For me, Fuji Speedway was a special place. It was where one of my idols, James Hunt, was crowned Formula 1 World Champion on a very wet, historic day in 1976. The circuit may have changed radically since then, but I was still thrilled to be driving on roughly the same piece of tarmac where legend was born.
I’d paid my first visit to the Mount Fuji circuit only a few weeks earlier to watch Round 5 of the Super GT Championship. The event was brilliant from start to finish and, feeling hungry, I started searching for ways to drive the circuit myself. I was lucky to stumble upon Tokyo Supercars who were offering the opportunity the following month. I immediately signed up.
My first track experience in Japan was to be behind the wheel of a Toyota GT86 – a fun, 200bhp sports car with some modifications to make it more suitable for trackday use. 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. I wouldn’t get to properly wring the Toyota’s neck, but any disappointment was set aside by the idea that, perhaps somehow, I would be stepping even deeper into my idol’s shoes by experiencing the same conditions he faced 40 years earlier.
Despite the slippery surface, my two sessions in the GT86 were really enjoyable. The car was nimble and forgiving and almost go-kart like in its handling qualities. Any sudden oversteer moments thanks to the standing water and rivers running across the track were swiftly neutralised by the aggressive traction control system and it seemed like the ideal car for an inexperienced driver without feeling at all slow or underpowered. In fact, it was happy to just creep over 200kph (125mph) on the main straight, which is plenty fast enough for most.
Afterwards, I was given an unexpected surprise. I was told I could try out the Ferrari F430 Spider.
Ferrari F430 Spider
I’d never given supercars too much thought before. I loved watching The Stig thrash them around the Top Gear test track, but they seemed so inaccessible to the likes of me that there was no point in dreaming about them. All of that was about to change as I slid into the F430’s seat, inserted the key, pressed the start button and heard that wonderful V8 engine purr into life.
Before I even had a chance to check out all the controls and take everything in, someone was already gesturing me to reverse backwards out of my parking spot.
“Erm…how do you put a Ferrari into reverse?” I wondered. It had no gear stick, it was all paddle shift.
Like in my favourite racing games, I first tried to downshift through Neutral. However, once it was in 1st gear, it didn’t want to go back the other way. If I had to get out and ask someone I was going to look silly. I took a look around for a more intuitive method 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, got back into 1st and slowly set off down the pit lane.
The first thing I really noticed was how low slung the driving position was. I’m above average height, but from the way I was seated, I wondered if regular sized people could easily see over the dash. Then there was the steering wheel with that iconic badge in the centre. The wheel was larger than expected, but pleasantly uncomplicated – it had a big, red button labelled ENGINE START and a twisty knob (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, I glanced around the cockpit and it all began to sink in – I was driving an actual Ferrari. Better yet, I was alone 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. Track grip was low and putting the GT86’s power down had proved tricky enough. Now, here I was with 2.5x the horsepower under my right foot. I had no plans to go totally nuts. Over the first few laps, I gradually built up the pace, initially staying well clear of the rev-limiter and not asking too much of the engine, brakes or tyres. As I got more comfortable, the car and me warmed up and I started to push it harder. By around my 3rd lap, I was ready to see what she could really do.
Pulling onto the 1.5km long start/finish straight, I pushed the loud pedal all the way down and unleashed the full might of the 4.3 litre V8 behind me. 2nd gear, 3rd gear, 4th, 5th… The noise behind me was incredible! 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 a gear, turn in earlier than you might think, balance the throttle through the apex and power on out towards the never-ending 100R.
Already I was super impressed at what the F430 could do. For the conditions, the balance and grip through the corners was beyond expectations. The suspension was supple, but it cornered very flat with no noticeable body roll. Even at full throttle, power delivery was smooth and not at all jerky. The revs climbed all the way up to 8500rpm and there was seemingly plentiful torque throughout the rev range. The wheel was light in my hands and provided less resistance than I would have liked from a high performance vehicle, but the steering was so precise, it really wasn’t an issue. In other words, wherever you wanted the Ferrari to go, it went – you pretty much thought it and it obeyed.
On the downside, shifting was harsh and a little sluggish – pulling the upshift paddle resulted in a lurch forward in your seat as the auto clutch engaged, followed by a seemingly long wait before it eventually grabbed the next gear. I imagine the shifting to be a little sharper in “Race” mode, but the driver aids would also be practically turned off, so I wasn’t prepared to fart about with that. The paddles themselves were not positioned ideally for my tastes either. They were fixed to the steering column and didn’t rotate with the wheel, so unless the wheel was mostly straight and your hands were in a perfect 9-and-3 or 10-and-2 position, reaching the paddles felt like a real stretch. This proved a problem downshifting into the tightening radius corners near the end of the lap and while trying to short shift out of the tighter, lower grip hairpins as I was fighting a little for control.
Finding the limits
Shifting wise, I had respected the engine and changed up no higher than about 7500rpm, but just the once, I wanted to push it the red line to hear the V8 in all its glory. Along the main straight, I engaged Warp 9.9 and watched the speedometer as it climbed through 230kph, 240kph and then towards 250kph…I really wanted to see how fast it would go, but with the wipers at full pelt and rain streaming down 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 around 155mph – which is some way off the 198mph top speed, but more than enough given the track 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 gave the mildest of wiggles, but it otherwise remained composed and knocked off speed really quickly. Despite the 37%/63% front-to-rear weight balance, the rear had thankfully not tried to overtake the front into the braking zone and the smart ABS had prevented any of the wheels from locking up.
Excessive corner entry speed had occasionally induced understeer. My preferred technique to neutralise 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 it was willing to work with me. At times, the back end stepped out as the rear broke traction, necessitating generous amounts of opposite lock, but at no point did I feel out of control. Then 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 manipulated the throttle and even had time to look down at the speedo (reading 90mph!) as I brought it out of it. It really surprised me – near the limit, on the limit, or over the limit, it seemed so controllable.
How much of all this was me and how much was it the fancy electronics? I couldn’t tell. The GT86 had not fared as well – the TC and stability control kicked in so strongly, I was pretty much locked into a battle with understeer. However, the Ferrari’s TC came in so progressively that it was barely noticeable. You only knew it was working because the engine note changed (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 took the decision to complete my current fast lap and then bring it home slowly. My decision was justified when I encountered a car spinning off into the barrier exiting the first turn of my cooldown lap. No harm done, but the red flag had prevented me from ignoring my own advice like 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, it evokes a passion that you can only understand 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 after jumping in the car for the first time. The power-to-weight ratio of the Ferrari was only marginally higher than that of my own race car so 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.