Every year I attend the Canadian Grand Prix. It is the official start of summer for me and my friends that I attend with and we are there for the whole weekend. While I do conduct Motorsport Prospects-related business on the Friday, we make sure to watch all the support series racing from the earliest to the last running. It is part of our enjoyment of the weekend. One support series that has been racing the last few years is the Ferrari Challenge, a series I knew little about. In order to understand better what they are about as I add the Ferrari Challenge to the Motorsport Prospects Directory, I talked to a few people involved in the series both as organizers and competitors. And while I use the term “gentleman drivers” throughout the piece, there are women as well as men racing in the Ferrari Challenge.
Here is a brief guide on what the Ferrari Challenge is all about and how it may fit into your motorsport plans.
How the Ferrari Challenge is Structured both in North America and Globally
The Ferrari Challenge was initially announced in 1992 with the first season in Europe following in 1993. The North American series followed one year later in 1994 and currently races on 6 iconic North American tracks including Indianapolis, COTA, Daytona and the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. The seventh and final round of the season takes place as a part of the Finali Mondiali event, which is held at a different venue each year. In 2021, it will be at Mugello in Italy, though it has previously been at Abu Dhabi and Daytona. The anticipated 2021 North American calendar will include tracks like VIR, Road America, Indianapolis, Sonoma, Watkins Glen and Circuit Gilles Villeneuve
For North America, drivers are assigned into one of 4 classes by IMSA based on their experience and pace and each class gets two races per race weekend. At the end of the first two weekends, Ferrari reserves the right to reassign drivers to a new class based on the performance they’ve shown thus far in the season. The cars and tires are identical across the different classes, it’s purely to distinguish the more experienced and quicker drivers from those newer to the series.
There are four “segments” of the Challenge series world-wide, the North American Championship, European, Asia Pacific and a recent addition in the UK. Each offers the same fundamental structure though of course the flavor of each is driven by the needs of the market. Drivers from around the world gather at the Finali Mondiali event where drivers in the same class race against all of the other drivers from around the world who also participate in that class. The Finali Mondiali/ World Finals race does not count towards any in-season championships, but earlier in the weekend is the 7thand final round of each of the regional championships and all are hotly contested races. While the UK driver licensing is a bit different, a driver racing in North America can convert their IMSA license into an FIA license and go racing in APAC or EU. The Challenge UK series is a lower level of license than what is required to run in the EU series.
In 2021, only the Ferrari 488 Challenge Evo car is permitted to race in the Challenge series. Historical cadence shows that a car is typically used for at least 3 seasons before being upgraded or replaced. For example, the 488 Challenge car was introduced at the end of 2016 and first raced in 2017. The 488 Challenge Evo is simply a kit that can be applied to a 488 Challenge chassis and was introduced in 2019 and raced for the first time in 2020.
The Ferrari Challenge has a unique structure in how its teams operate. They are essentially operated by a Ferrari dealership but the choice on whether to run the team internally or outsource their racing activities to a professional racing team is up to each dealer. Some, like Scuderia Corsa or Risi Competizione, are operated directly by the dealer group, while others like Foreign Cars Italia outsources the operation of the team to Riley Technologies. Drivers largely choose to join the team that is affiliated with their Ferrari dealership.
What Makes the Ferrari Challenge Unique and Where Young Drivers fit in Alongside the Traditional Gentleman Driver
While the Ferrari Challenge is typically thought of as exclusively for gentleman drivers, young drivers should not neglect to consider the series in their motorsport plans. Why?
Equality of machinery
As a “Single Make” series, Ferrari does a very good job of ensuring the cars are as equal as possible. This is important for a young driver so they can build confidence in their driving skills, rather than worrying if their car does not have enough power or doesn’t have the latest aero trick on it. Challenge is a Drivers series, not an engineering series.
Challenge offers the most amount of track time of any Single Make series. Compared to Porsche Cup or Lamborghini Super Trofeo, drivers in the Ferrari Challenge enjoy many hours of track time (and it is not “shared” with a co-driver) during an event weekend. There are a couple of exceptions to this, when they race with F1 at Montreal, and if they race with IMSA at the Daytona 24. There are also optional “test days” leading up to the event weekend, where a driver can have upwards of 6 hours of track time each day. Just like any sport, the more you practice, the better you will become, and this means track time.
The cars have quite a lot of technical innovation in them as well. A large part of learning to become a racing driver is to understand the engineering and technology of the race car in addition to race-craft. The 488 Challenge EVO car has 700-ish HP, racing tires, carbon-ceramic brakes, ABS, F1 gearbox, full Traction Control, and is turbocharged. All of these things are found in racing cars as a young driver would move up to IMSA sports cars and/or open wheel. The ability to work with the team engineer to understand how to maximize these “tools” for their driving style and skill level will go a long way in establishing a base knowledge to be used as they move upwards. It is amazing that these cars actually have more HP than the IMSA GTD cars that race at Daytona, and also has much of the same technology.
