Every time Ferrari produces a new 12-cylinder two-seat flagship the motoring media pounces on the opportunity to proclaim it the new Daytona. It was fair enough with the Boxer because it literally was, but none that followed – from the Testarossa past the 512TR, F512M, 550 Maranello to the 575M – ever really held the title with any conviction.
The 365 GTB/4 that become known as the Daytona wasn’t just the next in a line, it was a car on another level from any Ferrari that had gone before. Compared with the 275 GTB/4 that preceded the Daytona, its 4.4-litre motor had more than a litre of extra displacement and was capable of pushing the car through the air at 174mph, and that wasn’t a creatively imagined Ferrari 174mph, but an independently timed and verified 174mph. The 275 GTB/4 wouldn’t see 160mph.
It’s a bandwagon I jumped upon back in 2006 when Ferrari launched the 599 GTB, because I saw at last a car that advanced its art to a similar extent as had the Daytona in 1968. More than 100bhp more powerful than its 575M predecessor, the 599 GTB seemed to be proof that Ferrari had at last made its next, Daytona-sized jump. And I guessed it would be another generation before Ferrari felt either able or inclined to make such a step again.
It’s taken just six years. The F12berlinetta (that’s Ferrari’s house style, not mine) represents the single largest leap forward not just in its 12-cylinder models, but any road car in its history save perhaps the occasional F40/F50/Enzo series which spends far more time out of production than in. The F12 has 730bhp, an increase of 119bhp over the 599GTB, the largest ever power gain from one model of Ferrari to the next. But the car is also lighter, stiffer and smaller in every direction.
Yet some things have remained the same. Like the 275GTB all those years ago, the F12 still has a normally aspirated V12 engine and it’s still located under the bonnet. Similarly, while its gearbox may have seven gears and be operated by paddles rather than a gear lever, it’s still found between the rear wheels, just like a 275 or Daytona. And, of course, there’s room inside for just two people. A family Ferrari this is not.
I was wary of it at first, as anyone hoping to take it to the limit and bring it back again in one piece must be when given a single day with the car. What would 730bhp feel like when directed through only the rear wheels of a car weighing just 1630kg? Ultra-powerful rear-wheel-drive cars sound like heaven on earth but without the traction to cope they are frustrating at best, dangerous at worst.
Would you be surprised to learn that, so long as the road is straight and smooth, the F12 will take all that power in first gear? Correctly it actually feels quite soft at the back, and as the torque pours into the rear axle and those vast Michelins start to take the strain, you can feel the springs squeezing, taking up the slack as the car starts to move forward. In an instant you’re in another postcode, so you stop and take stock. The F12 has proven it not only has the power, but the ability to use it. The basics are covered, but there is much work still to be done.
In truth, when owners are at the wheel most of that work will not be conducted with the throttle in the carpet. Like its forbears dating back to the 275GTB and beyond, Maranello’s flagship actually has to be its most compromised product. While the 458 can focus on pure sporting excellence and the four-wheel-drive FF on providing some kind of ultimate GT experience, the F12 must place feet in both camps. It has not only to be thrilling in the mountains, it must also be quiet, comfortable, spacious and cosseting on the way there.
Here Ferrari has done outstanding work. It is true the cabin is not as sophisticated as you might hope for a car costing a quarter of a million pounds, the very least even a customer who’s uncommonly parsimonious with the options will actually end up paying. It’s too derivative of other Ferraris costing far less, too full of plastics you’d not want on any six-figure car. But it is a comfortable cabin. The seats are far more supportive than they look and offer space aplenty for even very tall drivers. Visibility in all directions is superb for such an extreme supercar and the driving environment reasonably ordered, though I do wish they’d desist from cluttering the steering wheel with buttons: it makes owners look like sad wannabe F1 drivers, something I’d not appreciate were I in the market for such a car.
But it’s an incredibly soothing car to drive slowly, given its potential. It’s not like a 458 in which every moment not spent driving fast is a moment wasted. The F12 offers respectable ride comfort and remarkable refinement, such that if you choose to waft along with everyone else, you can almost forget the nature of the beast under the bonnet providing your motive force. This may be one of the car’s more subtle strengths, but it’s actually probably its most important and, in many ways, impressive.
It also means that once you do find the right piece of road or track, and switch the manettino from default ‘sport’ to ‘race’, the transformation in the car’s character from svelte cruiser into cruise missile seems all the more pronounced.
I’ll state now that the only reason I felt happy about driving the F12 fast in public was the immense confidence it inspired. I can remember as if it were yesterday my first really quick run in a McLaren F1, and the feeling of utter relief I felt at climbing out and handing the key back to McLaren at the end. Driving it, I found, was essentially an exercise in saintly restraint occasionally punctuated by brief periods of the most furious activity. The F12 is not like this. The performance it offers and the pleasure it gives may be less intense, but it is more easily accessed and capable of being enjoyed for far longer periods of time.
I’d also not expected it to feel compact, but it does – especially compared with the outsized and consequently unwieldy FF. I didn’t like the steering thanks to the rack’s needlessly high gearing, but the chassis itself is endlessly reassuring. You can thread it through gaps and not worry that its reactions might become inconsistent even when you’re driving it very fast indeed. Its balance and poise are outstanding and if there’s an apex to be had, it’ll sniff it out. The limitation of two-wheel drive and a front-engine configuration was always going to mean the engine/chassis balance would be tipped in the favour of the motor, but it never feels actually overpowered.
Later and at Fiorano I found out some other things about the true nature of the F12. In electronics-off extremis, it’s actually not a very easy car to drive. In person and on paper it looks like a car that was born to drift, but it’s not. As already discovered, overcoming its traction is commendably difficult so when the tail starts to move, it does so quickly. Actually, with practice you can balance it right on or fractionally over the adhesion limit, which is the nicest way to drive it on the track because the car’s going quickly without requiring a lot of physical effort; but if you try to boss it about and abuse it, it’ll bite and bite hard.
Oddly, I quite like that side to its character. It is appropriate that, having provided a car which goes out of its way to look after you with its electronic safety nets, massive carbon- ceramic brakes, excellent grip and stupendous traction, the F12 should still present an edginess to those who elect to tear down the fences and give it a prod. I don’t actually want a Ferrari to be that easy to drive: I want at least the illusion that the skill of the driver is part of what’s needed to make this car go properly quickly. The F12 makes that pact with you.
Which is just one more reason why it is such a mesmerising car. Understandably the fact that it is the fastest, most powerful Ferrari in history is what has been occupying the headline writers of late. A Fiorano lap time almost 2sec ahead of an Enzo helps too. But they miss this car’s true appeal, which is to package that potential into a form that can be either a genuinely capable tourer, a truly challenging track car and every single thing in between.
So let’s return to the big question. Is the F12 merely the latest and one of the more deserving candidates for the title of ‘the new Daytona?’ The answer is no, but only because to call the F12 ‘the new Daytona’ is actually to slightly undersell it.
Engine: 6.3 litres, 12 cylinders, petrol
Top Speed: Over 211mph
Power: 730bhp at 6400rpm
Fuel/co2: 18.8mpg, 350g/km