Into the red

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One of Ferrari’s most prolific test drivers, Andrea Bertolini is entrusted to shake down the Scuderia’s most prized racing cars. We watched him sample number 400 at Fiorano

You walk to the Fiorano circuit, escorted from the reception area at the famous Ferrari gate in Maranello. Crossing Via Abetone Inferiore we’re marched between the contrasting vistas of the new Ferrari Store and Il Cavallino, Enzo Ferrari’s favourite restaurant. Then onwards towards ‘Gestione Sportiva’ – a huge, impossibly modern but rather anonymous building that houses Ferrari’s competition activities.

And on you walk, escorted through endless security gates. So far the chorus accompanying your visit to Maranello is less the scream of a V12 and more the swipe and beep of security gates. But then the architecture changes. Beige buildings with red tiled roofs replace steel and glass and you begin to catch occasional glimpses of red-bodied race cars behind open doors. Correspondingly, your pulse quickens. It’s beginning to feel more… authentic.

Then you hear an engine fire up. Impossibly loud. Tone static at a high-idle. You guess a V10 – a Formula 1 V10. By now you’ve nearly arrived at the track having unknowingly quickened your pace. A helicopter lands adjacent to the airfield – Sergio Marchionne we’re told, arriving for a regular early-morning meeting. However, another Ferrari employee is about to embark on his first task of the day, shaking down a F2005 – the car currently buzzing away at that fast idle.

It will be Andrea Bertolini’s 398th Ferrari shakedown; today he will pass the 400 mark. We’re here to witness this moment and grab a voyeuristic look into one of the most coveted jobs in motor racing: Ferrari test driver.

BERTOLINI IS ON it immediately. A team of red-uniformed mechanics has pre-warmed the car, and so our test driver wastes no time in taking its 3-litre V10 to the limit – which is where problems are found and/or where solutions are revealed.

We’re watching in the small four-car pit building beside the Tarmac of Fiorano, through a glass window less than a couple of metres from the track. You or I might need a coffee or three to respond to our first tasks of the day, and maybe even settle in with some email or a gossip at the water cooler. Not Andrea. Zooooom! He screams past us at a rate that’s nearly impossible to track; nailing the brakes, drumming through the downshifts, then back on the power. You hear the engine revs climb, then suddenly shriek as the rear tyres break traction. A single glove flashes above the cockpit as Andrea applies opposite lock, corrects the slide, and screams off. Five laps later he’s back in the pit, showing no sign of sweat or stress, seeking out a strong coffee that can offer little in the way of stimulation given what he has just experienced.

He looks outside, takes a sip of his coffee and says, “You know I was here, outside, as a kid. I remember being outside the gate sitting on my father’s shoulders, watching Gilles Villeneuve or Lauda or Alboreto. I remember the feeling well.

“One time it was Gilles running – we were behind corner nine and I was really young. He was on his in-lap and he saluted me – he waved! To do this, it was something really emotional. I remember like yesterday.

“I started working here at 17 years old,” he adds. “My first job was on the dyno; for eight months working on the engine of the 333SP sports car, but at the same time I was in kart racing.” He’s modest about his success in karts. He began competing at 10 years old, a contemporary of Giancarlo Fisichella, finished runner-up in an Italian championship and won various titles. Later he won the CIAK Cup and in 2000 he finished second in the Italian 125 Championship. It’s a little wonder that Michael Schumacher, a fellow karting exponent and five-time world champion with the Scuderia, so trusted Andrea’s feedback. But we’ll return to this later.

Bertolini was competing in karts when legendary Ferrari test driver Dario Benuzzi, who wasn’t aware that Andrea was already a Ferrari employee, asked if he would like to work as a test driver. Andrea’s eyes go distant and his eyebrows arch as he recalls the memory. It’s an expression of disbelief – still felt acutely to this day. Just imagine: you were born in Sassuolo, within earshot of the Fiorano test track, you’re racing karts, your first full time job is at the Ferrari factory working on V12 engines, and now the chief tester has asked you to join his driving team. He laughs at the notion that he must have done something exceptionally noble in his previous life.

“At that time I was 17 and a half. Dario had asked me if I would be happy to work with him, but first I had to do a test here at Fiorano in a 355 Challenge car for a private team. Pietro Corradini, who was chief mechanic with Villenueve and Gerhard Berger and looked after some historic F1 cars, was also here, watching…” No pressure then.

“Anyway, I did five laps in the 355 Challenge car – I was 17, I had no driving licence for the road, then Dario came to me – I remember, and said, ‘We would like you to be in Ferrari to work as test driver’. And I replied, ‘But I am already with Ferrari’. Dario said, ‘What!?’ He didn’t know that I worked on the dyno.”

Neither, it turns out, did Dario know that Bertolini didn’t have a road licence nor was even old enough to apply for one. However, the chief test driver clearly saw potential in the young Andrea and invited him to work in the R&D department in the mornings and join Dario in the passenger seat of various test cars in the afternoon – “To learn the job”, says Bertolini. Then, soon after his 18th birthday, Andrea passed his driving test and became the youngest Ferrari tester.

BERTOLINI IS called back to his ‘desk’. He finishes his coffee, then walks over to a simply sublime 1995 412 T2 – the last V12 F1 Ferrari. Immediately a more mellifluous soundtrack fills the pit garage, as the engine sparks into life. Without going too far off topic, this glorious engine sounds better at idle than current F1 engines sound at maximum revs. And when Bertolini drives this deep red, needle-nosed beauty out of the pit garage, its 12 cylinders make everyone present stop, watch… and listen.

