Turbo Stallions

Our reviewer puts the latest Ferrari sports model through its paces.

By James Lamdin

The Zenith El Primero A386

Mid-engine V8s have been a staple of Ferrari’s lineup for decades, slotting in as the sportier option to the larger front-engine V12 Grand Touring cars for which the Italian carmaker made its name.

In 2009, Ferrari introduced the 458 Italia, a superior driving machine equipped with a 4.5-liter V8 that rapidly earned praise for being as much a true supercar at home as on the track. Since the 2010 season, it has been used competitively by amateur racers in the global Ferrari Challenge series in the track-only 458 Challenge Evo configuration. Many a driver, amateur and professional alike, has praised the 458 as one of the greatest racing Ferraris of all time, and they have battled to glory not only in the single-marque series but in sports-car racing events the world over.

Winners of the 2016 Finali Mondiali.

But 2016 was the last season for the 458 Challenge. At the Finali Mondiali (World Finals) in Daytona this past December, the world was introduced to its successor—the 488. Based on the street variant introduced in 2015, the new 488 Challenge brings a host of innovative aerodynamic and electronic improvements to the vehicle, but none is more impressive than its new power plant—a downsized 3.9-liter V8 fitted with forced induction in the form of twin turbochargers. This new racer represents the first time a Ferrari Challenge car has been fitted with a turbo unit, which is more economical and has a curb weight a few dozen pounds under that of its predecessor.

The 2017 season will see the introduction of these new models on the Ferrari Challenge grids in North America, Europe, and Asia, and drivers are expectedly excited about the innovative new machines they will be campaigning. And judging by my own driving impressions from the street variant—which I have had the great fortune of driving both on the street, in a two-day Corso Pilota program at Circuit Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, and under the lights at Daytona International Speedway—both drivers and spectators alike will have a lot to look forward to.

The Autodromo Group B in blue.
The Autodromo Group B on the racetrack.

The street car, known as the 488GTB, is the foundation of the Challenge Car model, as has been the case with every Challenge Series racer since its inception in 1993 with the Ferrari 348. Powertrain and gearbox remain very similar between both street and race version, with most of the modifications being made in added aerodynamic accoutrement and a stripped interior. For driving on the street, the 488GTB does without a cage, and while the roar of the Challenge Cars is somewhat intoxicating, the added sound-deadening in the production cars does make for a more enjoyable daily driver.

Like their counterparts in the watch industry, Ferrari can mean different things to different people. Some associate the brand with luxury, some with elegant beauty meant only to be collected and admired, others with a sporting lifestyle, and still others with professional-grade tools built to be the best in their segment. Whichever way you see Ferrari, rest assured that as luxurious, elegant, and collectable as so many of them have become, the hot-rodders in Maranello haven’t forgotten their roots as race-car manufacturers, and one need not look further than the Ferrari Challenge to see a field full of them swapping paint and battling for the crown, just as Enzo intended.

Behind the Wheel

Driving a high-performance automobile on the street is generally a joyous occasion, particularly if that automobile comes from the thoroughbred stables of Ferrari. The pomp and circumstance that innately follow you—the turning heads, nods of approval, thumbs-up, and smiles—certainly can make a driver feel special, even at crawling speeds in Manhattan traffic. But getting that stallion out of the gridlock and on to an open road is a different experience entirely, one that almost can’t be beat. Almost.

The Hublot Ferrari Carbon Red Magic.

The ultimate expression of joy that can be felt behind the wheel of a performance car is without question that which comes to you the moment you pull out of the pit lane on a race track. Ferrari got their start building race cars, and there is no question that the DNA that won countless races and made the company a household name is still very present in today’s production cars.

Standing under the lights at Daytona International Speedway at the tail end of Finali Mondiali in December, waiting for my turn at the wheel, I looked down at my wrist and consulted my vintage Zenith El Primero A386. It was late, but I had barely noticed that the track had long since closed, and that the remaining track marshals were staying on overtime to allow myself and a few other journalists the opportunity to flog the 488GTB around the track at special request of Ferrari North America. The track, which was configured that evening with portions of the oval outer banking and an infield section, is legendary in its own right. Dark and daunting, this place has created heroes, taken lives, and broken dreams for decades. Without the constant stream of engine noise bouncing off the walls, it was eerily quiet.

On the track at Daytona.

I snapped back into reality when the Italian instructor motioned to me that it was time to go, and I threw on my helmet, glancing once more at my Zenith and wondering how my previous track time would lend itself to taking on the monolith that is Daytona. At night. In a Ferrari. The next few minutes went by nearly as fast as the laps, with neither my vintage chronograph nor the factory fresh 488 missing a beat. Can’t say the same for my heart.

Anyone who has driven extensively on a track will attest that there are moments in which the laws of physics seem not to apply, and traveling at 170 mph on a banked corner is one of those times. The track seemed to want to pull me to the top and slingshot me into the parking lot, and my instinct told me to aim for the bottom to stay out of trouble, while my instructor simply told me to aim for the darkness that was the middle of the track and stay on the accelerator.

After a few rounds, it was over, and I emerged—victorious, alive, and drenched in sweat.

Stepping over the pit wall, I looked again at my A386 and read the stylized script. El Primero. The First.

In my own little way I had just conquered Daytona at the wheel of one of the finest sports cars on the planet, and I even had my own trophy.