Ferrari is regarded as one of the ultimate car brands and when Viglietti Motors offers you a chance to sample some of Maranello's finest at short notice on a race track, you don't hesitate and immediately say yes to the invitation.
This was my exact situation last week and thanks to some careful planning, I found myself at Kyalami race circuit on a Monday morning. Awaiting my attention were two Ferraris - the 458 Italia and its convertible sister, the 458 Spider. Both machines were in the traditional Rosso Corsa red and glistened in the morning sunshine.
The 458 is my third Ferrari. I had a luscious blue Ferrari California in 2010, and drove a short distance in a privately-owned 360 Modena in 2006. I've been fortunate enough to sample Ferrari's rivals over the past few years.
The sublime McLaren Mp4-12C in 2013 comes to mind, as does the manic Mercedes-Benz SLS and the screaming Audi R8 V10 Spider in 2010/2011. I had a brief stint in a Lamborghini Gallardo Superleggera in 2008 too. I'd heard much about the 458 and finally I can put a tick next to its name on my must-drive list.
Ferrari 458 specsThe Ferrari 458 is arguably the most popular product from the Prancing Horse and accounts for the majority of sales in South Africa. With its race-tuned 4.5-litre V8 engine pushing out 425 kW and 540 Nm, performance is very quick. The car will hit 100 km/h in around 3.5 seconds, hit 200km/h in around 10 seconds and go onto 320 km/h. It boasts some fascinating technology such as the F1-style paddle shift gearbox and smart electronic differential which makes the average driver look rather talented.
You can change settings via a switch on the steering wheel and play with modes like Sport, Race and if you're brave, you can have all the electronic aids off. Given the value of the two cars, Ferrari would only allow us to drive in Race mode and we'd have a Ferrari representative in the car.
Ferrari-supplied race instructorThis isn't a bad thing as the Ferrari representative was a gentleman by the name of Lorenzo Granai. He's one of the top instructors and works for the Corsa Pilota, a Ferrari subsidiary tasked with turning Ferrari owners and motoring hacks into drivers capable of handling such machinery.
A brief session staring at Powerpoint slides which showed you the correct lines through corners and it was time to strap on helmets. I've driven Kyalami before in anger, but that was in a Volkswagen Golf GTI and a Ford Focus RS - bicycles in comparison to the 458.
InteriorAfter a quick sighting lap with the instructor behind the wheel, it was time to take the wheel. The Ferrari experience is a special one and I took a few minutes taking in the cabin before setting off. For starters, the rev counter stares right at you. There's a secondary LED rev counter mounted on top of the steering wheel. The rest of the instrument cluster is digital and completely customisable. Interestingly, the indicators are buttons mounted on the steering wheel as is the start engine button.
Time to driveFire up the V8 engine, wait for it to settle and the fluids to warm up, then select race mode. Pull the right paddle to engage first gear, release the park brake and off you go. I exited the pits with the engine ticking over and barely breaking a sweat. Gear changes in race mode are a lot harder than I expected and there's a lovely mechanical 'thud' as the next gear is selected. After one lap and half a lap later I was getting the hang of the Ferrari 458 and trying to remember things like apex and braking points. Once the instructor was happy I wasn't going to put the car into the wall, it was time to up the speed.
Coming onto the main straight at Kyalami behind the wheel of a Ferrari 458 is a special experience. For the first time I put my foot flat on the accelerator and fired the car up. As the rev needle wound its way round, the LED rev counter came to life... one light, then a second, then a third... Pull the right paddle and 'Wham' you're slammed into your seat as the next gear is engaged. Once the engine reaches 3 000rpm a valve opens in the exhausts and suddenly there's a deeper, more purposeful noise. As the revs climb, the engine's note intensifies and it really underlines the raw emotion which this car is capable of inducing.