Everyone makes mistakes. But some are more humiliating than others—just ask the guy who recently turned a Gemballa Mirage GT into an $800,000 wrecking ball in downtown Manhattan. The heavily modified Porsche lost control at high speed, pinballing into several parked cars before its owner received a considerably milder ride in an NYPD cruiser. The annihilation was captured on multiple cameras and quickly spread on social media, sparking a firestorm of schadenfreude and speculation.
No automotive genre is quite as sensational as supercars. And the instantaneous destruction of these six, sometimes seven-figure, cars triggers the full gamut of human emotion, from revulsion to glee. Why do exotic-car drivers seem to lose control so often, inflicting untold damage to private property, and sometimes human life?
“These cars make people feel like superstars,” says Rob Ferretti, owner of Gotham Dream Cars, a multi-city firm that has conducted over 20,000 exotic car rentals over the last 17 years. He adds: “Just because you feel like Michael Schumacher doesn’t mean you can drive like him. With a lot of these guys, there’s big egos with these cars, and they make you feel invincible.”
It’s not that rarified sports cars wreck any more frequently than pedestrian rides. It’s that when they do, the optics are spectacular. “The good thing about doing this much business is that we’ve got lots of data,” Ferretti notes. “I can tell you that I see about 1.5 significant accidents per 1,000 rentals. That shows you, most of the people are going to be fine.”
Perhaps. But what about the repeat offenders that own, or are exposed to, exotic cars on a regular basis, like that Gemballa driver whose New York run-in wasn’t his first (or even second) high-speed public shaming? At least in the rental world, according to Ferretti, “you start to see patterns.” For instance, he cites manual transmission-equipped versions of the Porsche 911 GT3, a track-oriented variant of the popular sports car, as a car that has attracted a disproportionate amount of drama. “We’ve had three [GT3s] totaled, and I was just at a loss. It isn’t a big horsepower car and it’s got tons of grip,” he says. “A manual car is just less forgiving than a [automatic transmission] paddle shift car.”
By most accounts, modern supercar hardware is often to blame—not for failing, necessarily, but rather because their complex stability control systems work so seamlessly that they can make the driver feel like they are more in control than they might actually be. Once the limits of available grip are surpassed, the results can be dramatic, triggering a sequence of potentially dangerous events that unfold rapidly in lightweight, high-powered cars. Another common practice is switching off the car’s electronic nannies with the (usually) mistaken belief that you can outperform the computers. “Just the fact that they turn traction control off [reflects a feeling that], ‘There’s no way I’m going to have this car restrict me from showing everybody how awesome I am,’” Ferretti says. He also reveals that mishaps are often accompanied by finger pointing to the equipment: “It’s usually the same thing: ‘Oh, the brakes failed.’ I think 100 out of 100 times, the car turned out to be operating perfectly fine. I have yet, in my 17 years of doing this, to find that the car was actually to blame.”
That said, exotics are not your father’s mild-mannered car—or even his nostalgic mid-life crisis roadster. Even if brand new or meticulously maintained, blustery mechanical personalities can flare up. Consider entrepreneur and online personality Alejandro Salomon, whose 2.4 million Instagram followers tune in for his supercar adventures. Salomon’s million-dollar McLaren Senna (which he reveals cost him an additional half-million dollars on top of the sticker price) was only 11 days old when it caught fire. He says the incident occurred while driving slowly on a residential street, after a warning light indicated that the nose lift system had a fault. While the internet responded with predictable skepticism, Salomon says he wasn’t pleased with McLaren’s treatment of the situation until it later changed its tune, perhaps because his wasn’t the only Senna to suffer the fiery fate. Despite the harrowing experience, the resident of Calabasas, Calif., says he still has a soft spot for the brand. Would he buy another? “To be honest, I f*****g adore those cars. There’s nothing like them on the road.” Salomon likens his affection to an abusive relationship, a familiar trope in the supercar microcosm. “Unfortunately, that’s the truth,” he admits.
Opinions abound about which exotics suffer the most collisions, and why. Ted Taormina has been working with high-end sports cars since he imported and federalized Lamborghinis and Ferraris to the United States in the late 1980s. He currently owns and operates Taormina Imports, a Silicon Valley shop that services and repairs high-end sports cars. He offers a unique perspective on so-called analog supercars: Taormina is the record holder for top speed achieved in a Cobra, hitting 201.1 mph in his Superformance MKIII. “McLaren is one of the best self-driving cars out there,” he (half) jokes. “You can jump into one, sip your coffee, and run the same lap times as a go kart or whatever. These cars are defying the laws of physics. But what happens when they do finally crash? The results are catastrophic. These cars are seeing impacts that are really, really treacherous.” Taormina’s perception also seems to be informed by his Silicon Valley location, which exposes him to a particularly tech-focused clientele, many of whom treat driving sports cars like “playing a video game.”
“There are certain cars, the [Dodge] Vipers, the [Porsche] Carrera GT and GT2, that have a reputation because they’re not for amateurs… they take a certain amount of skill to drive well,” Ferretti offers. “The more capable the weapon, the more likely somebody is to hurt themselves, or potentially misuse it.” On top of that, he adds, “The qualification isn’t the skill level, it’s your pocket book… and the reason some of these cars have that reputation is because they’re a bit of a handful.”
