The cult of the Prancing Horse


If there's one holy pilgrimage amongst car enthusiasts in the whole wide world, that single hallowed spot to which thousands will flock and pay their respects, then it is the Ferrari factory in Maranello.

Everything about it is iconic, with petrol-infused history oozing out of every brick and slab - and Autoblog UK was invited by long-term Ferrari partner (and we're talking since 1929 here) Shell for an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour to follow up on our trip to the petrol factory.

We started out with lunch at famous Ferrari restaurant Il Cavallino with Stefano Domenicali, and it happened to be the 20th anniversary of his joining Ferrari fresh from university. He spoke of the rich history and culture of Ferrari – not lost on us as we saw the iconic factory gates out of the window behind him.

We made our way over to the factory, a model village for petrolheads complete with streets named after Ferrari legends. Our first stop, via a Ferrari-liveried mini coach complete with fake carbon fibre arm rests, was the Ferrari boardroom on Via Juan Manuel Fangio.

A glassy affair with bright yellow floors, this was a world away from Formula 1 and Enzo Ferrari's house across the road. This was modern Ferrari.

We met engine guru Jean-Jacques His in the boardroom, and he told us some of his history with Ferrari and explained some of the technical considerations behind building an engine.

We had a look around the factory on Via Enzo Ferrari, watching all of the cars progressing along the surprisingly high-tech assembly line. Somehow in your head you thought it was all still old Italian guys in aprons wielding huge hammers.

Dominating the factory space is a moving floor, the 'red carpet', which winds around the place. This takes each car between stations, each team assigned 20 minutes to do their jobs before the car moves on.

Each car's shell is introduced to the assembly line complete with its own lovingly prepared trolley containing all of the optional parts that are going to be fitted to that car. There is no special order to the assembly of Ferraris; it is all done on a first-come-first-served basis.

We could see all of the different stages of manufacture – the chassis being mated to the body, the wiring being threaded around the car, various gaudy configurations of coloured leather being installed for the dashboard. Money can't buy taste, it seems.

Our Ferrari tour guide told us that all of the factory spaces are designed around the worker in order to improve efficiency, with bright airy spaces and plenty of shrubbery. There is a massive sense of camaraderie in the Ferrari factory – everyone looks genuinely happy to be there, part of a big family.

We visited the engine factory on the Via Jody Scheckter, where the massive engines are bolted together by loving craftsmen. Ferrari produces 50 engines a day – 20 for Maserati and 30 for Ferrari. Of the Ferrari engines, 24 are V8s and 6 are V12s - which sets the standard for each day's production.

We spent the next day on the track at Fiorano, ostensibly confirming the fruits of the long tie-up between Shell and Ferrari, but in reality hooning about in 458 Italias on a legendary test track with Italian racing drivers coaching us.

It was both a sobering and thrilling experience – the day began with the first session being cut short so that the marshals could clear the track of all the cones I had hit that were lying about at the end of the back straight, but I quickly rose to perhaps not driving god status, but definitely cherubim level.

As many as 45 laps and a successful go in the skid pan later, I ended up winning a hot lap with Ferrari test driver Raffaele de Simone in a lunchtime draw. Raffaele was the lead guy on the 458 Italia. I looked decidedly peaky as my turn approached.

"Don't worry," someone reassured me. "He won't go over the limits." "But he invented the limits," I replied. "They are his limits." In fact he sailed past the limits, did some nifty drifting and threw the car about the track with abandon.

Even if it doesn't come across well on the accompanying YouTube video, it was a supreme display of skill and light years beyond anything we could have conceived of in our own modest test laps.

The man is a maestro, and completely unassuming as he answered our questions. He told us what it is like to be a Ferrari test driver ("It's not always perfect," although he could have fooled us) and a little bit about how involved he was in the entire design process of the 458 Italia from the steering wheel and dash layout to the pedals.

"You want each car to represent the sum of all the work that you've put in," he told us. He explained to us the work involved in moving from a "black box with wheels" to a comprehensive and refined car like the 458 Italia in two years.

This wasn't fluid, practised English, but rather a demonstration of enthusiasm and love for a car manufacturer that has long transcended mere manufacturer status. Everywhere throughout Maranello there is a fierce devotion to Ferrari that is inspiring to behold. That must be the cult of the Prancing Horse...