Driven: Ferrari 458 Challenge

April 30, 2019

 

At the end of each year, Ferrari throw themselves a party. Dubbed the Finali Mondiali (the lilting Italian phrase for “World Finals”), it’s a celebration of all things wearing the Prancing Horse. Droves of Ferrari road cars turn up, from their earliest classics to their latest hypercars. The event’s focus, however, reflects Ferrari’s true passion: racing. The XX Programme runs on track in full force, showcasing the 599XX, FXX, and FXXK — V12-powered, track-only monsters. A handful of ultra-rare, extremely beautiful 333 SP prototype racers are brought out as well, expressly to be driven in anger by highly experienced clients. But — major but — this is Ferrari we’re talking about, the kings of Formula 1. A veritable fleet of modern Ferrari F1 cars come out to play, spanning the mid ‘90s through the late 2000s. If you’ve ascended Ferrari’s Corse Clienti (racing client) ranks via bottomless pockets, you just might become F1 Clienti: gentlemen who get to drive the Scuderia’s Formula 1 machines from years past.

 

Headlining the event are the season’s final races for the Ferrari Challenge. It’s a spec racing series for Corse Clienti, held in 3 global regions, all of which converge to compete at the Finali Mondiali. The basic Challenge formula is as follows: take Ferrari’s mid-engine V8 road car, then strip it out, make it loud, and strap a big wing on the back. The end result is Ferrari’s mid-engine brilliance in battle spec, ready to be raced against fellow privateers at circuits around the world. It’s an excellent reason to get rich.

 

In December 2016, Ferrari held the Finali Mondiali on American soil for the very first time. The event was brought to Daytona International Speedway, commemorating 50 years since their dominance at the 1967 24 Hours of Daytona. Ferrari opened the gates to casual spectators, allowing the general public to revel in one of motoring’s most alluring marques. Through a series of fortunate events, I happened to be there myself, and not even as a bystander. I’d done one better and found a place as a volunteer with Ferrari of Atlanta’s Challenge race team. 

 

Being short on skill but long on enthusiasm, my duties with the team were simple: clean the team’s cars before and after track time, haul gear to and from the pits, and assist in looking after the team’s tires. Basic manual labor had never been so glamorous. All over the grounds, Ferrari street cars outnumbered normal vehicles, while the paddock looked like a flock of Italian race cars had migrated to Florida for the winter. Every garage housed multiple Ferrari 458 Challenge cars, including the trio in our care. The 458 is a gorgeous machine in street trim, but the Challenge kit augments beauty with cutthroat purpose. It’s an odd thing being so close to such special cars — they have a way of changing the atmosphere, of making your movements more careful and deliberate. Scrubbing rubber scraps off a race car isn’t much fun, but when that car is a Ferrari, it’s something of a privilege. The cars I’d only admired from afar were now right in front of me, and I was expected to put my hands on them. As it turned out, I’d be allowed much closer than that. 

 

Danny, the team’s lead mechanic, looked me up and down on our first evening at the track. “How much do you weigh?”

 

“Um, about 170 pounds,” I replied, perplexed.

 

“Ah, you’re perfect!” said Danny. “Jump in the driver’s seat and hold the wheel straight. We need to set corner weights and check the alignment. Gotta have the driver’s weight when we do it.” Dumbfounded by my luck, I climbed over the indicated car’s roll cage and dropped into the deep, fixed-back racing seat. A Prancing Horse sat square in the steering wheel’s centre, surrounded by an array of labeled buttons. The suede dashboard remained intact; bare metal abounded everywhere else. Sitting essentially on the floor, enveloped by an exposed roll cage, forward view a narrow gun slit, hands grasping a Ferrari race car steering wheel . . . I was at once intimidated and overjoyed. 

 

I spent a couple hours in total being dead weight for the team, as Danny and company performed the procedure before each track session. All that time, the 458 remained still and silent in my hands, but every minute was spent wondering: how incredible must it be to pilot this thing on a track? How must it feel to explore the limits of adhesion; hear the V8’s roar right behind my shoulders; feel the kick as I pull the paddle for the next gear? 

