From Top Door Slammer to Ferrari F458 GT3
Words: Neil Roshier Action Images: Howard Shearing
So what does a drag racer who runs a top Doorslammer in the ANDRA series do when he wants to go circuit racing? … He buys a brand new Ferrari F458 GT3 racing car of course!
At least that’s what Tony De Felice did and if I’m frank it’s what I’d love to do too if I won the lottery!
The thing that grabbed me about this story – on the surface at least – is that there seems to be very little logic to Tony’s decision to jump into one of the deepest parts of the motorsport pool. That is until you hear the full story, then it actually starts to make sense … in a mad sort of logic way!
By his own estimation Tony had been running his top Doorslammer drag car for 10-15 years as well as running the family construction business. The two are naturally related: the former relied upon the latter as you need more than firm backing to run a car that gets its 3000bhp engine rebuilt between runs! But although Tony still loved the challenge of drag racing, the circuits were calling him. Like most sports car enthusiasts in Australia, when you look for racing there is one significant, national class of sports cars, the Australian GTs.
Now, the idea of trying GT racing was a fine one, but how do you make it reality? The process was not entered into quickly by Tony as he sought advice from many people as to the right path to enter the national GT series. Tony did not want to be a ‘gentleman driver’, a euphemism for a driver with far more money than talent … Tony wanted to race.
“Everyone said, ‘Don’t do it, start small and do this and do that to build up to it.’ I thought that this was not the right route as you’ve got to keep building cars (in progressing through different classes). Then I had a talk to Allan Simonsen and he said what you should do is buy the car you want to drive! So that’s what I did.”
Before taking the plunge, Tony took the opportunity to lease a F430 race car with John Bowe as the instructor. The day at Winton was just to see what it was like and it was a revelation. “I suppose you couldn’t get anything too apart (the drag car and the F430) other than getting in a boat!”
With this experience, the die was cast. GT racing was firmly on the agenda. Yet his decision to buy a Ferrari F458 GT3 placed Tony in somewhat unchartered waters in Australia. He had the desire and the means to purchase a new Ferrari GT3, but how exactly do you place an order for a state of the art, current specification racing car?
People with international credentials and connections, like Allan Simonsen, were not able to help with the process at all. Yet the process was actually remarkably simple. “I’ve got a Ferrari road car and we get a monthly magazine. In that magazine was a brief message and a number: ‘Any enquiries for the Ferrari racing division ring this number’. I thought, ‘I’m going to ring that number.’ They knew I was a drag racer and they asked me, ‘Why?’ (did he want to buy a F458 GT3) and I said that I wanted to learn to race the car! They said ‘OK, what car would you like? You want a GT3 or a GT2?”
To be honest Tony’s description of his dealings with Ferrari was so far removed from the reported mystique of dealing with Ferrari, I insisted on clarification!
“If you want to buy a race car from them, they’ll sell you a race car. It’s different with their road cars, especially their specials. If they bring out a limited edition you do have to go through a process and an interview.
“They sent me the details and I said I’ll have one of those!”
Of course it was never going to be the case that Tony could turn up at his local Ferrari dealership and take delivery. This is a top end factory racing car and Ferrari quite rightly wanted to be sure that any new owner knew how to work on the car.
“They said, ‘OK the delivery will be such and such, you need to be in Italy, as we’d like you to be available for installation and construction of the car so your team knows how to pull it apart and put it back together.’”
So it was that some of Tony’s drag racing crew and Phillip Hughes, from Supercar Services in Melbourne, flew to Italy to spend a few weeks actually putting his F458 GT3 together!
Even this process would be overwhelming for many, placed in the very heart of Michelotto’s race department, assembling a Ferrari and living in Italy … I suspect that many enthusiasts would fight each other for the opportunity!
“We did the assembly and then they said that the shake down is on such and such a date and then we did the shake down run. Andrea Montermini drove the car to within one and a half seconds of the pole sitter of the Imola six hour GT race. He got out of the car and said, ‘This car’s beautiful’, and he took me around for six laps of Imola and I got out and I shit myself. I thought, ‘What the hell have I done?! What the hell have I just bought? This is ridiculous!’
“Then he put me in the driver’s seat and he didn’t get in the car, he didn’t want to get in the car! He said ‘now Mr De Felice now we teach you how to drive!’
