In a world where milliseconds make all the difference, there's no room for error. Michael Schumacher learned that the hard way during the Japanese Grand Prix, the last race of the 1998 Formula 1 season. Within points of snagging the Formula 1 championship and clearly the man to beat, Schumacher jumped the starting flag, was sent to the back of the field and watched his chances evaporate.
It was a painful lesson, and one the determined German wasn't about to repeat. Two seasons later, he struck back with a vengeance, dominating the F1 circuit, race after race. Schumacher captured the 2000 championship for team Scuderia Ferrari, scoring again in 2001, 2002 and 2003, breaking the record of the renowned Argentinian, Juan Manuel Fangio with his sixth title. This year, despite rule changes less than subtly intended to shake his grip, Schumacher has a solid chance of taking the series once more—along with the all-time record.
Machine-like precision and an iron will make Michael Schumacher arguably the best race driver ever, and undeniably one of the world's wealthiest athletes. Of course, it helps that he's connected to car maker that possesses similar attributes. Using one of the most sophisticated wind tunnels in the world to fine tune aerodynamics, and squeezing even more horsepower out of Schumacher's open-wheeled racer, Ferrari engineers have kept the prancing pony the one to beat on the Formula 1 track this year.
The Italian automaker's invincibility on the track underscores its reputation as the king of the street as well—good timing, as Ferrari marks its 50th anniversary in the United States, its largest market. To commemorate the occasion, the carmaker is rolling out the all-new 612 Scaglietti, the long-awaited successor to the 456M sports coupe. If past is prologue, potential buyers likely will require Zen-like patience. In a world where rebates are the rule, Ferrari is the exception. Its products are in such demand that no one really knows how high is up. The company has artificially capped production at just over 4,000 cars annually. As a result, there's a waiting list of two years or more for various Ferrari models, and long before the 612 ever hit showrooms, dealers already had a full year of orders in hand. For those looking to take delivery any sooner, some who signed up early are offering their places in line on eBay—at a hefty premium.
If you're not a Ferrarista, that may seem difficult to understand. But the automaker's dapper chairman, Luca di Montezemolo, sums it up succinctly: "We sell you a dream with Ferrari, not an automobile."
Birth of a Dream
No one is quite sure when that dream began. But the man who lent his name to the legend was born in the northern Italian city of Modena, on February 18, 1898. As a teenager desperate for work, Enzo Ferrari spent much of the First World War shoeing mules, before migrating to Turin, then the center of the Italian auto industry. Landing a job with Alfa Romeo, he worked his way through a series of jobs, his skill and love of motor sports quickly becoming apparent. He started as a mechanic, moved up to test driver, then got a "ride" of his own in an Alfa race car.
On the track, Ferrari earned a reputation for courage that bordered on audacity. In 1923, after Ferrari won a particularly grueling race, a fan gave him the squadron badge of his son, an Italian air force ace, who had died in the war. With its image of a wild horse rearing high, it became Ferrari's good-luck charm. Later, he'd place the image in front of a field of yellow, the colors of Ferrari's hometown, Modena, creating the logo for his new company.
Ferrari's love of racing was infectious. It was also good business, Alfa realized, when in 1929, its ambitious young employee created the original Scuderia Ferrari, a team of "gentleman" racers, spiced with a few professionals. "With Ferrari, I learned the business of racing, for there was no doubt he was a businessman," the French driver René Dreyfus, who left Bugatti to work for the Italian team in 1935, later wrote. "Enzo Ferrari loved racing, of that there was no question. Still, it was more than an enthusiast's love, but one tempered by the practical realization that this was a good way to build a nice, profitable empire. I knew he was going to be a big man one day, even then when the cars he raced carried somebody else's name. I felt sure that eventually they would carry his."
It wouldn't take long, in fact. By 1939, the brash yet charismatic Enzo Ferrari's relationship with Alfa soured, and he decided to strike out on his own. Ferrari was barred by contract from putting his name on a car, but it really didn't matter for the moment. He spent the war years manufacturing machine tools. At least that was the official story. In the back of his small shop, Ferrari continued to tinker with cars of his own design.
While he gets credit for two small race cars entered into the 1940 Mille Miglia, automotive historians generally dub the Tipo125 that ran in the 1947 Grand Prix the first "true" Ferrari. With its unusual V-12, the 125 gained instant notoriety and defined the type of engine for which Ferrari would soon be best known. It didn't take long for the new company to begin winning races, and by 1951 it came heartbreakingly close to capturing the Grand Prix season, losing a crucial race to Fangio.
