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Behind the wheel with Ferrari's top test driver

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Raffaele de Simone seems to have one of the most enviable jobs on Earth: He drives Ferraris every day.

Don't get too jealous, though. He still has to sit through meetings, too. De Simone is Ferrari's Head of Subjective Evaluation and Development, which really means he's the luxury sports car maker's top test driver.

He doesn't drive cars as they come off the assembly line. That's a quality control job and Ferrari has other drivers for that. De Simone mostly drives so-called test mules and prototypes. These are new models that Ferrari engineers and designers are working on or cars with new or redesigned parts that are being tested.

"At nine o'clock, I start testing the first car of the day," De Simone says. "I test four or five cars, normally, during the day."

De Simone says he splits his drive time between Ferrari's private track and the twisting mountain roads near the automaker's Maranello, Italy, factory. The roads that snake up and down the hills seem like they were created for these cars.

"We believe, and we are lucky, that these roads around Maranello, together with Fiorano race circuit, our race circuit, are enough to develop 80% of the car," he says.

He also spends time in a driving simulator. It's a large box suspended on four legs that can tilt in various directions to simulate G-Force when turning, braking or accelerating. Computer screens inside replicate the view through windows.

"The simulator helps us to test on the same roads even when we don't have the final car or we don't have the prototype ready," he says.

Not every test is about accelerating down a track or driving through Italy's hilly terrain. De Simone also spends some time in life-sized models of Ferrari interiors called bucks. In these model cockpits, he can make sure the pedals and steering wheel are within easy and comfortable reach and check that the central computer screens will be easy enough to use while driving.

The feel (and sound) of a Ferrari

Almost all automakers have development drivers like De Simone. But at Ferrari, the job takes on a special importance. With these machines, how driving them sounds and feels is at the core of the brand. While computers are able to record lap times, acceleration and cornering forces, they can't feel.

"My responsibility is to confirm that Ferraris are alive," De Simone says. "These are not only cars. These cars can create such a strong relationship with their drivers that they could really have soul and interact in a proactive mode with their drivers."

De Simone is a former racing driver so he knows how to make a car go fast. But there have been times when, for instance, a car was able to corner more quickly on a certain set of tires but it still just didn't feel right. In that case, he says he would rather the car go around Ferrari's test track at a fraction of a second slower on tires that provide a better overall experience.

Not every Ferrari feels the same nor are they intended to. The new F8 Tributo is an outright performance car best experienced tearing around a track or charging hard through tight curves. The Portofino is more laid back. It's still a sports car but it is more at home driving on an open country road. With all of them, though, there is a distinctive Ferrari feel. It's in the sound of the engine -- whether it's a V12 or a turbocharged V8 -- the way the steering wheel responds, even the way the brakes feel. There's aggression but with refinement: knife-edge sharpness balanced with comforting smoothness. A Ferrari will excite you, but it shouldn't scare you.

"We have to do different Ferraris for different uses and for different 'Ferraristi' but, in all of them, one has to find the common elements that you can immediately recognize as unique and distinctive to a Ferrari," he says. ("Ferraristi" means Ferrari owners.)

De Simone's job is becoming more difficult as Ferrari expands its lineup beyond the two-door V12-powered sports cars one immediately associates with the brand. A new hybrid model -- the brand's second after the $1.4 million LaFerrari -- is expected soon. Ferrari is also working on something called the Purosangue. Executives insist it will not be a traditional crossover SUV, but it will be roomier and more comfortable for passengers than any previous Ferrari.

Each provides special challenges. Hybrid cars have heavy battery packs and, to save gas, engines that turn off and back on again while driving, meaning that special Ferrari sound won't always be there. A car like Purosangue will be taller and have a higher center of gravity than Ferrari's low-slung sports cars. De Simone has to make sure that, in each case, the car still provides the emotional experience Ferraristi expect.

The moment a car becomes a Ferrari

De Simone, 39, was born in Bologna, not far from Ferrari's Maranello headquarters. Both places are in an area known as the "Motor Valley." Lamborghini is also close by in Sant'Agata Bolognese. Maserati, which uses engines built by Ferrari, is headquartered in nearby Modena. Motorcycle manufacturer Ducati is in Bologna. Interest in cars was everywhere and De Simone began attending races as a child.

"This passion is dominating everything here in Maranello," he says. "It's something difficult to describe in words."

De Simone raced sports cars until 2007, but started working as a consultant for Ferrari in 2003. Racing provided him with the knowledge of how to extract the most from a car. The first Ferrari he worked with was the Ferrari Enzo, he recalls, a then-new $670,000 supercar.

It was in 2007 that he became a full-time Ferrari employee. Two years later, he got a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Bologna. The education helps him to better understand what the car is doing and why.

Still, he says, it's best for him to turn off his "engineer brain" when driving so he can just report strictly what he feels. Ferrari's more experienced engineers can then figure out the best ways to smooth out any rough edges he finds.

"I think that I will give better added value if I just speak about what I feel without any prejudgment," he says.

The best part of his job, he says, is that moment when the car is just so close to being really right, when he knows that just a few more alterations and adjustments will make it a Ferrari.

"That is a very special moment because all the ideas, all the time we spent, it's become concrete," he says. "I feel privileged to be there in that moment because I feel in my skin there's something special."

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