Caning a racecar around a circuit isn’t really part of the brief here at wheels, but when Ferrari rings up and asks if you’d like to flog their 488 Challenge racer for a few laps around the Bahrain International Circuit, it only takes a nanosecond for this scribe to answer in the affirmative.

By way of background, the Ferrari Challenge is a factory-backed one-make race series, along the lines of the Lamborghini Super Trofeo, Porsche Supercup and Trofeo Maserati championships. The cars for the Challenge series are all prepared at Ferrari’s Maranello HQ and are identical, which means drivers compete on a level playing field — something that’s hardly the case in most forms of motorsport, especially Formula One, where the teams with the biggest budgets usually dominate.

The Ferrari Challenge dates back to 1993 and was created for owners of the 348 Berlinetta who wanted to have a crack at racing. The series has steadily evolved over the years, and Ferrari has subsequently rolled out Challenge racers based on the 355, 360, 430, 458 and currently the 488. The Challenge series has mushroomed to the extent there are now three separate championships — Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific — with each of these attracting healthy fields across two categories. Pro drivers vie for the Trofeo Pirelli (Pirelli Trophy), while ‘gentlemen drivers’ compete for the Coppa Shell (Shell Cup). There are Pro and Am sub-divisions within each of these two categories, with drivers classified according to their skill levels and racing experience.

Speaking of experience, I’ve got plenty of that testing road cars, but very little in terms of punting race cars with slick tyres and stripped-out cabins stuffed with a roll cage. And even though I had a dozen angry laps in the Lamborghini Huracan Evo at this same circuit four weeks ago, I realise I’m going to have to completely recalibrate my brain, fingertips and right foot to make the adjustment to the hardcore 488 Challenge.

 

Supplied

As its numeric designation suggests, the latest Challenge racer is based on the 488 GTB, but it actually has more in common with Ferrari’s competition-prepped 488 GT3 and GTE than it does with the road car. The 3.9-litre twin-turbo V8’s outputs of 670hp (661bhp) at 8,000rpm and 760Nm at 3,000rpm might be slightly down on the mental 488 Pista, but the racer has a comprehensive aero package, of which the massive rear wing is obviously the most noticeable element.

The 488 Challenge also rides lower than its road-going siblings, courtesy of bespoke springs and dampers, but arguably the biggest game-changers are the slick tyres (275mm wide at the front, 315mm at the rear), which means you brake much later and carry far more corner speed than would be possible in even the bonkers 488 Pista.

Somewhat incongruously for a racecar, the 488 Challenge isn’t  deafeningly noisy — despite the lack of sound-deadening trim inside the cabin — and this is largely down to the heavily muffled note of  the turbo engine. This means I can converse with Ferrari instructor Andrea Fausti, who’s perched in the passenger seat, without having to shout. Even the showroom-standard Lamborghini Huracan Evo I drove at this same circuit a month ago was far noisier inside the cabin when going at it hammer and tongs.

Given my unfamiliarity with the 488 Challenge — and, more importantly, the slick tyres it’s shod with — I opt to take a relatively conservative approach on my out lap, and even on the following tours my focus is on trying to gain a feel for the car, rather than trying to set a lap record… which I’ve no hope of doing in any case. Immediately noticeable is that the 488 Challenge has bags of low- and mid-range torque (its quota of 760 Newtons are on tap from just 3,000rpm), so there’s no need to rev the living daylights out of it. In fact, the quickest way around — especially through the succession of sweepers in the mid-section of the track — is to upshift early and make use of that massive mid-range wallop.

As expected, the Pirelli slicks serve up bags of grip, which means you can stand on the brakes much later than you could in a car (no matter what it is) with road tyres. It also means you turn into corners later as there’s so much front-end bite from the slicks. Even so, there are a couple of slip-slide moments despite the two traction-control ‘manettino’ switches being in their most conservative settings for my brief stint in the car. One of these switches controls the degree to which the traction control reins in the action, while the other controls the timing and duration of electronic intervention.

