Once in a Lifetime Drive
This street light must be old. The pool of light it is casting into the darkness is dim and I struggle to locate the inside edge of the door-card. In my excitement, I have also made a rookie error: I lashed up the Sabelt harness before ensuring the door was close enough to reach. I lean as far as I can and with outstretched fingers, find a ledge with my left hand, remembering that there is no door handle, and with my fingertips pull the lightweight plastic towards me. It closes with an unsatisfying, plasticky clatter.
I wriggle a little to reset my body in the figure-hugging racing seat and do a cursory check of the mirrors. I also take a look around the cabin, which is best described as functional. The owner, a relative stranger, sits patiently alongside while I acclimatise myself to the unfamiliar surrounds. In the meantime the boosted V8 idles innocuously awaiting driver input. Mr Ferrari F40-owner has driven the car until now, and thinks that the fluids are all up to temp, enough anyway to hand me the controls.
I blip the firm, mechanical throttle and it elicits a flare of revs from the small displacement bent eight. The large middle pedal requires a firm shove as it is completely unassisted, and the clutch is surprisingly light. I glance over my right shoulder to check for traffic, then I set off …
For the last 30 years there has been one car that I have consistently lusted after: the Ferrari F40. There have been flirtations with various other special cars, including a few race cars, but the F40 has remained at, or near, the very top of my wish list. Scarcely believable, I was about to set off into the hills above the hometown of Ferrari, Maranello, in the car I glanced at every night before I closed my eyes since I was 10-years-old.
Easing out of the lay-bye I am, understandably, cautious. I modulate the clutch with just a few revs on the tacho, keen to paint my driving in a favourable light for my co-pilot/benefactor. I short shift into second gear, first is, dogleg-style, down and to the left, so I am eager to dispatch with that awkward cog swap early. There is no power steering, though once on the move this is not an issue. The slightly odd placement and angle of the wheel seems to fit my frame well; perhaps I was Italian in a past life?
I dip into the long-travel throttle, but nothing really happens. I have explored about half the rev-counter and shifted up to third. What do they say about meeting your heroes? As I make the straight movement from second to third, I hear it, that famous metallic clack-clack as the lever slices through the open H-gate. I crack a smile, the first of many. It is a noise I read about endlessly in my youth, and one that modern Ferrari owners are definitely poorer for not experiencing.
In third gear I explore the power delivery a bit more. With no traction control, or any electronic safety net, I figure that unleashing 350+ kw of power on an unfamiliar road in the million dollar car of a stranger in a low gear is not a prudent move. Deep into the throttle and there is still very little happening. Then I hear it, the gradual build-up of pressure in the two IHI turbochargers over my shoulders. Revs from the guttural-sounding V8 rise, slowly at first, and then faster, until full boost is reached, then WHHHOOOOSSSHHH the scenery around us starts to accelerate very quickly. I lift, as we are fast approaching a corner, which elicits a volley of crackles and pops from the twin exhaust pipes – this time, both occupants are smiling. Our cumulative ages may be over 90, but inside we are both 12-year-old boys.
I turn into a medium-speed corner and feel the grip build across the front axle through my palms; this really is a tactile car, telegraphing every nuance to the driver, even though I am very far from exceeding the friction limit. As the radius opens up I see a straight and instinctively heel-toe back into second, clack-clack, the pedals placed perfectly for my feet to do the threepedal tap-dance. The motor responds with alacrity and is already building boost before I open the throttle wide.
The sounds from the engine room are raw, un-synthesised, and barely silenced. Waaaaaarrrggghhh, WHHHOOOOSSSHHH. We are both pinned to our seats by the hit of torque. I thought it felt quick in third, in second gear it is eye-widening. Remember, this car is good for over 325 km/h and has “just” five gears, so the ratios are not particularly short. I know it is a cliché, but the power delivery is like a slingshot. You pull it far back as the revs build and when the turbos are on full song it fires you down the road as pent up energy is released. This time I wring out second to just shy of the limiter and make a snap shift to third, clack-clack. The tail squirms as drive is temporarily disconnected then reconnected to the rear wheels. Those fat rear Pirellis are warm and provide plenty of grip.
Third gear is dealt with almost as quickly as second and I slam another upshift. My heart is thumping, my brow is furrowed in concentration, but still I am wearing an ear-toear grin. I cannot recall another road car that has lit me up the way this F40 is doing right now. I shut the gas and glance into the rear-view mirror; the Italian countryside is momentarily illuminated by a warm hue as unspent fuel from the tailpipes meets cold, crisp night air. My synapses are tingling as the current wave of adrenaline abates … I have to have more.
We run uphill for several kilometres and my confidence builds with each one,
– it is addictive. I delve deeper into the performance repertoire of this car, leaning harder on the tyres and calling on my reserves as a driver. Before I get too familiar, the owner calls for us to turn around. If a stranger was getting too familiar with my F40, I would have made us turn around much earlier.
The descent is as smile-inducing as the up run. I wind up the motor and unleash it down every short straight, made to feel even shorter thanks to the prodigious power and dark ambience of the car, the turbochargers howling their signature tune into the inky surrounds. As we approach suburbia I back off momentarily. But, since it is, probably, the only time I will pilot an F40, Waaaaaarrrggghhh, WHHHOOOOSSSHHH.
Houses give way to shops and we are back in the piazza of Maranello. The F40, now at idle speed, is producing noises of a car in the aftermath of a hard drive: tink, tink, tink as metal cools. At the same time my synapses are tingling as my adrenal glands return to a relaxed state. Even in the place of its creation, the F40 elicits cell phone photography from all and sundry. The locals, probably more than most, appreciate the last car that was signed off by company founder, Enzo, himself. We trundle between the old factory gate and the famous Ristorante Cavallino; with no cars in sight I give the loud pedal a final boot-full Waaaaaarrrggghhh, WHHHOOOOSSSHHH. I think old man Ferrari would have approved.