 km/h, 1,000 hp. Powered by a twin-turbo V8 engine (780 hp) and three electric motors with a total of 220 hp. Ferrari’s first all-wheel-drive car, by the way, although it’s a front-wheel-drive in all-electric mode and in reverse. You could fill half a book extolling the avant-garde equipment in this uber-Ferrari, but that would bore me stiff. At this point I’d much rather repeat the hymn of praise spoken by my colleague Matthias Mederer, who drove the hypercar last year (while I ate my heart out with envy): “Accelerating to the max with the SF90 Stradale has a touch of physical madness about it. The interaction of the electric motor and the turbocharged combustion engine unleashes such an unbridled force that, at least on the country road, my first thought was: ‘That’s too much power!’” Ferrari disagreed: “What do you mean too much power? Why do we care what Mederer says! There’s still room for improvement. Let’s go for the gold!”
And thus, the Assetto Fiorano was born. Assetto means “kit” in Italian. This means the SF90 Stradale has been kitted out for the racetrack (Fiorano). In concrete terms: GT racing shock absorbers, carbon fiber door panels and underbody, titanium springs and complete exhaust system, carbon fiber rear spoiler (provides 390 kg of downforce at 250 km/h), Michelin Pilot Sport Cup2 tires with a softer compound and fewer grooves, a.k.a. “semi-slicks”. The Assetto Fiorano weighs 30 kilos less than the standard model (total weight now: 1,540 kg). I know, “standard model” just sounds wrong when referring to a Ferrari. Sounds like a 1.6-liter Kia Optima. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anything more suitable. I had to think long and hard about how best to compare this pleasantly refreshing and yet highly perverse upgrade of an already over-the-top road-going sports car. Then something occurred to me. It’s tantamount to a) adding four spires to the Milan cathedral, b) dumping even more sand in the Sahara Desert, and c) transferring ten million dollars to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ account as part of a campaign for donations.
I walk from the Piazza Michael Schumacher over to the pit where my German and Austrian colleagues are, all seven of them. They go through today’s schedule once again. We’ll take turns one by one, always following a lead car. Four laps in the morning to get accustomed to the track, moderate to fast pace. After lunch, four fast laps. There will be telemetry data from each lap, but the laps aren’t timed. That would make little sense, since we are not allowed to fully gun it on the 100-meter start and finish line section for noise protection reasons. Let’s savor that notion for just a moment: Ferrari, the legendary sports car manufacturer and the most successful team in F1 history with more than 200 GP victories and fifteen drivers’ and sixteen constructors’ world championships, is not allowed to go all out on its home track during the day whenever possible. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Do we need any more proof what has become of motorsport today? And yet, for me, there is also a positive aspect to this. If the laps aren’t timed, that takes some of the pressure off me. On the other hand, telemetry data is very revealing. They show exactly when you brake and when you accelerate again. You can’t talk your way out of it (“Even though I jumped on the brakes so late, the car understeers like you can’t imagine.”).
Don’t even try it. Just shut up. It’s better just to stop digging your own grave. The telemetry doesn’t lie. They’ve known in the pits for a long time that you’re a sissy and belong in a knitting class.
Green light. I’m up first. A blue Assetto Fiorano stands ready in front of the pit with the door open. I put on my crash helmet, squeeze into the cockpit and tighten the four-point harness in a nice bit of foreplay. The next moment, total sensory overload! Staring back at me is the fully digital, science-fiction-like instrumentation and the multifunction steering wheel with touch buttons for setting the four driving modes eDrive, Hybrid, Performance and Qualify, as well as the rotary controls for the driving programs Wet, Sport, Race, CT off, ESC off. An engineer crouches down next to the car and explains everything to me. He asks me expectantly if I’d like to try the electric mode, pointing out that it’s quite something in a Ferrari. Worth having experienced it at least once. “Over my dead body,” I answer without hesitation. He smiles thinly. There is a brief silence. “Just a suggestion,” he says. That settles it. I didn’t come to Fiorano to drive an electric car. After all, I don’t go to a coffeeshop to buy an inflatable boat. Full speed ahead, gearing up maximum power reserves.