 

In Daytona, I figured my odds of ever driving a 458 Challenge approximated my chances at dating Rihanna. But in Las Vegas, odds exist only to be defied. 

 

Spoiler alert: I’m not dating Rihanna.

 

Las Vegas is dubbed fabulous, and rightly so. If you’ve never soaked in the Strip’s energy, it’s a must — at least once. 30 minutes outside the city lies Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a current stop on the NASCAR calendar with a road course inside its oval. There you’ll find Dream Racing, one of the country’s largest supercar experience providers. Their fleet is eye-popping in size and scope, ranging from a Porsche Cayman S to the most ballistic Italian exotics on sale today. It’s a simple business model: pay money, drive your chosen dream car on the race track (with an instructor riding shotgun, of course). Plenty of companies offer such a service, but Dream Racing is unique in one hugely important aspect: they have race cars. Not just any race cars — genuine Ferrari 458 Challenge race cars. I threw my money at them faster than I could have blown it at the Bellagio. 

 

Anyone with an interest in motorsport respects a universal truth: racing is a monetary black hole. For one, it’s enormously expensive; for two, it’s highly addictive. Financially, you’re better off doing traditional drugs. I say that to preface the requisite question of cost. How much will it set you back to drive a 458 Challenge at Dream Racing? 

 

Hold your breath and gather your criticism. For 11 one-minute laps, I spent about $1500. And, after driving the 458 Challenge, I can confirm I’d do it all again without a second thought to my bank account’s wellbeing. 

 

First, specs. The road-going 458 Italia boasts 562 horsepower and 398 lb-ft torque from a mid-mounted 4.5l V8. A Getrag 7 speed dual clutch gearbox handles shifting duties. That package is largely the same in Challenge guise, though a race-only exhaust system boosts horsepower to 570 and the recalibrated gearbox receives new ratios. Dry weight for the road car is 3042 pounds; the stripped out Challenge kit comes in at 2689 pounds, thanks to Lexan windows and thinner body panels formed from carbon fiber. Slick 19” Pirelli racing tires measure 255mm at the front and 305mm at the rear, wrapped around forged, center-locking wheels. Given the rear wing, front splitter, dive planes, and revised front end, the 458 Challenge is sure to produce significantly more stick than its road-going sibling. The Challenge car’s electronics are reworked for track use, too: the steering wheel’s Manettino (little switch) controls the F1-Trac traction control system, which is integrated with the E-Diff and ABS. Drivers can select between 2 levels of intervention or shut off the F1-Trac entirely. Handling the car’s extra performance is a race-derived suspension setup, with aluminium racing dampers, stiffer springs, solid steel suspension joints, and a 50mm lower ride height. Phew, that’s a lot to digest! The end result is a car that doesn’t disguise its street legal origins, yet is fully suited for the rigours of racing. 

 

As expected, Dream Racing has no interest in letting total rookies take on a Ferrari race car without a bit of prep work. At the Speedway, I met with my instructor for the day, JT, and we headed off to the simulator room. Similar to how an aviator trains for flying airplanes/not crashing, one who drives a race car has much to gain (and nothing to damage) by learning the car and track via simulation. Dream Racing’s setup mimics the feel of a race car cockpit with an actual roll cage surrounding the racing seat, steering wheel, and pedals. Three screens encircle the driver’s point of view. iRacing, their chosen driving software, has close-to-lifelike responses; it demonstrates that driving fast is far more nuanced than the typical male ego will admit. That’s important, considering the weighty task of controlling a 570 horsepower machine on the limit. I lapped the digital Speedway road course about a dozen times, until JT was satisfied with my lines and track awareness. The real Ferrari awaited us.

 

Putting on racing gear is enjoyably momentous. It’s a bit of a process to don fire suit, boots, helmet, and gloves, but each article builds upon a delicious sense of anticipation. Kitted up as a pretend racing driver, I walked out to the pit lane, where the 458 Challenge sat basking in the morning sun. Memories of Daytona played across my mind. But this time, I wouldn’t be watching our drivers clamber in to the cockpit. Feeling almost as though I’d stepped into someone else’s life, I opened the door, climbed over the roll cage, and found myself in a very familiar seat. The Prancing Horse reposed just as I remembered, square in the suede wheel’s center, an invitation if ever there was one. Via JT’s instruction, I set aside my incredulity, pushed the starter button, and brought the V8 to life. 