Ideally, I would have preferred more liberal settings for the electronic nannies, as the cut in forward thrust is noticeable while attempting to launch out of a couple of the tighter corners (especially Turns 8 and 10 at BIC). The torque interruption seemingly ruins the flow of the lap, but these are the settings that first-time 488 Challenge drivers are sent out with, and it’s probably prudent a decision.

The fact the 488 Challenge has huge torque, all of which is transmitted to tarmac via solely the rear wheels, means you need to squeeze the throttle out of tight corners, rather than stand on the gas. Even so, the car feels terrifically agile, adjustable and non-intimidating. The steering, too, relays plenty of feedback to your fingertips.

With a dry weight of just over 1,340kg, the 488 Challenge has a healthy power-to-weight ratio (almost 2kg/hp, even with fluids), and it hits 280kph-plus down the front straight at BIC, although my focus is more on nailing the braking point for the tight Turn 1 than watching the speedo. In the chase for maximum acceleration out of turns, the F1 DCT transmission in the Challenge has shorter gear ratios than the road car and shift times are also quicker.

After four laps that seem to be over far too quickly (not due to any lap-record-setting heroics on my part), we trundle back into pitlane and I try and assimilate what I’ve just experienced. The overriding impression is that although the 488 Challenge undoubtedly requires a skilled pro driver to extract the very best from it, the car is user-friendly enough for even non-racers to step into and get around a track fairly briskly.

Unlike other race categories, there are no private teams in the Ferrari Challenge, rather dealer-related organisations that register cars for the races. Ferrari says this is to maintain the purity of the series and make for a level playing field. Although each dealer-backed team obviously strives to optimise the setup of the car for their driver, none are seeking to bend the rulebook or come up with ‘creative interpretations’ of the rules in an attempt to gain an edge over the competition.

 

Supplied

The result is close racing and a good show for spectators, not only in the pro-focused Trofeo Pirelli category, but also in the Coppa Shell championship for gentlemen drivers (most of whom are wealthy business owners or bankers/investors). In case you’re thinking the amateurs are plodders, think again, as the pole position lap at Bahrain for Coppa Shell was only 2sec adrift of the 2:02.8sec benchmark for the elite Trofeo Pirelli race.

Dubai-based Lebanese driver Tani Hanna, who has been a regular in the championship for the past six years, says competing in the Ferrari Challenge goes hand-in-hand with his love for the prancing horse. His own garage includes a Testarossa 512 TR, an F355, a F430 Scuderia, a 599 GTB, a 599 GTO, an F12tdf, two 458s (a Speciale and Speciale Aperta), a GTC4Lusso, a LaFerrari and a LaFerrari Aperta, so having a full-fledged crack at the Ferrari Challenge was a natural extension of his passion for Maranello purebreds.

As you can imagine, the Ferrari Challenge is not aimed at budget racers, as you first need to buy the car, which costs just under Dh1m (ex-factory), and then shell out anywhere between Dh600k to Dh1m+ per season, depending on how much testing you want to do and how seriously you want to take the championship. Hanna takes his racing very seriously, and it was clear finishing second in opening race in the 2019 championship didn’t please him. He’s in it to win it.

There are also other possibilities, as current UAE Ferrari Owners Club president Clint Wilfred recently purchased a 488 Challenge, but not with the intention of competing in the championship — at least not for now. Wilfred’s aim is to take part in non-competitive track days with his car, honing his skills while enjoying the extreme performance of a properly honed racecar. Ferrari flies the car and a team of technicians (at a substantial cost, obviously) to the venue specified by the customer, so it’s a fully professional setup.

The European series of the Ferrari Challenge is broadcast in over 90 countries around the globe, which means the championship gains a lot of marketing exposure for the Prancing Horse, as well as contributing handsomely to its coffers. Ferrari’s Sporting Activities Director, Antonello Coletta, won’t talk numbers, but he concedes the customer racing program is a great revenue source for the company.

