A car historian enrols at the new Ferrari Classiche Academy, to learn how to get the best out of vintage racers
People who began driving forty years ago did so with a very different mind set to those of today. This was the argument used by Gigi Barp, chief of Ferrari Classiche, when he convinced me to visit its new driving school. My classmates include four Italians, two Americans, a Frenchman who has brought along his son, two Japanese friends and an Englishman. We soon find ourselves under a garage ramp staring up at the underbody of a 308 GTB: the ‘classica’ with which we’ll be going back to school. Sensibly, the course begins with the car anatomy, its design and structural principles.
My classmates’ uncertain expressions soon reveal that in our group only two of us actually enjoy getting our hands dirty changing our own oil and filters. But we all soon have a much better idea of what constitutes a manual transmission, a dry clutch, direct steering, and a parallelogram suspension. An Academy mechanic talks us through the genesis of its eight cylinders. Mid-morning, a magnificent example appears on a trestle, its components partly sectioned. Hearing it roar at just an arm’s length away reveals what kind of beast we are dealing with.
The next session is devoted to driving techniques, focussing on gear changing and the fateful heel-toe shifting. By midday we are out on the track. First we watch the instructor (his feet, hands, the rev counter), then try to imitate him whilst nervously trying to remember everything. Eventually satisfaction increases, as does the speed. The Academy programme acts as a first step toward the vintage-car world, including regularity rallies and training activities on public roads and track, with roadbook and pressostat/photocell.
The 308 is the perfect car for a full-immersion course like this. Even if you’ve never been inside one in your life, it is instantly a perfect fit. Inside it is sparse, essential. ‘Professor’ Barp gives me a few words of advice on the crucial return to the middle of the gear lever gate. But I have to control my instincts as track-driving calls for no sharp or forced movements. The clutch is heavy but not too bad. A couple of times I hear him in my helmet: “Be careful when you let it go!”
I comfortably keep the revs between 4,000 and 6,000 as I get the hang of the Fiorano corners. The instructor spells out, metre for metre, where to pass and where to aim. I haven’t raced in a long time so I ask him to ease me in gradually. He doesn't. But everything goes exactly as it should. After two days it feels like I’ve had a 308 all my life.
In between swapping over at the wheel, the ‘Professor’ explains the school's philosophy: re-introduce collectors to manual driving, dispel doubts, debunk fears. Not only those of the owners but also of their partners and children. People who often keep their distance from cars ‘of yesteryear’, and consequently miss out on the sheer pleasure of driving, and its history.
I clock up five straight laps on my own: like some grand finale that ought never to end. As the sun hangs low over Fiorano, two test-drivers arrive, the oldest no more than twenty five, to do a few laps with the photographers. “Take it slow, okay?”, says the younger one to his colleague, “I’ve driven this one only twice.” “What?!” I yell. “Even you have forgotten how they used to drive in the days of the ‘Drake’?!” Everybody laughs. “Of course not”, they reply. “But, compared to what we test here every day, this is a different world.”