Internal Combustion: On Ferrari

illustration by Tom Ralston

The study of substances and natures. What differentiates various materials from one another, and what purposes they are each suited for. Every material, be it organic, metallic, or synthetic has distinct properties, and these matter. Brittleness. Melting point. Conductivity. Plasticity. Thermal expansion. The stress and strain that a material can encounter before it bends or fractures or collapses. Fatigue limit. And of course weight, density. Optical and tactile qualities. Roughness versus smoothness, reflectivity, color. 

The materials of Michael Mann’s Ferrari are metal and fire and force, willpower and obsession. In the film Enzo Ferrari (Adam Driver) speaks of “the nature of metal,” his stock in trade. Metal is strong yet pliable, ready to be molded, ready to shine. Enzo bears his own nature: equally strong, but far less bendable. His wife, Laura (Penélope Cruz), has the only will stronger than his, and the force of their frequent clashes creates a searing heat.

The structure of Ferrari is as compact and powerful as one of Enzo’s gorgeous racecars, as Mann’s film collapses on a narrow stretch of 1957. Ferrari has lost some races, lost some drivers, and is losing money at a staggering rate. Something has to change or the company will have to be sold. This pressure weighs on Enzo, who bears it all with a Stoic insistence on his success. But these pressures collide, and ignite, with his domestic concerns—his fractured marriage, the isolating grief of his son’s death, his infidelity.

All of these build to the 1957 Mille Miglia, a thousand-mile race across the Italian countryside. Mann’s cinematographic technique is on full display, particularly in the race scenes. The camera is precise yet lustful, caressing the cars as they rocket through villages. There’s a contagious thrill inflected with troubling doubts. What, exactly, is the nature of Enzo? Just how brittle is his Stoic demeanor? How much strain can his marriage take? The race will become a triumph—or the point when the whole structure collapses.

Mechanics

An object at rest stays at rest, unless otherwise disturbed. In Ferrari, nothing is restful. Let us then revise: An object in motion stays in motion. Unless acted on by an external force, the object moves in the same direction at the same speed toward the same end. An arrow speeds toward its target, whatever that target may be.

Mechanics, sometimes referred to as dynamics, traces these trajectories and the relationships between them. In its downstream studies such as kinematics, mechanics has expanded humanity’s knowledge to the movement of the cosmos, allowing us to map the orbits of planets, the dance of galaxies, and the arcs of comets. It has fed our understanding and our awe alike in staggering ways.

But the arrow must hit a target; what rises must fall. The apple hits Newton on the head. A gun fires, lodging bullets in the wall. The car spurs into the crowd. The science of collision is sleight of hand as practical study. It is the peak of euphemism. An object speeds along a path that intersects with another object, this one at rest. They are distinct and independent, unaware of each other. For the briefest of moments, they unify and become a strange amalgamation in spurious harmony. Then the pause is shattered, and the objects careen away from each other, the second object no longer still. Each thrown from its course in scattered directions.

Assume that the objects remain whole, neither one fracturing, losing itself, nor deforming into something unrecognizable. Assume we don’t know what these objects are—the blessed detachment of science.

Enzo Ferrari knows that there will be crashes. Cars will be destroyed, lives will be terminated. Despite surviving World War II, he never likens racing to battle. Perhaps he knows it’s just business. The crash he fears most is an economic one, the collision he wishes to avoid, that of his will against another who would own the company that bears his name. Any other wreckage is collateral, which is why he instills his drivers with “brutal determination, a cruel emptiness.” 

The racers are given an elementary lesson in mechanics after a disappointing race. “Two objects cannot occupy the same point in space at the same moment in time,” Enzo tells them. He says this in reproach, hoping that they will demonstrate the sort of brutal determination to occupy that space and to force competitors to back away. If only one can hold that space, be the stronger force. Drive your line and make them brake, even when it means hurtling straight toward that curve.

Thermodynamics

Of course, with 250 odd years of Newton’s laws and the aid of modern technology, we can stack the box in our favor. Enzo’s not designing arrows, he’s designing cars. In want of a bit of power to get us in motion, let’s throw an engine in there.

The 335 S, one of the racecars Ferrari entered into the 1957 Mille Miglia, boasted a V12 engine with nearly four hundred horsepower. The phrase “internal combustion engine” manages some sleight of hand of its own. What’s really being discussed is fire and explosion, created and maintained by the machine. The thermal energy is transferred into kinetic energy, propelling the car with tremendous force, wrapped in metal, the grease wiped away, buried under fiberglass and paint. But nothing occurs without that fire. Technologies don’t allow people to transcend their elements; only to harness them. Or try to. 