Taking it to the Streets
The first world title arrived a year later, and they've never stopped coming. For more than a half century, Ferrari has dominated the Formula 1 circuit like no other automaker. The team's roster reads like a motor sports Who's Who, with the likes of Schumacher, Phil Hill and even Fangio getting their own rides over the years. They have been backed by some of the greatest designers and engineers ever to work on a race car.
Enzo Ferrari "was a brutal man to work for and constantly having fights with his drivers and crew," recalls former racer and longtime automotive journalist Denise McCluggage. But it worked, she adds, because "he was the sand who created the pearls." Ever the savvy entrepreneur, Ferrari knew from the beginning that racing sold sports cars and those sales supported his racing team. So he cultivated the company's fast-growing reputation and used it to attract some of the world's most glamorous and wealthy customers, the likes of the Shah of Iran, the film director Roberto Rossellini and his great love, Ingrid Bergman. Each drove off with a uniquely customized automobile. Such cars are often found today commanding top dollar on the collector car circuit—if they can be found on the market at all—says Craig Jackson, president of the Barrett-Jackson Auction Co., based in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Each of those cars was built by hand, engines carefully assembled one piece at a time, aluminum body panels slowly taking shape with each blow of the hammer. Sergio Scaglietti—for whom the new 612 is named—ran the body shop relying primarily on a skilled eye. If he didn't like the way a design looked, even if it came from the great corrozzeria, Pininfarina, he was likely to get the last word.
Back in the early days, Ferraris were built in ones and twos, not by the hundreds and thousands. McCluggage recalls how folks would follow her when she drove her 250GT Berlinetta, just to find out what it was. She had paid dearly for her Ferrari, which she used to win the GT class at Sebring in 1961. "It was not only my race car. It was my only car. I lived in [Greenwich] Village at the time in a fifth-floor walk-up. I had crates for furniture. But I owned a Ferrari."
The Blizzard of Bologna
There are certain things you prefer not to see when you're blasting down the back straight at Fiorano, hitting close to 150 just as it's time to brake. Like snow. But there was plenty of the white stuff barely cleared off Ferrari's test track, one day in late February, when a freak storm blew in. The crews hadn't plowed a very wide path in the snow because most of the day had been devoted to Formula 1 testing and Michael Schumacher isn't known to stray very far from the ideal race line.
Even without snow, a certain amount of caution always goes along with driving a $250,000 automobile. Yet after a long night's journey to Italy, there was an equal desire not to lose time seeing precisely what the new 612 could do. And it didn't take long to discover the answer: a lot.
As with so many Ferraris over the years, the Scaglietti has been designed by Pininfarina. It's one of the more controversial shapes to roll out of the house of Enzo in quite some time. Skeptics deride what they see as a soft, mushy figure; fans see it as sculpted and sensual. What's harder to debate is the new car's road manners.
Unlike the more familiar Ferrari mid-engine layout, this GT's power plant sits up front, making room for a small but acceptably functional rear seat. The 612 is larger than the old 456M, but also 132 pounds lighter, thanks to its new aluminum space frame and body. It's also a good deal stiffer, with its structural rigidity increased about 60 percent, the effects of which were borne out during a day of driving.
In classic Ferrari form, engineers have squeezed a massive, 48-valve, 5.75-liter V-12 under the Scaglietti's hood. It's a torquey throttle-by-wire system that punches out a neck-snapping 532 horsepower, a full 98 more than the old car. Factory specs claim a top speed of 196 miles an hour, and 0-to-60 times of 4.1 seconds. Numbers aren't everything, of course. There's that honey-smooth roar, as essential to a Ferrari V-12 as that rude braaaaap is to a Harley-Davidson.
The engine can be mated to a conventional, 6-speed manual transmission or, our preference, the Ferrari F1A gearbox, an electronically shifted manual. A little T-bar on the center console shifts between park, forward and reverse. But you run through the gears using a pair of paddle shifters mounted a fingertip's reach behind the steering wheel. Under moderate acceleration, gear changes are smooth and crisp. With the pedal to the floor, you'll feel each shift like a slap.
To put all that power to the pavement, Ferrari has added its first-ever stability control system to the 612. The carefully tuned system is designed to let an aggressive driver hang the tail out a bit to push the car through a tight corner. During our time on the Fiorano test track, we felt the stability control kick in only once, when we seriously misjudged a corner and caught a bit of snow with one of the wheels. Another first-time feature is a speed-sensitive steering system. Purists might object, but it makes a big car like this a lot easier to handle when maneuvering through tight European streets.
