I left my keys in San Francisco.
To a Ferrari F430, that is. I got the opportunity to drive the latest product from Modena during the final legs of the 2005 Ferrari Rally. The annual event had a special meaning to the Italian automaker this year, marking the 50th anniversary of Ferrari in America. And that led organizers to literally go the extra mile. What was hard to imagine, however, was getting a phalanx of police to provide a guided tour as the procession wound its way across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Actually, it was a good thing the CHiPs only joined the group a mile before the bridge. Had they connected with us earlier on that crisp, clear morning, they might not have been quite so accommodating. During the first two days of the rally, more than 60 Ferraris roared through northern California, drivers collecting points along a challenging road course and occasional track detours.
With Denise McCluggage, the legendary racer, author, and occasional columnist for TheCarConnection by my side, I took control of a new F430 Spider as it entered into Napa Valley's lush wine country.
The F430 is the long-awaited successor to the 360 Modena, the most popular model the Italian automaker has ever made. Those are tough tire tracks to fill, but with one notable disappointment, we quickly realized that Ferrari has done a more than admirable job.
The morning dew was still glistening on the vine as the ralliers gathered in the parking lot of the plush Meadowood resort. One by one, they lined up behind the starting gate, new 612s, older 360s, event a couple classics from decades past.
Our Spider was waiting along the side of the parking lot. Appropriately bright red, it is unquestionably a Ferrari, and there's a strong family resemblance to the old 360, but the new car is decidedly more modern and elegant, from whatever your vantage point. It's a joint effort of Pininfarina, and Frank Stephenson, the talented young designer who spent several years overseeing Ferrari's styling studio.
The result is a well-integrated design that will catch your eye when you first see it soaring up in your rearview mirror - the three huge air intake flaring like the nostrils on a bull - then as you watch it fly off in front of you. Unlike many recent supercars, there are no wings on the F430. Yet the subtle decklid and diffuser are enough to clean the airflow and enhance downforce dramatically as the car closes on a top speed of 193 mph.
Ferrari rates the Spider's 0-60 times at four seconds, by the way, a wee bit slower than the hardtop.
Formula for one
Given a ten-minute warning, we squeezed into the Spider's tight cockpit and for the next minute or two, I studied the complicated Formula One-style cluster of controls in the middle of the steering wheel. The most obvious has been dubbed the manettino. Almost directly lifted from Ferrari's race car, it provides five separate traction and suspension options: Snow, Low Traction, Sport, Race or, for the truly brave, CST, which disables the various traction control systems.
But for the moment, I simply wanted to hit the start button. With a satisfying roar, the big, 4.3-liter V-8 fired up. Even among the assembled tifosi, the sound of the new car drew plenty of broad grins.
With the clock ticking, Denise punched the convertible top button, triggering a series of mechanicals whirs and grounds - followed by that unmistakable grunt that says something is wrong. For the next five minutes, we and a pair of Ferrari mechanics struggled vainly to roll back the Spider's top. Sadly, we had to accept the idea that our drive across the Golden Gate would not be al fresco. That would prove to be our only major disappointment on the rally, however.
As the timer hit zero, we were waved through the gates, bobbing our way through the resort's winding drive and out onto public roads. There wasn't much opportunity to pass until we reached the Oakville Grade, a diabolically twisty layer of tarmac, barely wide enough for two cars, connecting the Napa and Sonoma Valleys.
Local residents were of decidedly mixed opinion along the treacherous road, many waving the collection of new and classic Ferraris on, others displaying a single finger or signaling to slow down. To no avail, as can be imagined.
Tasking the taskmaster
As traffic and homes thinned out, we took the opportunity to push the F430 to its limits, no easy task. This particular prancing pony couldn't wait to open up, its 483-horsepower engine readily providing all the torque you'd ask for. All that power is channeled through the optional F1-derived gearbox on our test car. It is without question the best automatically-shifted manual on the road, responding almost intuitively to the driver's input through a pair of steering wheel-mounted paddles.
On a route like the Oakville Grade, power is important, but handling - and braking - become even more critical. Turn-in is absolutely smooth and immediate, the wheel providing a fair amount of resistance and just the right level of road feedback. The massive brakes responded smoothly and quickly, with little dead space in the pedal. The optional Brembo ceramic brake package costs as much as a nice little Korean sedan, but for those who want the ultimate, fade-free control, it's likely to be a popular option.
Though one might think of the F430 as an open road car, it is a complete delight to drive in challenge situations like this, and its Oakville Grade was a solid "A." It might have gotten bonus points but for the other minor problem we experienced. With minimal ground clearance, and Ferrari's classic long overhangs, it's unavoidably easy to bottom out on rough pavement.
Over the course of the day, we tried most of the various settings offered on the manettino. On many cars, it's difficult to tell the difference when you adjust electronic settings. Not so with the F430. The steering wheel-mounted switch operates a lot more than just suspension settings. It'll firm or soften the shocks, speed or slow the shift rate of the gearbox, vary the engine speed at which the exhaust bypass operates, adjust the degree of intervention from traction and yaw controls, and it oversees operation of the E-Diff, a racing-derived limited-slip differential.
After working our way into Sonoma, our circuitous route took us through a procession of back roads - and several more grades, eventually rolling into the trendy little town of Mill Valley. By the time the ralliers reached Marin Country, everyone was behaving, albeit briefly.
In an effort akin to herding cats, the CHiPs calmly shepherded the Ferraris into a long line, holding back the rest of the southbound traffic as our procession struck out over the fabled bridge. With Tony Bennett singing in the back of my mind, I lined up alongside the 612 Scaglietti that was promised us for the final leg of the rally, from San Francisco to Monterey.
It's hard to say no to a car like the 612, but it's a very different interpretation of the Ferrari brand. The F430 connects directly to the racing roots of the Italian automaker. Spend a few hours behind the wheel and you're bound to feel like a Schumacher-in-the-making. Despite our problem with the Spider's retractable roof, it was hard to come up with anything but awe for this incredible sports car.
2006 Ferrari F430 Spider
Engine: 4.3-liter V-8, 483 hp/343 lb-ft
Warranty: Two years/unlimited miles
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