When in September 1982, on a private visit to Italy, I first visited Ferrari, Il Commendatore Enzo Ferrari was still very much the autocrat, at least of the racing department. Maranello’s disparate road car range included the V8 308 GTB and GTS, the bigger, two plus two V8 Mondial, and two unrelated 12-cylinder models: the flat-12 mid-engine BB512 and the front-engine V12 400i. Production of the largely Fiat-managed road car business totalled a mere 2209 cars.
My cheeky requests, as editor of Wheels magazine, were various. The theory being that if I ask for much, Ferrari would grant at least a couple of my wishes. I wanted to go out with a test driver; try the recently revised 308 quattrovalvole; inspect the assembly plant; and, of course, meet the then 84-year old Enzo.
Factory tour out of the way, I sat down with Luca Matteoni, a marketing operative with responsibility for Australia and, I perceived, some public relations remit under the legendary Franco Gozzi, Enzo’s ‘assistant’. Feeling each other out, my Australian naivety no match for the suave Italian, I slowly became aware of a building irritation on the other side of the desk.
Finally, Matteoni exploded, “You’re the one, you wrote that story, the worst road test ever” he fumed, clearly referring to my highly critical Wheels July, 1982, test of a Mondial.
”An over-priced piece of imagery that will trade on the legends without contributing to their existence,” I wrote. The 2.9-litre quad cam V8 delivered a mere 160kW, ensuring the Mondial was “a humble performer” as a 0-100km/h time of 8.2seconds proved. The top speed was a mere 210km/h and the seats, “Among the most uncomfortable in the world.”
Thus, no drive in a new 308GTS QV, no journey into the hills as passenger in a prototype, and certainly no meeting with Enzo Ferrari. As far as Matteoni was concerned, I was banned for life.
Seven years later, shortly after we moved to Italy, I asked to drive the new Mondial t for Autocar. From its comprehensive files the press office remembered my Wheels’ story and resisted the idea. When the press office finally relented, under pressure from Ferrari UK, I was confined to a few laps of Fiorano, Ferrari’s famous test circuit, and was allowed only to sit beside a test driver on the road. For the 348 launch this grew to a couple of hours with the new car and a minder.
Everything changed when Luca Montezemolo became Ferrari president in 1991. Under his inspired leadership, Ferrari eventually returned to Formula One dominance, while also investing heavily in the road cars. Through the late 1990s and into the 21st century, the aging Maranello factory was transformed into a modern, still vertically-integrated, industrial complex that manages the near impossible task of respecting its traditions while adopting the newest and best technologies in machine tools, the foundry, the R&D centre, the wind tunnel and brilliant young engineers.
By overtly chasing innovation, Montezemolo changed the cars for the better. Every Ferrari since has been more refined, far easier to live with and vastly more practical than its predecessors. Yet still exciting, spectacularly quicker, better handling and with superior traction.
For 456GT launch in 1993, I asked to shoot the car in the soft evening light and was surprised and delighted to be told we could have the car until 1.00pm the following day. Photographer Stan Papior could not believe I immediately planned to drive through the night. Well, wouldn’t you, given the opportunity?
By the time of the brilliant F355 I was borrowing Ferraris for a week at a time and took the car, one of my favourites, over the Alps to pit against a 911 Turbo in a comparison test the F355 won.
For the F50 launch at Fiorano I shared the two test cars with two German journalists. When they left early in the afternoon to catch the only Bologna-Stuttgart flight, I spent two hours alone in the F50 on famous test track. The result was a famous Wheels cover, F50 wildly oversteering out of the Fiorano hairpin. And incurred a second life ban.
In July 1995, my F50 drive story appeared in the Spanish magazine Autopista…before the Spanish journalists had driven the car. PR-operative Gianni Perfetti, under instructions from his boss Antonio Ghini, then Ferrari’s communications boss, faxed me to say I was banned for life. That ban lasted for less than a year: Autocar, supportive as always of its journalists, insisted I was the magazine’s man to drive the 456 GTA and report, and later test, the 550 Maranello.