 

The engine’s idle was half deafening, sending vibrations through every inch of the cockpit. JT tempered my idiot’s grin with a gentle reminder over the helmet headsets. “Remember, the track is cold and your tires are too. Cold slicks are like ice blocks, and the 458 is like a beautiful woman: You have to take your time.” At this point, we were inching down pit lane; even at slow speeds, the exhaust’s smooth, unbroken growl sounded utterly menacing. The pit lane ended, and I found myself on an empty, sunlit race track behind the wheel of a Ferrari Challenge car. As that reality sunk in, it brought along a heady sense of excitement and, unfortunately, an ambitious right foot. Let me explain: When the 458’s engine crests 5000 RPM, very important things start to happen. For one, the sound becomes a feral, wailing Italian crescendo. For two, that’s where the power lives, which I discovered in Turn 5. It’s a lengthy right-hander that rewards patience and punishes eagerness; juice the throttle too early and a spin is readily served up. How do I know this? Simple, really — I spun the 458 on the out lap. The idiot’s grin was a prophecy.

 

Thankfully, the car was completely fine and JT wasn’t phased. Well, he might have been, but he didn’t show it. He guided a much-subdued me back on to the track, where I gently coaxed the Ferrari through the remaining corners. At the final turn — a double apex right — I downshifted into the appropriate gear, navigated the apexes, pointed the car down the pit straight, and matted the throttle. 

 

The engine unleashed an astounding wall of sound, flinging me down the track at a ludicrous rate. Swept up in the howl of the 4.5l V8 screaming to its 9000 RPM ceiling, left breathless from the most brutal acceleration I’d ever felt, my mouth fell open in a comical “O” shape. I was pinned back in my bucket, essentially a passenger on a starship that had engaged its hyperdrive. I barely just remembered to pull the upshift paddle each time the engine touched its angelic redline. The Vegas pit straight only allows for 5th gear at about 130 MPH; in no time at all, I received the command from JT to get on the brakes, hard, for the fast-approaching Turn 1. So I did. 

 

The 458 Challenge duly taught another quick lesson in race car physicality. The braking force threw me up against the harness, neck straining to hold back my helmeted noggin against the 458’s monstrous stoppers. I grabbed two downshifts on the lefthand paddle, each one causing the exhaust to bark and crackle. The V8 will never be as sonorous as a V12, but that does nothing to diminish its own hair-raising music. 

 

Given that this was my first hot lap, JT had called for brakes earlier than necessary, and we tiptoed gingerly through Turn 1. It’s a slow, sharp left, which the 458 negotiated in 3rd gear, thanks to its ample power. Turn 2 follows almost immediately, a sweeping, increasing-radius right that rewards impatience with understeer. Eventually, you can put the gas pedal flat on exit, running down a short chute and up to the redline in 3rd gear, where the 90 degree Turn 3 awaits. A sharp stab at the brakes, a firm crank of the wheel, and you’re through, keeping a tight line to set up for the left-right combo of turns 4 and 5. Here again, patience is key to access the 458’s supreme balance; it changes direction like a spring being compressed and released, energy coursing through the chassis and into your palms. After exiting the lengthy righthand Turn 5 in 3rd gear, a small straight leads to another, faster switchback complex. Turn 6 is a mid-speed left, set up with a short-shift into 4th gear, a quick lift, and a smooth line out to the track’s middle. The exit there is crucial — it sets up your high-speed directional change into Turn 7, the track’s most daunting corner. It’s a right-hand kink that can be taken flat in 4th gear, the 458 a blissful mix of blaring fury and balletic athleticism. No time to rest, though; you’re already in the braking zone for the double-apex right of Turns 8 and 9. Downshift to third, let the car rotate between apexes, then fire the Ferrari down the pit straight once again. Riding the outside curbs here on full throttle is a total rush. That’s one lap of the Las Vegas infield — though short in length, it serves up a challenging, varied layout (and thankfully, no walls or tire barriers to hit). 