“I was at Imola for the whole day and so we got ten sessions and each session was five or six laps. They said you have to be careful, Imola will hurt you. Indeed in the first session out there was a busted up Porsche that was just written off. Andrea said, ‘You must follow my philosophy and I will teach you and you have to be very careful’.
“As I’m going around the race track my pulse is going a million miles an hour. It was daunting, it was scary, but it wasn’t the speed. You’ve got to remember that my background is drag racing and when you go 240-250mph the speed (of the Ferrari) doesn’t scare me.
“Braking, committing to the aero and the pitch and turn … all the things I know nothing about he tried to teach me in a day. His lap time at Imola was a 1:48.9 and by the end of the day I was within one and a half seconds of his lap time!
“Andrea said that this was unheard of, but now you’ve got to get better and improve.”
The F458 was shipped back to Australia and taken to the De Felice workshop, to sit next to the 1967 Camaro drag car. As you might have guessed, Tony De Felice is not one to do things by half and so the F458’s transport, one of the most impressive trailers I have seen, was created to ship it to testing and events.
Tony knew that testing was the order of the day and he sought the services of Renato Loberto and Allan Simonsen to fast track his development as a driver. Renato’s long experience with F3 cars gives him a firm understanding of aerodynamics, which is such a crucial part of the F458’s performance.
Tony’s coaching and private testing passed quickly and he reached a point where he decided to enter his first race, a Victorian State race meeting at Phillip Island. “In my first ever race I was on pole by two seconds! I’m sitting in the car at the start, staring at the ocean going, ‘Now what the hell do I do?!’
“That was daunting and then when I got swamped and I couldn’t stop looking in my rear vision mirrors! I was getting asked, ‘Why are you going so slow?’ over the intercom and I replied, ‘Every time I look in my rear vision mirror a corner comes up’! They’ve gone, ‘Stop looking in the mirrors, look in front of you!’
“Qualifying and practise is different because you are so focused, and then in the race there so many more things that get your attention”
This highlights the difference between practice or even circuit sprints and racing, but Tony had an interesting take on the difference mentally between a drag race and the pinnacle of sports cars. “Coming from drag racing where you’ve got to be mentally prepared and when things can happen, they do so quickly. This (circuit racing) is different. This is more about the driver and not the team. Here the driver (has to) get into a zone mentally and basically has to do lap after lap after lap. Repeating good laps is extremely hard, not making mistakes, playing the cat and mouse game with cars around you … I’m starting to learn this.
“In drag racing is just brute force. You’ve got to be quick at the lights and it’s just destructive! It’s the only way to put it, because it’s just so severe. Unless you’ve done it you just cannot fathom the amount of force involved. You’re talking 3,500bhp and 0-100kph in 0.9 of a second! If you’ve been in a Top Doorslammer and you’ve experienced getting out of control, or getting tyre shake, there’s not much that compares. Your reflexes and adrenaline are so much higher in a drag car.”
I know that having professional assistance will be seen by some as somehow ‘cheating’, but what you have to understand is that this professional support is quite normal in GT racing. GT cars are incredibly technical, especially if you want to get the best out of them and if you are spending the money you need to make sure that you get the best out of the driver as well. It is also simply a smart process when you have such an investment in something that you could easily turn into a twisted wreck on the Armco lining the track.
“What we normally do (on a race weekend) is employ a racing driver like Simonsen or Renato to do installation laps and they also give you reference points. So when you know where the racing drivers reference points are and where he can go then it’s up to you to determine what your ability is and how close you can get to him with your ability!
“So the secret is getting your ability close to that of a professional driver. Which can also make you quickly unstuck! You might think that your ability is close to that of a racing driver and when it’s not and the car gets out of shape, because it’s on the edge. He can regain (control) whereas you will not and you will damage or crash your car.”
The support and processes used are having an effect, as is having an experienced engineer reviewing performance and progress. But it is not necessarily as straightforward as you might think. “The professional drivers I have had in the car, I have in some areas been in front of them, which is in some way heart warming I suppose. To go ‘I’m such a novice and I’m already at their level in one corner’ Then you realise that a racetrack is thirteen corners and you multiply that by nine laps. So that result (the good corner) is just a glimmer of hope that can motivate you to say ‘ok let’s do two and lets try to do three good laps.’
