When is Fast Too Fast?

This month’s column focuses on three related points. First, I do a lot of expert-witness work, so I’m consulted on many horrifically wrecked Ferraris, which is very sobering.

I also get emails from Ferrari Internet chat groups monitoring the relatively new trend of punitive traffic fines in Europe and Canada.

Finally, because I drive most of the modern Ferraris, I’m all too aware just how staggeringly fast today’s supercars are relative to real-world speeds.

Let’s explore each of these topics, with my goals being that I testify fewer times each month, and that we see fewer owners lose their licenses and cars through ever-more Draconian laws.

Sliced in half at 96 mph
Late last year, I was consulted regarding a 360 Stradale driven by Charles “Mask” Lewis, one of the founders of Tapout, a maker of clothing for Mixed Martial Arts fans. Lewis was racing a Porsche in Newport Beach, CA, when they collided and spun at about 100 mph. The 360 hit a utility pole at 96 mph, cutting the car in half and instantly killing Lewis. His passenger survived.

My most recent major accident inspection was a 430 Spider in Newport Beach, CA, which spun at about 100 mph and crossed a center divider, hitting an oncoming tow truck. The tow truck was totaled, the Ferrari was ripped in half and the Ferrari’s passenger was killed—although the driver lived. The tow truck occupants were all injured.

Today’s software allows forensic engineers to digitally re-create these accidents with amazing accuracy. My mission is to help download data from the car’s onboard computers or “black boxes,” which can be a wealth of “what happened” information. The usual first question from the lawyers is to Ferrari’s liability, but inevitably the fault is pilot error that begins with an excess of speed and ends with a lack of talent.

High speeds and high fines
Canada has laws which allow the police to seize vehicles because of excessive speed or reckless driving.

In my former hometown of North Vancouver, the owner of an F430 recently had his Ferrari seized and sold by the government when he was caught doing 200 kph (125mph) in a 40 kph (25 mph) zone while racing a BMW M6.

According to Rich Coleman, the British Columbia solicitor General, “When a vehicle has killed or injured someone, it’s too late. Our laws now work to take vehicles away from reckless drivers before they hurt someone.”

The Ferrari sold for $306k, with the money divided between the vehicle owner’s bank and the government in an 80/20 split. The 31-year-old driver had owned the F430 for just one day.

In Finland, traffic fines are based on income. The more you make, the more you pay for a traffic ticket. For example, 27-year-old dot-com millionaire Jaakko Rytsola was fined $74,400 for driving his Ferrari 360 dangerously. While the police said that Rytsola was not speeding, they claimed that he switched lanes too often and endangered other traffic in downtown Helsinki.

There is no lack of other staggering examples of traffic fines from the land of Kimi Räikkönen.

The Ferrari-unfriendly Swiss
In Switzerland, traffic fines are also based on income, and a Testarossa driver was fined nearly $290k U.S. for driving 85 mph in a 50 mph zone. He was initially fined about $90k U.S. by the local jurisdiction, but the next court increased the fine after the driver said he was a diplomat from the Republic of Guinea-Bissau and claimed diplomatic immunity. That didn’t sway the court, which boosted the fine to $290k.

“The accused ignored elementary traffic rules with a powerful vehicle out of a pure desire for speed,” said the court judgment. On the upside, apparently the driver has to pay only half of the fine now—with the rest deferred and possibly eliminated for good behavior.

In what may be the world’s most expensive speeding ticket, a 37-year-old Swede initially escaped multiple Swiss radar traps because the traps were incapable of recording speeds beyond 200 kph (125 mph).

But a new-generation radar gun finally caught him at close to 300 kph (186 mph) between Bern and Lausanne. When pulled over by Swiss traffic police, it took the driver more than half a kilometer (546 yards) to slow down and stop his car. He initially faced a highly publicized fine of just over $1m U.S. dollars, but that was ultimately negotiated to a mere $325k U.S.

200 mph on a highway near you
Modern Ferraris are wonderful cars, and they do everything right with linear precision—and give drivers staggering performance.

If one had access to a time machine, a used 550 bought for $75k could be zapped back to 1972, and with nothing but a set of slicks, would probably win the GT class at Le Mans—embarrassing the fabled competition Daytonas. While the 550 was marketed as a mere 199-mph car, the 575 will break the 200 mph mark, and the 599 is even faster. All this makes one ask “when is too fast too fast?”

The race track might be the place to drive fast—if you have the skills.

In the U.S., road racing usually starts with the Sports Car Club of America, which requires six hours of on-track instruction for an SCCA novice permit. After two races with a regional license, one can get an SCCA National license.

After a season of track time with a National license, one can move up to an FIA International C license without too much drama. There are more advanced FIA licenses, but each step up requires much more track time in faster cars.

As a quick comparison in speeds, a Daytona Prototype is glued to the track thanks to lots of downforce. Because of the speed-killing downforce—and lots of wing—a Daytona Prototype will hit a mere 185 mph on the longest straights, such as at Daytona.

The driver lives in a roll cage and carbon-fiber encapsulated tube-chassis cocoon and should walk away from virtually any accident. A stock Ferrari 550 will go faster, but the car lacks the same downforce, the same ultra-stiff suspension and the same level of brakes. More importantly, the only requirement to find out just how fast a 550 will go is a checkbook that will cover the cost. No high-speed experience is required or asked.

While Ferraris are very well built and very high-speed accidents are usually survivable, the laws of physics and frailties of the human physiology kick in at speeds of 100 mph and faster.

Because most Ferrari owners only explore ultra-high speeds very late at night or on long and lonely straight stretches of road, when accidents do happen, the driver and passenger are usually the only victims. Unfortunately it’s only a matter of time before someone in a Ferrari takes a number of bystanders out.

In their usually knee-jerk reaction, some politicians will propose and pass the draconian laws common in Europe and Canada. I don’t want my next expert witness contract to be about an SCMer’s Ferrari.

Hopefully none of our readers want to be the future poster child for new legislation that confiscates cars to raise much-needed state revenue—or be the example used to create a new push for draconian video- or photo-enforced speeding tickets.

If you own or buy a supercar, do yourself and the public a favor and take a few racing school lessons.

For the price of a cam belt service, you can rent a spec. Miata, go to an SCCA (or similar) driver’s school, qualify 39th for your first race and do everything right for 30 terror-filled minutes to work your way up to 35th place. And if you do everything wrong, at least you have limited your losses to $3k to $7k—and you’ll have a lifetime memory to take home. Finally, you will not be the subject of a long and embarrassing thread on www.ferrarichat.com.