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Ferrari has held its racing series for gentlemen racers (and lady racers) for 25 years, starting back when it was making 348s. Ever since, whenever Ferrari replaced the street version of its mid-engine V8-powered two-seater, it also replaced the Ferrari Challenge car. There have now been six Ferrari Challenge race cars in those 25 years, with track versions of the 348, 355, 360, F430, 458 — and now, the latest Challenge racer to grace racetracks around the world, the 488.
Since the series was first announced in 1992 (we were there!) there have been more than 1,000 Ferrari Challenge races held all over the world, and Ferrari is proud to point out that its Challenge drivers have advanced to win in Grand-Am, IMSA and Le Mans, among other series. Indeed, the 488 GTB race car also competes as a GT3 car in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and the Pirelli World Challenge. But those 488s are run to a different specification. We were about to see the new Ferrari 488 Challenge cars go at full wallop in a shakedown/tuneup weekend held for them at the Thermal Club racetrack in the eternal sunshine desert east of Palm Springs, California.
To get to Thermal, a normal person would get on Interstate 10 and drive east for two and a half hours in some (hopefully air-conditioned) beater. Instead, I got a call from The Ferrari Guy — a guy who doesn’t just regularly call up to shoot the breeze, mind you — who asked where I’d like the 488 Spider dropped off and what time would be good? Even in my line of work, this counts as exciting. I think I had something or other lined up for that particular weekend, a kidney transplant or something, but I dropped it immediately and said Si, Grazie, yes to the Ferrari.
Ah, the Ferrari. If truth be told, I, like 99 percent of the planet, go all gooey when Ferraris drive by. I point them out to whoever’s in the car. I ooh, I ahh. I have an old friend who probably still has hearing loss from the time I saw my first F40 in the wild and, while he was driving and I was in the back seat, screamed like a teenager.
Why? Who can say? It’s not just the sensuous flowing beauty of the shape on the outside, though there’s a lot to be said for sensuous, flowing beauty. The engineering is certainly among the world’s most advanced — the new car makes 661 twin-turbocharged hp out of just 3.9 liters. And the feel of the road through the steering wheel is unmatched in anything outside the very best McLarens and Porsches. But there is also that Ferrari mystique. Every car comes attached to an unmatched racing pedigree that goes all the way back to Enzo Ferrari and all those wonderful Grands Prix and Le Mans victories. It’s all rolled up into one glorious ball of expensive aluminum. As our own dearly beloved Denise McCluggage once said, “There are no two words that go so perfectly together as ‘My’ and ‘Ferrari.”
You don’t so much drive over the road as meld with it.
So there I was, watching “my” shiny blue (“Blu Corsa,” the same color it wore when it debuted at the Frankfurt auto show in 2015) 488 Spider roll off a flatbed truck and into my driveway. Molto bene.
As you’ll no doubt recall, the 488 Spider has an all-aluminum spaceframe made up of 11 different aluminum alloys and computer-modelled to increase rigidity by 23 percent. That’s in both the Spider and the GTB coupe version (crazy, no?). The retractable aluminum hardtop carries over from the 458 and operates in just 14 seconds at speeds up to 23 mph. The twin-turbo 3.9-liter dry-sump direct-injected mid-longitudinally mounted V8 makes 661 hp (!) at 8,000 rpm and 561 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm. All that pushing around a car that weighs just 3,362 pounds wet (or 3,131 dry).
To help make the most of that without wadding it all up into a ball, there are numerous electronic traction, stability and braking aids, the most interesting of which might be the new SSC2, or side-slip angle control, that allows some power-on oversteer. Other interesting items on the 488 Spider include new forged alloy wheels that knock off almost 18 pounds of unsprung weight, better Brembos for 9 percent shorter stopping distances and a faster ECU controlling the magnetorheological dampers. Lawdy.
The 488s have landed at Integratron
Keeping all this in mind, I jumped in it and drove east into the desert. The 488 is an entirely comfortable car. You are not awkwardly jimmied into it as you might have been in your Countach or almost any Lotus. This vehicle gives all appropriate considerations to ergonomics such that two real humans can fit, be seated and carry on a conversation with ease. I’d go so far as to say this is more comfortable than most modern McLarens.
So I was driving my 488 to the Thermal Club, where I’d be introduced to and get a ride in the new 488 Challenge car. But the first stop, the place Ferrari had us visit, was called the Integratron, an unlikely giant wooden dome way the heck out in the desert north of Joshua Tree. It was a lifestyle thing, I guessed.
The Integratron was built in 1959 by a possibly crazy person named George Van Tassel, who claimed a UFO from Venus had contacted him and told him to build it. Why had Ferrari routed me and a couple other lucky Ferraristees here? The experience of driving a 488 included three components, our affable Ferrari host explained when I’d arrived: the aural sensation, the outright performance of the Challenge car and the feeling I’d get driving the street version. The Integratron was part of the aural sensation. Hey, I’ll play along if it means more seat time. Hence, I reclined in the dome’s second floor with about 25 other seekers and got a “sound bath,” an experience described by the current owners of the Integratron as “…an unforgettable sound experience for those who seek deep relaxation, rejuvenation and introspection.” All I remember is that the acoustics of the dome meant I heard the sound bather on the other side of the round room snoring. Maybe my chakra had fallen out of the Spider’s retractable roof.