Politics

The Enzo of Ferrari is embroiled in power struggles in many arenas. Publicly, his crosstown rival Maserati is his biggest foe. Despite the prestige attached to Ferrari, at the start of 1957, the company’s finances are in decline. Enzo is pressured to sell by his advisers, but selling would mean giving up control. The Mille Miglia, and the broader World Sportscar Championship, is his chance to reclaim power. Win, capitalize on the victory to sell more cars, and he’ll be in the clear.

The racetrack becomes Enzo’s Colosseum, the investors and press lions hungry to devour. But his home is the more perilous arena. As the film opens, Enzo rises silently from bed so as to not wake the woman sleeping next to him. It’s a familiar domestic scene, but we soon realize the woman is not his wife. Enzo returns home to find his wife, Laura, furious at his absence. Laura knows that he cheats. What she doesn’t know is that Enzo now only cheats with one woman, Lina (Shailene Woodley). What will eventually demolish her is the discovery of Enzo and Lina’s son, Piero.

Enzo and Laura collide constantly. Laura was long ago given half ownership of Ferrari, and the company strife forces Enzo to ask her to hand her rights over to him. She rebuts him, demands half a million in payment. But the harshest terms of the deal are dictated after she discovers his son: she forbids Enzo from publicly recognizing Piero for as long as she lives. 

Laura’s fury comes from a clear, fresh wound. Their son, Dino, died in his early 20s, stripping her and Enzo of their remnant joy. The realization that Enzo has another heir marks, to her, a vicious betrayal against Dino’s memory. In turn, this pits Piero in a power struggle against a brother he never knew and never will. Piero is forced into the role of an unknowing Abel, undone by spite. The fact that his Cain is dead does little to prevent the violence against him.

World History

Enzo’s Italy was a country jarred by the vicissitudes of the twentieth century. After the destruction of the First World War, fascism began to sprout from the seeds of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s leadership. D’Annunzio leveraged his poetry, journalism, and wartime heroics to spark a blaze of fervent nationalism that spread through Italy. The torch would be picked up and carried by Mussolini, a journalist himself before ascending to dictator. Mussolini’s rule borrowed the symbols and sense of destiny from the Roman Empire: a strategic, alluring, and successful choice.

Fascism subsumed Italian ways of life until fascism itself fractured during World War II. Ferrari’s factories were commanded to support the war effort, becoming targets of bombing raids. The woozy highs of nationalism, combined with a sharp defeat in the war, created a whiplash. Who wouldn’t have experienced tenuous delight in the graceful, powerful machines begotten by Ferrari and Maserati? They were the finest cars in the world. 

Across the Atlantic, while Ferrari’s factories were being bombed, even more powerful bombs were being created. Enzo’s insistence that no two objects can occupy the same point in space was being challenged by the upstart field of quantum mechanics. A racecar and an atomic bomb are machines aimed toward very different ends, but Ferrari, when considered alongside Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, reveals a shared nature. Each depicts obsession in a technological tenor. Each film chronicles the acts of a man whose political pursuits blind him to the human cost. Each challenges the worship of machine and technique. Enzo Ferrari’s creations were impressive and destructive on a much smaller scale than Robert Oppenheimer’s. But that doesn’t mean they weren’t destructive.

Philosophy

In The Technological Society, the philosopher Jacques Ellul warned against the totalitarian effects of an all-encompassing drive toward efficiency which he referred to as technique. The idea of technique goes beyond the actual development of technology, though the fixation on new technology certainly acts as a catalyst for it. Technique is an integrating spirit, adapting humanity to “a world of steel” so that we “can be a part of it without colliding with its rough edges.”

The direction here is the key: machines are not being adapted to the human world, but the opposite. The world of steel is a new world, and it’s one that is increasingly hostile to, or at least unsuited for, nature. “Technique is opposed to nature… It destroys, eliminates, or subordinates the natural world.” Hannah Arendt unraveled this even further in The Human Condition, pointedly stating that the question is “whether machines still serve the world and its things, or if, on the contrary, they and the automatic motion of their processes have begun to rule and even destroy world and things.”

Ellul and Arendt both saw the “automatic motion of [technology’s] processes” as destructive, but they were perhaps more troubled by its seductive force. At its most extreme, this aspect leads to a frightening dissonance. Ellul wrote that “nothing equals the perfection of our war machines.” He didn’t mean it as a compliment. In fact, that seduction can and has been a social tool of despots and nations looking to hawk war. D’Annunzio and the later Italian Fascists traded on it. But it’s not only our enemies. The desire manifested by sleek new technology provides a hell of a marketing campaign for our worst designs.

