KING OF THE ROAD
FAILURE, DISAPPOINTMENT, BROKEN DREAMS – NONE OF THESE THINGS SOUNDS LIKE IT BELONGS IN THE STORY OF FERRARI. BUT THE SITE OF THE FOUNDER’S THWARTED AMBITION TO BE A GREAT RACER IS THE PERFECT PLACE TO DRIVE THE 488 SPIDER, AND BE THANKFUL ENZO CHANNELLED
At first, Enzo Ferrari wanted his name etched in silver rather than spelled out in chrome. The burning ambition of the young man from Modena was to become a great racer, a winner of trophies. Instead, his name became the badge worn by some of the world’s most desirable cars. Late in his long life, Ferrari confessed to an Italian interviewer: “Volevo essere un grande pilota, e non lo sono stato.” I wanted to be a great racer, and I wasn’t one.
The low line of mountains lying between Bologna and Florence is part of the northern Apennines, the range that puts the knee-to-toe bone in the Italian boot. The area played a part in souring Enzo’s dream.
Between World War I and World War II one of Italy’s most important races was the Circuito del Mugello. Run on a 66km loop of public road temporarily closed for the event, it was named for the region in which it was run. Through the 1920s Enzo Ferrari competed here six times, almost always in Alfa Romeos. He never won. His best result was a second place in 1921, but bitter disappointments were more frequent. Three times Ferrari was forced to retire.
The race hasn’t been run since a brief revival in the 1960s, but the roads mostly remain as they were. And they’re the perfect place for a poignant pilgrimage in something wearing a Ferrari badge.
The 488 Spider is the maker’s most serious open-top car. Press a button and its metal roof retracts, letting in the sound of the engine and swirls of scented Tuscan air.
It seems right to drive the Spider open; the cars Enzo raced here were roofless. But here the similarities end. There’s a vast technological gulf between the 488 Spider and the Alfa Romeos he drove. It’s like comparing a wind-up gramophone to an iPhone playing music through Bluetooth speakers.
The 488 Spider, and the closely related 488 GTB coupé, mark an important step for Ferrari. Both are powered by a 3.9-litre V8 with twin turbochargers. The last Ferrari launched before 90-year-old Enzo’s death in 1988 was the F40, a low-volume production exotic with a twin-turbo V8 developed from a racing engine. In the decades since, the company’s leaders resisted turbocharging for road car engines.
It was impossible, they said, to deliver a truly Ferrari driving experience with a turbo engine. Their preferred path to power was sky-high engine revs, and the wailing exhaust sound they produced. The way such engines instantly respond to the tiniest change in pressure on the accelerator pedal would be diminished by using turbochargers, they added. But turbochargers improve an engine’s efficiency, and this is a subject not even Ferrari can ignore these days.
So the engineers sought the best turbocharger technology available when developing the new downsized V8, codenamed Tipo 154. Then they spent years working to make it rev high, like a Ferrari should, and respond with the precision prized by Ferrari drivers.
It’s hard to fault the result. Press the red starter button on the steering wheel, and the engine wakes with a snarl. Tap the right-hand paddle shifter to select first gear, and gently press the accelerator. It’s best to wait for clear road ahead before giving it more – things happen very quickly when the right-hand pedal is pressed.
Especially in the lower gears, the force of the Ferrari’s acceleration is literally breathtaking, and the sound it makes approaching its 8000rpm limit is spine-tingling. As if the shock and awe of the 488 Spider’s straight-line performance wasn’t enough, it also seems to have steering and stopping superpowers. It’s a car made for curves, and the Circuito del Mugello has plenty.
The circuit links two mountain passes. From Scarperia (30km north of Florence) it heads north over the Passo del Giogo to Firenzuola (around 70km south of Bologna). From here the anticlockwise route swings west, then south, to climb the famed Passo della Futa.
The Futa’s renown is a result of its inclusion in the Mille Miglia, Italy’s great road race from Brescia to Rome and back (featured last month in WISH). Though last run as a competitive race in 1957, the Mille Miglia
It’s best to wait for clear road ahead – things happen very quickly when the right-hand pedal is pressed.
lives on today as a classic car parade that takes days instead of hours to complete.
