The elderly German gent sitting next to me had been blessed with a fairly generous mid-section, no doubt helped along by large quantities of fine, Bavarian brew. This meant that he was finding it a bit of a task to fit himself into the safety harness on the roller coaster’s seat, so I leaned across and helped him out. He grinned broadly and, assuming I was purebred German (as one does), said something that sounded like the wastegate on a very large turbocharger; I took it as an expression of thanks and smiled back at him. Behind and ahead of us, a gaggle of gushing, giggling girls got going gregariously g… sorry, I got a bit carried away. Let’s just say that there was a fair amount of squeaky noises and all-round commotion, and an air of intense anticipation above all else. There was a very good reason for all of this, because we weren’t strapped into any old county fair roller coaster – this was the Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest roller coaster, the main attraction at the Ferrari World theme park in Abu Dhabi; it was an F1 car-shaped bomb, and the fuse was about to be lit.
When everyone was properly seated, with goggles on, the coaster inched forward slowly, and I could see the track snake out into the distance, reaching 52 metres at its highest point. I was already wondering whether this was such a good idea – I’m not very good with heights. My German companion made a low, turbo-whistle noise as we inched further forward, finally coming to a halt on a short straight.
Back when I was in film school, I remember a class discussion about the difference between ‘surprise’ and ‘suspense’. Surprise is when a bomb goes off without warning on screen and scares the hell out of the viewers; suspense is when the viewers can see a ticking bomb under a chair, and they know it’s going to go off at some point. Which one of the two I was feeling at that point isn’t rocket science – I knew something very significant was about to go down, and I felt myself clenching my teeth.
Then it hit. Such was the force of the shove that my brain simply couldn’t register what had just happened, and we were halfway across the rails before I became aware that I was screaming, and that old Kaiser Wilhelm next to me had taken a death-grip on my thigh. My innards were lying in a heap at the start, I was sure, and when I managed to open my eyes, they shut immediately in some sort of terror reflex. A great roar filled my ears as we hurtled forward and, for some reason, some statistics burst into my head – the bloody space rocket I was strapped to accelerated from 0-240 kph in 4.9 seconds, and from 0-100 kph in a Veyron-eat-my-dust 2 seconds. It also pulled 1.7g at the start, and a ludicrous 4.8g at its sharpest turn, a 70-degree one. All these numbers become totally meaningless once you’re on the coaster, of course – you’re too busy trying to laugh, scream, hyperventilate and jump out of the coaster simultaneously, especially when it climbs an uphill section and then plummets straight down, like an aircraft caught in monstrous turbulence.
The track has chicanes taken from some of the world’s best race tracks, and when they say that the Formula Rosso is as close as you can get to experiencing an F1 car – well, let’s just say that I believe them. By the time we came to a dead halt (F1-level braking? Check), I felt like I had been stapled to a Scuderia Ferrari around Monza. After a few stunned seconds of silence, everyone recovered enough to begin yelling again, this time in sheer exhilaration; I was a little afraid that Herr Wilhelm might have had a heart attack, but he seemed very much with us, joining in the cheering. I staggered out of the coaster, a little weak-kneed, and made my way out to explore the rest of Ferrari World.
It’s impossible to come here and not feel like a child, I can tell you. Everywhere you look, there are shiny objects vying for your attention – a gleaming 458 Italia on a display stand, an angry-looking F430 on a wall, classic race cars climbing the ceiling, life-size racing simulators, you name it. Since I love museums, I wandered into the Galleria Ferrari, which was small but exquisitely populated with some real jewels – Schumi’s, Prost’s and Scheckter’s F1 cars, a 400 Superamerica that looked like it had just exited the factory and a stunning 275 GTO, among others. Further down was the wicked G-Force, a reverse bungee that shoots you 62 metres into the air, with the accelerative force of an F1 car, before plunging you back to earth; just the ticket, then, after stepping off the world’s fastest roller coaster. On closer inspection, it was shut for maintenance, which was perhaps just as well. To compensate, I went and queued up for the V12, a giant-sized 599 Fiorano engine, through which you’re taken on a thrill ride in a flume. It was supremely cool – starting at the huge grille, I floated past the 12 colossal pistons, pumping away above my head, and splashed through several mazes and alleys until I was spat out of the exhaust via the differential.
Feeling in the mood for something mellower, I decided to have a look at Cinema Maranello. Built like a movie theatre from the 1920s, the cinema showed a superbly shot film called ‘Coppa di Sicilia’, featuring race cars from that period slugging it out in the Sicilian countryside. Ferrari have really gone to town with this film – it was shot with real vintage cars, in live action, and it looks fantastic on the 4K projection format in the theatre, the highest resolution digital projection technology in existence. After a quick lunch from one of the many excellent eateries on the premises (it’s funny how there’s so much to eat here, when you’re very likely to go straight out and expel it on one of the rides), I made a beeline for the Scuderia Challenge. These are simulators that are used to train F1 drivers, so they’re not kidding about here.
You plonk yourself in either an F430 or an F1 car’s body shell and then belt around the Yas Marina circuit. I assure you that it isn’t like playing an arcade game, where you can simply floor the gas pedal and take corners at 250 kph – this thing is very, very real, with every kink and undulation coming through to your seat, and the steering wheel and pedals pulsing and kicking as you try and go as fast as you can. After wrecking a couple of (virtual) cars, I managed to get the hang of the simulator and completed a few fast laps, the trumpets of victory sounding in my ears (and only in my ears, I might add). I stepped out of the simulator, well pleased with myself, and rubbed my hands in child-like glee. If you think that you’re too old for theme parks, or that amusement park rides are a bit gauche, I suggest you go to Ferrari World if you can – it’ll change your mind, as it did mine.
In keeping with the ‘bigger is better’ ethos that you find in Dubai and other parts of the middle-east, the Ferrari World theme park pulls no punches when it comes to scale and design. Viewed from the air, you’ll see the world’s largest Ferrari logo on the roof (65 metres in length), and the roof itself uses enough aluminium to cover 16,750 Ferraris. It’s the world’s largest indoor theme park, with enough space inside to fit 7 football fields, head-to-toe. The space-frame structure used here is the largest one ever buit If you stood Ferrari World upright, it would be the world’s tallest man-made structure. Apart from the world’s fastest roller coaster, you can also scare yourself silly on the Fiorano GT Challenge, a smaller roller coaster in which two sets of 599 GTBs race each other. Another interesting virtual ride is Driving With The Champion, where you’re taken on a virtual ride around the Ferrari proving ground by Fernando Alonso himself. There are lots of activities for kids as well, like the Junior GT, where your young tyke can have a go, under expert supervision, on a scaled-down F430