For some weeks ahead of my trip to Ferrari Land, I tried to imagine what such a place might look like. But I couldn't conjure up anything remotely feasible, possibly because I am a bit old for theme parks. I went to Disneyworld once, when I was 12. I recall a giant fairy palace, funfair rides based on Peter Pan and The Wind in the Willows and young actors dressed as Snow White and Mickey Mouse dancing gaily down an idealised suburban thoroughfare called Main Street, USA.
So I guessed that at the Ferrari-inspired equivalent I might perhaps find a giant facsimile of an automobile factory, a scaled down race track (maybe Monza?), and perhaps get the chance to pootle round a mock-up of Monte Carlo in a little red plastic sports car. But what on earth would the parade involve? Dancers dressed up to look like crooked Italian plutocrats? Actors with the papier-mâché heads of enormous Southern European paedophiles, sunglasses on, white hair swept back off huge, bald, nut-brown foreheads, dancing horribly down the road in giant linen suits with young actresses on their arms, made up to look like skeletal Baltic prostitutes?
For such is the image I have in my mind of the typical Ferrari driver, and such is the only possible carnival character I can imagine being used to summon up all that the ownership of a Ferrari implies.
I am not a car man. I do not feel the need for speed. I have never watched a Formula One race in its entirety or a single minute of any of the Fast and Furious films. There is literally nothing about a Ferrari that I covet. It seems to me a paltry reward for a life pissed away in an office, pushing other men's money around all day until you can afford a lump of metal that just might get you noshed off kerbside by a gold-digging slapper on a Friday night.
There's a bloke who lives across the road from me who has a yellow one. I'm told they cost about 10 grand less than the red ones (can that be true?). He always parks it on the zigzags. What a cunt.
Me, I drive a 2002 Ford Fiesta. A Zetec, mind. With the aluminium gear knob and the fancy trim. I bought it new at Dagenham Motors for the two years' free insurance it came with and throw it around something rotten in town. A car is as fast as the man who drives it, I've always said. And she's shit off a shovel when you're pissed after lunch and late for the school run.
I've also got a lovely newish 3.0-litre Jag estate for getting to and from the country at weekends, and an old Land Rover Defender I keep up there for pulling the Jag out of ditches. But if I want something bright red and Italian in my life, I'll take a big jar of Dolmio.
If I've got to go to a car-themed adventure park, I'd be as happy as not in Ford Granada Land (pack of Rothmans on the dash, furry dice, sloppy lass in the passenger seat with thick green eyeshadow and a lot of pubic hair, The Sweeney theme playing on a loop); or MG Universe (cads with 'taches, students in cricket jumpers, very slow rides with ersatz rain whipping in through the torn plastic quarter-lights in the hood); or Transit Van City (three abreast in the front, can of Foster's, windows down, shouting, "Tits out for the lads" at robot dolly birds).
But that's not what I was offered. What I was invited to was, "The official and exclusive opening of Ferrari Land in Spain… a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity… including a chance to ride Europe's tallest and fastest rollercoaster."
I said no thanks to that, because I had a feeling I'd hate it and want to say so in print. And that's rude if you've been a guest at a party. So I went a couple of weeks later for a quieter look-see on my own.
I landed at Barcelona very early in the morning with photographer Chris Leah and went straight to Avis to pick up our hire car for the hour's drive to PortAventura, the established theme park onto which Ferrari Land has been recently bolted.
"A Seat Ibiza?" I said when they handed over the key. "I can't do an hour on the motorway in that, I'll get a migraine. Gimme a Mercedes. Can you bill Esquire for that?"
"Si, Señor," they said. So I told them in that case to give me the full insurance and excess waiver and that I wouldn't be bothering to fill it up before I brought it back. On the way out of the car park, I skinned the Merc twice against the walls of the (very narrow) spiral exit ramp, causing Chris to squirm and chirrup in the passenger seat.
"Whaaaat?" I shouted. "We got the excess waiver. Relax. Like Hunter S Thompson said: 'the fastest car in the world… is a rental car.'"
Although not this one. Soon as we were on the main road I floored it and got nothing back for my effort at all. It pulled away with all the thrust of a very old lady getting up off the toilet. And took a full calendar month to hit 100mph. "Try chucking it down a couple of gears," said Chris, who is from Yorkshire and is into cars. "It's an automatic, duh!" I said.
"Those paddles behind the steering wheel override the gears," he replied, patiently. "Left for down, right for up."
"No shit?" I said, and tried it. It was better. Not great, but better. "I've got these on the Jag but I never knew what they were for. Thought maybe they were for working the stereo."