In any case, next I made it to Thermal for an introduction to the 488 Challenge car. This was a heck of a race car. It starts with the 488 GTB’s aluminum spaceframe, but it’s tuned and tweaked for racing. It gets Challenge-specific engine mapping, shorter gear ratios, a racing shift strategy for the DCT transmission and a reduction in the weight of the powertrain and exhaust of 62 pounds. It’s also the first Challenge car to get side slip angle control, which, along with the gear ratios and revised transmission mapping, lets you squirt faster out of corners. Aerodynamic improvements to the exterior mean it’s 7 percent more efficient moving through the air.
Now, while they had given me a perfectly good 488 street car, Ferrari was not dumb enough to let me drive the actual race car, and I can’t say I blame them. Instead, they had professional sports car driver Didier Theys, who won at Sebring and Daytona driving a Ferrari 333 SP, on his way to 10 professional wins in 333 SPs. He’d also raced that car at Le Mans and other tracks, in addition to Indy cars. Theys is a smooth professional and a heck of a nice guy. Last time I saw him, he was teaching me how to drive an F1 car (which I did not crash, btw).
Ferrari 488 Challenge car
“The first Ferrari Challenge races were more like track days,” Theys said. “Now they are much more professional. Now, the first year with the 488, you have a lot of F1 technology: electronic differential, traction control with ABS, side-slip control — this car (the Challenge car) is very close to a street car. It’s the first time Ferrari made a V8 with over 600 hp for the street.”
So I slithered into a Nomex driving suit that fit about like a good sleeping bag would fit (with commensurate warmth) and slithered again into the passenger’s seat of a white Ferrari Challenge car. We were on Thermal’s west course, which, if you ever get the choice, is a lot more fun than the somewhat paper clip-style east loop. We were sharing the track with real Ferrari Challenge cars driven by real racers (another great reason to not let the car writers drive).
Theys did not hesitate to get right into it. Later he’d told another passenger that he had been going 8/10ths, but I think he was going more than that for my laps. I could feel the car just starting to make little microslips and Theys making immediate microcorrections through the curves. I counted about three microcorrections per corner. Just as he started to feel some slip, usually at the rear as he got back on the gas, he dialed in a slight couple degrees of steering angle to counter it. Depending on where he’d set the little switches on the steering wheel, the system was allowing the car to slip just a bit while also allowing Theys to add in power.
The most amazing thing about the race car was the amount of lateral grip available. It hung on well beyond what I would have thought a 488 could do. The Pirelli Ferrari Challenge tires probably had a lot to do with that. Acceleration was mighty strong, too. My seat wasn’t particularly comfortable. It was tilted too far forward, and there was so little legroom that I was basically folded into the space next to the driver like a Mercury astronaut, but it looked like the driver’s seat was more accommodating.
It was very fast and great fun and then it was over. We were packed off to lunch and then given a route map to take our street 488 Spider up into the mountains. These were great roads, some of my favorites. They’d be yours, too, if you’d driven on them. Maybe you have: up Highway 74 from Palm Springs to Idyllwild then down the northern slope of Mount San Jacinto on Highway 243. On these roads, the stock street 488 feels not so much like you’re driving over the road but actually a part of it. The car holds on so well you know there is way more grip than you’re ever going to flog out of it. I got some slight understeer in one faster corner that might have had a slightly decreasing radius, or maybe it was me. Otherwise I felt no slip anywhere. Acceleration was profound. I don’t doubt the 2.9-second 0-60 time Ferrari lists. Midrange acceleration was particularly strong. It was amazing how everybody — everybody — pulled off the road to let me by, and I wasn’t flashing high beams or rudely honking the horn.
On more mundane streets and freeways, the 488 is less comfortable in race or sport mode than it is in its “wet” setting. The rear corner visibility is hampered by those big, stylish fairings. In the older Spyders (and Spiders, the spelling varies) with the soft tops, this was also a problem, but of course the problem went away when the soft top was retracted. The front end was low, but you could easily raise it up when you crossed a driveway. Other than that, I loved every bit of this beautiful machine.
I did not cry when the next day came and I had to give the car back and fly off to drive something that, while I’m sure it was a sound and efficient whatevertheheck, wasn’t a Ferrari. For those of you who can actually buy one of these, I salute you. And I ask for the keys. Just for the weekend. Whaddayasay?
On Sale: Now
Base Price: $272,200 (street car)
As Tested Price: $325,5000
Drivetrain: 3.9-liter twin-turbo V8, 7-speed F1 dual-clutch transmission, rwd
Output: 661 hp at 8000 rpm, 561 lb ft at 3000 rpm
Curb Weight: 3362 pounds
0-60 MPH: 2.9 mfg.
Fuel Economy: 15/22/18(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)
Options: Nose lift; race seats; Blu Corsa paint; carbon fiber trim package; front/rear cameras
Pros: Fastest, funnest, coolest thing you can drive
Cons: There are no cons!
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