The Good, the Mad & the Ugly

These are the three fastest road ferraris ever made. Each is incredible but, says Andrew Frankel, one is greatest of all

We came across a curve, arcing uphill to the right. The brakes were not needed. I watched the F40 as it turned in. There was no squat as it hit the compression before the hill nor discernable roll as it shrieked ahead and away. Cocooned in the GTO, turbochargers whistling gently, I felt the nose dip and the Goodyears squirm just a little before it, too, turned and settled into the corner. Happy the car was once more balanced, I squeezed open the throttle and felt again that thud as 366lb ft of torque rocketed the GTO up the hill and over the crest. It seemed quick to me, in isolation as quick as a road car could go. But the mirror had turned red. Having lost time to the unwanted attentions of other road users, the F50 was back and I, driving a Ferrari GTO, was holding it up.

It was one of those moments that, of all accrued during a day on the road in three such as these, lasted past the sublime warmth and comfort that came with journey’s end and lives on in that part of your brain reserved for those memories not to fade. At the time, I didn’t know why but I do now: in those few seconds the essential differences between these, the three fastest road cars Ferrari has ever built, became clear.

The island of Jersey, where these three live, has more Ferraris for each of its 45 square miles than most places have post boxes but, with a 40mph speed limit enforced by police and parish officials not noted for their leniency, it’s a lousy place to drive such machinery. If you want really to find out what cars such as these can do, it’s a good idea to derive your driving impressions somewhere you cannot break the national speed limit within three seconds of pulling away. This we did.

Freed from the shackles of such legislation, it seems natural at first to treat the GTO and F40 differently from the F50. Indeed, the temptation is to treat the F40 merely as a stillfaster GTO. The F40’s twin-turbo, 32-valve, quad-cam engine is, after all, no more than a 478bhp evolution of the 400bhp unit fitted to the GTO and both are, in turn, derived from same V8 motor to 308GT4 in 1974. Conversely, the pedigree of the F50’s 513bhp, 4.7-litre, 60-valve engine comes from the track, the 65deg V12 having started life in the back of Alain Prost’s 1990 Formula One car. As we shall see, these three do not sub-divide with anything like such cosy convenience.

The first surprise is that it is the F50, despite its radical carbon fibre construction, race-derived engine and highest power output of the three, is by far the easiest to drive fast. Cars capable of genuinely doing 200mph, from the McLaren F1 and XJ220 to the Lamborghini Diablo, are not devices even the unusually skilled can simply climb aboard and drive both quickly and safely. Each requires considerable experience and understanding if the potentially dire consequences of not knowing their natures are to be avoided. To date, the F50 is the sole exception to this rule. It is a car so sweet-natured that a sane and skilled driver will find, within hour or so on the right road, that the engine will be howling up to 8500rpm redline, the tail being prodded a shade out of line on route away from a second gear corner.

It grips stupendously, enough for a three-seconds-a-lap advantage over the F40 around Ferrari’s Fiorano track despite being clearly slower in a straight line. Yet so predictable is the engine’s flow of torque and progressively does it slide once the 335/30ZR18 rear Goodyears have lost purchase on the surface that even the low-geared steering provides no problem when rounding it up. Driving it in such a manner is uncannily a stress-free experience.

Further joy lies just where you do not expect it. It is wonderful even when driven slowly, thanks to Ferrari’s finest gearchange and a remarkably sensible driving position. The engine, once the bellowing monster, is now a smooth sophisticate keen to show, if you needed telling that 12 normally aspirated cylinders always have been and always will be the configuration of ideal choice.

And yet the F50 remains a curious device, one that’s unsure of its purpose. On the one hand, it is the most accessible of its sort ever built, one where ease of driving has been as high on the agenda as performance; yet it has been designed with next to no luggage space let alone anywhere to stow the roof when the sun shines. And if you leave the roof in place and you’re much over six foot, the F50 is driveable only in extreme discomfort.

The F40 has no such identity crisis. Ten years ago it provided the biggest buzz the automotive world has ever offered and, in my experience to date, it remains unrivalled. Even the McLaren F1, so much faster though it is, is less likely to make you hyperventilate. It may be only clad in carbon fibre but, make no mistake, the F40 is the real racing car here.

Oddly, the fact that it is more accelerative than the F50 plays no real part here. Pure power to weight mathematics will tell you that, traction and gear ratios willing, if the F50 will reach 60mph in under 4sec, which it will with contemptuous ease, then the F40 will go a tenth or two quicker. Both need less than 8sec to reach 100mph and, unlike the GTO, both feel rather faster than sense tells you should be right for the public road.

The difference lies in the F40’s engine manners. It has none. Recalcitrant, sulky and indifferent to the car below 4000rpm, when the kick comes from those two IHI turbos, your first instinct is often to lift off the throttle at the same time. Usually you will be right to do so for the F40 will take you to the realm of suicidal lunacy before most fast cars reach the speed limit. Sometimes though, and you pick your moments with care in an F40, the conditions will be right and you will let it run, throwing gear after gear at the engine to see them devoured in an insatiable feeding frenzy. This is a uniquely addictive experience, more savage and concentrated by far than that provided by the urbane F50.

