Click above for a high-res gallery of our time in the Alfa Romeo driving school.
Let's take a quick vote here. We won't be tabulating the totals, so we'll keep this unofficial, but we want you to be honest. How many of you, deep inside, wonder if you couldn't have made it as a professional racing driver? Maybe not the next Michael Schumacher, but at least a promising prospect. If only you had started out in karting at a young enough age, kept yourself in shape and found the sponsorship to fund what could have been a budding career. You look at the racing line around the corners of city streets on your commute, view a twisting mountain road as a challenge instead of an inconvenience, and offer friends unsolicited (and seldom appreciated) advice on their driving habits.
Starting to sound familiar? It did to us, but that was before Alfa Romeo invited us to take part in its Guida Sicura advanced driving program at the Varano circuit in northern Italy. While we may have gone in with delusions of tire-smoking grandeur before we arrived, they were all completely deflated after our first couple of laps around the track with a former rally champion or Ferrari factory driver riding shotgun helpfully putting us in our place. But by the end of the day those baseless fantasies were replaced by a marked improvement in our driving competence. Read on to see how the day unfolded.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Noah Joseph / Weblogs, Inc.
Established in collaboration with Alfa Romeo back in 1991, the Centro Internazionale Guida Sicura serves as the automaker's advanced driving school. The center is headed up by Andrea de Adamich, one of Alfa's most respected racing drivers. Having won the European Touring Car Championship for the team in 1966 after the Italian F3 title the year before and competed in Alfa-powered grand prix cars in Formula One in the late 60's and early 70's, de Adamich is our kind of guy: a figurehead in car-crazy Italy, casting a shadow on the country's local scene as big as Jeremy Clarkson in the UK as a prolific automotive journalist and television presenter.
The academy is based at the Varano dè Melegari Motor Racing Circuit, also known as the Autodromo Riccardo Paletti. One of eight FIA-certified racing tracks in Italy, Varano is highly technical and allows the driver to experience a wide variety of corners within the same 1.5-mile circuit. For an idea of how demanding a track Varano is, consider that the circuit was a long-time favorite for F1 drivers to practice for the Monaco Grand Prix due to the complexity of its corners. One of those bends was named after eight-time grand prix and six-time Le Mans winner Jacky Ickx after the Belgian driver went straight off the track at a ninety-degree corner, which was later replaced by an S-complex that still bears his name. If you're thinking that Varano is a dormant facility, however, consider that in addition to the 100+ driving courses which Guida Sicura operates there each year, the track hosts fifteen races annually, including Formula Renault and the Formula Three Euroseries.
In a country as car-crazy and racing-enthused as Italy, every kid and his brother wants to grow up to be a racing driver. And many of them get their chance, but even for those few who make it into the top tiers of rally, sportscar or formula motorsport competition, racing is a pursuit for the young. But while youth may fade, skills are not forgotten. So out of that great field of retired Italian racing drivers, the Centro Internazionale Guida Sicura employs some 66 driving instructors – and to our experience, each has a wealth of stories to tell. Sit around the Varano paddock long enough talking to a few of the instructors and you're likely to hear stories of some who made it into F1, and others who didn't; some whose tail-sliding heroics landed them trophies, and others whose crashes ended their careers early. You might have better luck asking one driver about the other, because in the fast-paced world of racing – even for retirees – there's room for legend, but no room for living in the past when the road ahead presents a whole new challenge.
Our pair of instructors for the day were Alex Fiorio and Maurizio Mediani, both native Italians and both with a wealth of driving experience under their belts, but with widely different competences that enabled each to bring varying perspectives to bear on our tutelage.
Alex Fiorio made a name for himself as an accomplished rally driver in the days before the WRC. His father, Cesare Fiorio, was a noted team leader who served as sporting director for Scuderia Ferrari and established the legendary Lancia HF Squadra Corse that dominated rallying in its golden era. At age 22, young Alex took the international Group N rally championship – a production-based class predating today's Super 2000 formula – and in the same year was runner up in the top-tier Group A. Since then, Alex has served as an official factory works driver for the Lancia, Ford and Mitsubishi rallying teams, winning stages across Europe.
Maurizio Mediani, meanwhile, came up the circuit racing ladder. He took the 2001 Formula 3 championship in Russia before becoming an official factory driver for Ferrari, competing in the European and International FIA GT championships and the American Le Mans Series behind the wheel of the F430 GT2, while serving on the development team for the 430 Challenge and FXX programs. Maurizio proved to be a calming teacher, and referenced Talladega Nights with a charmingly accented and fist-pumping "shake and bake" every time we climbed into the car.
With our instructors assigned, the day started with some elementary driving theory that proved anything but, dispelling commonly held misconceptions and commonly practiced mistakes made by many drivers... ourselves included. For instance, while many might feel most comfortable in a recumbent driving position – even feeling more like a racing driver in that posture – the instructors at Guida Sicura highlighted the benefits of sitting upright in as close to a 90-degree position as possible to enable full control of the steering wheel even under heavy g-forces, to say nothing of improved visibility. We also had to ditch the hand-over-hand turning procedure we learned as teenagers in favor of the more technically-correct hand-shuffling positions – top hand down 90 degrees, bottom hand up by the same – to maintain proper grip on the wheel, while, in a road car, preventing our arms and faces from colliding in case of airbag deployment. Over the course of the day, we also had to get used to the idea of looking down the track at the next corner instead of focusing on the curbs next to us. As Alex put it, if you look at where you're going to crash (instead of where you should be going), that's where you're going to crash. Turning at the apex, we learned, was also not the best way to get through a corner, when turning before it and clipping the apex allows the driver to get back on the gas sooner, smoother and safer. A constant-radius turn demands one steering input, gradually loosening up as the car exits the corner. All in all the principles seemed straightforward and logical, but overcoming natural instinct, engrained education and years of malpractice proved to be challenging enough on its own.
Once we got out on the track, we had to put the principals into play, dispelling whatever we thought we knew about pursuing the correct racing line through a corner in deference to what our instructors told us to do, eventually foreseeing what they would say and reacting accordingly.
In addition to lapping the main track at Varano – both in the shorter format and with the longer loop added in 2001 – we also took to a technical autocross circuit set up in the back lot and a wet-braking area at the far end of the complex, both of which were designed to push the driver beyond his comfort zone and the car to its limits. The new Alfa MiTo – impressions of which we brought you just a few days ago – handled the exercises with aplomb, putting the burden on the driver and leaving us with little room for excuses.
At the beginning of the day our inputs were jerky and unbalanced, which was partially due to nerves and the perceived need to impress our instructors, whose experience we were only beginning to appreciate in the morning. But as in all crafts, skill and education count most. By the end of the day, feeling more comfortable with the track, the car and our instructors, our inputs had become much smoother, more controlled and more precise. We were surprised at how much we had learned and improved over the course of one day of professional tutelage. Our instructors noticed the improvement as well, but their reaction was less surprised. We got the feeling that, with all the students passing through the Centro Internazionale each year, they'd seen it all before.
Reluctantly departing Varano late that afternoon, we no longer wondered if we could have made it as racing drivers. The more we learned, the more we realized what we didn't know. We did, however, emerge from the course with a better understanding of our limits, and became better drivers for it.