Anything else would be simply inconceivable. So I set the engine to “Qualify”. But how do I actually start the engine? There is no start button anywhere to be seen. The engineer points to an “Engine Start Stop” indicator on the steering wheel. I press it with my thumb. I’m curious as to what 1,000 hp sounds like. Not as bad as you might think. First of all, it’s muffled (after all, it’s turbo and not naturally aspirated). A low base frequency. Full. Rich. Pleasant. Unruffled. Permeates the body like a Tibetan singing bowl massage. Now I mustn’t close my eyes, otherwise I’ll get too comfy and the Dalai Lama will appear to me in his colorful robe and the well-worn slippers, which might not be the best thing on the Pista di Fiorano. Not to belittle the matter: The Assetto Fiorano is, in truth, the sound of the absolute superior expressing its dominance, relegating, as it were, the sub-1,000 horsepower society (read: everyone else) to a horde of roaring, screeching, inferiority-complex-laden, no-class losers.
I pull out onto the track behind the lead car, also an Assetto Fiorano, driven by a full-bearded young man named Francesco. Francesco is a test driver for Ferrari. That’s one of the coolest jobs in the world, I think, just ahead of crocodile wrangler or fashion model scout. So, a moderate pace, then. First of all, I’m amazed that I hardly remember the course of the track. This is the third time I’ve driven here. That was a long time ago, though, most recently in a 575M Maranello in pouring rain, riding the razor’s edge. My first impression of the Assetto Fiorano: The engine responds instantaneously to your foot. It is impossible to imagine a more direct response to the gas pedal. And where are the car’s one and a half tons? Barely noticeable. Ferrari F1 driver Charles Leclerc once said of the standard model, “In the corners, the car feels much lighter than it actually is. It’s amazing how you hardly feel the weight. The car is very agile.” Charlie, what do you say about this one then, which is 30 kilos lighter! My epiphany after the warm-up: Driving 1,000 hp is a piece of cake. Of course, looming on the horizon was the dark promise of a gritty afternoon.
Next on the schedule are several lectures held by engineers in the air-conditioned room of a ground-level building, just across the street from the villa of the late godfather. The main topic is automotive engineering, but no one really wants to listen; everyone is just raring to get back behind the wheel. Then we go to lunch at the Cavallino restaurant in Maranello. The Commendatore was a regular guest here. The waiters wear black suits, and photographs of the heroes of days gone by cover the wall in the entrance area. Niki Lauda is present and accounted for, of course. One of the waiters admires my shirt. He says “Ciao, Niki!” to me, asks me to stand in front of the wall, inches away from a framed black-and-white picture of Niki Lauda, and takes a picture of me with his phone. The journalists see this. The enormous pressure on me is back. I can just barely choke down my tortelloni. I’m about to knock back my espresso, when I get a WhatsApp message from my seventy-two-year-old father: “Just wanted to let you know that I’ve just driven Fiorano on the PlayStation in 1:24 – with the Ferrari 488 GT3. I was on my last legs and still left you in my dust.” I’ve written about my father, a former motorsport photographer, in this magazine many times before.
What I’ve failed to mention so far is that Pops was also a lightning-fast Alfa Sud Cup driver in the 1970s. Just so no one thinks my old man can only get the lead out on the PlayStation.
Back at the test site. I’m back in the car with my seat belt fastened. The engine is already running. A microphone is attached to my crash helmet. I’m connected via radio to Francesco in the lead car. He asks me if everything’s okay, and I’m ready. “Yeah.” If he had asked me fifteen minutes earlier, I would have had to say, “I’m terrified.” I’m not ashamed of it. “There’s no such thing as a car that’s too fast, unless you stand in front of it in the morning and are afraid to unlock it,” says Walter Röhrl. But it’s all good now. I am serenity personified. After buckling up, I must have spent half a minute fixating on the prancing horse on the steering wheel, noticing how this image scrubbed my inner cosmos clean of burdensome thoughts of titanic, uncontrollable forces, immense cornering speeds or a too-late braking maneuver, all wrapped up in a kind of turbocharged catharsis. And suddenly it became quite clear that this otherworldly Ferrari was not my opponent and certainly not the devil but would give me the ultimate lesson on what was perhaps the last stage of an extended journey to the outer limits of the physical realm. Thus purified, I pull onto the track behind Francesco, past the medical car and the fire department. Both will hopefully not be needed. In anticipation of a long and healthy life, I leave the traction control activated. Of course, I’d turn it off if I could just cruise around all day and get to know the car better. Francesco will set his pace according to mine. The distance between us should not be less than fifty meters. If he notices that I’m getting closer, he’ll accelerate. That way we can always push the envelope just a little further. Theoretically, there is no limit. One pretentious thought amuses me:
What would happen if I managed to overtake Francesco? Would I then get his job at Ferrari? And he would take mine at ramp? Or would the people at ramp say, “What use is a traumatized test driver from Maranello to us?”
