Sunday, August 14, 2011

When a normal Ferrari won't do, join the Corsa Clienti

The following first appeared in The National on February 25, 2011

A press conference was the last place the assembled group of hacks wanted to be on a sunny Thursday afternoon. However, this time it was not because the end of the work week loomed, but because there were far too many interesting things going on outside the window.

The event was the official press conference for the inaugural Ferrari Festival for the Middle East, and the interesting bits were the roar of V12 engines coming from the cars racing around the tracks. We had been unceremoniously yanked from the garages to an upstairs conference hall to hear about how great Ferrari's sales had been in 2010 (up five per cent from 2009), and how important the Middle East was to the company (exhibit A, Ferrari World).

Organised by the Ferrari division, Corse Clienti, or "client racing", the Ferrari Festival is part of a travelling roadshow, putting on a dozen or so appearances around the world's most famous racetracks every year. Besides the allure of driving their road-going Ferraris without the hindrance of things like speed limits, a select group of "Prancing Horse" owners flock to these events for the chance to drive one of the so-called "laboratory cars".

The laboratory cars programme began in 2005 with the FXX, which is based on the Enzo - a car so exclusive Ferrari got to decide whether you deserved one. That, I suppose, is part of the appeal. Only 400 Enzos were produced, but the FXX programme is even more exclusive.

About 30 lucky Ferrari owners paid €1.3 million (Dh6.5m) to own a car they could only drive on a racetrack. What was the appeal? A 6.7L V12 engine that produces 850hp, which takes you from zero to 100kph in a blistering 2.5 seconds and has a top speed of about 400kph. This is a car for serious drivers. Based on the successes of the FXX programme, Ferrari released the 599XX in 2009 and the 33 available cars were swiftly bought up by the uber-wealthy. Sometimes, just owning a regular, humdrum Ferrari is not enough of a statement.

They are called laboratory cars because of the black box contained onboard the 60 cars. These record data from every drive, which are then logged and analysed by Ferrari technicians and used to produce future cars. Information garnered from the 599XX programme was used to create the 599GTO, the fastest street-legal Ferrari yet.

This was explained to us by Pietro Innocenti, or Peter the Innocent to non-Italian speakers, who is the general manager of Ferrari Middle East. He has an appropriately papal name for his position as the high priest to Medici-esque crew of Ferrari owners assembled at the event. The owners at the Yas Marina Circuit that day were the elite of the elites, chosen by the company to own some of its most prized creations.

One of them was Frank Kanyet, the 56-year-old Colombian executive chairman of the oil consortium Petrotesting. He is the proud owner of a 599XX, and the epitome of what Innocenti refers to as the "gentlemen drivers", the patrons of Corse Clienti's annual racing events. Heavy around the middle and of average height and looks, Kanayet lacks the physique of a hardened racer, but he certainly has gravitas. He sat sprawled on a couch in a luxury villa adjoining the track with his racing suit down around his waist.

The public relations woman taking me to the interview repeatedly assured me of the privilege I was being granted in this brief interview. "Most of the clients do not want to be seen by the press." This sort of conspicuous consumption is best done in private, I suppose.

Despite only getting to drive his car 10 times a year at Ferrari-approved events, Kanayet is completely enamoured of his purchase. He owns the car out of a passion for the brand - and fast driving. "We got the car a year ago in Valencia," says Kanayet. "It's absolutely amazing; it's an experience that you cannot describe. It's the performance, the instant power, the fast shifting and the security in knowing that if you brake you will stop."

The combination of safety and power is what all 599XX owners and test drivers rave about, but if you want to be a little less safe and a bit more Felipe Massa, there is a traction control dial on the carbon fibre dashboard. It goes from one to nine; turn it to nine and the car handles with all the security of a Volvo; turn it to one and you'll be fishtailing around corners as if the roads were iced.

The traction control ensures that if you hit a corner too fast you won't send your million-euro toy careering into the safety barriers. All of the fun, none of the risk. Well, almost.

It's not hard to see why Kanayet fell in love with the car. Turn the key on the 599XX and it roars to life like some prehistoric beast marking its territory. It is a predator engineered for one purpose: to destroy previous lap times. Hit the accelerator and the car gives off a satisfying, eardrum-destroying howl. The FXX sounds like a house cat by comparison.

A car this powerful requires special treatment. So, like most laboratory car owners, Kanayet keeps his 599XX at the Ferrari stables in Maranello, Italy where it is lovingly watched over by an army of engineers and mechanics. The same goes for the owners of retired Ferrari Formula One cars, which were also on display.

The car disrupting Innocenti's press conference earlier in the day was the F2005, which had previously been driven by Michael Schumacher and was now being driven by some unnamed Scuderia Ferrari enthusiast. Ferrari sells off all its Formula One cars two years after each season ends.

One of the other strange perks of owning a Ferrari F1 car is that you also inherit most of the pit crew. Engineers that worked on the car throughout the season tend to stay on with the car as it is retired and maintain it in Maranello for its new owner. So, you not only get Schumacher's car, you also get his mechanic.

The logistics of running these sorts of events is mind-boggling. Kanayet and most of his fellow laboratory car owners pay an extra fee to Ferrari to store and maintain their vehicles, which includes transporting them around the world so that they can play with their toys.

There is luxury, and then there is the stratified world of Ferrari ownership. It is difficult for the peons and the working stiffs of the world to understand the appeal of owning a car you can drive, let alone see, only a handful of times a year. However, you can't help but feel a twinge of jealousy when you see the joy on face of men like Kanayet. They squeeze their middle-aged bodies into the cockpits of Formula One cars designed for men half their age and trouser size, but for the two minutes it takes them to drive around the Marina Circuit they are Fernando Alonso, sitting astride some of the most powerful machines ever designed by man.

Money, it seems, can buy happiness.