The Finali Mondiali, Ferrari's celebration of its motorsport heritage, in Valencia, Spain.
Ferrari festival shows why Italians do it better
What's your excuse for throwing a party - a huge celebration? Perhaps it's a birthday, an anniversary or the end of another year. For Ferrari, it's the end of another racing season and, as you might expect, it does it in inimitable style: the annual Finali Mondiali, and The National has been invited along to see what happens and immerse itself in a car culture unlike any other. Happy days.
I had no idea about this event until a couple of weeks ago and now, here I am, at the (deep breath) Circuit De La Comunitat Valencia Ricard Tormo. It's a sea of red, white and the occasional flash of yellow. More than 1,300 of Ferrari's clients, incorporating racing drivers, their families, sponsors and people who are simply fans of this unique brand, have paid significant sums of money to attend, from every region on the planet. And they're here to race, observe, show off their cars to admiring spectators and spend lots of money, buying anything from Ferrari-branded cuddly toys to Hublot watches, clothing or hand-built replicas of their favourite automobiles. It's a different world, this, and - on a journalist's stipend - my wallet shall remain defiantly unopened.
Two days of full-on track action is the order of the weekend, and you'd be forgiven for thinking this sort of event might be better placed in Ferrari's own country; perhaps even at its very own Fiorano racetrack. There's only one thing preventing that, and it's the weather. With the racing season now finishing at the back end of November, the snow and sub-zero temperatures endured by Italians this time of year make it all but impossible to do the obvious. Valencia is rather more temperate and this location, about half an hour outside the city, has excellent facilities and a technical track layout that will no doubt provide some superb racing.
There's more to Ferrari's motorsport activities than Formula One, exemplified by the dozens of logoed-up 458 Italia race cars that fill the large car park area behind the garages that line the track's pit lane area. These are here to compete in the world finals for two race series: the Ferrari Challenge Trofeo Pirelli and the Ferrari Challenge Coppa Shell, and the owners have had their cars and support teams flown in from as far away as the US, Russia and the Far East, so they can race incredibly hard for what they view as the ultimate accolade.
As I walk around, getting my bearings, the relative peace and quiet of this countryside circuit is shattered by the sound of 15-or-so Ferrari V12 engines being started and continuously revved. I check my programme and see that this is no race that's about to start - it's a 40-minute private practice session for owners of 599 XXs and Enzo-based FXXs. This, it turns out, is simply for these guys to have some fun, and as the cars thrash around the track, the noise is utterly intoxicating. At the end of the pit straight is a tight left-hander, and the sound as these cars are knocked into lower gears is like rifle fire. They're not hanging about - this is full-on racing, only without an official timekeeper on duty.
By mid-afternoon, the XX Programme has finished its first outing and two races have completed for the individual Ferrari Challenge series, resulting in some cars being carried off the track in pieces. The racing has been hard and several 458s have sustained serious injuries but, apart from some wallets, nobody was hurt.
Next the "F1 Clienti" private practice session commences. And this is when I start to feel like a proper pauper, because the F1 Clienti is, as its name suggests, made up of private owners of some of Ferrari's previous F1 cars. And while they won't be racing, it's entirely evident that there will be some incredible sights and sounds to be enjoyed.
Ferrari offers for sale its F1 cars after two seasons have passed, so the newest ones here will be from 2010, and I can see at least one with Etihad logos on its sinewy red body. These cars can be purchased from the factory for around Dh7.2 million and you can keep them at Ferrari's facility in Maranello or have them parked in your own garage at home, it's up to you. But whenever you want to do your best Alonso, Schumacher or Lauda impression, there'll be a team of former F1 mechanics on hand to keep the tyres warm, refuel and make sure you're able to enjoy what must be the ultimate big boys' toys without any fuss. What a privilege it is for these owners to be able to live out this dream without having to give up their day job.
As the cars scream their way around the circuit, I'm struck how unusual this place is, inasmuch as the entire track can be seen from the grandstands, no matter where you're seated. It's like looking at a real-life Scalextric set and allows onlookers to see everything that goes on, without the need for enormous television screens. The noise is violent and the cars are being driven in anger, although it's evident that some are way quicker than others, and there appears to be much respect on the part of the drivers towards one another. After all, they're here to have nothing more than high-octane fun.
