Reigning Rolex Series GT champion Jeff Segal took his first laps behind the wheel of the new factory-built Ferrari 458 Italia Grand-Am on the road course at Homestead-Miami Speedway in preparation for the 2012 racing season.
Although Segal has been known the last few years as a championship and race-winning driver in Mazda RX-8 GTs, his first run behind the wheel of Ferrari's new Grand-Am contender was just the latest step in his long racing history with the legendary Prancing Horse marque. Segal began his career in Grand-Am Ferrari Challenge competition and made some of his earliest Rolex Series GT starts in 2003 in Ferraris.
Segal, who says he is currently reviewing options for the 2012 racing season, was the first full-time Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series pro driver to test the 458 Italia Grand Am, which is prepared by Ferrari of Fort Lauderdale. The one-day session on the Homestead road course followed the team's first test with the Ferrari factory team last month at Daytona, which was led by driver Jamie Melo. Segal quickly reacclimated to the mid-engine Ferrari configuration and was able to assist in the ongoing development of the purpose-built Ferrari Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series GT machine.
"I'm really thrilled to have had the opportunity to be one of the first drivers to get behind the wheel of the 458 Italia Grand Am," Segal said. "I have raced a lot of Ferraris but I'm very impressed after spending a day getting to know this amazing new car, certainly the best Ferrari I have ever had the privilege to drive. The Ferrari is so fundamentally different from the cars I've been driving over the past few seasons in the GT class, but I'm pleasantly surprised at how well it performed despite being so early on in its development cycle."
Segal holds the record for the youngest ever winner in the Ferrari Challenge Trofeo Pirelli at the age 17. He parlayed that success into his earliest Rolex Series GT starts with the championship-winning Ferrari of Washington team that won the Rolex Series GT team and drivers championships in 2002 and 2003.
Opportunities later led Segal to a championship-winning effort at the wheel of a Continental Tire Challenge GS-class BMW M3 in 2007, one season before returning to GT competition in the Mazda. Throughout that successful run in the Mazda, which produced last year's driver and team championships and five race wins so far in four seasons, Segal never fell out of touch with his Ferrari roots. He is a full-time driving instructor at the Ferrari Driving Experience "Pilota" programs in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, and has also served as a long-time driving coach and consultant for many teams and drivers in the Ferrari Challenge.
Segal has also assisted Ferrari North America with their respective product launches of the 430 Challenge and 458 Challenge cars. His recent experience at the wheel of the 458 Challenge car certainly improved his feedback while driving the 458 Italia Grand Am, as the cars share a large amount of architecture and technology.
"The mid-engine layout translates into a natural comfort level on the race track," Segal said. "That is not unfamiliar to me, but this new car seemed to be right there very quickly and is clearly very well built and engineered by Ferrari and Michelotto. It drives very well, looks stunning, and sounds absolutely phenomenal when the engine builds revs. What more could a driver ask for!"
The 458 Italia Grand Am is the product of a two-year project to have Ferrari produce a car specifically for the Rolex Sports Car Series. There have been plenty of GT Ferraris running at the Rolex 24 and in Grand-Am in the past, but these were road cars converted to competition, including the successful Ferrari of Washington efforts. The new 458 Italia Grand Am was built in Italy by Ferrari and Michelotto specifically with Grand-Am racing in mind. This version develops 500hp – 30 more than its European counterpart – and has a revised braking system that does not use ABS or traction control, in accordance with Grand-Am regulations.
"The big significance for this car is that it was conceived and produced by Ferrari and built specifically for the Rolex Series," said Grand-Am's managing director of competition, Mark Raffauf during the initial Daytona test. "This car comes here straight from Maranello, Italy, right from Ferrari, and it's also significant that this is really a Grand-Am car."
When it comes to racing Ferraris, Segal may be the most experienced and accomplished American driver in the country currently competing in a top-tier sports car racing series.
"As far as what my future holds with respect to the Ferrari 458 Italia Grand Am GT program, I can't say just yet," Segal said. "But I'm very appreciative of the opportunity to get an early taste of the car, and I would like to thank Ferrari of Fort Lauderdale for making this happen. I think that we made some good progress with the car throughout the day, and it is always gratifying to see a car respond positively to changes through the early development process. I think that this car holds tremendous promise as a strong GT-class competitor for 2012, and I'm looking forward to seeing what the future holds.