If you’re a fan of Ferrari, you know it became a luxury automaker begrudgingly.
Founder Enzo Ferrari just wanted to build race cars. In fact, the only reason he branched out to road cars was to support the financial demands of his business. And even then, Ferrari-built cars only went to a select few.
Many decades later, building superb road cars is status quo for the brand, but Ferrari cars are still — first and foremost — made for racing. Ferrari still races, it hasn’t stopped racing, and it most likely never will.
You might think that, save for the customer racing teams and Formula 1 superstars, all this heritage adds up to little more than a chance for those with Ferraris to romanticize about their purchase at the next “Cars and Coffee” event. That may be true for some, but there are other customers who want to better understand that heritage.
For the past 11 years, Ferrari has offered more of its customers a chance to see just what a Ferrari is capable of with the Corso Pilota driving course. Don’t mistake this for a simple track day to placate lead-foot thrill seekers, though: Ferrari wants to make a race car driver out of you.
How to drive a Ferrari, for real
Congrats, you managed to buy yourself a Ferrari, and you’ve spent a pretty penny on it, too (many pretty pennies). You know all about its engine output, its control, the willful soul of racing that it embodies … yadda yadda yadda. You could either gingerly drive up to Starbucks and dry-rev the engine so that everyone notices your expensive sunglasses, or you could, y’know, learn what it’s actually capable of.
Ferrari offered to show me how to drive its sports cars. I wasn’t about to say no.
Held at either Austin’s Circuit of the Americas or Circuit Mont-Tremblant in Canada, Corso Pilota is a Ferrari owner’s opportunity to take the two day course that teaches the basics of racing through a regimented series of on-track exercises. “Sport” is the initial rung of four instruction levels, which include “Advanced,” “Evolution,” and “Challenge.” As you might expect, each tier steps up the skill-set and those who push on to “Challenge” are basically trained race car drivers at that point.
Ferrari offered me an opportunity to join the club and learn how to drive its sports cars. I wasn’t about to say no.
It’s about as nice as weather gets as I arrive at Mont-Tremblant’s 2.65-mile circuit, nestled in Quebec’s Laurentian mountains. The track has been here since 1964 and has hosted numerous racing events, including the F1 Canadian Gran Prix a couple of times. Totaling 15 turns in all, the circuit is made up of two loops: the original north loop, which is tight and technical, and the south loop, which is the track’s higher speed section. Listen to the guys who have driven here, and you’ll hear the word “soul” a lot. It’s not without warrant, either. Famed Ferrari F1 legend Michael Schumacher drove the track and dubbed it “a little Nurburgring,” which is high praise that is proudly repeated by the instructors. “This track was built by drivers, for drivers,” says Pierre Savoy, who speaks passionately about the tempo of the corners. Hearing him talk about going into turn 7 is like listening to someone recall their first kiss.
Back to school
At the event, I sat in a makeshift classroom by the track, surrounded by eager Ferrari owners of various ages. Some have brought their families along, while others are driving solo. All are exchanging personal Ferrari stories as I sit quietly as an interloping fraudster.
We were greeted by the roster of instructors who will showed us the ropes, including Anthony Lazzaro, Pierre Savoy, Jeffery Segal, and more. This process took some time since all of them individually have a list of credentials as long as my arm, including NASCAR, Touring Car championship, Indy car, and endurance racing in the U.S. and at Le Mans.
According to Corso Pilota chief instructor Nick Longhi, the method each team member has proven their racing qualifications was simple: They win. Longhi joked that he should have all the instructors show up wearing their Rolexes, the ones you only get from winning at the eponymous race series, and just let the amount of bling sink in.
With this established, it was time for class to begin.
The humbling begins
Over the years, I’ve had the great fortune to drive my fair share of tracks, enough to be really comfortable when presented with one. I’m also an automotive journalist so by default, I think I’m a better driver than I actually am, so I’m never one to turn down instruction from a professional whenever possible, even if it’s stuff I presume to know already. In this case, I did my best to go through the lessons as if I was starting from scratch.
I decided that I had played along enough, and showed him just how fast I can go.
A class session going over the fundamentals of driving preceded our track time. Going over everything from seating position, to weight distribution, to wheel dynamics, we were instructed on everything we need to look out for before we headed to our first track activities.
Day one consisted of braking exercises and orientation around the north loop in the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta. It was a stunning front engine coupe that housed a 731 Horsepower 6.3-liter V12, which was a bit much for what we were taking on, but rest only a fraction of its capabilities were being tapped. We were guided very gingerly through the track, being told how to determine the best driving line and braking points, and we increased speed as we progressed through our many laps around the course. After playing around for a while I decide to show my instructor, two-time GT Championship winner Jeff Segal, just how fast I can go.
Segal was … less than impressed. I hobbled over to the next classroom session with a laundry list of feedback points that echoed through my head for the rest of the day.
After the first day, my dreams were full of repeating corners and directions. Determined to do better, I endeavored to be less hard-headed (easier said than done) on day two.
