In 2014, my son, James, and I drove up to Watkins Glen International, a storied racetrack, to watch a Ferrari race. We did not, however, make the drive in a Ferrari.
Last year year, Ferrari kindly lent us a California T, the company’s “entry-level” car — its base price is $198,000 — to make a sort of return visit. The Cali T is now an important vehicle for the prancing stallion now that it’s a public company and need to grow beyond its current 7,000-cars-per-year in sales.
At the New York Stock Exchange in 2015, when Ferrari — ticker symbol RACE — began trading, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles CEO and Ferrari Chairman Sergio Marchionne said that many of the 9,000 cars the Italian sports car maker will sell in 2019 will be Cali Ts.
Ferrari shares have endured a slide since the IPO, down 30% since last October.
But of course there is Ferrari the stock and Ferrari the cars. So what is the California T like to drive?
When James and I went to the Glen in 2014, we watched a Ferrari Challenge race in which the contestants run in Ferrari 458s. In 2015, we attended the Six Hours of the Glen, an endurance race featuring teams from a variety of automakers — Porches, BMW, Aston Martin, Mazda, Corvette — alongside Ferrari.
It was an interesting weekend with a long drive in a cool car and a race that was heavily affected by the weather. Mixed in was a jaunt around the original Watkins Glen road course, where after World War II racers battled it out and before the now famous raceway was built.
We had a lot of fun — check it out.
In 2014, James and I checked out a race series organised by Ferrari and featuring teams running only Ferrari 458 cars.
We made the drive in '14 in a Ford. In 2015, Ferrari let us borrow a California T, the Italian luxury-car maker's $198,000 entry-level ride. It has a convertible hardtop!
When Ferrari shares started trading on the NYSE on Oct. 21, 2015, Ferrari Chairman Sergio Marchionne said that the Cali T would deliver a lot of future sales for the car maker.
The journey would take us from New York City to the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, about a five-hour drive each way.
The weather was rainy for much of the ride, but the Cali T looks good wet or dry. In fact, the distinguishing feature of this 552-horsepower grand touring car, with its twin-turbocharged V8 engine, is its hypnotic, luscious appearance. I couldn't stop staring at it. The gorgeous and exclusive 'Rosso California' colour, a deep red, helped.
The heart of every Ferrari is its engine. This turbo V8 is relatively compact, but it packs a punch. The sound took some getting used to, but there's no appreciable 'turbo lag' -- throttle response delivers power in less than a second.
We arrived In the idyllic town of Watkins Glen and met up with Giancarlo Fisichella, a former Formula One driver who would be racing the following day as a member of Ferrari's two teams at the Six Hours of the Glen.
He took us on a tour of the old Watkins Glen road course, which winds through town and the nearby countryside. The 6.6-mile course was the site of the first postwar American road race in 1948. Back then, they raced on cement, gravel, and even dirt!
The California T is an elegant essay in automotive symmetry, with a long, finely shaped hood and flowing, dynamic lines that culminate in a taut rear end. Grace and power, in one package. Very Ferrari!
The weather was wet and Saturday qualifying for Sunday's race was washed out. But the Cali T handled the old road course well, once the downpour let up.
Fisichella was astounded that race-car drivers would have taken on such a winding course in cars that, while not as speedy as his Ferrari 458, were still pretty speedy.
Here it is from another angle. After Fisichella showed us around the course and regaled us with stories of his days racing with F1 legend Michael Schumacher, I got to take a turn at the wheel.
The old course is an excellent test of a car's handling. It contains twists, turns, sweeping curves, elevation changes, and straightaways. You don't need to drive it fast to enjoy the challenge. The California T certainly enjoyed itself. I switched the manettino dial on the steering wheel to 'Sport' and flicked through the gears using the paddle shifters, massaging the throttle as I went. The turbo V8 makes an exquisite sound and the connection between engine and gearbox is impeccable and seamless. Ferrari is very good at this kind of thing.
We eased the car back into town and said our goodbyes for the day, wishing Giancarlo luck in the race.
Race day! To enter the Glen, you drive under this bridge. That's a section of the 3.4-mile track on top.
Watkins Glen International is a beloved track. It's technically challenging, but the long straightaways mean that cars build up a ferocious head of steam. The sound of dozens of cars here, roaring around at speed, is a raw, emotional thing that grabs you in the gut.
The race started out in the rain, which was tough for the various teams to deal with, but after about an hour the weather cleared and the cars could run flat-out.
We paid a visit to the pits. This is where races can be won and lost, depending on the skill of the crew. Here, they're getting reading to add fuel, change tires, and switch drivers! It is a six-hour race, after all, and each car is handled by two guys who alternate behind the wheel.
The pit crew inspects a set of tires after one of the cars experienced a brush with the wall. Tire wear can indicate whether there's something more serious wrong with a damaged car.
Ferrari fought for position with host of rivals throughout the race. Only briefly, however, did a Ferrari team lead. The whole point of an endurance race is for a team to survive and be in a position to make a run at the end, if it isn't too far behind.
Outside the track and the pits, the teams maintain rolling garages and staging areas where the cars can be prepped and repaired.
This BMW hit a bad patch on the track and had to be repaired. The ultimate driving machine was out of action.
This Nissan raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans this year. It wasn't taking part in the Six Hours of the Glen.
... where we could study the worsening conditions on TV. Some drivers like the rain because it plays to their skills, but when it gets really wet, no one is having a good time.
After a restart, the race continued until a crash forced a completion under the yellow caution flag. That's a Corvette, which won the race in the top prototype class. Ferrari just missed out on a trip to the podium, for one of its teams.
After the race, James found himself surrounded by guys in racing suits, discussing how they had done.
In the end, the California T and the Glen proved to be a terrific combination. Just like last year. I'll have to give the Ferrari back, but I picked up a souvenir from the weekend.
James and I head back to New York City, but we made a quick stop in our Italian sports car for, naturally, some Italian food.
Pretty soon, James will have to say so long to the California T. But it was a good ride for the weekend.
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