Experience D’Orth

 

FERRARI SpA:  PARTY ANIMAL    by bill orth

              

Well, they did it again.  Ferrari’s 50th Anniversary Celebration ten years ago was a spectacular event that I frequently have flashbacks about. (See last month’s article)  This year it was time to do it again for the 60th and SpA held nothing back.  Apart from a few driving tours that were arranged for those fortunate enough to have their Ferraris present, all events were centered right in Maranello, primarily at the Pista di Fiorano, the official test track just down the street from the factory.  The weekend started on Friday with factory tours and an all-day dealer meeting for those of us there on business.  Every Ferrari dealer on the planet had been invited to attend and not many were no-shows.  Bill & Phyllis Stewart and Myrla & I had signed up months ago, fortunately, because every hotel for fifty miles around was booked, as visitor’s credentials had been issued for nearly 15,000 people!!  (And we still wound up in Bologna, fifty miles away.)

            Every time I visit the factory it shows signs of increased growth and updating.  All property contiguous to the plant is now Ferrari-owned and they are gradually filling it all up, with a new wind tunnel, huge ultra-modern painting facility and constant expansion of every manufacturing wing.  Where the foundry was alone on the edge of the property twelve years ago, it is now shoulder-to-shoulder with new subassembly buildings.  A maze of streets crisscross the grounds and new Ferrari models—including the occasional masked prototype—buzz by scattering the unwary on their way to the open roads in the nearby hills—where every car is test-driven before shipment.  On this visit, factory officials proudly showed off some new robotics that are employed in precise machining and assembly procedures that just a few years ago I remember seeing being done by hand.

            In fact, moving such tasks to automation is not a sign that Ferrari is Toyota-izing their cars, but an indication they recognize that modern designs, materials and engineering require tolerances and consistency beyond what even a skilled person working eight hours a day is likely to deliver.  I learn something new every time I visit the mothership, and this time it was the relative labor necessary to produce the componentry of a modern Ferrari. 

When I asked why a second shift couldn’t be employed to man the dormant assembly line each evening so as to reduce the wait time for new cars, I was told that the problem was the manufacture of all the car’s subassemblies.  Unlike most other manufacturers who subcontract the majority of their cars’ pieces, Ferrari still makes a great deal of the car.  They are alone in having their own foundry to actually cast the engine blocks, heads and gear cases, plus they laboriously machine all of those components prior to assembly.  Solid billets of steel are whittled down into crankshafts through a several-day-long precise machining process, instead of being forged, as is the case with most other auto makers.  In another factory down the road the body panels are stamped out from huge rolls of aluminum, welded together and the shell constructed on jigs.  There are three shifts employed to do these tasks and paint the bodies.  Then there are two shifts to stitch the interiors, assemble the suspensions and several other procedures, all to support the one shift that actually builds the cars.  I had not stopped to think before how time-consuming these other operations are compared to the relatively short time the car spends traveling down the final assembly line.

            After our tour, a Ferrari bus (Scuderia Red outside, lots of carbon fiber inside!) but built by Iveco—who provides all the F-1 transporters—took us over to the Fiorano track for our meeting.  The entire track facility had been set up to host the international gathering of dealers and customers.  On the big circular skid pad was erected a circus-size tent in which the business meetings were held, along with food buffets and drink bars.  While this was reserved for dealers and the press, other shelters provided snacks, drinks & ice cream for the visiting clients.  (Unlike last time, they didn’t have a big beer garden tent; but there was still plenty of Pironi available)  Arranged in neat rows along the track were about fifty gazebos, each staffed by representatives of Ferrari’s many racing sponsors, electrical suppliers, Schedoni leather and providers of various accessory items.  Parking was provided on the grassy infields for the hundreds of visiting owner-driven Ferraris, while special areas were reserved for the vintage cars entered in the Concours.  Ferrari determined that about 1,000 Ferraris came back to their “birthplace” for the event!  The councours cars were led on a tour of the surrounding countryside on Saturday, since—even more so in Europe than here—concours Ferraris are not considered dilettante garage queens, but rather are expected to be driven and enjoyed dynamically.