The Ferrari California T is the automaker’s less aggressive front engine tourer, with a 3.9-liter turbo V8 giving it 553 horsepower, and a retractable hard top. It seems like an odd choice for a skid pad session, but that’s kind of the point.
On the skid pad, we have varying exercises intended to teach us control during a slide. The first trick was to manage at least one drift around a circle of cones, then we moved on to the more advanced figure eight.
It doesn’t take much to get the back wheels of the Cali T to break traction, particularly when the turbo boost kicks in, so the majority of the sessions were spent pirouetting in a very expensive convertible, repeatedly until we got it right. I manage to get into a decent rhythm by the time we got to the figure eights, learning to eyeball where I wanted to go, feeling when the car’s about to slip, and how it should be controlled through some quick steering. I walked away from this task with better understanding, but far from having it mastered.
Putting it to the test
The majority of day two was spent doing laps of both the north loop and south loop in the Ferrari 488 GTB, the mid-engined sports car that packs a 3.9-liter twin turbo V8. It was about as perfect as a sports car gets, and we used them as trainers.
“I felt pretty good about it … I just forgot to breathe.”
At this point in the course, we really hammered in concepts that we’ve been laid the foundation for over the course of the trip. Everything we did repeatedly on separate occasions was combined here.
Being handed off from instructor to instructor was frustrating at the beginning, since each have their own methods of conveying instruction. Some listen more than talk, and vice versa. It comes down to the learner, too. Some people absorb whatever they’re told while others learn more by practical application, and I fall into the latter.
The courses used to be more intimate, but the soaring popularity of the program has been a double-edged sword, and classes are slightly larger than before. Once I was in my own car, alone, I felt more comfortable and keen to apply all that instruction I had taken in.
By the middle of day two, we were doing laps of the full combined course, and every bit of information from each the instructors swirled through my mind. “The car goes where you look,” said Anthony Lazzaro. “Remember to breathe,” said Pierre Savoy.
With each round of laps, I got feedback, and it was less biting than the first day, so I guess I cleaned up my line. Now conversations were centered more around fine-tuning.
“Line looked good, but you were a little stiff,” remarked Savoy. “I felt pretty good about it … I just forgot to breathe,” I replied, to Savoy’s amusement.
The men, not the machines
Later in the day, after I had a hefty number of sessions under my belt, I sat down with Lazzaro and Segal to get their perspective on what this program means to them. Its very clear first of all that the team is a very tight knit group. For the 11 years that Corso Pilota has been in practice, there’s been hardly any turnover in their ranks. Each member comes back year after year because they believe in what they’re doing, if its either coaching someone to perform or just showing Ferrari owners a good time.
After you’ve been trained by Ferrari to drive a Ferrari, you can drive just about anything.
Lazzaro imparts that he believes the brand is being very responsible in showing customers what their recently purchased 500+ hp supercars are capable of. If not for safety, then they’re giving them the opportunity to tap the potential of their sports cars in a controlled setting. Ferrari isn’t the only sports car manufacturer to do this, but they’re few and far between. It’s a concept, coincidentally, that seems to be gaining traction. Just recently, Fiat announced its partnership with Bondurant driving school to give lessons to 124 Abarth buyers. Same goes for Cadillac, which is offering driver training along with its CTS-V and ATS-V performance cars. This trend of on-track performance training becoming more accessible is certainly a good thing for everyone.
Segal backed this up with an interesting point concerning car technology. In the years that the program has running, the cars and the underlying tech has improved. However, it’s the untrained who shun it while the skilled embrace it. While most driver assists like traction and stability control are banned throughout different racing series, teams attempt to bend the rules as much as they can to include them. So if the professionals want it, why do the amateurs want to switch them all off?
It circles back to the first lesson of leaving your ego by the door. Winning is what’s impressive and what matters, and the rest is just control. Having tools for control on hand and ignoring them just doesn’t make sense. A Ferrari is one of the most powerful, precession engineered performance cars on the planet, and Corso Pilota is there to make sure you know how to control it when you return home.
After I returned home, I found myself behind the wheel again, thinking about how much weight is transferred on the rear as my ordinary car accelerates forward. I was braking hard, then gently easing off as I let the car coast through the bend, neutralizing the weight balance before I accelerated off of the apex.
I wasn’t in a Ferrari, or on a track. I was literally just going to get a burrito.
Over the next couple of days, I was awestruck by just how much of the teachings sunk in and how it affected my daily driving. Corso Pilota could very easily just be a race-driver fantasy camp to massage the egos of rich Ferrari clientele, making them feel like the next Raikkonen, Schumacher, or Alonso. Some who attend will probably treat it as such, for sure, but it’s not what Corso Pilota is about. The instructors return year after year because they believe in what they do, and the fact that most who attend the course leave with a solid set of new skills to hone is a testament to that.
Forget the high-speed cars; forget the soulful track; and forget the luxurious mountain setting. The best part of Corso Pilota is the people — both instructors and attendees. And after you’ve been trained by Ferrari to drive a Ferrari, you can drive just about anything.