Where the Mille Miglia dashed north over the Passo della Futa on the way back to the finish line in Brescia, the Circuito del Mugello went in the opposite direction. South from the summit, the route passed through San Piero a Sieve, where the drivers turned left for Scarperia.
Scarperia is today the prettiest place to stop on the Circuito del Mugello. This small town has a 500-year history of blade manufacturing. Artisan knife-makers still work here, their wares displayed in shop windows on the main street dominated by the tall, square belltower of the Palazzo dei Vicari, a Medici stronghold.
This is also the town closest to the modern Mugello racetrack. The Ferrari-owned circuit is used for Formula One testing, though the cars don’t race here. But Mugello is the home of the Italian Motorcycle Grand Prix.
The old Circuito del Mugello’s longest straights are between San Piero a Sieve and Scarperia. At the speed limit, the 488 Spider feels like it’s dozing. Soon, the road begins a snaking climb to the 882m-high point of the Passo del Giogo and the Ferrari comes alive. This is a car that can sense its driver’s keenness. Leave the seven-speed double clutch transmission in Auto mode, and pick up the pace. Within a few hundred metres, the software will recognise the raised level of enthusiasm behind the wheel, letting the engine rev higher before shifting up a gear and making snappy, perfectly timed downshifts when slowing for the next bend.
While the 488 Spider’s brilliance shines bright, the landscape approaching the top of the pass is steep and sombre. It’s a relief to crest the top and begin the descent to Firenzuola. The name means “Little Florence”, but there’s no resemblance to the Tuscan capital.
Most of Firenzuola was flattened by artillery and bombs in 1944. It was through these hills in the late summer of that year that the retreating German army set up its final great defensive line of the Italian campaign, hoping to block the Giogo and Futa passes to advancing Allied armies. Many thousands of Germans who died in the fierce and prolonged fighting are now buried in an immaculately tended war cemetery at the Passo della Futa. When American units eventually punched a hole through the Gothic Line at the Giogo Pass in September, the Germans retreated to the heights above Firenzuola.
While the little town may lack beauty, it’s not a bad place to eat. The riches of Emilia Romagna are the other side of the Apennines – not for nothing do Italians call Bologna La Grassa, The Fat – so the simpler style of Tuscany reigns in Firenzuola.
Stroll by Da Barba, a modest eatery off the main square on via Allegri, and you may spy a crew of chatting women hand-making the local specialty: tortelli Mugellani, pasta squares filled with potato, parsley, garlic and a touch of nutmeg, served with a meat ragù.
Between Firenzuola and the 903m top of the Passo della Futa is the most delicious part of the old Circuito del Mugello to drive. It’s speedier, with wider curves and a better view. But be sure to pause at the Passo della Futa bar-restaurant-hotel, run by the Poletti family since 1890. By the door to the bar is a plaque in memory of the Circuito del Mugello lap record set in 1970 by Italian driver Giovanni “Nani” Galli. He wrestled a Lola racer round the 66km course in under 30 minutes, for an average speed above 130km/h.
The bar’s walls are covered with photographs of the Circuito del Mugello races during its 1964-70 revival. The simple restaurant serves a Florentine specialty: bistecca alla Fiorentina. The big T-bone steaks are cooked on a grate over an open wood fire.
On a wall down the road at the summit of the Futa, large bas-reliefs commemorate drivers of the kind Enzo Ferrari wanted to be, including Clemente Biondetti, four-time winner of the Mille Miglia.
In the early 1930s, Enzo Ferrari, failed racer, became a successful race team owner. And as Italy raised herself from the rubble of World War II, he turned to manufacturing, his firm eventually making cars that can conquer the circuit in a way he never could.
Descending the Passo della Futa, the 488 Spider is a blue blur, the slanting sunlight now and then glinting off the seven lustrous letters on its engine cover.
The road begins a snaking climb to the 882m-high point of the Passo del Giogo and the Ferrari comes alive.
The 488 Spider on the Circuito del Mugello and passing the restaurant at the Passo della Futa
In and around the town of Scarperia, the prettiest stop on the route