Such technology is only one of the ways that the 612 ushers in an era of change at Ferrari. There's a new level of attention to refinement and creature comforts, as well as reliability. "Our first target for production is not to have big volumes, but to have big quality," asserts Ferrari manager Paolo Damiani.
Entering a New Era
Few customers will ever see the most dramatic changes, which take place at the various Ferrari factories scattered around Modena. Like the city itself, Ferrari has grown up. This is no longer a quaint little carriage shop operation, but one of the automobile world's more sophisticated manufacturing complexes.
The first sign of the "new" Ferrari is visible in the aluminum foundry, where the process of transforming raw aluminum ingots into a Scaglietti begins. In the past, it took the best tradesman two years of training to accurately control the pouring of molten metal into sand molds. New, automatic furnaces have simplified the production of the Scaglietti V-12 block, reducing scrap and later warranty claims, while raising productivity.
Other high-tech processes have been added at the Modena facility's engine plant, such as the robot used for valve seating. Each valve is dipped into liquid nitrogen to shrink it enough for easy insertion. The robot is also programmed to recognize and reject potentially defective valves. Even with such modern additions, it takes up to 42 working days before a Ferrari engine is ready, "a very long process" of machining, heat treating and testing, stresses Giorgio Lasagni, manager of engine operations.
For the aluminum body, Ferrari has formed an alliance with Alcoa, which produces many of the aluminum extrusions used in both the 612 and the older 360 Modena. Working largely by hand, employees use 400 self-tapping rivets, 100 pop rivets and nearly 200 feet of welds to craft a Scaglietti space frame. Once complete, it's loaded onto a carrier and shipped back to the main Ferrari complex.
In April, these bodies began going through a surprisingly sophisticated new paint shop that but for its scale could have been lifted from any of the world's best assembly plants. A high-tech sorting system sequences bodies through the various baths, prepping them for the automated paint sprayer. The shop is able to handle both steel and aluminum, Ferraris as well as Maseratis.
Ferrari acquired its longtime, crosstown rival in 1997 and intends to use it as a way to keep profits growing without diluting the Ferrari brand. The new production complex will be able to produce up to 14,000 cars a year, nearly three-quarters of those under the lower-price Maserati badge. And that, stresses Montezemolo, will avert the need to dilute the Ferrari mystique through overproduction.
Never Say Never
"Racing is in Ferrari's blood," says Montemezolo, a statement of fact, not opinion, to a legion of fans. Still, as hard as it might seem to believe right now, sooner or later, Ferrari is likely to be pushed off the pinnacle of Formula 1's steep hill. Schumacher could very well retire at the end of the year. The rules could change yet again. A competitor might come up with a faster car. It's happened before. When Phil Hill, the first American Grand Prix champ, retired from Formula 1 after the 1961 series, Scuderia Ferrari went into sharp decline. Each time Ferrari has faltered, though, the team has come back strong, reflecting the enormous resources that the company invests in its motor sports program.
Those who know how much that is aren't saying. Estimates run upwards of $200 million annually. Montezemolo says that whatever the figure, "it represents what we would have to spend on advertising and on advanced technology that we get free from Formula 1."
Plenty of automakers try to justify their racing campaigns by talking about technology transfer. In Ferrari's case, it's more than just words. The F1A gearbox is one example. The concept was originally developed for the race case, removing the need for drivers to reach for a gearshift lever at 250 mph. Racing has taught Ferrari how to build better brakes, faster engines, stronger and lighter bodies and chasses. And it has created a mythos as much a part of each 612 Scaglietti, 360 Modena or Enzo as the mechanical bits that make them run.
Not everyone is enamored of Ferraris. Some dismiss its owners as the "gold chain crowd." Voice specialist Noel Blanc, son of the late Mel Blanc, experienced firsthand the way some folks react. "When I'm driving down the street in my hot rod, people are waving at me and giving me the thumbs up," he explains. "When I drive down the same street in my Ferrari, they're extending another finger."
Most Ferrari owners aren't likely to notice. Even if they did, they'd also see plenty of admiring stares. While Ferraris may be a bit more common than they were when Denise McCluggage was driving her Berlinetta, they're still rare—and striking—enough to leave other drivers sitting slack jawed. "Ferrari is a status symbol," says auctioneer Jackson. "When you drive one, you know you've reached that level. It's your own reward."
It's a reward that doesn't come cheap—or easy. If you'd like to see the new 612 Scaglietti parked in your garage, you'd better start saving your pennies and counting the days.
Paul A. Eisenstein publishes an auto magazine on the Internet at www.TheCarConnection.com.