 

Before driving the 458 Challenge, my only prior racing experiences came via rental go-karts and simulators. Though mostly undemanding, both racing mediums require sustained focus, which does exact a certain toll from a driver. However, wheeling the Ferrari around the track felt like getting my ass kicked in the gym. On the somewhat cramped Las Vegas circuit, the driver is constantly fighting lateral Gs or having the deceleration attempt to paste him/her to the windshield. There’s no rest available, because when the car is aimed straight, its ferocious acceleration and obscenely loud engine overload the senses. All the while, the driver must be deeply concentrated on finding their braking points, hitting their apexes, and carving their lines. Driving’s fundamentals gain greater urgency in something this rapid. After seven laps in the car, I felt positively wrung out, not daring to imagine the strain of running a race distance while duelling with other cars. It seemed absurd that something so capable should be raced wheel to wheel within a pack of identical machines — and yet that’s the Ferrari Challenge series. 

 

My first track session complete, JT gave the call to pit. The 458, an absolute fireball mere seconds before, was perfectly docile as we cruised into the pit entry road, though the V8’s burbles and reverberations were an ever-present reminder of its true nature. I parked the car, killed the engine, and braced for my debrief with JT. The day before, I’d driven a Ferrari 430 Scuderia around the track with a different instructor, who brought to light a persistent, ugly habit of mine: overdriving the front tires. Probably caused by driving like a ham-fisted loon in Gran Turismo, I was prone to plant the throttle too early in a corner, wash out wide, and scupper my laps. JT picked up on that tendency quite early, helped in part by the 458’s keen responsiveness to driver input. The car’s happy place felt like an on-off switch: enlightening and gratifying when driven patiently, out of sorts and irritated when driven poorly. It has a magnificent sense of mid-corner rotation, unlocked by letting the slicks work their magic before uncorking the dervish V8. 

 

My pace in the 430 Scuderia was disappointing at best. But, in the 458 Challenge, the clock told a different story. My lap times steadily fell, settling at a respectable (he says, to protect his ego) 52.7 seconds. Chuffed as I was, JT’s two major feedback points were thus: keep waiting for the throttle mid-corner and hit the brakes harder. I felt as though I’d given the brakes all they could take, but JT was insistent. “You’d be amazed where the instructors can brake if one of us were behind the wheel,” he said. “Hit the brakes as hard as you can, then release them smoothly.” With JT’s advice rattling around my helmet, we brought the car back to life once more and took to the track. 

 

As we cruised around on the out lap, I felt significantly more confident about captaining the Ferrari. Even with just seven laps under my belt, it was no longer an intimidating, unknown quantity. I sensed that the car had begun opening up to me, somewhat like learning a language. It’s a process during which you might experience a sudden, exhilarating comprehension. Instead of manually translating things back to your native tongue, your brain simply understands the new language itself. It’s an absolutely brilliant feeling, as if a cool liquid has suffused your mind. Similarly, the 458 Challenge car now felt less like an exercise in discovery and more like a warm acquaintance, by which I mean a boiling hot one with 570 horsepower.

 

And yet, as we started the second stint’s flying laps, that bristling power now felt usable and tractable. The Ferrari’s engine doesn’t come good until about 5000 RPM; crossing into that territory is a sensational event. The engine’s note becomes a yowl, accelerating car and driver at a frenetic pace. The revs climb freely and frantically until it’s time to grab the aluminium upshift paddle, which actuates with a satisfying solidity, clack-clacking with each blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gear change. The seven speed transmission is lightning-quick whether going up or down the gears, with each direction being equally thrilling. Upshifts guarantee another glorious run towards redline, a blur of visceral thrust and unmuffled Italian V8. When the downshifts inevitably arrive, they produce intoxicating snarls, coupled with braking so powerful that sweat will roll forward across your cheeks. During my second session on track, I was stopping several car lengths later into Turn 1, amazed by the brake pedal’s demanded effort and the correspondingly violent deceleration. When you’ve got carbon-ceramic Brembo brakes measuring nearly 400mm, slowing down is more like entering a reverse warp zone. The world blurs around your peripheral vision, your focal point narrows dramatically, and the sheer force on your body is extraordinary. Just like on a rollercoaster, don’t forget to keep your head back. 