Pedal to the metal! What happens next will turn my thinking about racecar driving upside down. I will have to rework everything I have ever written, said or thought about sports cars. Much of it will no longer apply. But first things first: Pedal to the metal it is. I’m up to 200 in six seconds! Six seconds! Acceleration is only an approximation. It should be called pulling the trigger. Firing a bullet, so to speak. But how are you supposed to steer a projectile like this? Six seconds. Another comparison: You can put on a pair of socks in six seconds. I have timed it. It is a very short span of time. Put on a pair of socks, please, and imagine that in the meantime a car has jumped from zero to 200 km/h. It’s hard to grasp. I should probably slow down. There’s this right turn after the start and finish line. Why is Francesco still not braking? Is he completely insane? I’m going to skid out in the very first corner! So I’m braking now, otherwise I’ll fly off the track and land behind the Maranello hills. Nothing would be more embarrassing than watching the shoo-in crash out in the first turn. I know they’re following my driving prowess on the monitors in the pits. Braking on the Ferrari is so brutal, it’s unbelievable, like the rope on the gallows jerking the outlaw’s falling body. The gap between Francesco and me widened immediately after the turn. I have to really step on the gas now, because he’s not really taking it easy up front. A chase begins, and as soon as I’m back on his tail, he takes off again. Cat and mouse on the Pista!
Braking on the Ferrari is so brutal, it’s unbelievable, like the rope on the gallows jerking the outlaw’s falling body.
I quickly notice that my Ferrari not only shows no mercy when accelerating or decelerating, but also develops an unbelievable grip on the track. My confidence grows from corner to corner, and at the start of the second lap something incredible happens: Going more than 200 km/h I’m heading for the right-hand bend after the start and finish line again. Normally I would think: Time to brake and downshift. Now I think: KEEP YOUR FOOT ON THE GAS AND SHIFT UP! Yes, have I taken leave of my senses! What am I thinking? This car is driving me out of my mind! Slam on the brakes! Too late! I hold my breath and get way too close to the rear of the car in front of me! Just in time! I wait for Francesco to radio me, “Are you crazy?” or something, but luckily he doesn’t say anything. It would have been very unsettling.
Maybe he should have said something, though, because amazingly I’m increasingly throwing caution to the wind after my near-kamikaze move back there. After all, this thing flies like it’s on rails, not deviating a millimeter off course. “It’s not a boring vehicle that understeers; in fact, it’s designed to slightly oversteer. Still, the car is easy to control.” More wisdom from Charles Leclerc about the “ordinary” SF90. Charlie, I think, that’s quite an understatement there! But basically it’s true. This Ferrari is all business. And I gun it, keeping the gap as small as possible. Francesco has to shift up a gear. We’re going faster and faster. Sometimes I have to grit my teeth and hope the track doesn’t lay me out. Once there’s a bit of dust because I drove over the curbs. I fall back most in the tight corners, because I brake too late, zigzag a bit and emerge from the turn too slowly. That makes me see red. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph!”, I yell in the cockpit. “What did you say?” asks Francesco. “Sorry, never mind.” But what does slow mean here? Am perplexed again and again by this otherworldly thrust. Last lap. I know I’m nowhere near tapping the full potential of this Assetto Fiorano. I would like to. But for that, I’d have to break the metaphorical safety glass. Should I?