Again Andrea wastes no time finding and exceeding the grip levels. After 399 shakedowns and thousands of laps in a huge range of machinery at Fiorano, the groove is permanently with Andrea – he doesn’t need to find it.

But this is a short-lived shakedown. Bertolini had mentioned before climbing in that there was a tenacious gremlin within the 412’s ECU and it was proving difficult to remove. Sure enough the V12 begins to misfire and Andrea rolls into the pit, having cut the ignition. Time for another break, so Andrea pulls up a chair and continues his story.

“And of course my family didn’t have the money to spend on motor racing, but the dream was still there,” he explains. Does this mean despite joining Ferrari as a test driver at 18 years of age he retained the ambition to be a professional racing driver? “Absolutely,” he replies firmly. “I still wanted to race. And I was lucky. I was asked if I would like to test the 355 Challenge.”

During the next 10 years, the skills absorbed from Dario Benuzzi meant Andrea would work on a variety of Ferrari road car projects – including various experimental vehicles. Then in 2002, as a 29-year-old, his racing career began to take off – albeit in a manner that existed in parallel with his testing role.

The 355 Challenge was superseded briefly by a Porsche and then by the 360 Modena, with Bertolini driving for JMB Racing and GPC Squadra Corse. At the same time, he was testing the new GT1 class Maserati MC12 – a car derived from the Ferrari Enzo road car – and eventually he was offered a seat in the factory Maserati AF Corse team. Andrea would go on to win the FIA GT Championship three times in the Maserati and take the inaugural FIA GT1 World Championship in the same car in 2010.

Bertolini explains that he had never considered closed-wheel or sports car racing as a kid in karts and that his ambition was always to race single-seaters: “You know the first open-wheel car [I drove] was the Formula 1? I never drove a Formula 3000 or a Formula 3.” Ah yes, during his busiest spell in the early 2000s, Bertolini had a third career – that of test driver for the Ferrari F1 team.

“In 2002 Jean Todt asked me directly if I wanted to become a test driver – and it was my dream come true. I know that Michael [Schumacher] was there, behind, pushing for me. This is something I will never forget. I had a really strong relationship with Michael – like a lot of people at Ferrari he helped me a lot.” Bertolini describes Michael’s attention to detail as “incredible”. He would spend hours with the team, analysing the most trifling details – deciding the colours of the steering wheel buttons, for instance. He would also call or text the test drivers at the end of a day, for a status report – which was often accompanied with some mild teasing about a driver’s fitness: “He texted me one day after I drove the car at Mugello for three days. He say, ‘Andrea, how’s your neck?’”

The 2003 and 2004 seasons yielded the most intense period of F1 testing for Bertolini – a time when there were no restrictions. For much of the year, the Scuderia was on track in some way – at Fiorano, Mugello or Imola. It was the time of the tyre war.

“At one time in 2004 I did 180 starts in one day. We had two cars, with two powertrains, and our job was to make the best strategy with the starts. It was about checking the working range of the tyre temperatures between the first and second places on the grid – depending on where we qualified.

“Bridgestone was here and it was always the same procedure. I went out. Burnout. Check the temperature. Maybe the engineer say ‘one more [burnout], Andrea’ then they follow the temperature. Then I start. Then in-lap. Then again. 180 starts, 180 sets of tyres!

“I remember saying, ‘There’s just one problem. I need to, uh, you know [use the bathroom]’ and the team says, ‘Sorry Andrea, there is no time’. But if you look after this test, from the middle of the season, our starts were better…”

TIME FOR THE 400TH. I’m expecting a spectacle – a fanfare – but Andrea goes through the same routine. He speaks to the engineer, climbs in the car, carries out a radio check and off he goes. This time it’s a V8-powered F1 car from 2007 – owned by a Ferrari ‘F1 Cliente’ customer. In fact, it’s not just any F2007, it’s the car in which Kimi Räikkönen became world champion. No matter, Bertolini screams out for another five laps – flat out from the first. The car looks and sounds so sweet, and Andrea is all the time becoming more ‘expressive’ with his driving. Is he enjoying this one? Stupid question. Of course he is. He has the best job in the world.

Later in the day, Andrea would shake down a front-engined V12 599XX, a mid-engined hybrid FXX K and benchmark a F1 Cliente customer’s F138 from 2013. All in a day’s work. And every time, flat out. But is there a car he has yet to drive, one which he covets above all others? His eyes look outside again, and he says, “The Villeneuve car. The ’82 car.”

Then the fanfare. A small one at the end of the day. A group of mechanics from F1 and Corse Cliente assemble around Andrea, jostling and joking like brothers. A pitboard has been marked up, and a photographer arrives. Posterity captured, Andrea heads to leave. He pauses, and adds one more comment: “I always try to do my best. My philosophy is every day, you have to do your job 100 per cent. Then when you get home at night, you never use the word ‘if’.”

 

Career in brief

Born 1/12/73, Sassuolo, Italy

1984-86 Minikarts 1986-88 Italian karting (& Formula 125 Formula C) 2001 FIA GT championship (privateer Porsche) 2002-03 FIA GT (Ferrari 360) 2004 Official tester, Ferrari F1 2004 Development and works race driver, Maserati MC12 2005 ALMS, Maserati MC12 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010 FIA GT champion, Maserati MC12 2011 International Superstars Series champion (Maserati Quattroporte) 2012-14 Le Mans 24 Hours (Ferrari 458 Italia GTC) 2015 Le Mans 24 Hours GTE AM winner (Ferrari 458 Italia GTC) Present Ferrari F1 Cliente, Corse Cliente, and simulator driver plus various FIA WEC & GT starts

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