Road test: Ferrari F12 TdF

For years manufacturers have been making their sports cars ever more compliant. Or at least, they were…

In these days when everything Ferrari builds for the public surfs into shore on a wave of purple prose, it’s easy to forget there was a time when it wasn’t like that. Spool back quarter of a century or so and you’ll find Ferrari’s offerings rather less praiseworthy. The low was when its range consisted of the underpowered and unattractive Mondial, the charming but ageing and outgunned Testarossa and the simply rather unpleasant 348. These were cars that sold not for what they did, but simply for what they were. These were cars whose flaws could be seen from space.

And once Ferrari got its act together in the mid-1990s, I thought it would never again make a car so easy to criticise. But it has. The F12 TdF is the most flawed Ferrari in a generation.

At first it is a little hard to see how it could have got that way. It is after all an F12 with even more power – 770bhp instead of 730 – and a lot less weight, 110kg being shaved by the removal of most of the interior and the addition of a number of carbon panels. Given that the F12 is unquestionably Ferrari’s best mainstream flagship since the 365GTB/4 Daytona, how could one with more power and less weight fail to improve on the formula? The answer is that it doesn’t. Instead it takes that formula and rips it to shreds.

If the 799 favoured Ferraristi given the opportunity to spend £339,000 on a TdF thought they were buying some kind of F12 Plus, they’ll likely discover that they are in for something of a shock. It’s still an F12 but only in the way that a Bengal Tiger is still a cat. Look more closely at the changes Ferrari has made and a more reliable indicator of its likely character becomes apparent.

The engine now has mechanical rather than hydraulic tappets, allowing it to generate more power by revving higher, all the way to 8900rpm as you’re asking. But this engine also now answers the throttle like that of a racing car; its mapping as aggressive as I’ve known a road car’s to be. It still runs through a seven-speed double-clutch gearbox but its shifts, which I’d thought near instantaneous in the standard F12, have been made quicker still.

But it’s the chassis that really reveals its true purpose. Just for a start, it’s considerably stiffer all round and completely retuned to the car’s newer, more scary job description. Which is interesting, but not as interesting as the fact that the front tyres have been made two sections wider while those at the back are left unchanged. This appears to have so fundamentally affected the balance that Ferrari has introduced its first four-wheel-steer system, not to make the car feel more agile, but less so. At all but parking speeds, the rear wheels steer in the same directions as those at the front, elongating its wheelbase. And having driven it for a day, all I can say is thank goodness for that.

I must however qualify my comments by pointing out my one and only day in the TdF coincided with the worst weather this country had seen since last winter. Cold and relentlessly wet, these were the last conditions in which you’d choose to drive any Ferrari, let alone one as uncompromising as this.

Even so I have friends who have driven it on dry, warm Italian roads and came back wide-eyed and giggling nervously, and I have the note from Ferrari bashfully admitting the car might be a touch lively in the wet. Or words to that effect.

None of this prepared me adequately for what the TdF was actually like, which is the most difficult new car I’ve driven on the road in at least the last 20 years. Even if you leave the car on ‘wet’ settings, it is no guarantee that the wheels won’t start suddenly spinning or that the back won’t slew unexpectedly sideways at the exit of a slow, wet corner. Turn everything off as I felt obliged to do for the purposes of being able to publish an honest report, and the car left you under no illusion at all that if you failed to bring your best game, it would spot the fact in an instant and not hesitate to mete out a fearsome response.

All of which makes it very hard for me to explain why I found myself going over the same mountain road again and again, when all logic said I should do the minimum I could professionally get away with and give it back to Ferrari without further delay (and while it was still in the correct number of pieces).

Essentially there were two reasons. First, flawed though the F12 TdF is, it should not be considered as cut from a similar cloth to those old Ferraris mentioned earlier. The difference was they were not very good at the job they set out to do, while the TdF is absolutely brilliant. It was put on this earth to excite its driver, and no one who’s driven it would ever question its ability in that regard. The worst thing a Ferrari can be is not to be difficult or even treacherous, but to be boring in the manner of a Mondial. By contrast there’s an argument to say the TdF is more exciting than a LaFerrari, even if not for entirely the right reasons.

Secondly, there is the context. Ferraris made today are bewilderingly good. Recently I drove a 488GTB for the first time in a year and was left goggling at its capabilities all over again. It is a fabulous car, complete in every respect you’d want such a car to be. But there will always be a bit of me that wants a Ferrari to be a challenge, to bring out the best in you, to get you to the end of the road not merely impressed with what it’s done, but pretty stoked about your own performance, too. The TdF is that car. Never in all the slithering and sliding I did that day did I ever get the sense that Ferrari had failed to create the car it intended, that it was this way for any reason other than that’s precisely how Ferrari wanted it to be. In an era when even supercars are meant to be quiet, comfortable and acquiescent, the TdF is a two-fingered statement directed squarely at this convention.

If the TdF has a spiritual ancestor, it is emphatically not the likes of the 348 and Testarossa. It’s something like a 1950s 750 Monza sports racer: a difficult, menacing beast that dares you to try taming it. It will fight you all day long, but at the end you’ll have had an experience no more malleable rival could hope to emulate. This may be the most flawed Ferrari in years, but so too is it also the most thrilling. And yes, that includes the immeasurably better, even quicker and far, far easier LaFerrari.