The second day is much the same as the first but there's an added sense of excitement in the air today because three extraordinary individuals are present: Ferrari's president, Luca Di Montezemolo and its two current F1 stars, Fernando Alonso and Filipe Massa. It's barely 24 hours since the FIA upheld Sebastien Vettel's title victory after a Ferrari appeal, and I'm expecting there to be some glum faces but I couldn't be more wrong - Ferrari's readiness to accept defeat shows the company to be anything but a sore loser.
As if my time here couldn't be any more fulfilling, I'm ushered into a private area to sit down with the irrepressible Montezemolo for 40 minutes of chat about all things Prancing Horse. It's the first time we have met but this sharply-dressed gentleman immediately puts me at ease with a firm handshake and a slap on the back. He's all smiles - so different from Ferrari's founder, Enzo, yet no less forthright when it comes to the nitty-gritty of doing business.
He tells me how he loves The National, how Abu Dhabi "is in here for me", as he thumps his chest, and how he loves spending time at his home here. His eyes dart around as I ask about the challenges faced by his company in the near future. "Continuing to make cars where the driver is put first, keeping ahead of the competition when it comes to our environmental approach, maintaining exclusivity and increasing the knowledge of our history with customers in our new markets," he replies. When I ask him about F1, however, he really gets animated.
"We have to ask ourselves now, whether we want to be in this sport. The new rules are a joke - we are not Boeing, we do not develop cars using simulators. And the current focus on aerodynamics is ridiculous. Ferrari has always, from day one, used racing to develop its road cars, yet the way things are going, this will not be the case for much longer." And what about downsizing engines to turbocharged V6s? "We make cars, not motorcycles," he says with a laugh and another slap on my back.
"Ferrari could, in theory, continue without being in F1. We can do the endurance races like Le Mans, but we cannot be Ferrari without being in some kind of racing - it's in our DNA. But if, in a couple of years, we are not able to develop our road cars from our involvement in F1, we will need to consider our position. We are not sponsors, we are manufacturers."
He says that F1 has been the most important research and development area for Ferrari's road cars. "We were the first to introduce the [dual clutch] F1 transmission, we were the first, with the F50, to make a car totally from composite materials - not only the chassis, everything. It's also important as an advertisement for Ferrari - we don't advertise in the usual channels."
Environmental issues, he says, are extremely high on Ferrari's agenda. "We are about to launch the new Enzo," he says, "which will be fitted with hybrid and KERS technology, which we have developed in Formula One. Our factory is entirely self-sufficient, we do not need to import our engines, anything, we make it all in Maranello. We are autonomous when it comes to power - we generate our own, green energy. We planted 200 trees in the factory, we have 100 bicycles on site for our workers to get around - sustainability is very important for us."
Speaking of trees, he says he views Ferrari these days as three of them - view that as you will. "The biggest one is GT car production - we sell 7,500 cars a year in 60 different markets while maintaining exclusivity. We make less cars than there is a demand for. Second is racing: Formula One, GT racing with private teams and private clients racing [in their own events]. The third tree - very important - is the brand. Bottom line, we do 50 million Euro in 52 stores all over the world, so retail and e-commerce, tie-ins with Hublot, Puma, Mattel, Microsoft, is extremely good for us. Plus there's the promotion aspect of all this - there's something for everyone, for the wealthy collectors as well as the normal tifosi [fans]."
And, with that, he departs to shake hands with the hundreds of "tifosi" that are lining the enclosure, desperate for a photograph, an autograph, anything they can get. Thirty thousand of them have descended to join in this celebration and Motezemolo knows full well that it's these fans who keep the magic alive. The love and devotion shown by these people, the vast majority of whom will never be in a position to own one of Ferrari's cars, is astonishing, and they view Montezemolo as a superstar.
For him and his army of fans, supporters and clients, this is the highlight of the year, a perfect way to wrap up 12 months' worth of sporting achievement and to celebrate, not only this, but the launch this year of the F12 supercar. The Finali Mondiali 2012 has been a tremendous spectacle and, if it's OK with you, Sr Montezemolo, I'll join you again some time soon. It's a perfect celebration of your company's past, present and future. Salute!