For me, Fuji Speedway was a sacred place. It was where one of my idols, James Hunt, was crowned Formula 1 World Champion on a very wet day in 1976. The circuit may have changed radically since then, but I was still thrilled to be driving on same hallowed ground where legend was born.
I’d paid my first visit to Fuji Speedway only a few weeks earlier to watch Round 5 of the Super GT Championship. It was so enjoyable, I felt hungry to get on the track myself. Thanks to Tokyo Supercars, I would get that chance.
Unfortunately, the weather, which had been nice all the way from Tokyo, took a turn for the worse as we neared the circuit. The sky was black and heavy rain was falling. Although I was somewhat disappointed I would not be able to drive flat out as in the dry, it somehow made me feel closer to stepping into Hunt’s shoes.
My first track experience in Japan was only meant to be behind the wheel of a Toyota GT86 – a fun, 200bhp sports car with some basic trackday mods. Despite the slippery surface, my two sessions in it were enjoyable. The car was nimble, forgiving and almost go-kart like in its handling qualities. The traction control was incredibly swift and aggressive and was able to quash any sudden oversteer moments as the car hit standing water and rivers running through some of the long right handers. On the straight, the car was topping over 200kph (125mph), which felt fast enough for the conditions.
However, after my Toyota running was over, I was given an unexpected surprise. I was told I could try out the Ferrari F430 Spider.
Ferrari F430 Spider
Supercars had never really interested me. I always imagined if I had that much money, I would be out on the track in a real racing car, as I had been at 21/22 years old when I raced a historic Formula Ford. As I slid into the F430’s seat, inserted the key and depressed the big red Start button, my interests were about to take a sudden change.
I wanted to spend my first moments in the car looking around the cockpit, taking in my surroundings and understanding the controls, but before I had a chance to do that, someone was already gesturing me to reverse out of my parking spot.
My first, panicked thought was “How the hell do you reverse a Ferrari?” There were paddles behind the wheel, but no gearstick.
I first tried to downshift through Neutral like you would on a racing game. However, once it got into 1st gear, it didn’t want to go back the other way. If I couldn’t work it out, I would have to get out and ask someone, which was going to look silly. I took another look around the cockpit and a few seconds later, found a button marked “R” on the centre console near the handbrake. I pressed and held it. Finally, reverse gear engaged. Manoeuvre over, I clicked the paddles the other way, got back into 1st and slowly set off down the pit lane.
Now I was able to take in my surroundings, my first impression was how low slung the driving position was. Even though I’m above average height, I felt as though I was only just peering over the dash. The steering wheel was far larger than expected and titled at quite an angle away from me, but was uncomplicated – it had a big, red button labelled ENGINE START and a knob you could twist (which Ferrari call a “manettino”) for changing the drive mode. The manettino had multiple options, but here it was set to “SPORT”.
As I headed gingerly down the pit lane towards the exit, it all began to sink in – I was driving an actual Ferrari. Better yet, I did not have anyone in the car telling me what to do and I had a free race track ahead of me. I had no preconceptions of how 500-odd horsepower might feel, especially in this weather. As I had found out in the GT86, track grip was low and here I was with 2.5x more horsepower under my right foot. I had no plans to go totally nuts.
Over the first few laps, I gradually built up the pace, staying well clear of the rev-limiter, braking early and not asking too much of the tyres. As I got more comfortable, the car and myself warmed up nicely and I felt I could push it harder. By around my 3rd lap, I was already confident to open her up fully.
Pulling onto the 1.5km long start/finish straight, I put my foot down all the way and unleashed the might of the 4.3 litre V8 behind me. 2nd gear, 3rd gear, 4th, 5th…What an amazing sound! Into Turn 1, I chose a sensible braking point, turned in and the car hit the apex perfectly. Gently feeding the power back on, I accelerated hard through the slight kink at Turn 2 and towards the ultra fast left at Turn 3. A light dab of the brakes, down one gear, turn in earlier than you might think, balance the throttle through the apex to quash any understeer and power on out towards the never-ending 100R.
Already I was super impressed at what the F430 could do. For the conditions, it was very stable and the balance and grip through the corners was beyond what I expected. The suspension was supple, but it cornered flat with no noticeable body roll. Power delivery was so smooth throughout the rev range and there was seemingly plentiful torque all the way up to the red line at 8500rpm. The wheel was light in my hands and provided less resistance than I would have liked, but I still felt I could be very precise. The greatest thing thing was that wherever you wanted the Ferrari to go, it went.
