Unforgettable. The only way to describe Maranello’s astonishing automotive achievement | by Andrew Frankel
You always crest the blind rise that leads onto the famous bridge at Ferrari’s Fiorano test track flat out. There’s no reason not to: there is a small bump there but the road is straight, you’ve just exited a tight second-gear corner and there’s plenty of space to shed speed before the next turn. Indeed it was only in Ferrari’s most recent and powerful cars, such as the 730bhp F12, that I’d even logged the bump’s existence. If I recall correctly it made the car gently ease up and down on its springs.
Why mention this now? Because I’ve been trying to think of a way of describing how much faster than any of its other cars the new LaFerrari really is, because raw data just can’t. And I think the bump might just provide it. For if you drive over it, foot down, all 950bhp unleashed, the car takes off.
Even if you know Fiorano well and have been blessed with experience of more than anyone’s fair share of very rapid cars, the LaFerrari requires you to take a quiet moment to steel yourself before seeing how fast you can make it go. Put it another way, when being driven flat out, it has the ability to scare not simply those on board but people outside the car and a reasonable distance away. Put a third and final way, if you’ve been to a track day, you’ll know road cars never look fast when being driven around a circuit. This one does. The way it visually accrues speed out of corners is more reminiscent of very serious racing machinery than anything entitled to wear a number plate. Inside, for sheer drama, it is a new level for road cars. And no, I’ve not forgotten the McLaren P1 reviewed in this slot two months ago. My job over the next 2000 words is to try to explain what that feels like and how it got that way.
You might be disappointed to know that I’m not going to achieve that by constant cross-reference to the McLaren, a car I drove on an entirely different kind of track in another country a significant time ago. Comparisons are difficult enough to make when you are dealing with normal cars and have them side by side on the same day; but I will say that nothing I discovered about the LaFerrari while driving it changed my view of the McLaren. If you were thinking one would render the other somewhat redundant, you have underestimated the calibre of people involved on both sides. When companies as dedicated to engineering excellence as Ferrari and McLaren apply themselves to the business of doing things cars have never been able to do, on road as on track, their endeavours tend to lead to a similar destination, even if by travelling along rather different routes. This is not as surprising as it sounds, given that position is defined by the limit of what is technically achievable within a given framework, be it race or road car rules.
What I will say, before leaving the wondrous McLaren to its own devices, is that despite all they share in their configuration, construction and target audience, their philosophies are entirely different. Being a McLaren, the P1 is not just spectacularly clever, it’s not shy about saying so. It will run just on petrol, just on electricity or, most spectacularly, both. It provides a push-to-pass boost button and driver- deployable aerodynamics. This is not just F1-driver techno-geekery, it is monstrously effective. The LaFerrari could not be more different. Everything is integrated and automated. Its petrol and electric motors are both active all the time. Its wings and diffusers move continuously up and down in accordance to data acquired from a battery of sensors. Its hybrid system is forever active boosting or charging, but when you actually sit in the thing and drive it, there are no additional buttons to press, nor any decisions to make about what strategy to use. In this regard if no other, it is just like any other Ferrari.
Where it departs the script somewhat is in its carbon-fibre construction laid up by the same people who make the F1 tubs, cooked in the same autoclaves using many of the same fibres, carefully selected for their balance of strength and stiffness. The doors, for instance add nothing to the car’s rigidity but do need to save your life in a side impact, so they’re made from the same weave used in the nosecones of Messrs Räikkönen and Alonso’s Sunday steers.
And then there’s the powertrain. The 6.3-litre V12 is closely related to that in the F12 but is freed from the need to provide low-down torque, because that’s now covered by the electric traction motor behind the rear wheels. So it can be tuned for power instead. Now and all by itself it develops 789bhp and revs to 9250rpm, a barely comprehensible velocity for such a large, fully homologated road car engine. You’d think that would be enough in a car weighing 1410kg (a proper, comparable with fluids kerb weight rather than sub 1300kg dry weight quoted in the official blurb) given it’s almost a quarter of a tonne lighter than an F12, but no. To that you can add a further 161bhp of electric power and, because both the electric and petrol motors can develop maximum power simultaneously, it is fair to add the two outputs together to give a combined 950bhp.
Do the maths and it will show the LaFerrari provides 673bhp for every tonne of weight it must power. Think about that. One tonne is the target weight for budget versions of most small shopping cars – a Fiat Panda for example. So think of a Fiat Panda with about the same power as a Lamborghini Aventador and you’ll be closer to understanding what Ferrari is putting under the right foot of 499 clienti.
The door scissors up to reveal a carbon-clad cabin superficially like those of other Ferraris. But it’s low enough to make a 458 feel like an SUV. You sit in what looks like a seat, but is a padded, moulded extension of the tub. It doesn’t move, but the pedal box and steering wheel slide to meet your hands and feet.
