Ultimate track day machines
It is unlikely you’d be reading this if you had not first been enthralled by the battles fought out between Ferrari and Porsche over the years and decades on pages such as this. I was first hooked by a comparison between the original 911 Turbo and a Ferrari 365GT BB as a 10-year-old in the mid-1970s and have never looked back.
Although they have studiously avoided competing with each other at the top level on the track (a works Ferrari last ran at Le Mans in 1973, while Porsche’s short-lived life as a fully fledged F1 constructor ended in 1962), on the road their paths cross frequently – much, I sense, to the satisfaction of one and the infuriation of the other.
Ferrari is so precious about its brand that, uniquely, it makes journalists sign a piece of paper promising we won’t compare its car with any other while attending its launch. So when I turned up at Maranello to drive the new F430 Scuderia and mentioned that later that week I’d be in Germany to drive Porsche’s equally new 911 GT2, I was met with a polite but pointed lack of interest. The contrast in Bremen five days later could not have been greater. You’ve driven the Scuderia? Tell us all about it.
Of the two, Porsche’s was the more understandable reaction. Either by careful planning or, more likely, quite staggering coincidence, the only two marques with a true claim to supercar royalty had arranged to launch their quickest ever road cars in the same week. For years now Ferrari has understandably quoted lap times of its Fiorano test track as the ultimate arbiter of the speed of its products, while Porsche cites pace around the old Nürburgring in much the same way. And the fact is that no production Porsche or Ferrari, not even the Carrera GT or Enzo, is as quick around its respective test tracks as the two driven here.
Really, it beggars belief. The 349-off, £425,000 Enzo was intended to encapsulate everything Ferrari had learned about how to make a car go fast, while the Carrera GT was a still-born Le Mans car, for heaven’s sake. Yet these two are merely modified versions of extant mainstream product and, at £131,070 for the Porsche and £172,500 for the Ferrari, cost a mere fraction of their esoteric, purpose-built stablemates. I’m not sure I have ever seen a more naked manifestation of progress.
But these two share more even than their position at the summit of their makers’ endeavours. Both use standard models as their basis and derive their performance not merely through raised power, but also reduced weight. The Ferrari weighs 1350kg (100kg less than the F430) and offers 510bhp, while the Porsche’s 1440kg (145kg below that of a Turbo) is largely offset by its superior 530bhp, leading to eerily similar power to weight ratios. To affect an absence of curiosity in such an opponent was, I thought, a trifle inelegant.
And the way the two companies choose to introduce these cars to people like me is, I felt, rather telling, too. Porsche provided a short and entirely uninteresting route for us to follow, whose only merit was a short stretch of unrestricted autobahn. This led to an airfield upon which we were not allowed to drive, but could be flung around by Walter Röhrl. But while some of my colleagues cooed over how the car handled such conditions, I am somewhat suspicious of passenger-seat evaluations and could deduce only that if driving talent counted towards sainthood, Walter would have been canonised years ago – which I already knew. And then, at the press conference, an audience made up exclusively of journalists whose first language was English was made to don headphones to listen to the translation from German of the presentation of its chief engineer. Who comes from Swansea.
The contrast to Ferrari’s approach could scarcely be more stark. Press conference, in English, in the pits at Fiorano whereupon you could choose to be scared witless on the track either by the conspicuously bright and clear-thinking F1 test driver Marc Gené or Ferrari’s legendary test driver, Dario Benuzzi. After that you could help yourself: no chaperone beside you, no rev limit to observe, just you, Fiorano and a Ferrari that changes gear in 60 milliseconds, which is faster than you can blink. After that we were sent out into the hills, onto the same test routes used by Ferrari, to thrash the Scuderia for as long as we reasonably liked.
