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Thrills on an Italian stallion

It's hard for me to believe this is real. The scenery, the language, the weather, the open raceway and especially the car.

Down the straight, where the bitumen opens from a winding trail to stretch its width and give the driver some respite from intense concentration, I can glimpse the mountains. But only briefly.

Every upchange in the Maserati GranTurismo also signals time for the engine to briefly draw breath, but only to pick up the next gear and pull harder towards the horizon.

The end of the straight quickly comes into sight. Time for one more jab with the right fingers. Fifth.

The corner is coming up fast on the left. Pull quickly on the broad, cold metal paddle on the left-side of the steering wheel and push the right foot deep within the illusionary depth of the brake pedal.

Fourth gear comes up — I know that by the illuminated “4” between the gauges. The compression braking of the 4.7-litre V8 engine produces explosive barks from the exhaust. The noise, the assault of the senses as the car moves with the flow of the track and the location in northern Italy beside a wide, stone-bottomed river, are almost surreal.

This is the privately owned track at Varano, 25km outside Parma, in mid-summer with the hills still bright green from the long winter.

Last year, 15 Australian owners of new Maseratis travelled to Varano to do what I did: get up close and personal with one of Italy's icons.

They weren't alone. Varano may be privately owned, but it is well known to the Fiat Group — Maserati, Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Lancia and Fiat — for testing each new model. More importantly, it is also known for customer driver training.

Maserati alone sold 8000 vehicles last year and a portion of those owners, from California to Russia to China and New Zealand, came to learn to drive at the Parma track.

At $5500 a person for the two-day course, it isn't cheap.

Andrea Piccini heads the driving instructors. Despite his youth, he has raced at Le Mans and was an F1 test driver for Minardi.

The other instructors have a similar background and have no trouble sitting beside the amateurs to involve themselves — occasionally loudly — in your driving.

Later, when the computers in the pits plug into the car and extract electronic bytes that have been created from your three laps, there is another, more brutal assessment.

“Neil, look here. What is this?” asks touring car racer Sandro Montani. I have no answer for something that, to me, is little more than diverging lines (blue of the ideal graph line of the instructor) and me (the more wriggled line in red ink) on a computer screen.

“You are in understeer. Look! You have come into this corner at 69km/h and here, you see, the instructor is at 62km/h. So the car is going too fast to make it turn correctly and you have lost a lot of time.” I feel like a naughty schoolboy. I thought I did pretty well.

“Now, go out and take it more slowly,” Sandro smiles.

So I go out and slide into another Maserati, this time the luxury Quattroporte. I pull the automatic gearbox's trident-emblazoned gear lever back into its sequential mode, pull the right paddle back to ensure first gear, release the handbrake and, with the track clear, send myself out like a pardoned criminal on to a better path.


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