I finally get it. For men it's a no-brainer -- Ferraris are cool -- but I needed a test drive anyway.
Ferrari must know that. Why else would it invite journalists who don't normally write about cars to actually drive its latest, raciest, quarter of a million dollar car, dubbed the F430 Scuderia?
It took only two laps behind the wheel, tackling seemingly impossible curve trajectories at breakneck speeds, to understand.
They're right, these cars are cool.
A test drive of Ferrari's latest model attracted an excited group of foreign journalists to Italy to the Ferrari headquarters in Maranello. Covering the story were reporters from Russia, Brazil, Britain, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, Holland, the United States and more.
We couldn't have come on a better day -- the evening before, Ferrari Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen had won the Grand Prix of Brazil, and with the victory clinched, the World Championship.
For Ferrari drivers, officials, workers and even reporters, it was champagne all around.
The next day started early -- we were ready to go at 8:15 on a damp, gray morning in the flatlands near Modena.
A bus brought us through the famous gates with the prancing horse (the Ferrari logo) and dropped us off directly at "la cabina" or the pit. No point messing about with factory tours and press conferences quite yet. It was right down to the business at hand.
We were herded into a little high-tech racing garage on the edge of Ferrari's Fiorano test track. All Ferrari cars are tested here: Formula One as well as Gran Turismo (road) cars.
This was to be our introduction to the car, the track and the technology before our test drive. We were handed red Ferrari earphones and radio mikes -- the kind the pit crew wears during races. You could hear fine without them, but this was the real thing, so we all put them on as Nicola Porciani, the head of road testing, welcomed us.
Ferrari Red Everywhere Except the Car
Most of the garage, the doors, the floor, part of the walls, almost everything was painted the famous Ferrari red, known to generations of racing enthusiasts.
And almost everyone was dressed in red, down to their shoes. There was no mistaking this team's color!
So imagine our surprise when we feasted our eyes on one of our test cars: Red? No! It was black. It was also beautiful, sleek, shiny and low -- Scuderia is Italian for "stable." It was the reason we were all there.
As Porciani pointed to flow charts and graphs on the monitors and elaborated on the marvels of this car, I was soon over my head in automobile terminology, not to mention technology.
Porciani filled us in on all the innovations in this vehicle: The S430 Scuderia is a car designed for the road and the track, it comes with the most Formula One technology ever applied to a road car.
Almost 250 pounds lighter than its predecessor, the base F430, the new F430 Scuderia, or Scud as it is called, is basically as close to a racing car as you can get in a street-legal car.
Porciani told us the "emozioni di guida" or excitement you get from driving the car "is fabulous!" The V-8 engine, mounted behind the cockpit, has increased horsepower (now at 510); the fastest transmission in a street car, it can change gears in 60 milliseconds -- less than a blink of the eye. The car also has a very sophisticated and unique traction control system that combines the electronic rear differential and the traction and stability systems all into one integrated system, according to a Ferrari release.
It allows amateurs to drive like professionals and stay on the track.
Oh, and the top speed is 198 miles an hour.
Former Formula One champion Michael Schumacher tested the car and consulted on the design for Ferrari. He insisted on adding a "soft suspension" option you can activate on rough roads. A very special feature.
As we watch, terms and figures spinning in our heads, the black car, driven by Luca Badoer -- Ferrari's top Formula One test driver - quietly slips out of the garage onto the track. Yes, quietly. So where's the noise?
We watch on the screens as the car hugs the curves, low and tight, until it hits the straightaway, comes into view right in front of us, and that's when it hits you -- the speed and the NOISE.
I always figured the noise of a cool car was important, but I did not realize how much actual study and technology goes into the perfect vroom. As the Scud flew by, charts flashed up on the screens comparing its sound to its predecessor's. It's a big deal.
The Low, Rumbling Thunder Was Impressive
"The sound has to be loud, but not annoying," Porciani told me later, "and it has to come within legal levels on the road." So they modulate the high and low decibels for the perfect pitch. And of course there is an optional exhaust bypass that frees the noise when you are on the track, away from the police. Where is the quality of the sound more important I ask, inside or outside the car? Porciani just smiled.