“You’ve got to be consistent. To repeat lap after lap really does take a lot of mental effort. A lot of people who have never been in a race car do not realise the level of concentration required.
“Race craft is what I’m learning, going that bit extra. When I started six months ago I was nursing the car too much until the tyres are warm, when you’ve got to go fast right from the start on cold tyres. Yes you’ve got cold tyres but you’ve to learn to push so you don’t lose track position. It’s been a massive learning curve.”
Any form of motorsport is all about data and how you read it and there has to be a lot recorded in a GT3 car. So what data does Tony and Renato get out of the Ferrari?
“Everything, steering wheel angle, car pitch, brake position, accelerator position…it’s endless! Renato downloads all of the information, he filters the information as to what is important for the driver to know and we have a debrief and a brief”
“Renato breaks the feed back down into a corner by corner spreadsheet, what I did wrong and what I did right. Areas to improve on the car and in my driving. This weekend’s about driver ability and aggression. Be more aggressive because when I do become more aggressive I drive better. Aggressive in the breaking areas and on the throttle. At this stage in the development it’s about me becoming more comfortable.”
The Ferrari F458 is well known for driver aids in the road car. The use of electronic aids has probably been one of the biggest reasons why so many new Ferrari’s are not hitting the shrubbery as much. But how do these aids transfer to the track for a novice driver like Tony? “They’re very prehistoric in the GT3. We’ve got them all on minimum because they get in the way. They are meant for a gentleman driver and for that driver, yes they will help you. We’ve got everything on minimum because I find that they hinder you, they actually make it so you think ‘why is this car not moving?’. Basically it’s because they hold the car back and you’ve got to turn them off.
“When they’re turned on they make it smooth, but slow. I’m at the stage now where if I want to go faster then I’ve got to get the car looser and I’ve got to drive the car. So the aids that want to keep you safe, well I’ve got to turn them off … which sucks!
“However I do use the ABS on it’s minimum setting. Allan Simonsen said ‘use the ABS, step on the brakes, because it is good.’”
The Ferrari has many features that the drag car does not, but one more than any other has implications for Tony – the windscreen wipers. Drag cars don’t have wipers; if it’s wet you go home! In circuit racing many do the same and since we in Australia are coming out of a ten year long drought, I suspect that many will wet tracks challenging through lack of experience! In a strange way it could be a bit of a leveller for Tony, but how does a novice driver find driving in the wet?
“Bloody scary! Really don’t like the wet. Here I’m getting a feel for the dry, for the adhesion of the tyres and the aero. Throw in the wet you’ve added something else into the equation that I know nothing about! The wet brings in the driver aids, but these will only help you a certain amount and you still may come off and hurt the car.
“The rub mark on the back was me – driver error! I didn’t put the car in the right position and coming out of the corner I got on the gas too early and with too much steering angle – the data showed me this, it spun me around and speared me off the track and kissed the Armco.”
The elephant in the room in this story is money and we all know that Ferrari F458 GT3, or any factory GT3 racing car is never going to be cheap. Yet to my surprise Tony reported that the GT3 actually costs less than the road going F458, but what does it cost to run?
“Cost for a weekend – two sets of tyres, which is $6,000. Fuel $500-800 of ELF racing fuel entry at $600 and food and truck so around $10,000 for a weekend, which you only do four times a year for the state racing championship.”
Yet again we need to consider context as few drivers in a state round of sports cars will be spending less than $4,000, simply because of the cost of tyres, fuel and entry. For Tony there is another context to consider, the Ferrari is an absolute bargain in comparison to a top Doorslammer.
“For drag racing we’ll go to Perth for 24 seconds in the car and a lot, lot more work. In the drag car there are three qualifiers at six seconds a pass. Then depending on how many rounds you go, even if you win the event you’ll be in the car, moving for less than a minute! Whereas I can come to Sandown and spend an hour in the car and spend a lot less money!”
The old adage that it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than it is to drive a fast car slow does not seem to apply for Tony. “We went to Phillip Island and did a one minute fourty, which was 3/10 under the national GT record. Our qualifying pace here (at Sandown) was a minute eleven point five (one point nine seconds slower than Garth Tanders’ V8 Supercar lap record) which is under the national GT lap record. So the car’s got pace and I’ve got pace, I need some race craft!
“I’ve been doing this for less than a year. It’s a massive learning curve, but it’s a lot of fun.”