The Ferrari Challenge is the widest ranging and most envied one-make series in the world and for the first time ever, it was held in New Zealand. Fittingly, Hampton Downs Motorsport Park played host to a weekend of high performance, high drama and ultimate luxury in an event like no other – and we were there from the moment it began.
In true Ferrari style, a helicopter had been arranged to transport us from downtown Auckland to the track, allowing us the opportunity to witness the elaborate pomp and ceremony from the air as we arrived. Hampton Downs had become a sea of Rossa Corsa, with flags, banners, sidings and of course, cars, most sporting the brand’s distinctive colour and all bearing the unmistakable Cavallino Rampante (Prancing Horse) logo, it was an amazing sight.
As the helicopter rotors shut down, the high pitched sound from V8 engined Ferrari 488 Challenge cars rang out like a welcome fanfare as they raced around the track, with their drivers learning best cornering lines and ideal braking points, as they prepared for the weekend ahead.
Twenty-six drivers from fourteen countries (two of which from New Zealand) were there to compete in the Asia-Pacific series of the Challenge, each of them behind the wheel of the 488 Challenge Ferrari, the specs of which I’ll get to soon. The Ferrari Challenge itself began in 1993 and is FIA approved. It’s separated into three series, Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific and has three categories per race, Trofeo Pirelli, Trofeo Pirelli AM and Coppa Shell, so there is much to race for, but what is more astonishing (when you see how well they drive) is that these are Gentlemen/lady drivers, not professionals. They are owners that essentially arrive and drive, leaving Ferrari’s Corse Clienti team to do all the rest.
For 2018, the cars themselves are the most powerful Ferraris to ever grace this or any other one-make series. The 3.9-litre turbo V8 engine that boasts around 500kW and a whopping 760Nm has been racing performance mapped and then married to an F1 DCT transmission. The 488 race car has been considerably lightened and then made stealth like by the aerodynamic department, this is a serious piece of kit. But the weekend was far more than simply a jaw-dropping racing event, this was a fully immersive Ferrari Festival for the ardent Ferraristi and for those just about to begin their love affair with this luxurious lifestyle brand.
Thanks to Continental Cars Ferrari and New Zealand Ferrari owners themselves, over 200 models of Ferrari, from yesteryear to today, were there to letch over, photograph, sit in, passenger and even drive, both on the track and the surrounding Waikato countryside and we were hellbent on experiencing it all.
Riding shotgun in an 812 Superfast, the team from Downforce took us on a familiarity drive around Hampton’s International course. The 3.8km circuit is, on the surface, relatively straightforward but once you add in the undulations, blind drop off corners, and a double bastard, you get a track that requires your utmost attention – something to which the 488 Challenge drivers will vehemently attest.
Once back in the pits, we were handed the reins of the Ferrari 488 Spider and then the 812 Superfast to experience the track first hand, allowing us to drive in controlled anger – thankfully with a trained racing driver beside us for guidance. Both cars were an absolute thrill, with speeds reaching upwards of 240kph, now that is Superfast.
With the adrenaline buzz still coursing, we were invited up to the GT lounge, a haven or sanctuary for the drivers (for which I guess we were now members). Again, it was an area enveloped in Rossa Corsa adorned with furniture, fixtures, and fittings that follow the series from event to event, you can’t help but feel involved. Aside from the fine Italian food and refreshments, there is also a qualified masseur (that travels with the entourage) on hand to iron out those motorsport niggles – we, unfortunately, didn’t get to try this out.
Lunch was held in the member’s lounge and this was followed by a presentation by Hublot (the series official timekeeper). Their timepieces are drool-worthy and their avant-garde approach and style make for an ideal partnership – you can tell I really want one, can’t you!
After lunch, we took to the road in the new Ferrari Portofino. Continental Cars had two examples of this convertible successor to the California on hand (left hand that is) for us to drive – we opted to keep the roof’s up – thanks to the not so glorious NZ weather.
The driving rain meant that Challenge racing on Saturday was changed to just qualifying, but this in no way dampened anyone’s spirits. Posted track times were impressive and it gave us all chance to interview the drivers and crawl all over their cars in the Pit lane. Sunday brought with it drier weather conditions and some enthusiastic racing, with more than a fair share of thrills and spills, it seems that the drop off at turn 1 had several cars pirouetting – great for spectators, and aside from a lot of panel damage, only egos were slightly dented – this is definitely a motorsport event.
Between races, clients were taken on hot laps around the track in several road going models and we were offered a hot lap in Grant Baker’s 488 Challenge Car, with an Italian Ferrari driver behind the wheel, we gladly accepted. The experience was beyond words. The car control as he danced the race car on the cutting edge of its grip was dumbfounding, no strike that, it was maniacal laugh-inducing. If you think you can drive, I urge you to take to the passenger seat – feel free to form an orderly queue after I get another go.
Despite the challenging weather conditions, the event was a performance of epic international proportions. New Zealand punches well above its weight when it comes to collecting Ferrari’s, and the adoration of the brand was rife throughout the entire weekend.
From the 100+ squad of Corse Clienti mechanics and technicians that travel from city to city keeping the 488’s in perfect health, the staff and management of the local Ferrari dealership and their Australasian support, the driving instructors, the Hampton Downs team, the Ferrari owners and of course the Challenge drivers themselves, we salute you, you really rose to the Challenge. We can’t wait to be a part of it EVERY year from now on, please!