The surprise, then, is the chassis. Remember that is a car from the era where its two-seat stablemates were the Testarossa and 328, both cars that subscribed to the hoary old Ferrari tenet about buying the engine and the rest coming free: both did strange things on the limit. The F40 does not. No, it won’t cuddle you quite like the F50 and, yes, if you abuse the privilege it affords your God had indeed better be a good one; but play it straight and the F40 will not bite. Drench the rear 335/35 Pirelli Zeros with torque in a tight turn and they will kick sideways at considerable speed, but the ensuing catch is easier to judge and execute than you’d credit. In faster curves the wishbone suspension, common to these three and every Ferrari of the modem era, is tuned to make it understeer just a touch while the steering, sublime in both feel and precision, keeps you in lucid touch with conditions underfoot.

Like the F50, the F40 is utterly impractical but at least it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Though it changes gear well and the driving position is suitable for the all-in wrestling often required for driving it fast, the ride is so harsh and the cabin so noisy that it’s almost a relief to discovery the absence of luggage space, meaning that long distance travel is out of the question.

Remarkably, given its comparatively sober suit, it is the GTO that is the real enigma of this trio. The first thing you should know about the GTO is that, in its own way, it is as captivating as the other two, despite the fact that it would need as much as another second to reach 60mph and a further two to crack 100mph. This has nothing to do with its rarity, though just 272 were built, compared with 349 F50s and perhaps 1100 F40s. It is also, in one respect, very much better than either F-car and, in another, considerably worse.

Climb aboard and the cabin wraps around you like a favourite coat. Where, in the F40 and F50, all you see is bare carbon fibre, the GTO has leather, carpets and even electric windows. Under the bonnet there is space for specially tailored Ferrari luggage. In this respect, it resembles fully the 308 upon which it seems based.

In fact, the GTO has little to do with the 308: only its doors are common to both. It’s longer in the wheelbase, wider in the beam and points its engine longitudinally along the bay, not transversely across it. And unlike the latterly steel 308, the GTO was built using the most advanced composite materials of the day, such as carbon fibre and Kevlar, meaning it was lighter too, by 114kg. It’s a special car, at first the most appealing to the eye (though, with familiarity, the F40 will eclipse it) and, you’d suspect, the easiest to drive.

This is not so. The GTO is a car which needs watching, in a way that the F50 and even the F40 do not. Most obviously, it puts a lot less rubber on the road, its 255/50 Goodyear Eagles looking thin compared to the covers boasted by its descendants. That this means less grip and inferior braking is true but not the point. What matters more is that the rear-end breakway is less predictable despite the inevitably lower speeds at which it occurs.

What might be an amusing shrug in the F50 or a joyously self-contained slide in the F40 has the potential to prove a serious moment in the GTO.

All this means is that you treat the GTO with more caution and make sure everything is pointing in the right direction before letting it rip up to its 7700rpm redline. Driven thus, it is a ceaseless pleasure and, thanks to its ability to transport its occupants in comfort, one which is likely to last longer on each occasion than either F40 or F50.

It is a fair measure of these cars to note that Ferrari’s fastest new flagship, the 550 Maranello, lacks the power to weight ratio of the slowest car here, the 13-year-old GTO. Even among Ferraris, these three are as special as Ferraris among Fords.

Choice says you would, of course, have all three.

For while they were never contemporaries, none represents a merely updated version of another. You’d have the GTO for flashing down the South of France, an F40 for that short-duration kick, as likely on the track as anywhere else, and an F50 for sublime day trips on the finest roads in the land.

Deciding which is best is therefore not an issue. Depending on your purpose, one will inevitably prove more suitable. Technically, however, I admire the F50 most. Visually it’s not a patch on the older cars but its aim to provide 200mph performance in an unfailingly user-friendly package is not just worthy but also executed with stunning success. In addition, the use of that V12 motor lends it a pedigree no other contemporary can match.

After such an experience, it would be easy to sound patronising about the GTO, dynamically inferior in every way to its successors as it is. Yet even in this company, it makes a fine case for itself as a beautiful, usable supercar with performance, lest we forget, which would still leave almost any conventional supercar made today choking in its dust. Flawed it may be, utterly desirable it is too.

Which leaves the F40, least rare and, in today’s market, cheapest by far. It is also the quickest and, by an unlikely factor, the most exciting. This is important. When you look at these three fastest Ferraris, it is clear each has a different agenda. So, in the end, you resort rightly to your own agenda and judge what is the most important commodity that such cars should provide. It is a personal thing but, as I asked myself the question time after time, excitement came back as the answer. And it is in its ability to generate such excitement yet leave behind the fear which so often follows that makes it unique, not simply among such stablemates but also among all road cars.

Enzo Ferrari always used to say that the finest Ferrari was the one he had not yet made. It is fitting therefore that, among all the wondrous road cars he built, there is none finer than the F40. It was the last one he saw.

Our sincere thanks to the staff of Melbourne Garage (01534 862709), sole importer of Ferraris into the Channel Islands, for helping to make this feature possible.