MONTEREY, Calif."Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me." Those words were written by F. Scott Fitzgerald back in 1926, and they remain true almost a century later. It's certainly true when it comes to cars, where having a telephone number bank balance opens doors to machinery that the rest of us only ever get close to in video games. Recently, I got a chance to take a peek behind that curtainat the historic Laguna Seca racetrack in California.
Once upon a time, the supercar was the top of the tree, and cars like the McLaren F1 and Ferrari Enzo re-wrote the rules on how fast a car could go and how much it would cost. Before too long, that kind of performance trickled downeven a Tesla P100D will beat either of those cars in a race to 100mph, for exampleand so we got the hypercar.
Carbon fiber hybrids with around 1,000hp on tap and seven-digit price tags became the new apex predators of the car world, but for some, even these are now too common, too pedestrian. So what do you do if you've got several million dollars burning a hole in your pocket and you want to go fast, really,really fast? For a certain kind of person, the answer is, you call up Ferrari and ask about its Corsa Clienti program.
Ferrari's XX program got started in 2005 when the company decided to offer a small number of its best (and possibly most demanding) clients something a little more hardcore than its then-range-topping Enzo supercar. Thus was born the FXX, which dropped any pretense at street legality to instead incorporate some technowizardry from its all-conquering Formula 1 program. An XX variant of the front-engined 599 appeared in 2009, then a599XX Evoluzione, then more recently the LaFerrari-derived FXX-K, and now FXX-K Evo hybrids. Obviously if you have to ask the price you can't afford it, but don't expect much change from $3 million.
That is, by any stretch of the imagination, an extravagant amount of money to spend on a car, particularly one you can't drive to the shops and back. The Corsa Clienti program is fearsomely strict when it comes to the privacy of those clienti, but I was able to sit down with Ferrari's Filippo Petrucci, who runs the program, to find out more.
"[The XX Clienti] program is very exclusive, to have a direct deal from the customer to the factory. We are a manufacturer, we are not the dealer. So the feedback I have from my customers about the car, I can give directly to the design office," he told Ars. "I'll give you an example: when we released the FXX-K, there was the project to do the Evo version, which now we have. And before we start the project with the people that actually saw the design office in Maranello, I had the goal to interview our customers and ask them what would you do to this car. 'OK, you're handing this car, what you like to do better, what do you wish to have?' And obviously, when the car was done, the Evo most have the new implementation comes from suggestion."
I'd read previously about how Ferrari was using the XX Clienti program to improve its future cars. I had imagined that the customer feedback was along the lines of chassis balance or perhaps the intervention limits for Ferrari's Side Slip Control (SSC) electronic driver aid. It turns out I was overthinking it.
"For example, the steering wheel: someone was complaining about the wheel not being enough of a racing steering wheel, [but instead more] like the street version of the Ferrari steering wheel. Following the suggestion of our customer, we decided to put a proper racing steering wheel in like in the GTE, GT3 cars. Now there's a proper racing wheel," Petrucci explained. "Or, someone was complaining about some layout in the cars 'Well, we prefer to have this switch in another position.' We really got to their suggestion, and we try to follow as much as possible their suggestions, which is quite unique [for a car manufacturer]."
Listing image by Jonathan Gitlin
There's more than one arm to Corsa Clienti. In addition to the XX Clienti program, it also runs the one-make Ferrari Challenge race series in the US, Europe, and Asia-Pacific, and a round of the US championship was in action that weekend in Monterey. But the most exclusive of all its operations is F1 Clienti. This got started in 2003, and as the name suggests, it's all about F1 cars.
It used to be that old F1 cars were about as valuable as yesterday's newspaper, particularly for the more modern cars from the 1990s and 2000s that require an army of technicians and specialized equipment (i.e. legacy laptops) to even fire up. But most F1 cars don't have Ferrari badges. Because the company has always built both the cars and the engines itself, it's incredibly well-equipped to take care of all that stuff. For the right price—again, unknown, but surely in excess of what you'd pay for an FXX-K—it's possible to buy one of Scuderia Ferrari's old steeds. F1 Clienti will do all the hard work, maintaining the car, storing it, and bringing it out to racetracks at events like the Ferrari Racing Days event to let the very well-heeled feel like Michael Schumacher for a few hours.
I put it to Petrucci, who used to work on the race team, that his current job must, if anything, be even harder. After all, the race team only cares about this year's race cars; Petrucci's people have to be able to support cars that span more than 40 years.
"We manage F1 cars from 1972 to modern days. So it's quite a wide range of cars, very different as you know, during the time, that got changed quite a lot," he said. "So you need really a very skilled group of people to manage those cars. In fact, my crew, most of the guys, if not all, come from the F1 team. They've got at least 10-15 years of experience in the Formula One team, so they're very very skilled. You know, cars, especially modern cars are very complex. It's not like in the old days, where you put fuel and just fire up the car; [now] you need a specific procedure to fire up the cars."
Sometimes that dedication to maintenance means trawling eBay for sufficiently old laptops to make that happen. Petrucci told Ars that might involve finding laptops that run Windows 2 or Windows 3, software written during the heyday of a given car. "If you see our store of computers, the old ones will make you laugh," he admitted. "If you go back with the first cars on which there was some of this stuff they were very, very simple. You know, hand calculators that spit out a small roll of paper printout and data."
F1 Clienti will even go as far as making an entirely new engine for a customer, as was the case of someone who owns a 1975 Ferrari 312T that Niki Lauda used to win that year's Monaco Grand Prix. "[The customer] came to us and said, 'I don't want to use this engine because it's the original one used by Niki Lauda, so I want to take it off, put it under glass, and keep the original one in my office,'" Petrucci recalled. "So from paper drawings, we started with every single component. It took three or four years to do it, but we did a fresh new engine of the 1970s."
However, even F1 Clienti has its limits—don't expect to get the same answer if you asked for a fresh chassis in case you wanted to put the old one in your office. Petrucci was vehement that the cars the program supports will only be the cars that actually raced in period; Ferrari won't make recreations no matter how much money you wave at him.
Beyond that, about the only thing F1 Clienti can't make in-house are the tires. For the oldest cars, which ran on bias ply tires in period, these are supplied by Avon, which also supports the historic racing community with new rubber. For newer F1 cars, that's the job of Pirelli, which has the contract to supply all the current F1 cars. F1 has a rule that prevents older cars from running on current tires to stop teams using older machines as a covert way of doing extra tire testing in order to get a leg up on rivals. So any recently retired F1 car has to run on what's known as a promotional tire instead, which Pirelli supplies to F1 Clienti in soft, medium, and hard compounds.
Since I didn't speak to any of the Corsa Clienti drivers, I can't speak to what they get out of the program. But for normal people like me, attending an event like this was a rare chance to spend the day watching and listening to one of the most expensive track days ever. Just the noise itself was worth the trip, whether that was a dozen or more Ferrari XX cars lapping together or the sights and sounds of a Ferrari F2004—one of the fastest, most successful F1 cars ever—back in action.
On the other hand, as Ferris Bueller said, "If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up." But you might need to have created a unicorn first.