            Apart from a lot of dry business stuff, the international dealer convention discussed the company’s future direction in general terms.  This boils down to a slow increase of dealerships, but not in North America or Europe.  The growth is planned in “emerging markets,” specifically China, the Near & Far East and Russia.  There are 162 dealers world-wide today and a total of 180 is planned by 2012.  The production of new Ferraris will remain largely as it is, capped at a practical limit of about 5500 cars annually to be shared by all these dealerships, meaning that we here in the US will not see any significant allocation increases.  Ferrari will augment auto production revenue with an increased variety of lifestyle accessory merchandise, financing offerings, extended warranties and the new Classiche Certification of older cars. (Classiche has quickly been accepted in the collector car community as adding value to vehicles whose background and authenticity are very significant aspects of their present and future value.)

            Following the dealer presentations, we had some time to kill so I tracked down a factory technical manager I know and asked him to give me a review of the technical presentation they had given to the world’s press the day before.  Once again, I was surprised to learn something completely unexpected:  The automotive engineering community considers today’s microprocessors at the end of their practical development!  The ones we have now have vastly more capacity than is really necessary to operate the automotive systems they control.  The thousands of times-per-second they can make minute adjustments to fuel mixture, etc. is more than adequate, and less- critical electronically controlled systems like heating & A/C also do not require greater sophistication—and anything more complex goes beyond what the driver can adequately deal with anyway.  This was illustrated with examples of F-1 steering wheels on hand.  Ten years ago they had far fewer controls on the wheel; now there’s hardly an open spot and some of the buttons do double duty—the driver really can’t handle any more. 

            Interestingly, the engineers also feel that horsepower is reaching a developmental point of diminishing returns too, as getting much more of it onto the road is becoming increasingly difficult.  Bear in mind that Ferrari isn’t interested in building cars with crazy power, but poor balance, ill handling and general incompetence like the hot rods we built in high school.  Every horsepower advance today demands more sophisticated traction and control-management devices, as have been incorporated into the F430s and 599. The primary R&D focus today is on weight reduction and aerodynamics.  Every substantial drop in weight makes the car accelerate faster and stop more quickly.  Aero-friendly shapes can be propelled to greater speeds with less power and consumption and lighter cars also require less inertia to be moved when cornering and eases the concerns of strident environmentalists. Emission and fuel economy policies are more easily met and fewer raw materials will be consumed in the manufacturing process of such designs.  (Ferrari has been working on a prototype 1000kg (2200 lbs) car I saw that isn’t functional as yet, but is about 80% the size of a modern 2 seater—see photo)  Finally, I was told that the engineering community across all technologies and applications is waiting for the next breakthrough discovery—that will make today’s electronics obsolete.  No one knows what it may be, but some smart guy is going to be another Bill Gates when he figures it out!

            he overall theme of the 60th year celebration was focused on the 612 Scaglietti.  A special edition of the car has been offered to Ferrari’s best clients and a celebratory baton depicting the company’s sixty years of success has been on a ceremonial relay around the world in every Ferrari market with a pair of 612s.  Each of the buyers of the special editions was invited to Maranello for some special events honoring them and their cars.  Late on Friday afternoon, following one of these receptions, Pilotas Massa and Raikkonen arrived along with Jean Todt and Luca di Montezemolo, Ferrari SpA’s Chairman.  The drivers were generous about posing with fans for pictures—Felipe is much more approachable than Kimi, though—and then everybody strolled over to another big tent in which an elegant dining room had been created.  A large deck extended from the front of the tent to overlook the Fiorano track’s main straight.  Upon this verandah were many white leather couches, arranged under large umbrellas, upon which guests could repose in Caesar-like comfort.  The view from the deck across the track’s infield was of a lot of ‘stuff’ arranged in the grass that couldn’t be immediately identified and no cars had been parked in that area. No one much cared, since there were open bars and terrific antipasto food available on the deck, plus various Ferrari luminaries to chat with before a typically Italian late dinner.  But I kept trying to figure out what all that stuff was, especially a narrow forty-foot long pool of water right in front of the deck, but one that obviously wasn’t intended to be decorative, and a tall skinny metal tower across the infield that had a bass drum-size cylinder mounted flat against it.