"You really aren't into cars, are you?" said Chris. An hour later, the skeleton of a giant red penis rose angrily into the sky ahead of us.
"The fuck is that?" I said.
"That'll be the tallest rollercoaster in Europe," said Chris.
"How can you tell?" I said. "From here it just looks like a 300ft scaffold."
"It's the massive Ferrari badge half way up that gives it away," said Chris.
As well as knowing nothing about cars, I have very poor eyesight. Which is why I skinned the Merc again minutes later, this time on the gate into the Ferrari Land car park, which was packed wall-to-wall with cars even grimmer and sadder than our own. Nothing but grey, white and black hatches and saloons. Not a splash of colour. Not a hint of thrill.
"Every single one of them owned by someone who dreams of owning a Ferrari instead," said Chris, sadly.
The entrance itself was quite impressive, if smaller than I'd have expected: a pair of red Ferraris — one a road car, the other an F1 machine — sculpted in plastic on the ends of huge red speed swooshes that joined together to create an arch held up by cylindrical grey things.
"Pistons," said Chris. "Right on," I replied.
"A Ferrari seems to me a paltry reward for a life pissed away in an office, pushing other men's money around."
The place was not full and the people it wasn't full of were mostly men, chunky ones, in shorts and T-shirts, with baseball caps and aviators on, waddling round, gasping at shiny red things. A herd of simpletons with their empty brains full of the miserable gulf between the red car they had come to worship and the silver-grey one they drove to get here.
Our soundtrack was the deep roar and groan of terrified men exhaling their fear. It came from the 120m high rollercoaster above us — the so-called Red Force — and the scaffold next to it of similar height, which held two elevators that went up and down at great speed — like pistons? — lifting groups of men to the sky and then dropping them to the ground.
It was an unusual sound. Normally, the squeals of pain and terror that emanate from fairground rides are much higher-pitched, dominated by the screams of women and children. Here, as I said, the terror came at you in an exclusively male basso profundo of groundless, self-inflicted fear. Pathetic. Fucking pathetic.
"So, do you want to get the Red Force out of the way now?" said Chris, reaching for his camera.
"Oh, I'm not going on that," I replied. "Jews don't do rollercoasters. My people have not survived 5,000 years of torture, persecution and recent near-extermination to go and pay good money to pretend to be about to die. That shit is strictly goyische. Same goes for bungee-jumping, parachuting, tombstoning, go-karting, all that. I have a very well-developed brain, you see. I stimulate it intellectually, using books, conversation and abstract ideas. The reason these men are going up and down at 150mph is because they have so little in their heads that they have to put themselves in the way of danger quite often to be absolutely certain that they are alive. It is the same impulse that leads much richer but equally stupid men to buy and drive expensive sports cars."
"So what have you come all this way for, then?" said Chris.
"To look at them and sneer, obviously," I replied. "Let's go get some lunch."
After execrable tapas taken beneath a different rollercoaster from a neighbouring land where at every moment whirling tourists threatened to puke all over us from their fast-moving inverted position 100ft above our heads, we went for a trawl round the gift shop, where I considered getting some sort of gift for my son who, being only four and having a tiny, underdeveloped brain, is very much into cars.
But to be honest the vehicles on offer would not have floated his boat. He loves a dustcart, a recycling truck, a bus, a properly revolving concrete mixer. But Ferrari don't do those, apparently. And if he is going to get a car then expensively modelled pimp transport is not his bag. He'd rather have something cheap and plasticky that he can smash up, knock the doors off and have a bit of fun with. Just like his dad. Beside the cars, it was really just branded F1 clothing and baseball caps for people who want to look like Michael Schumacher. I mean, "Here you go, son, dress up as a big ugly German bore with brain damage, why don't you?"
Outside the shop, a band of "pit ponies" marched by, carrying flags. But they were not nearly slaggy enough to keep my eye for long. They were too short and well fed. Too Spanish. And some of them were blokes. I think.
"Look," said Chris. "You can race an F1 simulator. That's got to be good for a story."
"Woo-hoo," I said, and went to check it out. There were eight scaled-down Ferrari racing cars, each with a massive wraparound screen showing a fast-moving track. In each, sat a middle-aged bald man with a very serious expression on his face, pretending to drive, while their positions on the track went up on a leader board. Computer games, basically. My intellectual snobberies about car people remained unchallenged.
"Our soundtrack was the deep roar and groan of terrified men exhaling their fear."
After a 10-minute "training session" in Spanish with translation into English by a woman who didn't speak English, I was jammed into a tiny car and belted in. Horrid. Reminded me of the time I was supposed to do go-karting on a stag do. Hated the stinky flame suit and the tight helmet and the nasty driving position and the terrible noise. Got out after one lap and went home.
