We are about to start our final lap around Fiorano. ‘OK,’ I say to Fernando, ‘this is our last lap, let’s really go for it, do a real qualifying style lap…’ At which point he transforms his driving style, moves his hands with much more economy at the steering wheel, and is immediately much more focused. His body language changes completely, his eyes open wider and he starts to drive, pushing the F12berlinetta to its limits at both ends, but without putting it into oversteer or understeer. That’s just a recipe for wasting time.
In that qualifying lap Fernando drives in such a way as to cover the least possible ground at the highest possible speed. It’s fascinating to witness the transformation, from photographer-pleasing show-boating – expertly balancing the steering wheel and throttle to execute dramatic, perfectly judged power-slides – to ultra focused racer. To be frank, the first time we enter the fast curve after the hairpin bend it startles me a little.
Fernando takes it at a speed that should be impossible and unthinkable in a road car, and I wonder how we are going to get round the rest of the corner. Then, already committed, Fernando slows down, with the lightest touch on the brakes: it’s a manoeuvre that is very much on the edge of what is advisable, as all test drivers and engineers know, considering the lateral load the car is already trying to cope with.
But the F12berlinetta remains totally stable, which amazes me. It is not as if Fernando didn’t have to use the wheel in this phase; the stability and the low load transfer feel as though they belong to a racing car. I ponder the aerodynamic loading the F12berlinetta generates – 120kg at 200km/h (our current speed on the track), which means, of course, that a vertical force is pushing the car towards the ground and helping it travel at a velocity I didn’t think was within the remit of what we know is possible for a conventional car.
I have been working at Maranello for 13 years now. I know the Company and its technical expertise very well indeed. I have worked beside Michael Schumacher, Kimi Räikkönen and now Fernando Alonso as a Race Engineer. When you do this sort of work, there is not a single detail that is not analysed and scrutinised in the search for continuous, unstoppable improvement.
Aerodynamics, of course, is much more than a detail because in Formula One it is the key to performance. An F1 car has vertical loads much greater than a ton at high speed. What is surprising is the fact that the same effects can be transferred to a Ferrari road GT, clothed in lines that really look as though they were designed to satisfy aesthetic requirements rather than aero ones, in complete contrast to a race car.
To understand the psychological barrier that a driver has to face when he relies on the “ground effect” created by aerodynamics, I remember how much trouble Valentino Rossi had in finding the limit around Fiorano’s fastest corner when we let him evaluate an F1 car a few years ago. He tended to touch the brake instinctively, which is something you can only do if you let up the accelerator. However, when he touched the brake, the load transfer to the front, the consequent reduction in speed, and therefore in aerodynamic loading, made Valentino feel as if the car was right at its limit. In fact, the top speed for this particular curve was much higher, as shown by Schumacher’s telemetry data which we used as a reference.
Once convinced that he did not actually need to brake, Valentino – gradually – started to avoid doing so, but he later told us that he had to concentrate hard not to move his left foot, because otherwise it would have moved to the brake on its own. After which, he then had to convince himself, with the same degree of mental effort, that he was not to release the throttle too much and that he had to rely on the car’s innate capacity to glue itself to the ground more firmly the faster the car went…
I am an engineer first and foremost, so my account of my adventure in the F12berlinetta with Alonso has not been a very easy thing for me to express. But there are some things I can say for certain: first, it was a wonderful experience and a special occasion. I had already seen what it means to go at a speed nearly as fast as an F1 car when I did some laps with him driving a three-seater (a uniquely adapted single-seater reconfigured for three places and used at Fiorano for lucky and some might say foolhardy people).
Today, however, I have the opportunity of seeing him drive while sat right beside him. As happens with the three- seater (where the driver talks with the passenger via intercom, as long as they feel able to speak while travelling at barely six seconds under full F1 speed), I could ask him to comment on some manoeuvres. I found this vantage point really interesting, because I’m usually talking to him from the pit wall while he is on track.
The second thing is our personal relationship, at work and outside. Each of us has a role: I ask and tell him about work-related matters and the overall activities of our team. Ours is a relationship of trust and loyalty, shot through with the right dose of professionalism. It is not a question of friendship. Certainly if Fernando invites me to dinner with him after a victory, we can share afeeling of friendship. But when we are working and, above all, on grand prix days, it is trust, loyalty and professionalism that count.
That said, back to our test at Fiorano. This wasn’t Alonso’s first experience of an F12berlinetta. As Ferrari drivers always do, Fernando had contributed to the development of this car. I admit I didn’t know this, but I find out as soon as I get in… ‘Do you know this car well?’ I ask. He answers with evident pride that he has been personally involved in its development. ‘You’ll see what an upshift and downshift should be. I was very fussy about how these points were worked out.’