Now then, Antonella, how about entering a car in the championship for the media? I can think of at least one willing volunteer from the motoring press…

 

 

Interview with Antonello Coletta, Ferrari Sporting Activities Director

Supplied

 

How important is the Challenge series for Ferrari as a brand?

The Ferrari Challenge is the oldest existing single-make race category in the world. We started in 1993 with the 348, and since then the series has continued via the 355, 360, 430, 458 and 488 models. It’s a very important series for us because it involves our clients and dealers (all the teams are dealer-backed). There are now three separate championships — Europe, North America and Asia-Pacific — and from May this year we will have a domestic series in the UK. This will be the first domestic Ferrari Challenge championship, but in future why not in other countries too? There are now about 120 drivers taking part in Ferrari Challenge races around the world, but more than 400 Challenge cars are in the hands of owners. Those who don’t compete use them for track days via activities we organise such as ‘Passione Ferrari’, or they can use them for private tests.

 

Is there enough interest in the Middle East for, say, having a GCC-specific Ferrari Challenge series?

For sure, the Middle East is of interest to us and in the past we had the World Finals in Abu Dhabi. That said, I prefer to extend our network gradually. A lot of our competitors started new programs in various markets, but within one or two years they were finished. I prefer to be consistent.

 

This is the first time Bahrain International Circuit is hosting a round of the Ferrari Challenge. What was behind that decision?

As far as we’re concerned, Bahrain is one of the best circuits in the world. The facilities are amazing, the weather is great during this period and the track itself has an excellent layout. I spoke to a lot of our customers in the Corsa Clienti program and they’re very happy with this venue. This circuit has a completely different layout than we’re used to in Europe, and being able to race at night under lights is fantastic.

 

 

Interview with Tani Hanna, Ferrari Challenge competitor and Dubai-based business owner

Supplied

 

How did you get involved with the Ferrari brand, and in the Challenge championship in particular?

I got into this world almost by accident when I bought my first supercar — a Ferrari F430 — in 2005, so I was a late starter in terms of high-performance cars and motorsport. I was always interested in cars, but in my younger days there was no way of getting my hands on supercars, so I worked hard and made some money until I could afford them. After getting the F430 I did some of the Corsa Pilota training programs run by Ferrari, and I learnt that I had the potential to race. One thing led to another, and I entered my first Ferrari Challenge race in 2013. I was on the top step of the podium in the second race after having crashed in the first and, from that point on, I was hooked.

 

How you have you fared in the Ferrari Challenge in the years since?

From 2014 to 2017 I opted to do a few races from the Asia-Pacific championship, some from the European series and even one in North America. However, in 2018 I decided to focus on a single championship so I could achieve something. It paid off as last year I won the Coppa Shell category in the Asia-Pacific championship.

 

What was the biggest step forward when the Challenge series moved from the 458 to the 488 as a basis in 2017?

Ferrari made the 488 Challenge closer to the GT3 car than was the case with the 458, which had more in common with the road car. Obviously, one big change was that we went from normally aspirated engines to a twin-turbo 3.9-litre V8 (reflecting the transition made from the road-going 458 to its 488 successor), and the 488 also gained a much more comprehensive aerodynamic package. In addition, a lot of the other technology from the GT3 racer was introduced to the Challenge car. So, where the 458 Challenge was a road car that had been converted to a race car, in the case of the 488 it’s a GT3 racer that’s been adapted to fit the specifications of the Challenge series.

 

Have you set yourself any goals going forward?

I had set myself the goal to win the championship and I won the Coppa Shell in the Asia-Pacific Challenge last year, so that was good. I fought for the win in the World Finals last year and was in second position until the last 30 seconds. But then I made a mistake and dropped back to fifth. This year I will try again to win the World Finals, which will be held at the famous Mugello circuit in Italy. It’s a track I like and where I feel very confident, so I believe I have a good chance.