Picture this, you’re set inside a Maserati MC12 Versione Corse. Behind you, a 6.0-litre V12 is screaming and it’s pelting you at the horizon behind Varano De' Melegari circuit in Northern Italy.
You’re moving fast. Stupidly fast. With 489kW per tonne, it accelerates from zero to 200km/h in 6.4 seconds. A Volkswagen Golf GTI will hit half that speed in the same time.
The bad news is you’re in the passenger seat. But you’ll still be driving the next best thing– a GranTurismo GT4. It’s a stripped out GT car with a Ferrari built V8. And, according to Maserati, you’ll be qualified to wring its neck.
That’s the idea behind its Master Maserati Driving Course. It’s one of the many programs performance car manufacturers offer that hone customers’ skills until they’re ready for race cars. Programs are usually staged over multiple levels, progressing from basic instruction to analysis and assistance from seasoned race professionals.
With the appeal for customers obvious, thrashing a car legally at a racetrack without any guilt of depreciation, they’re great for building a community between a brand and its customers. But they’re also a fuel-injected sales technique. Maserati says customers have bought a car three years after driving it at one of these days. That becomes quite a successful sale if they progress to the point where they’re unleashed in a customer race car.
Audi’s R8 LMS GT3, for instance, costs $750,000. You’d almost need $1m for the equivalent Ferrari 488 GT3. Or if they catch the bug and prefer to race more serious machines, customers might end up in ultra-exclusive and expensive arrive-and-drive days like the Ferrari Corse Clienti.
Before any of that, though, the journey begins where I am: Sydney Motorsport Park. We’ve been invited to an ‘equivalent’ to the first step in its course. Think of it as the yellow belt in karate. Officially, though, this is not part of its program. You’ll have to fly to Italy for a genuine pay-to-play experience.
Maserati’s Australian arm instead runs an invite-only event for customers, media or prospects. We’re told it’s everything, if not more, than what happens in Italy. That might explain why even though we’re at a track right next to a garbage tip in Sydney’s western suburbs, it feels like we’ve arrived at a luxury driving retreat.
On top of being driven here in a cavalcade of Maseratis with chauffeurs willing to block traffic, as if they’re transporting parliament members, we’re greeted by a concierge. Behind them is a coffee machine, with baristas, platters of fine foods, and a cold fridge full of sparkling water.
We’re given time to peruse our waiting lounge that feels like a showroom. It’s air conditioned and adorned in white leather. On its walls hang grainy black and white images of Juan Manuel Fangio, laying lines at Monaco with a dap of oppo in post-war F1 cars.
Normally I’d feel ashamed for wearing anything other than moccasins in a place like this. We’re told the expensive watches were stowed before the journalists arrived. And although we laugh, it feels like only half a joke. But I remember we had been promised more precious things. The cars.
Waiting in pit lane for us is Maserati’s complete 2019 range. From the cash-generating Levante SUV to the ageing, but beautiful, GranTurismo coupe. And we’re only a (relatively) tedious driver’s briefing away from being able to unleash them.
We’re greeted by Renato Loberto, the man behind Motokinetic. He’s not Andrea De Adamich, the ex-F1 racer that leads Maserati’s lead instructor team, but he could be the next best thing. He’s raced and won in Ferraris at Bathurst and even instructed the military on high-speed tactical driving. His team is a handpicked bunch of local guns who will be our teachers.
We’re split into groups and I’m sent to the off-road course in the track’s south-west corner. It’s a brilliant vantage point to watch the action on the West-end of the circuit, except for the steep 50-degree drops. We use them to test the Levante’s hill descent control. It’s impressive, but we’re counting down the minutes to the next exercise.
The wet skidpan is a chance to pretend you’re at Summernats. With Sydney’s heat doing its best to undo the sprinklers’ hard work, the best lubricant here is the 395kW twin-turbo V8 in the Quattroporte GTS. The instructors throw us its keys first, citing its big wheelbase and meaty turbo torque as superior tools for skids.
On the other hand, a GranTurismo MC, with its crisp, atmo V8 and shorter wheelbase, is more of a next challenge. There’s less castor angle built into the GranTurismo’s front-end, we’re told, so its steering feels heavier and less keen to re-centre. Meanwhile, it also needs a big rev, as the 4.7-litre Ferrari-built atmo V8 produces its torque peak at 4750rpm.
Although it’s meant to be more difficult to slide, the GranTurismo’s instant throttle response and sharper steering give you more control, even though everything happens quicker. With the revs pinging off the 7500rpm limiter, it’s easy to want to stay here for the rest of the day. But that’d be a waste.
Sydney Motorsport Park, in my opinion, is one this country’s greatest tracks and you should seize any chance to drive its 3.9km GP configuration. Before we do, though, we’re ushered to a feast prepared by Sydney chef Giovanni Pilu.
Freshly cooked steaks and handmade pasta are a long way from the Mrs Macs and Coca-Cola combo we’re used to at track days, but considering the trouble Maserati went to have Pilu on hand, it’s a non-negotiable aspect for the brand in keeping an Italian connection.
I fight an urge to gorge suspecting it might come up only hours later. It’s a wise choice, as afterwards we set out in the plush, high-riding Levante. Surprisingly, it’s not the rolling and pitching mess you’d expect from an SUV. It even cajoles me before I’m warned that its hard-used brakes would prefer some easy laps. I relent, using them to get my eye in.
It’s hard to dissect and compare each car in the short time we had, but GranTurismo MC is a standout as something that felt cohesive and willing to work with you. Its pedigree is obvious in the way its brake and throttle pedals are robust and responsive. And that engine should be a protected species, it’s blissful.
It’s almost easier to compare the styles of each instructor as they actually in the car with you. As tempting, it is to show them what you have and floor it out of the pits, imagine sitting next to a complete stranger as they take your life in their hands at 200km/h. After all, having in your car at all is a privilege. It’s more effective than being led by a pace car.
Some prefer to sit and watch you drive in silence, offering feedback towards the end of your session, whereas others encourage you to push immediately. By the day’s end, at a track I’ve driven a handful of times, I’ve learned how to properly take the turn 16, 17 and 18 sequence, where to brake for turn six and how to set up Corporate Hill properly. And that’s what’s most important, seeing how far you can push yourself.
It might not apply to its cars, we're yet to drive them thoroughly, but Maserati speak some truth when they call this event the ‘Ultimate Drive Day’ experience. Now, how much is a plane ticket to Italy?
Course: Maserati Ultimate Drive Day Experience
How long: All day
Where: Sydney Motorsport Park