It’s 5.30pm, the sky a little cloudy, the track dry, the air temperature 28°C, the track temperature 46°C and the outside humidity 40 per cent. There is no wind. As I get in, I give Fernando the figures for the car in a deliberately loud voice: power output of 740hp (virtually the same as a current single-seater), at 1,525kg obviously heavier (about two-and-a-half-times, in fact), acceleration from 0 to 100km/h in 3.1 seconds (not much less than an F1 car, which does it in 2.6 seconds), lap time at Fiorano, 1 minute 23 seconds. ‘Hadn’t we better try it out?’ Fernando says. Yes, we had better do so.
Fernando finds his driving position and tells me that if he was in a race, he would pull the wheel even nearer. I put the seat forward, so that I can jam my feet down. Should you ever find yourself alongside a driver like Alonso and a car with the F12berlinetta’s epic performance, the best thing you can do is to find a way to move as little as possible. With him, however, it will not be easy to keep still without a four-point seat belt!
We’re off. The acceleration is almost comparable with the three-seater. Not quite as good, but even so it doesn’t seem believable that we are in a road car. Fernando doesn’t say a word. After a curve or two, I ask him how the brake pedal feels compared with our race car. ‘It’s very similar. The brakes bite at once, they’re effective, very racing… the pedal travel is similar too.’ I ask him if he would remove the anti-lock braking system (ABS) if he raced with this car. He hesitates. ‘Well, I don’t know, I wouldn’t be certain,’ he replies, thus implicitly confirming the quality of the system.
Then I tell him that when I looked at the data for the German Grand Prix qualifying session, I saw that when the rear brakes were locking on curve six on the wet surface, he removed pressure from the pedal (to reduce the risk of the wheels locking) and then reapplied it (to stop in time without leaving it too late) in 0.17 seconds! That’s a man who is practically as fast as an ABS system.
He grimaces slightly, letting me know he has understood. Understood that he has exceptional driving gifts and remarkable technique. In fact it is these details, demonstrated through telemetry, that allow you to appreciate the huge gifts of control necessary to be a front-line driver. These gifts make a difference when you drive F1 cars, the most sophisticated in existence.
Fernando plays his first trick on me on curve four: he hurls the car sideways with the tyres billowing smoke. It’s fun to know that he is at the wheel, but I am struck by his capacity to work the wheel and accelerator, modulating and blending them perfectly during the moment at which a normal person would get frightened, let the accelerator go and the car would probably spin. I say, ‘But you obviously turned the traction control off!’ He confirms that you can’t do a manoeuvre like that with the system active. I ask him how this aid works on a high-performance vehicle compared with how it once functioned in F1.
‘Obviously, it cuts off much more than if it were on an F1 of that time… but it’s OK, it’s very good. Traction control and the other control systems make the car very safe despite its huge power.’ One thing that surprises me is that, even against the marvellous 12-cylinder soundtrack, which Fernando revs up to the limiter, you can still converse with one another perfectly. Fernando plays with the operatic sound effect, but also the mechanical effect of the up and down gearshifts.
All the more satisfying for the role he played in it. Then I ask him about the car’s stability. ‘It’s one of the most stable cars I’ve driven,’ he says as we approach curve seven: a long, difficult bend. ‘It’s very precise and turns in the exact direction that the driver wants.’ The weight distribution of the F12berlinetta is exactly the same as that of the F1 car: front 46 per cent and rear 54 per cent.
Taking advantage of the fact that I am inside the car and not, for once, outside, I ask him to make the balance of the car clearer. The demonstration that follows makes all comments superfluous.
We are at curve eight, he goes in very fast, extremely fast, then lets the car go, taking his foot off the brake and entering a free rolling condition (on a curve, no brake, no accelerator). This is another moment, I must say frankly, at which I briefly wonder if we are going to stay on the track.
But the car rolls with it gracefully on its four wheels in a substantially neutral manner. ‘You see, this is good balance, with a really positive front end,’ comments Fernando. Message received!
I ask if he is more focused now or in a qualifying round. He moves a lot, because you have to be reactive when you go so fast. And in this he is very fast, both when working the pedals and turning the wheel. ‘I’m moving about more now, but I concentrate much more in a qualifying round,’ he says, before doing another powerslide (traction control still OFF) coming out of a curve.
I think again of the powerslides Fernando executes during some shots (with me in the car), literally almost grazing the photographer’s car. It makes you wonder how he manages to be so masterful and, above all, to have such a feeling for distance. In practice, when you think about it, it’s like in a race when you see the cars coming close to each other at very high speeds, without the drivers being able to see, from their positions, where their tyres or the front wings finish. Drivers can do this, we know, but sometimes I must admit that I take it for granted, overlooking how exceptional such an ability and spatial awareness really is. Today I’ve brushed up on this concept.
As I reflect again on the experience, I must be honest. It has been a remarkable experience with an incredible car and a driver who is not only a former double World Champion but also a serene, open person. A person who is able to put you at your ease even in situations that, it is fair to say, are not exactly usual.
On Sunday we will each be in our place once again: I’ll be on the pit wall and he’ll be on track. We will discuss everything to do with the race, about everything that contributed to the result. In Italian of course. By now it has become a habit.
Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine 18 issue September 2012