The Ferrari Brand
The association with Ferrari as a driver, elevates opportunities for exposure to other teams/series. Racing is a huge part of the DNA of the Ferrari Brand. Enzo took pride in all of his drivers, whether they were in F1 or in Sports Cars, and this holds true today. To race a Ferrari is considered an honor, and it doesn’t matter if you race a Ferrari in F1 or in Sports Cars, you are a Ferrari racing driver. A young driver can add their name to the list of other drivers who have raced a Ferrari, such as Lauda, Villeneuve, Mansell, Prost, Schumacher, Alonso, Vettel, and Leclerc.
Additionally, part of the Ferrari mystique and long-term value is found in the exclusivity of the product. All Ferrari Challenge drivers are able to have access to the street products through a Ferrari dealership. As Ferrari puts a very high emphasis on racing, drivers in the Challenge series may have access to special products such as the Pista Piloti, which was only available to racing drivers. This allows for the opportunity to enjoy the cars on the street, as well as benefit from any positive fluctuations in the pre-owned markets.
Association with Ferrari also aids both young and gentleman drivers with sponsorship acquisition efforts. The Challenge series has put considerable effort into improving the exposure of the championship, in part to facilitate the value for partners and sponsors of the series and also of the drivers. Each race weekend is aired on CBS Sports and the live streams routinely draw over 150k viewers per weekend. This puts the reach and viewership numbers beyond any of the other single-make GT series in North America and also in the same range as the SRO Americas series and even IMSA.
Is the Ferrari Challenge a Good Springboard for Racing in IMSA and Global GT Racing in General?
The Ferrari Challenge has seen many drivers follow the path from the Challenge to other series. The Challenge series provides a ladder of competition combined with unparalleled track time over a race weekend to develop both pace and race craft. From there, Ferrari Challenge drivers have gone on to wins and podium finishes at every major race in the world, including Le Mans. In 2021, there will be Challenge drivers in both SRO and IMSA competition and of course many of the coaches and teams also participate in those series so there is a lot of knowledge available for drivers looking to make that next step. Historically, Ferrari North America has also offered the opportunity for Challenge drivers to test drive the Ferrari 488 GT3 car at Challenge weekends.
Budgets are of course of extreme importance, especially for young drivers. While I could list some ballpark figures, the budgets scale with the level of commitment that a driver makes and of course any on-track incidents. Its best discussed directly with a dealer or team to develop a plan that makes the most sense based on the available resources.
How Competitive is the Ferrari Challenge Really?
There is a danger of sometimes stereotyping a series where gentleman drivers race as being merely a bunch of rich, successful businesspeople racing on a track because they can afford to. This is a misconception. With 40+ cars on the grid at every race weekend in 2020, all identical, drivers are certain to find someone or many others at a similar pace with which to compete. On the one hand, nearly half of the 2020 grid were represented by drivers who were taking on their first year in racing.
In the top category, however, there are drivers who are completing full seasons in IMSA competition and Ferrari Challenge championships are frequently decided by only a few points. Many drivers also have significant testing regimens during the season, but this is tempered by the “fixed” nature of the car and its proven reliability, ensuring that the focus is first and foremost on the driver and their ability.
Off the Track
When I was at the Canadian Grand Prix in 2019, I was able to visit the Ferrari Challenge paddock and chat with the organizers and one thing that was quite apparent was that, aside from all the teams being professionally run, there is a related social aspect that imbues the paddock with a very friendly atmosphere. They put a lot of effort into making memorable weekends including gatherings and evening events on each weekend. For example, at COTA after their night race they had a fireworks display after the podium celebration, at Sebring they took over the Seven Hotel for their hospitality. When they race in conjunction with the Daytona 24, they have a dedicated hospitality space on the inside of Turn 1 as the cars come off the tri-oval and in Montreal they historically host quite a big party that includes appearances by the F1 drivers. Of course, in 2020 they had to find new ways to do this responsibly, but they take pride in saying that they were successful on that front and organizers are looking forward to finding new ways to delight their drivers and guests in 2021.
Beyond the evening events, the Ferrari Challenge paddock is an incredibly welcoming environment fostered mainly by the fact that everyone is there for broadly the same reasons – to enjoy their time on track behind the wheel of a Ferrari, to improve their pace or race-craft, and to compete respectfully with the other drivers.
Where to Get More Information
Interested drivers can either go to their local dealer https://www.ferrari.com/en-CA/auto/dealers or they are welcome to reach out to the Motorsports team at Ferrari North America. The Challenge Series is managed by Matt Dusenberry and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also get more information on the Ferrari Challenge Website.