Hold the horses

Against all normal wisdom, if you want to take your Ferrari 458 to Le Mans you’ll need to de-tune the engine. We drive the GTE version to see what else changes

There are several motoring cliches that are complete bunk – like a Caterham Seven being ‘a four-wheeled motorbike’. A Caterham, or any other sports car for that matter, doesn’t lean into a corner so is nothing like a bike. And anyone who has driven a racing kart knows that no car has ever had ‘kart-like steering’, and a good thing too because a slight jink of the steering wheel would have you spearing off the high street and through Waterstone’s window.

And then there’s ‘It’s a racing car for the road’. Even the stiffest and most uncomfortable road-legal car is still not going to feel like a true racing machine, not least because it won’t be running on slicks on the public road. My first drive in Ferrari’s then-new 458 Italia was at Donington Park in the summer of 2010. It is a shockingly fast and competent car, so much so

I thought, that the average owner would be in awe of the thing on a circuit and probably most of the time several hundred yards behind the car. I very nearly wrote later, before stopping myself, that it was like a road-legal racing car.

And I’m glad I did hold back, because today we’re driving a pukka racing Ferrari 458 and just a brief squint at it shows that it’s a long way removed from its number-plated brother. It’s a GT2-spec car that JMW Motorsport ran in the European Le Mans Series in 2011, and by the time you read this should have made its second appearance at the Le Mans 24 Hours itself.

Although JMW’s yellow 458 is built to GT2 speciications the class is now called GTE in both the series and at Le Mans. Slightly confusing? It is to me, so I rang Gary Watkins, Motor Sport contributor and the Stephen Hawking of sports car racing, for clariication. Pointing out that sports car racing classes have always been complicated, Watkins explained that GTE is split into two groups: GTE /Am for teams with a maximum of one professional driver and GTE/Pro for teams with a pair of pros, which is the group that JMW competes in.

We’re at Pembrey in South Wales, where team driver James Walker will be testingthe car after we’ve had our run in it. I have raced bikes at Pembrey but have never driven a car around it. An odd circuit, quite flat with a mixture of medium-speed corners and a couple of really cheeky tighteners. Team manager Tim Sugden, who drove with Walker and Rob Bell at Le Mans in 2011, takes me for a couple of laps in a BMW 3-Series for a quick conversion course from two wheels to four. The 458 GT2, like all Ferrari sports racing cars of the past three decades, is built by Michelotto in Padova. The company starts with a body in white and then sets about totally transforming the car. There’s the most perfectly stitched roll cage ever and a bespoke fascia that’s a beautiful combination of carbon fibre and anodised switches. As you slip into the low-set bucket seat and replace the removable steering wheel you are presented with a more straightforward set of controls than in the standard 458 Italia. While not a total Luddite, I can’t be doing with a plethora of steering wheel-mounted controls that would confuse a concert pianist. After all, Porsche does without them on its fabulous GT3 RS 4.0. Michelotto moves the knobs that control the engine management system and various parameters such as the power steering to the facia, leaving the steering wheel free for the radio transmit buttons, neutral button and other stuff that’s more important to have immediately to thumb.

To the right of the steering wheel (all 458 GT2s are left-hand drive) is a large chunky gearshift. No diddy little paddles on this car. The lever is connected to a sequential Hewland gearbox. “The Hewland ’box is one of the car’s strengths,” says Sugden, “It’s new for the 458 but it’s an updated version of a very well proven design.” Behind me is the 458’s 4498cc 90-degree V8 engine which in the road car produces 570bhp. In this car it has been castrated by 28.3mm air restrictors that bring the power down to 465bhp at 6250rpm.

There’s a bit of a clawback with the GT2 tipping the scales at 1245kg to the road car’s 1485kg. I’ve done the important sum for you and the answer is that the racer has a power to weight deicit of 10bhp per tonne.

Down in the footwell is a sight that you won’t see in the standard 458: three pedals. Sugden has already explained that upchanges are done without the clutch but that it’s important to shift while accelerating hard because otherwise the gears will baulk.

A roadgoing Italia’s engine sounds pretty manic, but the GT2’s is even more raucous. Pulling away isn’t hard; you just need to feed in plenty of revs and not try to ease in the short-throw clutch pedal too smoothly. The perfect long-distance racing car should not be hard work to drive. First impression of road vs race 458 is that the steering on this car has better feel and slightly more weight than the road car.

There’s not a lot wrong with the road car’s two turns lock-to-lock but I remember when I drove the car at Donington with rival Lotus, Porsche GT3 and Noble M600 to hand it didn’t feel quite as precise as the others.

