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A FERRARI, A RACETRACK, AND YOU

O.K., so you love Ferraris. But do you really know how to make that famous black stallion prance? Ferrari offers a safe way to learn. Each year, the sports-car maker's Pilota school is conducted at two of Italy's premier racetracks. Run by former Formula 1 driver Andrea de Adamich, the two-day course teaches enthusiasts how to harness the several hundred high-strung horses lurking under the hood.

From the snorting engines to the yellow crash helmets participants receive, the trappings of racing abound. However, Pilota Ferrari strives to teach the fundamentals of driving, regardless of the student's experience.

SLICK ASPHALT. The $4,850 basic course convenes seven times a year, from April to October, at the 3.3-mile Mugello race circuit 20 miles north of Florence. Two dozen course participants from around the globe garner hands-on experience with panic stops, controlling skids, and finding the fastest route around corners. Participants get plenty of individual attention. Best of all, they enjoy lots of seat time in the nimble, mid-engine $130,000 Ferrari 355 Berlinetta and brand-new, $204,000, 485-horsepower Ferrari 550 Maranello.

The course kicks off with a quick driving test. With an instructor in the passenger seat, you take a couple of untutored laps. To accommodate the various experience levels, classes break into four groups of six people each. Groups alternate between skidding and braking exercises in the paddock area behind the pits and sessions on the track.

More than going fast, de Adamich stresses confidence behind the wheel. Paddock sessions involved maneuvers designed to impart a better feeling for the car. Sprinklers wet the asphalt to make it slippery and promote gentle, low-speed skids. One exercise involved driving in circles until the rear wheels lost traction and the car threatened to spin out. The object was to use the throttle and steering wheel to control and maintain the skid--no easy feat.

Track sessions started with low speed laps the first day to get the feel of Mugello's 15 corners. In the interest of safety, orange cones helped slow drivers somewhat before sweeping and downhill sections of the track. Instructors in pace cars led two students at a time through the turns, giving tips via radio. By the second afternoon, participants roared merrily around the course at speeds up to 140 mph.

Periodically, the whole group reunited for sessions with the genial de Adamich. He explained the fine points of the car's weight transfer, how to hit the apex of a corner, and when to stand on the gas.

HIGH-TECH HELP. The school is superbly organized. English is the official language, and the helpful staff all speak it well. My only objection was that track time involved a maximum of three successive laps, interspersed with pauses, to prevent too much time waiting while classmates whizzed around the track. Still, I would have enjoyed more laps at once, to perfect my technique in such tricky maneuvers as two back-to-back S-turns.

For some Mugello graduates, the experience only whets the appetite. So last year, Ferrari inaugurated a $7,250 advanced course. Three times a year, groups of 16 students convene at a twisty, 1.9-mile racetrack next to Ferrari's factory up north in Fiorano. The course is tougher than Mugello and instruction more individualized. The basic course is a prerequisite. Ferrari equips the cars with the same sophisticated sensors used in Formula 1 racers to measure such factors as throttle position and steering angle.

Be forewarned: Hot laps on a track can be addictive. For those bitten by the racing bug, Ferrari organizes the Ferrari Challenge racing series. Participants drive modified F355s. Top drivers meet for the international finals, scheduled this year for Nov. 6-9 in Sicily.

The Challenge is expensive fun. For $30,000, Ferrari dealers will convert cars by removing the air conditioner and interior trim and adding a racing seat and slicks as well as a roll cage and other safety gear. Travel and maintenance will run at least $100,000 a year. Once modified, the car is no longer street legal, which means you might be forced to buy a second one.

By comparison, Pilota courses are a bargain. The tab covers two days of instruction, insurance, meals, and a hotel. To sign up, contact your local Ferrari dealer, or call the company directly at 011-39-536-949-426. Access is limited to Ferrari owners or potential buyers. Plan ahead, as the courses fill up quickly.

While the Pilota school focuses on driving Ferraris, there's time, of course, to enjoy Italy's other pleasures. Some folks brought along their spouses and took off on side jaunts to explore the Ferrari factory or take in the art treasures of Florence. The most heart-quickening memories of the trip, however, are those of hurtling through Mugello's corners with the sweet thunder of a Ferrari engine ringing in your ears.

David Woodruff



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