TORONTO - It's not just a Ferrari driving school, it's a Ferrari experience.
That's how Ferrari is pitching its first factory-backed driving school outside of Italy, located at the Mt. Tremblant race track, or officially Le Circuit de Mt. Tremblant, about 90 miles north of Montreal, Quebec. The school will give participants access to 12 factory-owned Ferrari F430 coupes for 2.5 days and an open race track -- which just may be about as inspiring an automotive opportunity as there is for true tifosi, the rabid fans of the brand that always dominate the crowd at Formula One races.
But Ferrari is promising more than just fast cars on a nice race track, said Marco Mattiacci, Ferrari North America's vice president of marketing.
"The driver's school is to really get to know the history, technology and how to learn to drive these amazing products," said Mattiacci at the 2006 Canadian International AutoShow in Toronto. "The common line throughout the experience is exclusivity."
The fact that the driving school costs U.S. $8,200 is enough to make it exclusive on its own and doesn't cover the cost of getting to the Montreal or Mt. Tremblant airport or heliport. Adding to the exclusivity factor is that the school is officially meant for Ferrari owners only, of which there are 18,000 in North America, said Mattiacci. Still, when pressed, Mattiacci conceded there might be a small window of opportunity for non-owners as well, but only those contemplating Ferrari ownership. "We would consider a serious prospect."
The school will employ ex-Formula One drivers and local racers for instructors, although none have yet been publicly named. Ferrari officials insist the course is not a racing school, but a driving school that is meant to help owners enjoy their vehicle's considerable sporting capabilities on the street by improving their driving skills on the race track.
Most of the school's customers are expected to come from the United States, where more than 90 percent of Ferrari's North American sales are located. So why not locate its first school outside Italy in the United States? That decision came down to providing the best overall Ferrari experience, said company officials.
"There's a culture of racing and love for Ferrari in Canada," said Mattiacci. "We have a popular Formula One race in Montreal and I think the market is ready to grow seriously."
When Ferrari does something like this, they do it right, said Remo Ferri, owner of two Ferrari retailers in Toronto and the largest Ferrari dealer in Canada. "Tremblant has the ambiance you need," said Ferri, "plus you want to have the proper facilities, at the track and afterward."
The chosen city definitely has European charm. Mt. Tremblant is a ski town at the base of the Laurentian mountains in the French-speaking province of Quebec, complete with rustic walking paths created specifically to engender an alpine village feel around the mountain.
The school officially launches in May and will run until October, with class sizes limited to 15 students per course. Partners or guests can attend for approximately $800 and courses can be booked either through a Ferrari dealer or the school's website.
The opening will also take some of the pressure off the original school in Italy -- which has been open for 13 years -- because it's much more convenient for so many buyers to stay in North America. "The school in Italy is always full," said Ferri. "Instead of having to wait so long and then fly all the way there, they can just hop on a plane and be here the same afternoon."
The considerable cost of the school includes pretty much everything once students get themselves off the plane, including limo rides from the airport, all meals and high-style accommodations at Mt. Tremblant's famous boutique chalet, the lakefront Hotel Quintessence, which offers a spa and personalized shopping tours of the area.
Participants can opt to ride from the airport in a Maserati instead, as well as specify the type of coffee they'd like served to them throughout the event, said Mattiacci, who spent 18 months planning the school.
Course instructions will feature a mix of about 20 percent classroom theory, with 80 percent of the time spent on the track putting those lessons to the tarmac. Topics covered correspond to the basic "Pilota Ferrari" course in Italy, located at the Mugello race track in the Tuscany region, that Ferrari renovated in the late 80s. In Italy, Ferrari offers a range of instruction levels, from the introductory course at the Mugello track, all the way up to a course that provides instruction and a full racing license at Ferrari's Fiorano test track.
Mattiacci did hold out hope for an expansion to another location in the U.S. at some point in the next few years. "Our goal in two or three years is to open a second point for a school, in California probably," he said, because it is the firm's largest market in North America.
Ferrari of Beverly Hills general manager James Del Pozzo said his clients don't seem to mind that it's not in their backyard at all and he's signed up two of his customers already. "They're going to go to the [Formula One] Grand Prix on the weekend and then going to the school after that," said Del Pozzo. "It's a dream for Ferrari owners to rip it as fast as they can without having the police behind you to worry about."