Thrills on an Ital­ian stal­lion

Maserati buy­ers can join a mas­ter class at a private race­track, writes NEIL DOWL­ING in Italy

Herald Sun - Motoring - - News -

IT’S hard for me to be­lieve this is real. The scenery, the lan­guage, the weather, the open race­way and es­pe­cially the car. Down the straight, where the bi­tu­men opens from a wind­ing trail to stretch its width and give the driver some respite from in­tense con­cen­tra­tion, I can glimpse the moun­tains. But only briefly.

Ev­ery up­change in the Maserati GranTurismo also sig­nals time for the en­gine to briefly draw breath, but only to pick up the next gear and pull harder to­wards the hori­zon.

The end of the straight quickly comes into sight. Time for one more jab with the right fin­gers. Fifth.

The cor­ner is com­ing up fast on the left. Pull quickly on the broad, cold metal pad­dle on the left-side of the steer­ing wheel and push the right foot deep within the il­lu­sion­ary depth of the brake pedal.

Fourth gear comes up — I know that by the il­lu­mi­nated ‘‘4’’ be­tween the gauges. The com­pres­sion brak­ing of the 4.7-litre V8 en­gine pro­duces ex­plo­sive barks from the ex­haust. The noise, the as­sault of the senses as the car moves with the flow of the track and the lo­ca­tion in north­ern Italy be­side a wide, stonebot­tomed river, are al­most sur­real.

This is the pri­vately owned track at Varano, 25km out­side Parma, in mid-sum­mer with the hills still bright green from the long win­ter.

Last year, 15 Aus­tralian own­ers of new Maser­atis trav­elled to Varano to do what I did: get up close and per­sonal with one of Italy’s icons.

They weren’t alone. Varano may be pri­vately owned, but it is well known to the Fiat Group — Maserati, Fer­rari, Alfa Romeo, Lan­cia and Fiat — for test­ing each new model. More im­por­tantly, it is also known for cus­tomer driver train­ing.

Maserati alone sold 8000 ve­hi­cles last year and a por­tion of those own­ers, from Cal­i­for­nia to Rus­sia to China and New Zealand, came to learn to drive at the Parma track.

At $5500 a per­son for the two-day course, it isn’t cheap.

An­drea Pic­cini heads the driv­ing in­struc­tors. De­spite his youth, he has raced at Le Mans and was an F1 test driver for Mi­nardi.

The other in­struc­tors have a sim­i­lar back­ground and have no trou­ble sit­ting be­side the ama­teurs to in­volve them­selves — oc­ca­sion­ally loudly — in your driv­ing.

Later, when the com­put­ers in the pits plug into the car and ex­tract elec­tronic bytes that have been cre­ated from your three laps, there is an­other, more bru­tal as­sess­ment.

‘‘Neil, look here. What is this?’’ asks tour­ing car racer San­dro Mon­tani. I have no an­swer for some­thing that, to me, is lit­tle more than di­verg­ing lines (blue of the ideal graph line of the in­struc­tor) and me (the more wrig­gled line in red ink) on a com­puter screen.

‘‘You are in un­der­steer. Look! You have come into this cor­ner at 69km/h and here, you see, the in­struc­tor is at 62km/h. So the car is go­ing too fast to make it turn cor­rectly and you have lost a lot of time.’’ I feel like a naughty school­boy. I thought I did pretty well.

‘‘Now, go out and take it more slowly,’’ San­dro smiles.

So I go out and slide into an­other Maserati, this time the lux­ury Qu­at­tro­porte. I pull the au­to­matic gear­box’s tri­dent-em­bla­zoned gear lever back into its se­quen­tial mode, pull the right pad­dle back to en­sure first gear, re­lease the hand­brake and, with the track clear, send my­self out like a par­doned crim­i­nal on to a bet­ter path.

Driv­ing school for the elite: the Maserati GranTurismo in ac­tion on the Varano test track near Parma, Italy.

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