 

Later braking led to more speed carried through each apex, and the 458’s chassis began to display its natural balance and athleticism. Modern Ferrari cars have a penchant for fast, light steering, and the Challenge car exemplifies those traits. Turning the wheel for each corner required little more effort than a standard road car. However, the messages from the chassis and tires are anything but standard. The suede-covered wheel feeds pure, undiluted information straight back into your hands; despite the fast steering, it’s wonderfully communicative and loads up with organic accuracy. The 458 Challenge has astonishing reflexes, obeying commands with slack-free immediacy. Cars that I previously considered sharp and precise now seemed like spoons wrapped in cotton. 

 

The Challenge aero additions — dive planes, front splitter, and that visible-from-space rear wing — complete a package that delivers immense levels of grip. Race-spec suspension coupled with Pirelli P Zero slicks produce staggering cornering loads and unbelievable exit traction. The front axle hunts down apexes with uncanny precision, yet the rear still rotates freely, allowing the driver to dissect corners at will. Fast turns, slow turns, chicanes — all were navigated with surefooted dexterity and stunning speed. Taking Turn 7’s righthand kink flat-out in 4th gear was nothing short of scintillating (and mildly terrifying). Rippling energy emanated through the 458, the chassis standing up on its toes and dancing on the limit. Despite its strength, it’s an almost graceful machine, both in its handling and the way it asks to be handled. Smooth, measured inputs on the steering wheel and pedals are greeted with inexorable pace and poise; when you treat the 458 in this manner, it responds with the same savage joy as a fencer’s sword.  

 

My initial trepidation was gone, replaced by respect and assurance. Each lap, JT urged me to brake harder and later, carry more mid-corner speed here, stay on the throttle longer there, be more assertive with the steering everywhere. The 458’s intensely focused personality produces a similar condition in the driver — I was concentrated purely on hitting my marks, pulling the paddles, and hearing the engine’s tenor blare right behind my shoulder. As I pushed deeper into the car’s limits and my own, the 458 waltzed between turns in a flowing, ferocious rhythm, melding my laps into a chainlink of braking and acceleration and V8 wail. It was an experience nearly transportive in nature.

 

After six more spellbinding laps, JT gave the order to check up into Turn 1, allowing everything — including driver — to cool down on the in-lap. The car is wired up with data logging equipment right there in the cockpit, and it duly reported my new fastest lap: 50.69 seconds, 2 full seconds quicker than the first session. I was equal parts elated and relieved — my racing passion couldn’t bear the cruelty of being slow. All praise goes to JT; without his expert guidance, the 458 Challenge might have seemed inaccessibly capable. He can wring a high 48-second lap out of the 458, so to be about 2 seconds off a pro’s pace had me feeling rather proud. (Come on, I’m a boy in a race car. I have to feed the ego just a bit.)

 

Climbing out of the cockpit’s embrace was a return from an alternate dimension to normal life’s drab reality. Ferrari 458 Challenge — what an absolutely staggering machine. Though I spent no more than 15 minutes behind the wheel, that time felt neither condensed, nor prolonged. However you want to package the phrase “in the moment”: driving a 458 Challenge is like that. It appropriates your attention and commandeers your senses with unnerving totality. When you’re on track in the Ferrari, nothing else exists. Stray thoughts, outside concerns, worldly worries: they’re all momentarily frozen. That’s because you’re giving the car absolutely everything you’ve got, and you’ve got no say in the matter. It’s what the 458 demands. 

 

Even to drive the car on an empty track ranks as one of the most thrilling things I’ve done with an automobile. But the Finali Mondiali races I witnessed were worlds apart from my little jaunt: dozens of 458 Challenge cars raced wheel to wheel on Daytona’s banking and road course, attaining speeds far beyond my velocity in Vegas. To have that many cars battling against each other, considering just how fast the 458 is and the fact that most of the drivers are amateurs, is a frankly confounding prospect. But then again, the 458 Challenge is an embodiment of racing’s essence. It is not for the faint of heart, and therefore, all the more rewarding. 

 

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