Un autista speciale…
The Ants are still dead
When I was in elementary school, someone gave me an ant farm for the holidays. I felt like a god, but then all the ants died because I was a dope who didn’t take care of them. It was a nice moment, until it wasn’t. I had that feeling again driving a Ferrari F12berlinetta around Ferrari’s test track in Italy. I felt like a god.
Then I rode in it with Kimi Räikkönen.
Maybe that name means something to you. Maybe it means nothing. But if you watch Formula 1, it means everything.
Kimi drives for Scuderia Ferrari, a team that was founded in 1929 and is synonymous with the sport. He is 35, a former world champion, and one of the best drivers on the planet. This is the least of his appeal. In a sport as image-conscious and rigidly managed as F1, Kimi is wonderfully, gloriously irreverent. He is known for doing decidedly off-message things like racing powerboats while wearing a gorilla suit, drunkenly falling off yachts, and napping before a race. He says what he thinks—often in a barely intelligible mumble—and has little patience for being managed. Former F1 team owner Eddie Jordan once called him “the most bizarre grand-prix winner.”
Even this is not what makes him great. What makes him great is how damn good he is and how easy he makes it all look, even to an experienced club racer like myself. Someone once asked him what it’s like to drive at 185 mph. “Normal,” he replied. Normal. Kimi is a driver of freakish talent who is far better than the often unreliable or mediocre cars he is given would suggest. And he may well be the best thing about a sport that has lost its way.
Formula 1 has been odd lately. Some might say boring. A raft of changes over the years, each meant to rein in stratospheric budgets, promote fuel efficiency and somehow make F1 relevant to road cars, has brought the grid closer to parity. Turbocharged hybrid drivetrains cut fuel consumption but robbed races of the raucous sound of engines at full tilt. “Push to pass” energy recovery systems increased overtaking but introduced false drama. The past few seasons have been processionals, first behind Red Bull and now Mercedes-Benz. Audiences are shrinking and graying, and Bernie Ecclestone, the sport’s patriarchal billionaire dictator, never wastes an opportunity to show how little he cares.
All of which makes it easy to forget you’re watching some of the greatest talents on earth duke it out at 200 mph. It is grueling work. The cars generate 4Gs during braking and cornering, never mind the ferocious acceleration. The strain is so great that friends who’ve gotten behind the wheel report being unable to hold their heads up after a few laps. And guys race these things, playing chess inches apart for hours at a time. The great shame of F1’s drama is that it pulls you away from caring about the skill on show.
I was reminded of this several months ago when Ferrari invited a handful of journalists to Maranello to drive the 731-horsepower F12berlinetta on its Fiorano test track. Some have called the car too fast, too difficult to control. Ferrari hoped to prove otherwise. (The F12 isn’t homicidal. It is, however, absurdly potent, happiest when sideways, and something like having sex in a free-falling elevator.) At the end of the day, Ferrari PR trotted Kimi out for hot laps. He was late and visibly tired—quiet, fidgety, grinning awkwardly. He wore rumpled jeans and Pumas. When we lined up for photos, he posed like a man impersonating a mannequin: frozen grin, stiff arms, dead eyes. It was comical and more than great. I was giddy.
It’s worth noting here that Fiorano is incredible. Designed to develop competition and road cars, the 1.8-mile track is hidden in an industrial park, behind high walls. It has a bridge overpass, shockingly narrow pavement, and eight turns. Company namesake Enzo Ferrari ordered it built in 1972, across the street from the factory, as a laboratory. Each corner is engineered for a specific task. Turns 1 and 6, for example, assess engine flexibility on corner exit. The long, fast Turns 2 and 3 test maneuverability and the effects of centrifugal force on fuel systems. Sprinklers allow engineers to soak the track in minutes for wet-weather testing. An F1 car laps the track at an average of 118 mph and can hit 180.
Standing in the garage, you can’t help but think of all that’s come before: Michael Schumacher, Gilles Villeneuve, Niki Lauda. You can almost hear howling V-12s and flat 12s, smell hot rubber and cooked brakes, and see Enzo in his office, there in an old farmhouse just a few feet from the track.
If you can feel the history, it’s by design. Enzo died in 1988. There is either such reverence for his legacy or such cynicism toward Ferrari’s image that his wood-paneled office remains just as he left it. The books on the shelf, the ancient telephone on the desk, the 1970s furniture. It smells old and funky because it is. It’s a metaphor for F1’s great strength and weakness: history provides gravitas, but also an inertia that resists change.
The track’s garage is inches off the main straight. At 100-plus mph, the Doppler shift off an accelerating F12 isn’t so much a shift as a whip-crack ripping of air. It’s percussive, almost painful, like someone snapping a wet towel at your head and somehow landing the thing inside your ear. Whap!