Life returned to normal, at least until August 2001 when I was thrown out of the factory. Visiting Ferrari, with photographer Tim Wren, for a Wheels’ feature on everything Ferrari, we were left waiting in the lobby for our tour to continue. We waited and waited until our host Simone Patelli, Ferrari’s international press man, strode into the room, snatched the visitor pass from my lapel and told me, “Today’s tour is over, we’d like you to leave.”
Simone, a lovely bloke, explained. Minutes earlier Ferrari’s UK office had faxed through a copy of my Autocar, July 25, story on Maserati’s new Spyder. Ghini, took exception to my comment “a thorough revision of the dashboard includes a raid on the Alfa parts’ bin for the 147’s Connect navigation system.” Ferrari, then attempting to revive Maserati, found this offensive, particularly the reference to “Alfa parts’ bin”.
For six months I was persona non grata. Gradually Maranello relented, especially as I’d sold Autocar on the idea of a book on the upcoming Enzo. Ghini could see the obvious benefits and our relationship resumed. In 2001 I was invited to spent five days in Maranello researching material for Autocar’s Enzo 68-page supplement.
Slowly, across the 16-years I lived in Italy, I came to realise that being a “friend” to Italian car makers and most Italian journalists, means never being critical. Few understood the concept of objective assessment from a ‘friend’. Fifteen years ago, the Italian manufacturers took critical assessment personally, even if it was objective, and immediately you were perceived as the enemy. Slowly, a more professional – read Anglo-Saxon – relationship developed and Maranello accepted that my love for Ferrari didn’t prevent criticism.
But not always. In 2012 Wheels’ editor managed to simultaneously borrow a Lamborghini Aventador and a Ferrari F12 from their respective factories. Neither manufacturer was made aware that we planned a comparison. You need to understand that “comparison” is a swear word to the Italians. Until relatively recently, Ferrari resisted any attempts to compare its cars with any competitors. To quote Maranello: “we don’t have any rivals”.
The Lambo was thrashed by the F12. That didn’t stop Ferrari from complaining because the press office had not been told. Threats were made. Ironically, at Ferrari’s annual distributor meeting later that year, Montezemolo waved a copy of the magazine at his audience and proclaimed the comparison as proof of Ferrari’s superiority. Santa’Agata took things personally. The following year I organised an interview with CEO Stephan Winkelmann at the Geneva show. Hours before my appointment, the Lamborghini communications person realised I was the author of the Aventador comparison. The interview was off. I was told, “You’ll never drive another Lamborghini.”
In 2014, I was about to officially retire as a full-time motoring hack when the invitation to drive the LaFerrari arrived.
Because I knew this would be my last my last official visit to Maranello, I wanted to say goodbye to Luca Montezemolo. Over the years we’d became, if not friends then I like to think, respected colleagues.
Montezemolo was always good for a story, a quote machine, and frequently made time for a discussion when I visited Ferrari. As we parted Luca presented me with an inscribed carbon front end plate from Fernando Alonso’s 2013 F1 car. For a couple of seconds I couldn’t speak and, yes, I teared up.
Friends used to ask why, when we moved to Europe, we chose to live in Italy. My reply was always the same. “I’m going to tell you why, and if you understand, you will understand. If you don’t the conversation is over.
“It’s simple. Ninety minutes after leaving home I could drive through the old Maranello gates, and the security people greeted me by name.”
Sadly, that’s no longer the case, but for more than a decade it was.
Trying for 200mph
After testing the La Ferrari, Maranello loaned me an F12 for three days. I knew this would be my last change to crack the elusive 200mph (322km/h) on the road. My first serious attempt in a 612 Scaglietti in 2004 set a personal record of 192mph (309km/h). In 2007 a 599GTB left the trip computer’s maximum speed recorder at 197mph (317km/h).
Heading to Maranello at 5.00am to return the F12, autostrada littered with trucks in the slow lane, presented my only realistic opportunity. On the same short section of linking autostrada used for the 599 attempt, F12 nailed to the redline in each gear, the trip computer readout hit 320km/h (rounded out to 199mph) before the autostrada merged with the heavily trafficked A1.
So close, but still a failure. And there’s no next time.