Not surprisingly, Michelotto its completely adjustable suspension to its racers, and obviously stiffer damping, springs and anti-roll bars. All these, plus Dunlop slicks, give the GT2 a much more hard-edged feel than the road car. This is JMW’s only car, so testing to extreme the effectiveness of the GT2’s aero package through Pembrey’s cling-on tight Honda curve is not worth the risk. I suspect that the racer would gain an edge here and build on it further on braking into the hairpin that follows it. The brakes are mighty and the grip from the warmed slicks plus the reduced overall weight would see the GT2 outbrake the road car here.

Not surprisingly it is the Hewland gearbox that makes the racing 458 feel entirely different to the road-going Italia. The road car’s F1- inspired robotic manual has a millisecond-fast change and in its most race-orientated setting is quite harsh. The Hewland’s straight-cut gears and manual operation relect much more heavy engineering. With the racer’s weight-saving but without the air restrictors this would be a truly spectacular car, totally removed from the showroom car. Wish I was on a track that

I knew well, like Brands or Snetterton, so there was more conidence to drive the car harder. I suspect that the harder you push it the further it distances itself from its tax-disc-carrying relatives.

If we could make a direct comparison of lap times, the GT2 would undoubtedly come out on top, the difference depending a lot upon the circuit used. But it is fairly irrelevant because the Michelotto car is designed to go hard and fast for 24 hours. And today’s endurance events tend to be sprint races that happen to go on for a very long time. Here at Pembrey a cautious Goodwin is barely making the car sweat and after only just breaking into double igures in laps I bring it back safe and in one piece. Much to the delight,

I’d imagine, of Jim McWhirter, the JMW in the team’s name. Jim McWhirter is a real gent, in the sport for the love of it. He puts his hands deep into his pockets for this show. The cost-saving option would be to run in the GTE/Am category and jet in some financier type with an artic full of Krugerrands, but McWhirter likes to win, too, so a driver fast with the money but slow on the track is of no use at all. And Jim McWhirter and his team do win. Already the team has claimed two GT2 championships and won the opening ELMS round at Paul Ricard this season. Last year the team came second in the series’ GTE/Pro class and that meant a guaranteed entry for Le Mans this June, the ultimate goal for anyone who races sports cars. Last year at the Sarthe the team inished 24th overall and ninth in class.

Rob Bell has left to drive McLaren’s MP4-12C GT car so young James Walker is now partnered by Jonny Cocker, with Kiwi Roger Wills joining them for the classic French race itself.

In 2009 the team ran a Ferrari 430 GT2 but in 2010 switched to Aston Martin and its GT2 racer. “With the Aston we were essentially the works development team,” explains Sugden.

“We were working with Prodrive and very much tackling problems as we came across them, sometimes at the track on race weekends. The only other Aston apart from ours was one being raced in Japan.

“Running the Ferrari is more straightforward. For starters we have strength in numbers because there are around 15 other 458s being raced in the various different GT2 classes including 11 in GTE/Pro. Also, the Michelotto people are very easy to deal with. There’s always someone on the end of the ’phone and we have a Michelotto technician who knows every grommet and washer on the car present at every race. Last year it was an excellent French engineer called Brice La Forge, with Christian Michelotto, who is the son of the founder and who runs the company, turning up at the odd round. He’s a great bloke, super-chilled out who’s often found sitting cross-legged in the back of a truck smoking a fag.”

The bulk of the competition in the 2011 season came, not surprisingly, from Porsche and its 997 RSR. Traditionally, if you want the simplest way to go sports car racing then a turnkey Porsche 911 is your best option. Porsche sends its motor sport support trucks and parts wagons to all rounds and if you bend something on the car it’s simply a matter of producing a credit card at the counter and buying the replacement. “Porsche goes racing in its own way,” says Sugden. “Michelotto just does it the Italian way but the end result is the same – the parts and technical support is just as good.”

Arguably Ferrari has never had such a strong presence in sports car racing. Actually, the clock has been turned way back to the days of Rob Walker, Scuderia Filipinetti and other private teams that did the racing for the factory and who built strong relationships with Maranello.

McWhirter is a bit of a Walker character with public school accent swapped for Ulster, but with the same passion and attitude to the people who work (and volunteer) for his team. From Sugden and his chief engineer Steve Bunkhall to the team gofer, there’s a family atmosphere that blends with the topnotch professionalism of the team’s equipment and working practice. McWhirter himself has competition history, starting in 1970 with 210 National karts through to 250cc superkarts. A break followed from the mid-80s to a return to competition with a couple of seasons in the Ferrari Challenge. Initially McWhirter had a team run a car for him in LMS, before in 2009 deciding to turn a big fortune into a small one by running his own team. Yet the grin on his face as he stands on Pembrey’s earth bank watching James Walker blast past in the Dunlop-liveried 458 GT2 implies that he reckons this is money well spent.

Colin Goodwin