The steering wheel was alive with buttons and levers. There were two pedals. Presumably gas and the brake?
"Que?" Do I use one foot or both?
"You brake to slow go or to fast the other."
Yes, but left foot or right?
"Que?" Is it automatic or are there gears?
"Que?" Is there a practice lap or does the race start immediately?
"You can sweetch off drag coefficient bibbly wibbly, ABS, careful not to oogly woogly, fastest lap time beebly babbly…"
What the fuck are you talking about?
"The race has started, Giles," said Chris. "You'd better go!"
So I pulled away very slowly and pootled down the straight at about 50km/h, testing the brakes as I went until Chris, from behind his camera, said, "Come on, Giles, it's a race!"
So then I floored the gas and the speedo roared up to 300km/h and the whole thing began to shake horribly, so I braked hard and was grabbed into my seat by the tightening of the seatbelt. So I sped up to 300 again and then, oh fuck, is that a bend? It's hard to tell. Swerve! Onto the grass — judder, judder, judder — is that a wall? What? Fuck! Wheel spin. Crash! Smash! Noise! Vomit.
Really, really horrible.
I reversed out of the wall, looking behind me to check for cars but behind me was only Chris and his camera. Because it's not real. Then I pulled out onto the track and floored it again, braking hard when I got to what seemed to be a corner and stopping dead quite a long way from it, then crawled up to it as cars roared past, lapping me, feeling genuine fear and humiliation, then floored it again to try and catch up with them as they disappeared into the distance, roaring up to 300km/h, 320, 350… because what's the worst that can happen? Then suddenly a corner, too late to brake, turn the wheel, spin, rocket towards the wall, really dreading the impact this time, the seat belt grabs me hard and… VLABADABOOM!!!
Awful. Genuinely traumatic. I had experienced literally exactly what Ayrton Senna saw the second before the lights went out. Except, unlike him, I now had to go on with my life.
I drove slowly on until the game ended. The machine said "Congratulations" and told me I had come fourth. God, some of the others must have been utter morons.
"So how was that?" asked Chris.
"It was a genuine privilege," I told him as I climbed out of the cramped little fibreglass cockpit, "to experience for myself all the danger, fear, claustrophobia and boredom of Formula One."
Out in the Catalonian sunshine, the Red Force raced past us, going from 0–112mph in five seconds (to give the sense of being in a Ferrari) then shot upwards at a vertical angle to 120m (to give a sense of being abducted by aliens), rolled over and then plummeted to earth (to give a sense of being shat out by Poseidon).
"It's all over in 15 seconds," said Chris. "There isn't even time to be frightened."
"Not going to happen," I said and headed off in the direction of a sort of cinema where a filmic Ferrari experience was advertised. Have a nice sit down.
We were kettled for 10 minutes in a corridor with a view of an office and then a hologram of some old rapist walked in and stood behind a desk. Shades on, hair swept back, beige suit. He started talking in Italian and subtitles appeared in the sky to the effect that he had a dream to build a car that could fly without leaving the road. So I'm guessing it was someone famous in the company. Maybe Enzo Ferrari? Was that someone?
"Now you will live that dream," he said.
We were let through a door and kettled again in a sort of sty, where another hologram, this time of a young lady, gave us some more vomitous Italian marketing bilge about dreams and possibilities and then we were let into a cinema and belted into our seats. There followed a rather excellent cinematic fandango which involved us lurching forward in our seats over the banister rail before us and appearing to fly around the world, across oceans and continents, always with a view down below of a Ferrari whistling along on lovely empty roads. It was actually quite scary when we went over cliff edges and the tops of mountains (I am no better with heights than I am with speed). We flew over pine forests and smelt them, skimmed over rivers and were lightly sprayed with actual water, then soared over Paris, Moscow, Rome, London…
It was fucking ace. It brought flooding back all the memories of that Disneyland Peter Pan ride of my youth, whose sense of truly flying over London I have remembered ever since. Very possibly this is what cinemas are like nowadays. These iMaxes about which one hears. I wouldn't know. I haven't been to the cinema since my kids were born.
Then it was over. And I realised I'd really just been watching a Ferrari ad. Which made me realise that all I was doing, all day, with one of my relatively few days left on earth, was sitting through an extended Ferrari ad.
After that we went into a showroom and I got to sit in a life-size Ferrari F1 replica and then the famous Ferrari 458 Give A Fuck (I'm not good with remembering brand names) with its taupe leather trim and all the accoutrements of the world's most expensive road car. It made me want to trawl round girls' schools looking for teenagers to finger while I drove.