A Porsche Carrera GT famously figured in the untimely death of actor Paul Walker in 2013. The car was being driven by financial advisor, race driver, and friend Roger Rodas, when it lost control, hit a tree and power lines, and burst into flames. The 10-cylinder roadster already had a notorious reputation for tricky handling at the limit; some 200 of the 1,270 Carrera GTs ever built were reportedly totaled during the first two years the model was sold. The fact that Walker’s 2005 Carrera GT was on its original tires only exacerbated the potential for disaster. Any tires, but particularly ultra-high-performance examples, have an expiration date; the eight-year-old rubber was well beyond its recommended usage window. Combined with an estimated impact speed between 80 and 93 mph, Walker and Rodas didn’t stand a chance.
On top of the obvious threat to life and limb, high-end sports car can incur massive financial implications when things go south. Even minor fender benders can produce hefty repair bills due to the advanced engineering and space age materials used in their construction. “One customer took his [Ferrari] F430 Scuderia out in cold weather on 10-year-old tires,” recalls Taormina. “He slid and hit the curb at maybe 35 or 40 mph, which broke the wheel and shattered the carbon ceramic brake. The repair bill was $65,000.” Bigger hits can easily yield six-figures worth of damage, and there’s no shortage of outwardly immaculate examples circulating in the used market that hide a multitude of sins beneath their glossy skins.
Andrew Zalasin, a well-regarded driver of classic and contemporary supercars, recalls one close encounter with a low-mileage Carrera GT he was considering purchasing (the Bay Area resident currently owns several GTs). “I had BBi [a Southern California–based performance tuner specializing in Porsches] inspect it, and when they took the bottom pans off, parts hadn’t been torqued down, there was rust, and the welds in the [carbon-fiber] footwell looked like a chop shop did it. It had been hit hard.” Though accident history is typically reported to Carfax when damage is repaired, Zalasin points out: “There’s an underground world of people who repair these things off the record. Unless you know what you’re doing, you’re going to get screwed.”
According to Zalasin, older race cars, particularly rare, high-profile examples like Ferrari 250 GTOs and Jaguar D-Types, can get repaired with “very little diminution of value. But a lot of the exotics— the [Ferrari] F40s and F50s, the [McLaren] Sennas and P1s, are repaired off the grid. The Carrera GT is a shining example,” he says, adding that repair damage can subtract as much as $300,000 to $400,000 from the overall value of the car, which can surpass $1 million.
Zalasin urges those in the market to hunt down so-called “and” not “but” cars—a race car with factory competition history, and notable drivers, and wins, not a car that seemed solid but didn’t have the original engine, but was crashed and repaired, etc. “It’s a massive issue,” he insists. “In down markets, but cars will kill you, and might not be saleable at any price.”
When it comes to repairing wrecked exotics, a broad range of options are available, from those under-the-table shenanigan to fully certified factory operations. While many mainstream supercar dealerships like Lamborghini, Ferrari, McLaren, and the like are trained to handle repairs and paintwork, some outsource collision work to reputable local shops. That said, sticking with factory-sponsored repairs does have its benefits. For instance, Ferrari Certified parts come with a two-year warranty, and sticking with dealership-supplied regular service will automatically grant a car Classiche status, essentially the brand’s certification stamp of approval for models at least 20 years old. Repairs on higher profile models of any brand can require special attention: For instance, owners often air-freight cars back to their factories of origin in Europe for reconstructive work, or to independent specialists who possess particular familiarity with certain marque’s and their models.
Carbon-fiber components often require x-ray radiography to fully understand the extent of the damage, ensuring that repairs are thorough and complete. Lamborghini was the world’s first carmaker to receive certification from TÜV, Germany’s safety standard, for its carbon-fiber repair work, and boutique brands like Pagani and Koenigsegg offer similarly specialized service. Some carmakers also send technicians, so-called “flying doctors” directly to the crashed car in question for evaluation and potential on-the-spot repairs.
Perhaps the ultimate high-profile supercar misadventures involved actor Rowan Atkinson and his McLaren F1, which he crashed twice during his 17 years of ownership. The F1 is widely considered the holy grail of ultra-rare hypercars, with only 64 road-going examples in existence. And while McLaren will repair virtually any of its offerings at dealerships, including the nearly $1 million Senna, the F1 requires special treatment, according to a rep for the marque. Company policy dictates that only the MSO (McLaren Special Operations) facility in Woking, UK, and the F1 Service Center operated at McLaren Philadelphia are authorized to service the car. As for Atkinson’s twice-wrecked vehicle, which he purchased in 1997 for a high six-figure sum, the car was made right the second time around following a factory-executed overhaul at MSO that reportedly cost his insurance company $1.4 million.
But its colored history didn’t have an ill-effect on the F1’s overall value. In fact, it’s a rare example of how extensive repair work can produce a better-than-new specimen, as evidenced by the fact that Atkinson sold it in 2015 for $12 million. “I drove that car,” Zalasin remarks of the dark burgundy McLaren. “It’s the best driving F1 out there,” an opinion that has been echoed unanimously by the half dozen or so others who have sampled the car—proof that the ignominy of dishonor can also bring with it a small silver lining of redemption.