I was never a great Ferrari fan. It may sound like a strange truth to admit but cars shod with the black stallion seldom flipped my passion switch. They seemed a bit too over-the-top for my liking. As if they are designed only to attract the attention of hairy-chested playboys living large in gold-framed sunglasses, Lacoste shirts and tight white pants. Those look-at-me-darling types who hit the yacht clubs of Marbella during their lengthy summer holidays in search of suntans and chemical excess. Scoundrels who make fathers lament the day they had a daughter, not a son.
These questionable customer connotations aside, I also have beef with the firm’s charismatic founder, the late Enzo Ferrari. Don’t get me wrong — I certainly admire the man’s enthusiasm and shrewd business acumen. He was nothing short of an automotive genius. But as a person, the slick-suited Italian has always come across, from what I’ve heard and read (cue A.J Baime’s book, Go Like Hell), as a bit of an egotistical old git.
This is why I sided with the more understated and somewhat more humble cars produced by Maranello’s pretzel-toting German rival, Porsche. Sure, there may have been one or two exceptions along the way — the outrageous Testarossa and F355 Berlinetta warble to mind — but the simple, unfussed shape of the 911 is what I always preferred tacked up on my bedroom wall or set as my computer desktop. Stylistically it was the underdog. And the underdog has always received my stamp of approval.
But then something bizarre happened. I got this e-mail, right out of the blue, asking if I would be interested in driving a Ferrari 360 Modena Challenge at Zwartkops Raceway one Saturday afternoon. It wasn’t from Ferrari themselves (they are too conceited to offer newspaper press such an opportunity) but from an independent group of petrolheads known as Pablo Clark Racing.
“We are starting a new, one-make South African racing series called the Pirelli Rosso Challenge,” a simple line of size 12 font explained, “and we would be honoured if you could drive one of our machines in the inaugural race meeting.” Hold on just a second. Thrash another man’s thoroughbred V8 supercar around a track? Without having to pay a cent? I don’t think an invitation has ever been answered more quickly.
A week later I am introduced to the scarlet sexpot lurking in the far corner of an industrial-sized shed. Like I said before, the showy Ferrari design language usually leaves me unmoved. Yet on this occasion, well, it has me reaching for my iPhone and splashing pictures of the car’s nether regions all over Instagram.
The 360, overseen by the late Sergio Pininfarina and sold from 1999 to 2005, is a rather attractive bit of kit. But in rare Modena Challenge specification it makes the two busty Pirelli girls strutting past look decidedly ordinary. That snout, for example, is the wind-tunneled embodiment of eroticism. Designed for circuit work, the front apron wears enormous, almond-shaped cooling ducts to help channel a greater stream of air towards the brakes and radiators. Below, riding less than an inch above the black stuff is a blade-like splitter that greatly increases aerodynamic downforce at high speeds. It will also chop clean through the ankles of any person foolish enough to get in its way.
The visual drama doesn’t end there. The giant 18-inch BBS wheels and adjustable rear spoiler are quite possibly some of the most impressive features on this Ferrari. Probably because they are not flamboyant luxuries but competition-bred necessities built for the business of going as fast as humanly possible.
There’s a similar theme running through the refreshingly anti-playboy interior, too. Sitting inside the cockpit of a 360 Modena Challenge makes you feel like you are some super-skilled Le Mans 24-Hour pilot. The usual road-car fat (air-conditioning, radio, electric windows, airbags, handbrake, soundproofing) has been burnt away, leaving behind a no-nonsense reduction that focuses on nothing but the bare essentials.
Apart from a carbon fibre race seat, roll cage and minimalist digital display set in front of that small suede steering wheel, there’s nothing to distract you from the task at hand. If car interiors were a religion this one would be filed under Z for Zen.
Yet for all this inner calm, the Modena Challenge still has one hell of a dark side. Science or the crew from Ghost Lab may well prove otherwise but I am convinced there is actually a terrible demon force lurking inside that mid-mounted 3.6-litre V8 engine. It is the only way I can explain the unearthly sounds emanating from that race-tuned exhaust system.
Every now and then it tries, in vain of course, to escape into the ether — a foolish action that just sends an angry sheet of blue flame blasting out of the two centre-mounted tailpipes. Whatever this diabolical entity may be, I learn that it is also responsible for this machine’s remarkable turn of pace when I eventually strap myself in and carve onto the circuit.
I have been around Zwartkops in many cars, from my own Ford Mustang racer to the latest and greatest in steroidal German exotica. All have been pretty damn impressive but none gets close to the way this Ferrari handles itself when your mind is overwhelmed by the powers of the Red Mist.
Now there are three main reasons for this. And the first lies within the alchemy of the braking system. On a lot of cars you have to approach retardation with a fair amount of mechanical sympathy to avoid overheating and, God forbid, fade. Not here. Armed with mammoth carbon-ceramic anchors, you can leave the mashing of the middle pedal until the last nanosecond — something that lets you maximise your speed through each and every lap.
Then there’s the steering. In my Mustang I need a hefty handful of lock to make it turn towards the apex point. In a 360 Modena Challenge you need no more than flick your thumbs up or down. Seriously, just breathing heavily on one side of the steering wheel will influence a change in direction. Incredible.
Yet it is the amount of grip that totally melts my mind, sends molten grey matter oozing out my ears and into the lining of my helmet. A combination of aerodynamic downforce and sticky Pirelli slick tyres means that this Ferrari stays stuck to the asphalt like a cockroach stays stuck to one of those pest-control glue traps.
Again, this means you can slice through corners at velocities that defy logic. In fact it takes a lot to explore this car’s true cornering potential because your brain is constantly screaming at you to come off the throttle and go for the brakes. Eventually, when I learn to ignore its shrieking, I clock my fastest Zwartkops lap time ever — a 1:08.
Quick enough to make me change my mind and join the ranks of the Tifosi? Not exactly. When it comes to the choice of keys I’d probably still pick the restrained sensibility of a Porsche over the passionate exhibitionism offered up by the equivalent Ferrari.
Thing is though, I now get what all the fuss is about. For beneath that occasionally gaudy exterior (360 Modena Challenge excluded) lies a driving machine that can rival, even surpass, most supercars out there. They really are that good. What a pity then that they always seem to be wasted on the wrong people.