            Anyway, at dusk we were called to sit down to a fantastic multi-course dinner catered by the Cavallino restaurant.  Following dinner, various individuals held forth, including Jean Todt.  He expressed that no one should think the drivers were slacking off in the F-1 Championship races; he said “We haven’t given them good enough cars…but that is all going to change very soon.”  This was just before the French Grand Prix, and he certainly kept his word. In addition to the drivers, Todt & Montezemolo, also present were Piero Ferrari—Enzo’s “second” son—and Piero’s grandson, Enzo, a quiet teenager who seems little interested in the company’s doings. By now it was well into the evening and everyone was invited to adjourn again to the deck, where  “some surprises” were planned.  The first was my mysterious pool of water.  The lights went down and powerful pumps began to cast the water upward in a flat sheet of water, forty feet high. (fortunately there was no wind) The spray continued to cascade upon itself creating a solid “wall of water.”  Then, a film made of footage of Ferrari’s racing history from the ‘40s to the present was projected onto the water as though it was a screen, accompanied by appropriate music through a great sound system!  The crowd ate that up because it was so novel, but SpA wasn’t finished with us yet. 

            After the brief movie, the lights stayed down and all of a sudden the whole infield erupted in a gigantic fireworks launch.  The mortars that were shooting up the cartridges were no more than 100 yards from us and the shells were exploding overhead closer than any 4th of July fireworks you’ve ever seen.  The display went on for about twenty minutes and was spectacular!   It was all keyed to Italian opera music and just went on and on.  When you thought, that had to be the finale, it all started up again to a different theme.  Fireworks are often accompanied by music, but we have never seen it so well integrated into the display.   I have never seen a display as fantastic, anywhere, any time.  The entire sky over Fiorano was lit up and we were transfixed.  At the end, we all left the track headed back to the hotels while the people who live in the several apartment houses that abut the track dragged their kids and lawn chairs back home, after sitting in the nearby streets enjoying the show.  And that unusual steel tower?  Packed inside the drum-like thing, which had been winched to the top, were magazines of rockets that burst out of it in 360-degree circles of pyrotechnics, like a giant Gatling gun, punctuating staccato climaxes in the musical scores.  Ferrari may be maddening about meeting car orders and other “normal” business, but nobody throws a party like they do!

Saturday was the Concours preview day.  Teams of eminent Ferrari gurus from several continents and the factory were to judge the various classes on Sunday and included quite a few well-known FCA members from the US.  As mentioned earlier, European enthusiasts actually use their cars, and few are restored to better-than-new perfection like is often done here.  It was enjoyable to see au natural examples of rare and special Ferraris from the 50s & 60s that I have never seen before in this hemisphere.  Each class was paraded around a shortened version of the track for the assembled spectators to enjoy their sounds.  The Italians are big on pageantry and the overall spectacle was pretty impressive.  Later on there was another driving demonstration, but of both vintage and current F-1 cars!  These sounds were truly incredible and the crowds were treated to the two F-1 stars doing smoke-billowing pirouettes with their multi-million dollar playthings as the afternoon drew to a close.  All of the nearby restaurants had been booked for months, but a local client of ours who lives in Italy part of each year took us to a little-known 19th century farmhouse/now restaurant perched on the side of one of the surrounding hills for dinner that evening.  Seated on an outdoor terrace, overlooking hay fields, an abandoned castle and a beautiful rural Italian countryside, we could see Maranello down below in the distance as it gradually grew dark.  After another epic Italian feast, we were able to enjoy the same fireworks show again, but from twenty miles away, as it was performed for the thousands of general admission folks who were at Fiorano that day.  Then, at midnight, we tumbled back down the twisty switch-backed road and on to the hotel, dodging the occasional weaving bicycle rider.  Sunday’s activities were going to be largely focused on those who had cars in the Concours event, with judging and other customer-oriented activities, so our little entourage got in our Alfa 159 and departed on a road trip through the Italian and Swiss Alps, heading for the famous Schlumph Auto Museum in Mulhouse, France.  What do you have for dessert, after feasting on Ferraris for several days?  Bugattis of course!   But that’s a story for next month.

  

                                                                                                                        -- Bill Orth –