Shifting was harsh and a little sluggish – pulling the upshift paddle resulted in a sudden lurch forward in your seat as the auto clutch engaged, followed by what felt like a long wait before it grabbed the next gear. I imagined shifting to be a little sharper in “Race” mode, but since that would reduce the TC even further than it was in Sport mode, I wasn’t prepared to fart about with it. The paddles themselves were not positioned ideally for my tastes, being fixed the steering column and not rotating with the wheel. So, despite my long fingers, reaching the paddles felt like a real stretch unless your hands were positioned in the usual nine-to-three or ten-to-two position. This made trying to short shift out of the tighter corners towards the end of the lap somewhat tricky.
Finding the limits
I had mostly respected the engine and shifted up no higher than around 7500rpm, but just the once, I wanted to red line it to hear that V8 in all its glory. Along the main straight, I floored it and watched the speedo as it climbed through 230, 240 and then towards 250kph…I really wanted to see how fast it would go, but with the wipers at maximum pelt and the track barely visible through the windscreen, self-preservation kicked in. Did I want to aquaplane a £100,000 supercar into the barrier? Not really. When I took my foot off the gas, I was already at 155mph, which is the fastest I’d ever been in a car in my life and seemed crazy in those conditions.
Turn 1 seemed like the perfect place to test the full braking ability. Firmly, but progressively, I applied pressure to the pedal; the nose dived sharply and it wiggled its bum ever so slightly, but it otherwise remained composed and knocked off speed really quickly. Despite the weight balance (37%/63% front-to-rear), the rear hadn’t even tried to overtake the front and the smart ABS had prevented any of the wheels from locking up.
Excessive corner entry speed had occasionally induced understeer. My preferred solution to that is to give it more throttle, shifting weight to the rear and encouraging more turning motion. For the most part, it worked pretty well and the car danced nicely through the curves. The more I did it, the more the Ferrari showed its will to work with me. At times I overdid it and the back end stepped out wildly, necessitating plenty of opposite lock, but at no point did I feel out of control. On one lap, I got really sideways. Exiting Turn 6, I found my hands completely crossed on the wheel, and the slide just went on and on. I feathered the throttle and even had time to look down at the speedo (reading 90mph!) as I straightened it out. And yet I never felt like I was about to spin and my biggest surprise was that it felt so controllable, even beyond the limit.
How much of all this was me and how much was it the fancy electronics? I couldn’t tell. The GT86’s TC and stability control operated like an on-off switch and in the long corners, it became a fight against understeer. However, the Ferrari’s TC came in so progressively that it was barely noticeable. You only knew it was there because of the change in engine note (remember that burbly sound F1 cars used to make back in the mid-2000s?) as the car accelerated through the rivers around the back of the circuit. The F430 is also equipped with an e-diff, which supposedly responds to steering input as well as throttle input to modulate power to the rear wheels, further aiding stability in the corners. Clever stuff.
Bringing it home
As the rain intensified, I realised I couldn’t actually see the track ahead of me anymore. Rather than doing “just one more lap” (which never works out well), I decided to complete my current fast lap and bring it home slowly. One corner into my cooldown lap, my decision was justified as a car in front of me spun up its wheels and nosed head on into the barrier. No harm done, but the red flag prevented me from ignoring my own advice as I was about to do!
I never counted the number of laps I ultimately did. Perhaps only four or five. But even a year on, I remember all the details so vividly. The Ferrari F430 has so much character and it evokes a passion you can only comprehend once you get behind the wheel of one.
On the track, it was so good at doing what it could do that it gained my trust really quickly and I already felt enough confidence to explore the limits within 2 or 3 laps of jumping in for the first time. The power-to-weight ratio of the Ferrari was only marginally higher than that of my own race car so the speed difference didn’t feel mind-blowing in comparison, but it had the highest top speed of any car I had ever driven.
And at Fuji Speedway, I felt like I was giving it a chance to do what it was designed to do. To go really, really fast.
If you plan to visit Tokyo, take your International Driver’s Licence with you and be sure to sign up to one of Tokyo Supercars‘ driving events.