There are three F12s lined up in the garage, and another out back. Each is the same color, black. As each is started and allowed to idle, its 6.2-liter V12 emits a gurgling, seductive thrum. This is what being one of the world’s best drivers earns you: Ferraris stacked four deep, waiting to be abused.
I climbed in. As we pulled out of the garage, I looked over. Kimi was nonchalant, calm and stony. (I wrote “monoface” in my notes.)
“How often do you do this sort of thing?” He shrugged, almost imperceptibly, as we left pit lane. “Once, twice a month. It varies.” A few throttle stabs. Stability control was off, so the car immediately lit up its tires and spit sideways. I saw smoke in the mirror. The engine sounded like an orchestral brass section, on meth, attempting to play as loud as possible. “There are worse things,” he said. We plunged into a fourth-gear left, sliding, at 120 mph.
That’s the pace he set. No warm-up, no polite chit-chat, just a headlong dive into Someone Else Bought These Tires. Precisely $318,888 worth of carbon fiber and aluminum and leather and sex was immediately and mercilessly railed on. I noticed his shoulders were looser, and he was smirking. He’d woken up.
People will tell you a Ferrari F12 dances between understeer and oversteer—sliding the front, then the rear, then the front again—because this is what it feels like in unpredictable conditions if you don’t know the car. An F12 is a lot to handle on the street. Give it room to stretch its legs, though, and it is neutral and polite. All four tires slide evenly if you simply tell the car what you want. It’s essentially a super-sized Mazda Miata, with enough power to light Milwaukee.
And the man drove it like it a $500 beater. Constantly loose and unhinged, looking out the side window. He appeared to have no regard for the brakes, or the tires, or anything else. Every 10 laps or so, he’d roll into the pit. Here you go. This one’s done. They’d bring out a fresh car, and off he’d go. Modern Ferraris are relatively durable, capable of taking epic beatings from people with far more money than skill. Rarely do they protest. A few laps with Kimi, though, and I caught whiffs of the clutch, the brake pads, maybe differential fluid. Cooking.
“The tires, brakes,” he said halfway through our laps. “Eh, they are a little …” He smiled and shrugged, his words trailing off. The word he probably wanted was “done.” The cornering arcs were getting larger and more fluid. Most people would back off. Oh no. In some of the faster corners, Kimi actually sped up
At this point, you may be thinking, Dude hooned a Ferrari that wasn’t his. Big deal. That makes him good? That is not the point. That is scene-setting. Here’s the amazing part: It was deeply, abidingly clinical. I have ridden with a lot of professional drivers—everyone from pro drifters to former F1 drivers and Le Mans winners. They fall into two camps: Guys who leave you thinking, “I could do this, given enough training and practice” and guys whose innate ability runs so deeply you can only think, “I will never, ever drive like this, not in a million years.”
This was that. And of the 10 or 15 guys I’ve ridden with who have that otherworldly talent, Kimi was atop them all. By a wide margin.
That kind of frightening precision is borne of a life spent in some of the fastest earthbound things we can build. He sensed the car’s movements well in advance. Modern braking systems let you stab the pedal like you’re waving a shiv, but every brake zone was a brush against ABS intervention, then a modulation to hold it at the brink, before the computers kicked in. It was pitch-perfect and predictable enough to set a watch by. Kimi seemed bored by it. His arms were slow, making microscopically precise snips and cuts. There was nothing reactive. They never moved more than 15 or 20 degrees off center-lock. (Most road racers have big, snappish hands when sliding.) After two laps, I realized he was purposely repeating a long, 115-mph drift with the outside tires just clipping the grass. Over and over, every lap, the same corner, the same few inches of grass. It seemed an idle exercise, just seeing how sloppy and sharp he could be at once. I remembered that F1 cars have been known to go sideways in places like Spa at more than 150 mph. I suddenly wanted to put Kimi and ten guys just like him in F1 cars with bald tires. I wanted to see that kind of control in the heat of battle.
I looked over at him. “Is that all?” I asked. “Is there more crazy?”
“I guess,” he replied, shrugging.
And then he turned it up. More. Faster. Nuttier. Wilder. I heard myself laughing. I may have even applauded. When I looked over—and there is video of this—Kimi was smiling. I have watched most of this man’s career on television, years of it, and I have seen him smile maybe five times. But there in that car, on that track, he was alive, he was ebullient, he was everything you never see in an interview or meet-and-greet. He was in his element, in a way I never will be.
I’ve been fortunate enough to drive some amazing cars in some amazing places. I’ve club raced for years. I own a vintage open-wheeled race car. All of which is to say I am nothing special but at least competent. I thought I’d done well in that Ferrari. Then I rode with Kimi and I knew.
Figuratively speaking, the ants were still dead. They always had been. And I couldn’t have been happier to find out.