Soon enough, it was time to saddle up, to borrow Formula One jargon. A total of three F430 Scuds -- black, silver and red -- were brought out for the occasion.
Dario Benuzzi, the elegant boss of test drivers, invites me into … Yes! The red car! He's going to drive first.
The pared-down interior of the Scuderia has little of the famed luxury you'd expect -- it's the racing version. Normal seat belts, deep low seats, bare aluminum floors. No armrests to speak of, nowhere to hold on to.
That's OK. Until we went past the first curve and Dario let loose. He flicked through the gears using the clutchless paddle shifters mounted on the steering wheel. (First developed for Formula One cars, you shift up with your right hand and down with your left). As the car careened around the curves and barreled down the straights I could feel the noise vibrating through my body. It's cool. I'm sold.
Then it was my turn. Taking in the suspiciously complacent smiles of male colleagues and the worried look of Benuzzi (you never relax it seems, next to rookie drivers, no matter how experienced they are, when they are about to drive off with one of your $250,000 cars), I lowered myself into the seat, looked for a nonexistent clutch, figured I must do without it and studied the gear paddles. Benuzzi explained, I nodded with confidence and off we went.
The Scuderia drives well, I must admit. It is smooth and easy, not jerky and uncontrollable like I feared. And so much is automatic that it is actually very simple. Bennuzi concurred. "This is a road car, that can race as well," he told me as we swung around the course. "It's easy to drive!"
To change gears, all you need to know is your left from your right, and sadly I never got past the fourth gear out of six. But I did go very fast on the straight stretch -- no, I did not look at the speedometer.
I must have done OK, at least, because Benuzzi did say "brava" repeatedly. (Yeah, yeah, he must say it to everyone.)
"The Scuderia for me is just really cool," said Matt Davis, a Milan-based writer and car enthusiast who probably best understood what he was driving Monday. "I thought the [original] F430 was already the finest GT car there is, [but] the Scuderia lets you basically have even more fun."
A press conference and factory tour were next on the schedule.
We were bustled into a press room for a video conference with the jubilant president of Ferrari, Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, who after assuring himself we had enjoyed our ride, explained the F430 Scuderia in a nutshell: "It represents the essence of our cars: extreme technology, driving ease and safety."
As the tour continued, we learned that Ferrari owners have varying passions. There are those who go for the regular Gran Turismo or racier Scuderia models, and those who go for true exclusivity. The Ferrari FXX -- designed only for the track -- was the most expensive car ever when it came out in a very limited edition in 2005 for a mere $1.8 million. Only 30 of these cars exist, and one belongs to Michael Schumacher.
And then there are the collectors who are willing to bid record sums for cars that have raced in Formula One.
Many Ferrari owners don't stop at just one model, and the Scuderia 430 is expected to sell to those who already love their 430. "You have to be a real Ferrarista to feel you need this car," said Matt Davis. "You know what you are getting, and what you want to do with it, the car is meant for track fun and you either buy it for that, or for pure flash."
The United States is Ferrari's biggest market, accounting for 28 percent of sales. Ferrari won't say how many Scuderias it expects to sell there, but orders have been flooding in and first deliveries will start this spring.
Ferrari Day ended with a tour of the small, modern factory -- all glass and light and compulsive order and cleanliness. There are sophisticated air filtering and dust control systems, and thriving tall plants amid the machines.
We are shown how a Ferrari is a product of a combination of top technology and the best handiwork of expert artisans.
The assembly line, in fact, is the antithesis of the term -- every car in the line is unique, a different color or a different interior. They are made to order and personalized right down to the color of the brake calipers.
The Ferrari factory produced only about 6,000 road cars this year, and there is a waiting list of up to two years for some models.
"We are very careful to make fewer cars than there is demand for," said Montezemolo. "The exclusivity is fundamental to the Ferrari mystique."
"As Enzo Ferrari, the founder, said, 'A Ferrari is like a beautiful woman, you must desire her.'"
And car lovers sure will.