Hungary for speed

Hungary for speed

Josh Sims puts one of Ferrari’s new thoroughbreds, the 599 GTB Fiorano, through its paces on an exhilarating journey from London to Budapest.

Sight-seeing is not best done at 150 mph, even if there are a lot of sights along the road from London to Budapest. But when you’re sitting in a Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano - Ferrari’s most powerful road car in its class to date, exceeding the punch of even its legendary F40 - free of speed limits on the German autobahn and still short of the 50 cents piece you needed for the toilets at the last petrol stop, well, the temptation is simply too much.

This, after all, is a car that will get you from 0-60 in a sphincter-clenching 3.7 seconds. Oh look, there goes another picturesque castle. There, in a blur, was an ancient monastery. There an Alpine range or two.

We could pack a lot more in. Indeed, this Ferrari, built to retain the racing engineering of purer sports Ferraris, but with the luxury of a touring car, has a top speed in excess of 205mph. It’s just that, at around 150mph, while you know the car can do more, you’re sure that you can’t. It is at speeds not much greater than this that F1 racing drivers are said to have out-of-body experiences - and I feel like I’m starting to float.

Not for nothing has the Ferrari design team given the 599 a central grip for what it euphemistically calls ‘extra passenger purchase’; aka hanging on for dear life. The grip is leather-clad, as are the seats, styled to hold the seat of the driver’s pants - by which he may well be driving - firmly in place, without sacrificing comfort.

It is just one of the details that Ferrari is now putting into its cars in a bid to develop the touring market, all too aware perhaps that those models with the F1 looks and the bumpy rides may look the part, but hardly make for leisurely driving.

And with Germany the company’s key European market, followed by the UK, the touring market (thanks especially to the Channel Tunnel) is a growing one.

It may be more convenient to take the Eurostar or to fly across Europe - but for those with the five days to spare, not to mention a greater love of high torque and engine pitch than small talk and stunning scenery, Ferrari is certainly one way to do it.

Just expect to overshoot the occasional motorway exit. You may also make some friends, as wherever you go, a new Ferrari seems to draw crowds and congratulations. ‘Wow!’ is a seemingly international word of appreciation, strangers want to shake your hand as though you’ve just cured cancer, and the driver (even one who has borrowed the car) basks in the glory reflected off the polished bonnet. But this is all when you’re stationary, of course, and that’s not often.

The drive may take in diversions on a whim, but first stop might be Mayschoss, through the red grape vineyards of the Rhine valley and on through the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Rhine Gorge and up into the more mountainous terrain of Austria.

It may take in Schloss Neuschwanstein, the 19th Century Bavarian palace and inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s Disney castle, or Schloss Linderhof, King Ludwig II’s scaled-down take on Versailles. Via Salzburg and Lake Wolfgang, snowy peaks looming over its crystal surface, you might take the Danube river route via Melk Abbey and then onto Sopron, on the Austrian/Hungarian border.

From there, next stop will be Budapest and its 1,100 years of history, not to mention, being Europe’s largest spa town, its 80 thermal springs and 12 medicinal baths.

This will be a journey of both grey motorway straights and winding routes through verdant valleys, all accompanied by a distinctive Ferrari gurgle, and there is no getting away from the fact that, after this amount of driving, the destination could not be better chosen.

For you may be in need of a massage, despite having rocketed along in one of Ferrari’s new breed of comfy car.

“We’re acknowledging that there are drivers who don’t want a car they may only get to use a few times a year on the track - they want a Ferrari in terms of sportiness, but also one they can use every day, or go away in for the weekend,” says Ferrari’s brand director Dany Bahar.

“So, looking forward, there will be a change in the mix of cars from Ferrari. We’ll always be in the sports car sector, but if you segment it between extreme sports cars and grand tourers, I think we will see more GTs.” Indeed, the emphasis on touring is a new side of the prancing horse and part of something of a brand overhaul.

Ferrari claims that the credit crunch has nothing to do with this, though it must have been taken aback by the 700 or so second hand Ferraris that came onto the market in the week after the closure of Lehman Brothers. But it is having to respond to a changing world in which, potentially, for financial and environmental reasons, the end of the era of the super-sports car is nigh.

The company is, for example, producing more ‘eco-friendly’ cars - its newest, just-launched model, the Ferrari California, also a GT, producing 25% fewer emissions than its other contemporary models.

Ferrari concedes that this is still a lot - though its target is to build engines by 2012 that reduce emissions by 40% on its 2007 levels.

The company is maximising branding opportunities also: Ferrari is on track to being as much a lifestyle brand as an automotive one, with 20% of its margins now accounted for by Ferrari-branded clothing, leather goods, fragrances, models, memorabilia, sportswear in association with Fila and, the latest tie-in, audio equipment with Meridian.

To this end, this winter sees the opening of the first Ferrari shop in the UK, on London’s Regent Street; one of 24 now around the world.

And in 2010, residents of Abu Dhabi will get even more: the first Ferrari theme park, €600m’s worth.

“The world of Ferrari is made up of those who own a Ferrari on the one hand and those who love them - the Ferraristas,” says Bahar.

“The core business may always be about making exclusive sports cars, selling less than the market demands, but there is also a space for other products with the same values as the brand.

“We have to be careful which products we license and choose very carefully the products we launch, not diluting the value of the brand, regardless of the commercial success it might have.

But Ferrari is something more than a car manufacturer now.” Certainly, it has always been a provider of memorable experiences that go beyond what is, for most people, the routine necessity of getting from A to B.

The lorry spill becomes the great leveller - when traffic grinds to a stand-still a Ferrari is denuded of its purpose and is little better to be in than a Trabant.

And in a five-day drive, a few jams might be expected.

But when the road clears, the skies are blue and the scenery spectacular, the Ferrari comes into its own and 40 hours of driving suddenly seems like an adventure - albeit at some acceleration - rather than a chore.

Available from: Brooklands Ferrari, Ring Road, Lower Wortley, Leeds, W. Yorkshire LS12 6AA, www.ferrari.com, £202.500