Ferrari 360 Modena:
A word of advice to all those who think that golf is a game that spoils a good walk. In a roundabout way it led me to the drive of my life. Whilst I cannot promise it will get you into the driving seat of a 360 Modena that is exactly what it did for me and I celebrate if I can go round in under 110
One fine day I gathered up enough courage to invite Stuart Robinson-Managing Director of Ferrari UK- for a round at the Royal Automobile Club's rather magnificent course near Epsom in England which is a place better known the World over as the scene of that most famous of horse races-the Derby.
The result was a foregone conclusion but without wishing to bore a bunch of auto enthusiasts with golf I must just say that apart from ten pin bowling I cannot think of another sport where you cannot blame the referee, the engine, the gearbox or anything else that comes to mind. In other words I lost fair and square. During dinner the conversation turned- surprise, surprise- to the forthcoming Belgian Grand Prix. Stuart said that his company recently purchased the Ferrari operation in Belgium and he was going to see customers as well as the race. It was at this point that he turned into Father Christmas. "Why don't you and Nicholas (TACH's London correspondent) come over and try out the new 360?" said the man with the red hat and the huge white beard. I looked at my glass, looked at the bottle on the table, shook my head to make sure I was hearing it right and said "sorry, could you repeat that please." He did and sure enough he meant it. "Just phone my P.A. Sue and she'll make the arrangements". With that he got into a 456 and drove off into the sunset.
Well, the following morning I was on the phone to Sue who was charm and efficiency personified. She confirmed all the details and we just had to pray that some over-enthusiastic Belgian client to be did not prang the car - the company's only demonstrator in the meantime. Mercifully all was well. British Airways deposited us at Brussels Airport on time and within minutes we were at Garage Francorchamps, an establishment named after that greatest of all race tracks-Spa-Franchochamps.
Stan, Pascal and the rest of the team were immensely helpful in explaining the intricacies of the car. I would be misleading you if I said that anyone could get into it and drive it without some help. It is different, very different from manuals and automatics. For a start there are - a la F1- two paddles behind the steering wheel and a little lever for reverse where the gearshift would normally be.
The silver dream machine was ours for the weekend, which, to make things more interesting also had to carry a set of golf clubs. Because, being a complete sucker for punishment, I accepted-as did Nicholas- an invitation from Bridgestone to play in their tournament the day after the Grand Prix.
This seems as good a time as any to provide a little bit of history. In some ways the 360's origins can be traced back to the 246 Dino of the 60s. Visually certain lines of the new car are reminiscent of that great classic. This was followed by the V8 engined 308 and later by the 328, a car I have had the pleasure of owning for the past 11 years. To purists the 328 was the last of the instantly recognizable Ferraris, the last one nobody could mistake for a Toyota Supra and some other, lesser car and to some extent I have to agree with that verdict. Certainly the 348 which followed was possibly the worst car Ferrari have ever made. Luckily President Montezemolo recognized this and made dramatic changes for its successor, the 355. It was obvious to me the day Gerhard Berger took me for a quick lap of Fiorano (Ferrari's own racetrack next to the factory) that we were talking about something very, very different. Improved styling, a vastly improved engine and gearbox, Teutonic build quality and F1 style paddle shift. The 355 became a runaway success all over the World and yet the 360 is better in several areas.
One thing that is missing from the front of the car is the traditional oval grille. Instead there are two huge outer vents, reminiscent of the 250LM from the 60s. It grows on you. It must look good in the mirror because all, yes all drivers between Brussels and Liege got out of our way PDQ (pretty damn quick for the benefit of the uninitiated) even though we were not being aggressive, were not flashing the headlights or using the truly appalling horn. That horn! I don't know what came over Ferrari. Of all the wonderful things I have always associated with this great marque the Fiamm airhorns were an integral part of it. For all the noise it made it could have been a Fiat Topolino circa 1936.. An insult. As is the well-hidden and silly fuel gauge. Still, if a car has to have some silly faults these two I could live with except that I would change the horn on day one.
The hero worship, the adulation the car received at the track side car park was quite, quite unbelievable. There were two 360s at Spa during the weekend, "ours" and one in red. The parking attendant, a true enthusiast if ever I've seen one made sure that we would be side by side. Even Bette Hill, the late Graham's wife, and Damon's Mum agreed to pose for a picture!
After the excruciatingly boring race we drove to Spa Village to our hotel. The factory very carefully worked on the sound of the engine, although, sound is the wrong word. It is a mechanical symphony, a most wonderful melody to anyone who cares about cars. As we went through the gears in sports mode-feeling very much like the much-missed Michael Schumacher-each shift took all of 0.15 seconds! The car sounded so glorious that we emptied every single pub on the way as people came out to cheer waving their bottles of Stella and their cherished Dekra caps. After the misery of the race with a McLaren 1-2 it was great to share a bit of Ferrari happiness with the fans. Changing up at 8500 rpm, going through the gears all the way to 6th is the nearest those lucky enough to drive this car will ever get to the sound, to the sensation of a Grand Prix car. A true aficionado will not get this kind of fix any other way, its like drinking adrenaline by the gallon. And yet, at 70 miles per hour you can either listen to the so-so radio or have a quiet conversation in total comfort.
After dinner at the excellent Restaurant l'Auberge in the middle of Spa we took the wrong turning (Yeah, right! Do I hear you say?) ending up at the entrance to the track. There was a somewhat puzzled chap there not quite knowing what to do with the car of his dreams so we gave him a friendly wave and were on our way to Eau Rouge.(In case you've never heard of it let me explain. It is the most difficult, most revered corner on any race track anywhere in the World.) If you think its terrifying during the day you should try it at night! But what a sensation…what an amazing corner. No wonder Grand Prix drivers have a huge grin on their faces after tackling it well. Or not, as the case may be. Ask a certain Jacques Villeneuve on the subject, he seems to have purchased a season ticket into the barriers. Back on the track we were first of all able to admire the excellence of the headlights and also test the car's handling without traffic, without cops and without fear. There was no-one else around and just like in bobsled racing there was no-one coming the other way! It was, as the Americans say-awesome! The 360 had tons of roadholding left in reserve and we were not hanging around. Even at the famous bus stop (that's what it is in real life 50 weeks of the year) which is a very quick left -right-left there was no drama of any kind. Just huge grins on our faces, the kind little school boys tend to have when they've done something naughty but got away with it. Which we did.
The less I say about the Bridgestone golf tournament -won by former Grand Prix ace Jacques Laffite by the way - the better. It was a great idea and a wonderful gesture. It was not the tyre company's fault that we and our friends from Irish Television were not ace golfers, we did our best to do one better than simply make up the numbers. This we did. Just. It was a wonderful ending to an unforgettable weekend. To sum up: if you have 175 thousand dollars to spare courtesy of some fancy Internet IPO and you don't buy one you are a fool. Will you get tickets? Almost certainly. Will it be worth it in exchange for hearing those 400 ponies at full chat? Definitely. If you hesitate and don't place an order now it might be 2005 before you get one. Please don't call me to say I didn't warn back in the last century!