Ellul and Arendt insist that the spirit of technique has permeated our entire culture, from government regimes to corporate middle management, from pop culture to the home, from crowded cities to rural farmlands. We’ve bought into it. But we can no longer pretend to be naïve, as Arendt’s warns. “We are perhaps the first generation which has become fully aware of the murderous consequences inherent in a line of thought that forces one to admit that all means, provided that they are efficient, are permissible and justified to pursue something defined as an end.” Those words were first published in 1958, one year after the events of Ferrari and the final Mille Miglia

Psychology

I crossed the small street from the theater to the parking lot, lost in my thoughts on Ferrari. I unlocked my car, got inside, and readied my keys to turn the ignition. But then I hesitated. Just about every racing movie I’ve seen in life has left me with a bit of a heavy foot when leaving, for the impulse to throttle through the streets is apparently contagious. I realized in that moment that no film had ever made me afraid to drive. 

In his later years, Freud’s analysis moved away from purely libidinal concerns and, in their place, emphasized the death drive. This framework articulated a “pressure towards death” that lay as a subterranean force beneath the ego, unseen but cavernous. The death drive pushed Freud and his analysis beyond his pet sexual psychoanalysis (which was always more popularly thrilling than it was convincing). It pushed humanity into aggression that tilted toward self-destruction. A missed curve, a tumble from the road; and, in the very moment before the collision, a momentary and shattering exhilaration. 

The death drive may ultimately be no more convincing than the sex drive as a framework for understanding humanity, but it’s a compelling basis for big budget storytelling. Ferrari’s title is perfect, but if a different title were needed, it’d be hard to come up with one more apt than Death Drive.

Enzo constantly teeters on the precipice of self-destruction, yet that’s precisely what makes him the right man for his role. He is a racer at heart. As he tells his crew before the Mille Miglia, racing is their “terrible joy.” The next race offers victory, but it may hold death—racers have died before, and racers will die again. Still they race. This is a bond they share with Enzo, and they respect him for it. 

Yes, others watch the race in excitement, but who else could intimately understand the need to keep pushing the pedal, to hold out before braking for the turn, to risk death at a moment and do so repeatedly for a thousand miles? The onlookers could never be so psychologically honest as to admit the impulse.

Human Factors

The study of human factors begins with a basic acknowledgement, though one too easily overlooked: everything that we create must interact with humans. Technology for technology’s sake is a mere illusion. Everything is created for some purpose, and those purposes always engage with our lives—we do not know how to create in a way that doesn’t relate back to us.

At its simplest, human factors turn our attention toward the operation of a machine—is that lever in reach, and is the force required to pull it achievable? If a driver will be in the car for ten and a half hours (a mere three minutes longer than it took the victorious Piero Taruffi to complete the Mille Miglia), the seat must be made to accommodate at least some level of comfort. The pedals must be responsive, the shifter intuitively placed.

But if human factors are to encompass the full scope of interaction between humanity and technology, then we must broaden our understanding. What does the roaring sound of the Ferrari 335 S instill in a crowd of onlookers as it speeds by at well over a hundred miles per hour? How does bearing witness to such majestic technological mastery—such dynamism in sleek Ferrari red—inspire a child who lives on a farm in the countryside, whose life is marked by simplicity and austerity? What occurs when the car and the crowd attempt to occupy the same space? This instant annihilates our scientific detachment. The car arrives with greater force by orders of magnitude. The nature of metal is too strong, too pliable, when opposed to the nature of flesh. Man, woman; adult, child; fearful, oblivious. It doesn’t matter. Limbs are amputated, organs and bones crushed. 

When the world of steel collides with the human world, the rough edges are inescapable. Technique overpowers and tears at the fabric of the natural world—of the human world. Or perhaps this is what we secretly longed for: that moment we finally tilt over the precipice, feel the ground rush toward us, satisfy that masochistic urge. The driver, Alfonso de Portago, was pushing the car toward 150 miles per hour when it crashed, and he would take ten others with him, nine of whom merely wanted to cheer on the race. In a profile shortly before the Mille Miglia, de Portago reassured the New York Times that his brutal determination would not be the cause of his death. His friend Edmund Nelson disagreed, predicting that the young de Portago wouldn’t make thirty. The death drive won out: Nelson was the navigator for de Portago’s car on the day of the Mille Miglia. His body was torn in two as the 335 S crumpled, catapulted, and crashed down.

Mann films the sequence in its full horror. We flip from the exhilaration of speeding cars to breathless shock. We see the bodies and their fragments strewn across the grass. The film continues to document what comes next: Ferrari’s crew claims the top three spots in the race, and Enzo is assailed by investigators and the press. But in a way, Ferrari never cuts from that fatal image. Its faint ghost is felt on every frame after, still whispering in my mind when I got back to my car, readied my keys, and stopped—