RACING

What you learn to drive with F1 driver Carlos Sainz in a Ferrari 296 GTB

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What could be better than being invited behind the gates of Maranello to drive Ferrari’s latest creation, the 2022 Ferrari 296 GTB, on the beautiful roads around Modena? Well, how about being invited to drive the 296 GTB at Fiorano, Ferrari’s private test track? What could top that? Well, it starts rolling in the 296 at Fiorano with Ferrari Formula 1 star Carlos Sainz himself at the wheel. Yeah, that kind of tops it all, right?

For those of you who have lived under a rock or don’t have Netflix (which is kind of the same thing, really), Carlos Sainz Jr. is the son of two-time World Rally Champion Carlos Sainz Sr. He was brought into Ferrari’s F1 team last season as a replacement for outgoing four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel and finished fifth overall in the championship, two positions ahead of his highly regarded team-mate Charles Leclerc. This year Sainz has struggled to get the most out of the new car, but he remains one of the most popular drivers on the F1 grid.

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Having the opportunity to drive with a Ferrari F1 works driver is like playing catch with Tom Brady, swimming with Michael Phelps or sprinting in the wind with Usain Bolt. It’s seeing one of the best in the world doing what he does, up close and personal.

The only problem with what would otherwise be a dream scenario is that I have a problem with riding in the “right seat”. I hate that.

I am not alone in my intense aversion to being a passenger. Several professional pilots have the same problem as me. The reasons vary but, by and large, professional drivers are control freaks, and in the passenger seat, you’re not in control. Many of us have lost friends who were training good seats.

But on the other hand, how often do you get to see an F1 driver at the top of his game working up close and personal? See how a world-class driver can balance the car going into the corner, how he swings it around mid-corner, and how he returns to the throttle? These are things you can’t get from watching them on TV, no matter how good the coverage. This “once in a lifetime” opportunity and my professional curiosity took precedence over any apprehension I had about being a passenger. I said yes.

In fact, I think what came out of my mouth was “Holy shit! Holy shit!”

(I have no impulse control.)

How was it? epic of course

First, when you’re in the driver’s seat, you have full control over all inputs to the car. It also means that you expect all forces: braking, acceleration, cornering, etc. As a passenger, you just have to take what comes, which is always more than you expected. Also, you have nothing to hold on to to help stabilize you. Maybe this isn’t all new to you, but I’m new to the right, so this was all a bit of a system shock for me. Being in a car with the insane performance levels of the 296 GTB probably didn’t make it any easier. Should have had him start in a Prius and work his way up to the 296…

Straight out of the pits and Sainz was on top, generating huge loads on the brakes and entering the first corner. Once the brakes were released, it immediately spun to the apex with movements so quick I thought the rear end was going to give up and turn around and we would spin around the trail. But the 296 obeyed Sainz’s demands and obediently pointed for the exit. Sainz then demanded power. All. And he got it. All 818 horsepower in one fell swoop, and again the Ferrari acquiesced to Sainz’s demands and we raced down the straight to the next corner, where the same thing happened again.

After two laps, Sainz headed to the pits. The Ferrari crew rushed to tend to the car, looking very much like their F1 counterparts. Sainz turned to me and told me the car was now warmed up. He just needed a quick tire pressure adjustment and then we were doing “two laps of pushing”.

And then it all went plaid.

The rides we had done so far were a prelude, an amuse-bouche – if you will – to what was to come. Sainz was nowwell and good, on it.

Once the immediate violence of what he was doing behind the wheel of the 296 passed, I was able to begin to analyze exactly What he was doing that allowed him to bend the 296 to his will.

Immediately I could feel Sainz had an incredible feel for the level of grip he had to work with at all times. And I’m not just talking about the overall grip, but the grip of each individual tire. More importantly, he naturally figured out how to transfer the weight of the car to each tire to maximize grip. This technique was most noticeable in tight corners, where he carried a tremendous amount of entry speed while still being able to spin the car at exactly the right point to get the perfect exit.

However, what impressed me the most was his commitment to acceleration. With 818 hp and near-instantaneous torque from the electric motor, the 296 doesn’t mess around when you give it the beans. Sainz gave no fucks and went straight to full throttle when he needed to, no matter what the car was doing at the time, and using his innate car control skills to keep it where he wanted it. A basic premise in racing is that whoever is at full throttle the longest usually wins. Sainz clearly got that one. And that, my friends, is how you do lap time.

The 296 GTB is an incredibly fast and powerful car, but the way Sainz drove it felt like his years in F1 – spent driving the fastest cars in the world – slowed everything down for him. As if it weren’t for the 1,000hp, 800kg F1, which is his usual office, he might as well have been driving a Spec Miata for all he wanted. There has never been a time when he hasn’t been in full command of 296.

Was Sainz an alien driving? No. Did he do things that defied the laws of physics? Not really. However, what he was doing was all I could do, only better. All. With each phase of riding, it was just a little better (okay, more than a little, that’s some points). The way he carried the brakes into the corner and handled the balance so superbly while being able to accelerate so quickly was an amazing thing to see and something I will spend the rest of my time as a rider trying to imitate.

Carlos Sainz is one of the best riders in the world, and every second I spent riding with him proved that beyond doubt. I’ve been racing and driving professionally for about 20 years now, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still learning every time I get in the car. And of course I learned after seeing and feeling it driving for a few laps.

Don’t miss the on-board video of the tour:

Robb Holland is an American racing driver and automotive journalist. He has competed in the British Touring Car Championship, Pikes Peak, World Touring Car Championships and more.

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