Infineon Raceway, Sonoma, California—The racetrack formerly called Sears Point features a stretch where the most talented drivers are easily humbled, sometimes outright humiliated. It is located in turns 8, 8a, 9 and 10, a daunting series of increasing-radius corners on the back half of the track. Racers call those corners "the esses" for their S shape, each one progressively faster than the last, each requiring a perfect exit line out of the corner to set up entry into the next. Make a mistake here and you can flatten yourself on the guardrail.
Infineon's S curves separate great drivers from merely good ones, and I've seen more than one brave and talented racer wad up an expensive car here. Naturally, the thought of doing the same is on my mind as I try it myself, winding through the gears of a Ferrari 575M Maranello.
The 575M is best described with numbers: It has two seats, twelve cylinders and 515 horses. It will accelerate from a standing start to 60 m.p.h. in a tick over four seconds, and if you keep the accelerator down long enough, you'll see the far side of 200 m.p.h. To be more precise, the car's top speed is 202 m.p.h. That is not a misprint.
This vehicle is expensive and rare. There are fewer than 1,000 in the world; the one I'm driving costs $240,000. I am acutely aware of both facts as I race around Infineon, into and out of the esses, using at least 95 percent of my driving ability. And while I'm no threat to steal a job from Michael Schumacher or Rubens Barrichello of Ferrari's Formula One team, I find myself hurtling the 575M through the turns with delight, ease and confidence—at speeds far higher than I've reached here in a Corvette or Dodge Viper.
Sitting behind the wheel, I feel like a fighter pilot: arms and legs outstretched in a purposeful position, eyes drawn to the big tachometer that dominates the dash. The seats are firm and covered in fine leather.
While the 575M is street legal, it is first and foremost a Ferrari—a racer at heart. Its 5.75-liter V-12 motor is a gearhead's delight: four valves per cylinder, four overhead camshafts, a light aluminum block and a deep, throaty sound as seductive as a Billie Holiday torch song. And as noted, it produces 515 horsepower. The 575M's V-12 is mounted in the front, while the semiautomatic Formula One gearbox is mounted just ahead of the rear axle, giving the car nearly perfect fifty-fifty weight balance. Its gearbox shifts via paddles mounted on the steering wheel, as in Ferrari's racecars. And just as you'd expect from Ferrari, the chassis balance on the 575M Maranello is as close to a platonic ideal as you'll find. No matter what I did behind the wheel, this Ferrari never lost its composure. It felt as good powering down the wide-open front stretch into turn 1 as it did under severe braking going into the turn-12 hairpin.
In designing the 575M's body—which in truth isn't much different from that of its predecessor, the 550—Ferrari officials say they wanted "to retain the balance and sober looks" of the 550. Mission achieved. The beautifully chiseled 575M is elegant and sophisticated, paying proper homage to the great front-engined V-12 Ferraris of the 1960s, without being retro in any respect. The same can be said of its comfortable interior, which holds only two people but holds them very, very well. You can even squeeze in a set of golf clubs. All told, the Ferrari 575M Maranello is a triumph of race-bred engineering married with Italian aesthetics, a truly terrific combination. If you can afford the price of admission—and the not-inexpensive service and insurance that will go with it—your reward will be a transcendent driving experience.
Scorecard: FERRARI 575M MARANELLO
ENGINE: 5.75-liter V-12
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
ZERO TO 60 MPH: 4.2 seconds
TOP SPEED: 202 MPH