All-round visibility is poor, but not disastrous, and if you’ve driven any modern Ferrari there’ll be no surprises in the way this one operates. The little manettino switch is there on the wheel. For now I’ll leave it in ‘Sport’, the normal road setting. You’ll also recognise the shock absorber button you press not to stiffen the suspension, but soften it for bumpy roads. The engine fires with a loud and not particularly attractive blare, you tug a paddle, squeeze the throttle and gingerly pull out into the gawping traffic.
I’ve always admired the carefully cultured indifference of Maranello locals to the products of the town’s largest employer, but the veneer shatters the moment you rumble down Via Abetone in a LaFerrari. Shouting, staring and a lot of pointing are constant accompaniments. The car feels wide and the steering has that curiously Ferrari characteristic of being very aggressive in the initial turn, but even with its more limited visibility it is scarcely any more difficult to drive than a 458. It rides surprisingly well and, at a steady-state cruise, it’s quieter than you’d think. But while the cabin is far more spacious than any previous special-series Ferrari from the 288GTO to the Enzo, carrying space is restrictive. If an owner wants to go on a decent holiday, he’ll need to send the chauffeur and Range Rover ahead with the luggage.
How fast is it? At public road speed, as fast as the surface and contact patch will permit. Even with a 6.3-litre V12 and a 150kg hybrid system sitting on massive 345/30 bespoke Pirelli Corsas, the limit to your progress in a straight line is defined not by power, but traction. When you are accelerating like an artillery shell it’s easy to miss the little blinking light on the dash telling you that, far from giving its all, this power train is actually holding back.
You start to learn things. For instance, it’s better in ‘race’ mode, because the safety nets are relaxed a little and allow a touch more freedom of expression without affecting the stability of the car. More importantly, always be two gears higher than seems natural. Mid-engined Ferraris have always been high-power, low-torque screamers and, because this one will fling itself past 9000rpm, you instinctively want to drop a couple of cogs before letting it loose. Even with effectively instant shifting this takes time and is entirely pointless. Leave it in fourth or even fifth and, from very few revs indeed, it will haul like most proper supercars will in second.
But the public road, or at least the hills above Maranello, are too restrictive an environment for this car. Releases of power are limited to impotent little squirts, your exploration of the chassis capabilities restricted by the safety margins you must leave, not for yourself but the unforeseen reactions of other road users upon seeing the LaFerrari fling itself into their field of vision at a speed they might not comprehend.
Fiorano is different. Here we can turn everything off and allow the LaFerrari to run unfettered.
I thought I knew this place reasonably well, but it turns out I don’t. All those pauses for thought between its many curves and corners have been abbreviated almost to the point of oblivion. You can’t even relax on the main straight because the hitherto insignificant kink before the hairpin is now a proper corner, just past the apex of which you must brake as hard as you can from 170mph while the suspension is still loaded. But the combination of its vast ceramic brakes and considerable downforce (the only data Ferrari provides is almost 400kg at 124mph, compared to the 600kg at 150mph offered by the P1), feel like someone’s stamped on the car. It just stops.
But even this is not what the LaFerrari does best. Because I got a B in O-level maths and can therefore divide power by weight, I had an idea of what level of performance to expect. That it would grip in a way only aerodynamics can bestow and stop like it’s crashed were givens, too. What I failed to anticipate was just how indulgent of its driver the LaFerrari would be. When you realise this is the fastest fully homologated road car ever created, intimidation is inevitable. I am confident no car has ever raced at Le Mans with more power than this – qualified maybe, but not raced. The prospect is terrifying.
But the reality is not. Enter too fast into a corner and it will gently push its nose away from the apex; ease off the accelerator and it will just as gently regain your intended trajectory. The throttle response is three times faster than an F12’s and delivery so linear that not a single horsepower ever turns up uninvited or unexpected. So you can balance the car to the point where it is cornering with no lock applied in either direction, or you can drift it until you run out of rubber which, at this level, won’t take long. As for the noise, it’s not a classical Ferrari V12 sound, but it is epic in scale and scalp-itchingly exciting.
I have been waiting not a few months to drive the LaFerrari, but more than 20 years. That was when I first tried a Ferrari F40 and knew instantly it was the most exciting road car I’d driven. What I didn’t know is it would take more than two decades to top it. Many have been faster than the F40, many have been more capable. But when I thought of the car I wanted most to drive again, it was the F40. Until now. That car is now the LaFerrari, and its speed has remarkably little to do with it. To me it is not about lap time with road cars. It is about what happens when you peel off the circuit or road, after driving as hard as you can, turn the engine off and sit for a few minutes. The feelings that come to you then are what matter.
Are you going to examine them, extract what you need and let them go? Or are they so special you’re going to stow them away? That’s what I did with the F40 and that’s what I’m doing again now. I don’t care that the LaFerrari is irrelevant, sold out and unusable on most journeys. I know I’ll probably never drive one again and that’s OK too, because the memories it provided in one short day are among just a few I’ll be keeping forever.
Engine: 6.3 litres, 12 cylinders, hybrid assisted
Power: 950bhp @ 9000 rpm
Torque: 715lb ft @ 6750 rpm
Transmission: Seven-speed double clutch, paddle shift, rear-wheel drive
Top speed: 217mph