But for all that brings these cars together in theory and on paper (the Ferrari takes 3.6sec to hit 62mph, the Porsche 0.1sec longer, the Scuderia does 198mph, the GT2 some 204mph) it is what sets them apart that is most striking. The Scuderia is a pure recreation, an absolutely outstanding synthesis of raw passion and cutting-edge technology, all the way from that gearbox and an engine that doesn’t quit until 8700rpm, to its titanium springs and traction control system that will keep the tyres on the edge of adhesion all the way from apex to exit regardless of how hard you stamp on the throttle. It is a dizzying, deafening orgy of automotive excess, as fabulous as it is occasionally frightening, as rewarding as it is tiring.
The GT2 is scarcely less civilised than the standard 911 which provides its basis and costs less than half as much. It’s an eminently practical everyday car and so civilised you can converse at 190mph without significantly raising your voice. Or so I’m told. You can see out of it perfectly at any junction and whatever luggage won’t fit in the boot will slot nicely into the space vacated by the rear seats. I don’t think another car has ever been built that puts such shattering pace into such a usable and unintimidating package. And I’ll happily bet its running costs will compare very favourably to that of the Ferrari.
So the truth is, and for all their apparent similarities, the two are not strictly comparable. But you’ll still be wanting to know which I preferred, and the answer is the Ferrari by far: for while I was impressed by the Porsche, I was moved by the Scuderia like I have been by very few cars.
Even so, neither is its creator’s best car. The Scuderia costs very little less than a 599GTB and while the front-engined V12 supercar may be a few tenths slower here or there than the Scuderia, it looks magnificent rather than slightly odd and you can use it for the sort of long-distance adventures we all dreamed of having in Ferraris when we were children. A Scuderia would do it, but the noise and its insatiable appetite for revs would soon boil your brain.
As for the GT2, it serves only to remind me what an astonishing accomplishment the GT3 is. It costs over £50,000 less, and where the GT2 has turbo lag, a muffled sound and a rev limit of about 6800rpm, the GT3 has throttle response to match the Scuderia, an even better sound and will rev past 8000rpm. It may not be quite as quick on paper but it has a vibrancy and urgency that the slightly too civil GT2 would not recognise. For the money, the GT3 is the finest sporting car you can currently buy – and you can have two for the price of one Scuderia.
Product onslaught from BMW
BMW has gone on a product offensive, confirming that Rolls-Royce will build a Phantom coupé to go with the extant saloon and convertible. After that will come the much-mooted smaller, more affordable range of Rolls.
Meanwhile, and under its own name, BMW has given the green light to a small X1 SUV and a new CS Grand Tourer, a luxury, four-seater coupé.
The last car it announced was an SUV version of the MINI. And while I don’t doubt that it will sell MINI off-roaders by the bucketful, I still wish BMW didn’t feel the need to do it. Porsche has proven with the Cayenne that it can produce a conceptually hateful, poorly packaged and patchily executed product that has nothing to do with the marque’s heritage without damaging it, at least until now.
But my feeling now as then is that these short-term, fast-buck exercises which exploit rather than build the brand will not be without adverse consequences over time. Gordon Brown is not the only one who has sensed a growing dissatisfaction with our Blair-fuelled, image-obsessed society and it is only a matter of time before this starts to affect the cars we buy.
If this feeling is also being felt in Europe and the US, then the days of all these pseudo-SUVs which, from big to small, are almost as compromised on the road as off it, will be well and truly numbered.
Pull the other one…
I am often asked what I think is the coolest car on sale and my stock answer has always been the same: the Toyota Land Cruiser Amazon. Because there is probably not a more rugged, spacious or effective tow car on sale, they tend to litter the paddocks of historic race meetings and while everyone else pores over all that low-slung racing metal, I’m as likely to be caught peeking enviously through the window of an Amazon.
News now reaches me of an all-new Land Cruiser featuring a 286bhp V8 diesel engine and going on sale here in the New Year. And while I’m salivating at the prospect, I won’t be in the market for one for a while yet: like most items of country apparel, Amazons need some wear and tear before they’re fit to be seen with in public. When some of the hardest worked, earliest cars have 80,000 miles on the clock in around five years, I shall be able to resist no longer. All I have to do between now and then is buy a racing car for it to tow.