Then I went to a mocked-up pit garage and got to change a tyre, which was every bit as exciting as it sounds. Then we went for another trog round the shop.
Then I said, "Fuck it, I'm so bored I might as well go on the rollercoaster."
And thus I learned — in that moment — about everything that motivates a speed freak: it's just boredom. It is a brain so empty, an intellectual life so sparse, an interior world so beaten flat by over exposure to marketing, electronic media and the vain sales pitches of giant corporations that it will latch onto anything, anything, to shake itself up. A fast car, a marketing myth, a rollercoaster.
"Great," said Chris. "I'll get me camera."
"After I've done it, will you do it?" I asked.
"No way," he said.
In the loading bay where you board the Ferrari-shaped rocket ship to hell, doomy electronic music played, of the sort you might use in a film to presage the end of the world. There were short queues in holding pens for each row of two seats, awaiting each new "Fezza" as it pulled into line to be loaded, with a much longer queue for the front seat. I was planning to shut my eyes for the whole short trip but you still weren't going to get me in the front.
"I can't get a picture unless you're in the front," said Chris. Yorkshire bastard.
The queue shortened. After four cars had gone, the one with my own special doom written upon it came up. I got in and sat down. I looked at the 100-odd metres of red track before me that ran out into the clear blue Iberian sky and then at the immense phallus up which I would rocket in barely three seconds. Higher than Big Ben. Almost as high as the London Eye.
The guy pulled a bar down over my lap. Only my lap? No shoulder straps? This can't be right. What happens when I'm shooting skywards faster than a massy object falls under gravity? Won't I slide out? This thing is new. Is it properly tested? Then he handed me goggles. Big, convex, fisheye goggles. Nobody else had goggles. Was it because I was in front? Why? What is going to happen to my eyes? Are they going to pop out of my head from sheer g-force and this is just to catch them so they can be put back in later by doctors in Madrid?
Suddenly, there was the noise you get when some twat of an Arab guns his matte black Testarossa in South Kensington late at night and… wham!
My neck snaps back and the world rushes towards me, I can't get air, people are screaming, the giant red iron cock is suddenly in front of my nose and then I'm staring at sky and being sucked into the clouds, it is horrific beyond words, terrifying beyond the dreams of Hitler, I close my eyes and my stomach leaves my body, then I am swung onto my side, my neck lurches, and we are momentarily still. I open my eyes a crack and through the smeary lenses of the goggles I see Tarragona, Barcelona, the entire peninsula stretched out before me, and yonder the Atlantic, America… and then we are over the crest and I'm looking at the ground, many miles below, and there is such screaming, screaming to wake the very dead, and I shut my eyes again and am hammered like a big, dumb Jewish nail into the bowels of the earth at speeds that would get you banned from driving for five years if you did them up the M1. Inside, I am crying.
Then it ends. We flatten out. People are laughing. But I feel only emptiness. I have no sense of achievement, for I have done nothing. No sense of a mountain climbed or a marathon run or a boundary breached. It was the worst fucking thing I have ever done, the most scared I have ever been, for no reason at all.
I shout "fuck" a lot. Then I turn to the big Polish guy in the seat next to me and say, "Did you enjoy that?"
"No," he says. And we get out.
"How was it?" asks Chris.
"Fucking awful," I say. "Did you get a good photo?"
"Not really," he says.
"It was the worst f***ing thing I've ever done, the most scared I have ever been, for no reason at all."
We went for a beer after that, a long, tall, ice-cold Estrella in a frosted glass with a bulbous bottom end. It tasted good, but it would have tasted better if I had done something worth doing, like a cold beer after playing football, or climbing a mountain, or shagging your mate's wife.
As we headed to the car park and the serried ranks of grey fleet vehicles owned by the miserable fetishists still aboard the ridiculous Red Force, I felt for a moment the true, honest Ferrari feeling of unquenchable emptiness, of a dull grey life wasted yearning for a redder one, which, when achieved, is every bit as soulless and sad as the one you left behind. A life of endlessly chasing a dream that is spiritually cheap but cash expensive, superficially shiny but intellectually and emotionally moribund. A life coveted only by the saddest of men and achieved in the end mostly by the very worst.
I unparked the Merc and drove it to an empty part of the vast car park, stopped, then gunned it up to 7,000 revs and threw half a dozen sick, black, stinking, angry doughnuts. Then I aimed for the exit, scraped its near side along the length of the gate, (saying "Excess waiver, don't forget," to the cowering Chris). And then I nosed out onto the motorway and drove for the airport.
Very, very slowly.