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Driven: Ferrari F50, and my continuing education


Larry Crane rides as Paul Frere masters the Ferrari F50 at the Fiorano circuit
Larry Crane rides along and learns as Paul Frere turns masterful laps in the Ferrari F50 at the Fiorano circuit

A lap of Pista de Fiorano, Ferrari’s on-site testing facility for all production and F1 cars, lived in my head. My first laps there were in a 328GTB. I returned to experience the first Testarossa and again for the 512TR. Then, on the 50th anniversary of the marque, we were given the opportunity to try the F50.

It employed the fundamentals of a 1990 Ferrari Tipo 036/037 F1 car that used a 3,500 cc 65-degree V12 to produced 685 horsepower at 13,000 rpm, but in the F50, the volume was increased to 4.7 liters and it was only asked to produced 513 horsepower at 8,500 revs.

The sports car used a complete tub and body done in a complex blend of carbon fiber, Kevlar and Nomex. In my Automobile magazine story, I described it as “…not a 333SP with upholstery. It is a road car created from a V12 Formula 1 car of several generations back. It gives you the impression of driving a racing car on the street, but the hard metallic buzz that affects your focus in a racing car is reduced to a therapeutic hum here. The impression is intended, but this is a reasonably civilized sports car.”

I described my growing confidence as I made my way through five laps of the circuit. “The understeer becomes a bother and I lift to get the front to bite. Dario Benuzzi, Ferrari’s famous test driver, uses full power here and balances the car with the tail detached. I don’t. Then later I do, too.”

My drive story sounded very experimental. It was my first drive with over 500 horsepower, but the car was created for an experienced amateur to drive to a track, play for the weekend and drive home with his ego inflated. It was friendly at the limit and was completely free of surprises.

My first lap was a search and remember drive at about 7-10ths. My next lap was a bit faster and from that point I gave it all I had. I enjoyed learning what I had just experienced, but there was no danger of my ego being inflated.

Paul Frere was with us. He was a Belgian-born journalist who had finished fourth in his home grand prix in an F1 car loaned by Ferrari. Nothing typical about that. He had also won the South African Grand Prix, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Spa 24 Hours. He also was an accomplished journalist. I knew Paul because we both worked for Road & Track at the time and Paul was in the office periodically. I approached him on the Fiorano pit apron as he was about to get into the F50 for his laps and asked if I could join him.

“Sure, Larry, hop in.” through a big smile.

Paul had driven Ferraris since they first appeared and he won races in them. He had also driven on Pista de Fiorano since it was completed and knew it like his home track. As my seat belt clicked, Paul was flat out in first, then second and approaching the first hairpin under full power. It begins with a shallow kink left then a very tight right hairpin, which Benuzzi does at full power, full lock and clouds of tire smoke. Paul simply rushed around it without drama and into the next left kink quickly back to full power, accelerating up to the broad right bend that would eventually circumvent a skid pad, but it wasn’t there yet.

There is a second fast sweep left that brings you to a decreasing radius right onto a short straight. Paul didn’t lift, the car couldn’t get to a very high speed, but it went fast enough for a touch of left-foot brake as the direction changed. The straight is long enough to clear third gear and carries you up and over the bridge across the main straight and down into another decreasing radius, off-camber right. I was in awe.

A long, left sweep done at redline in second and briefly in third puts you at the tightest hairpin left. The brakes are compressed to full on, but not violently and the car is never upset as it enters the hairpin. At his apex, Paul was already flat and balancing the car through the fast right, changing to a fast left still accelerating and into fourth and still flat as we approached the unbanked 180 at the end of the circuit. Revs were still climbing.

The 180 was approaching very quickly. I looked over at Paul to see if he is okay. He was 80 after all. He was absolutely calm and we were still accelerating as we arrived at the corner at some stupefying speed. He crushed the brake pedal as the steering wheel began to rotate gently. The front tires were so heavily loaded they gripped with no sign of understeer and he simply slid the rear around them until everything was lined up at the exit. Seamlessly the power found the rear wheels and we passed the pit entrance at well over 100 to begin our second lap.

Five of those all matched — perfectly. Comfortably. Brilliantly.

If we all go out and buy the latest, greatest supercars today and diligently practice until we are 80 without missing a day, we will never take that last corner that way or that fast. I was spellbound.

We lost Paul Frere a few years ago. He had always been a journalistic hero, but I had no idea who he really was until that ride. I may not know even now, but I do know a few things; he was brilliant, disciplined and very, very fast.

Larry Crane
Larry Crane has been an automotive literature aficionado from childhood. Car books and magazines represented most of his reading experience. He moved to Southern California in his early twenties to be close to his favorite cars. After a WestPac stint in the Navy, he was offered a position redesigning Motor Trend magazine. Then, for Steve Earle, he created America's first vintage road racing magazine as both editor and designer. FromVintage Racer he joined Road & Track and then David E. Davis Jr., asked him to help create a new kind of car magazine, Automobile. After 12 years, Crane took his family back to Los Angeles to create his dream magazine, AUTO Aficionado, which attracted an impressive cadre of the most influential members of the collector car hobby until the national economy made that one impossible to continue.

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