An astounding leap, but does it beat the 458 Italia? | By Andrew Frankel
There is a document that accompanies any loan of a new Ferrari to a journalist – and you must sign it before the car is delivered. I won’t trouble you with the details but in this case it committed me to not testing this new 458 Speciale against any other car. You could always not sign the document, but that would preserve your journalistic integrity only at the price of the car not showing up. You could of course sign, take delivery and then ignore the guidance, and I’ll leave you to calculate the odds of ever being allowed near a factory Ferrari again.
Normally I’d not mention such trifles, but this month presented a very real problem in the form of the McLaren 650S you’ll find overleaf. Even if Ferrari had not, timings would have precluded same-day testing, but they are such obvious rivals I wanted to write about them in the same story and draw such conclusions as I reliably could from experience of both cars on identical roads in similar conditions. This not being possible, what follows is a test of the Speciale, followed immediately by an entirely separate and completely unrelated test of the McLaren.
I therefore invite you to read both and draw your own conclusions instead.
The 458 Speciale is the latest in a line of hard core spin-offs from Ferrari’s regular mid-engined V8 range. First came the 360 Stradale, next the 430 Scuderia. Unlike manufacturers of lesser cars who are happy to create cars that merely look like they’ve been dramatically modified, the Speciale really is. Power for its 4.5-litre V8 now hits 600bhp – which gives it a higher specific output than an early Cosworth DFV F1 engine. Meanwhile, the chassis has been entirely reworked, as has the gearbox for even sharper, seamless shifting. Significantly, it is also 80kg lighter than the 572bhp 458 Italia that continues in uninterrupted production.
It looks truly stunning. Were I to make a comparison to a McLaren I might say that not even the dramatic visual enhancements that turned the 12C into the 650S come anywhere near matching the sense of occasion, presence and sheer beauty of this Ferrari. But I’m not.
Testament to the weight-saving measures lies inside, where there is neither carpet, navigation nor music machine, though Ferrari quite sensibly merely banishes them to the options list. You sit low with a near-perfect wheel in your hands, pull it impressively close to your chest and thumb the big red button that makes it go.
Ten seconds later there won’t be a person in the street doing anything other than listening to the noise of your Ferrari, and that’s with its exhaust bypass valve shut. The sound is not symphonic like Ferrari’s V12s, but it exudes far more purpose than, say, a twin-turbo V8 providing more power from a smaller capacity. And it revs all the way to 9000, about where the aforementioned DFV used to make peak power. But while in 1967 the Cosworth was good for a few hundred miles if you were lucky, the Ferrari’s life will probably be measured in hundreds of thousands of miles.
I set an alarm to ensure I was on the road at 3.00am, for I saw no point in trying to drive this car fast in traffic. By sun-up I was on some of the best roads in Wales, leaving a trail of interrupted sleep patterns in my wake.
I’m not often glad to be middle-aged, but that morning I was, for enough common sense has now clung to me not to start behaving in a way that would be entirely inappropriate on any public road, even those as wide, open, deserted and well known to me as those I had chosen for the Speciale. It’s not just the performance (which is so strong you can hardly believe it’s legal), but its nature: the only road car I’ve driven with sharper throttle response is the LaFerrari. The engine yells and screams at you even if you keep below 7000rpm. Above this point the shriek is that of a thoroughbred competition car, as is the manner in which it dispatches each gear even in its standard ‘Sport’ setting. Turn the little ‘manettino’ switch to ‘Race’ and the entire car, from its engine to its transmission and differential, finds a whole new level of aggression.
Yet its chassis is a match. I’d prefer more linear steering with better feel, but remember thinking that about the F12. What seems barely capable of improvement is body control that maintains the car’s ride height in the face of the most extreme provocation. Grip from its Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres is also closer to racing levels than normal road-use adhesion.
The result is a car of the most extraordinary focus, the most hardcore road-going Ferrari since at least the F40 and possibly ever. And in that I include the LaFerrari, which while far faster seemed to me actually a little broader in its range of talents.
In those conditions I was mesmerised by the Speciale, left gibbering that such a thing should be allowed to wear a number plate. I have always believed that Ferraris should not just be fast but ferocious and properly challenging to drive. The Speciale is all those things and I loved it for them. But then I had to drive it a fair distance on the motorway as will almost any owner seeking or returning from a great road or track, and the truth is that by the time I arrived, I was ready to get out. You’d forgive the poor ride and terrible noise in something like an F40, because it is a bespoke and unique creation, but the Speciale is a modified 458 Italia that will be produced in whatever numbers the market demands.
And here’s the thing: the 458 Italia is already one of my favourite Ferraris, not just of the present day but all time. And turning it into the Speciale has also turned it from a car you could happily use everyday into a pure and impractical recreation. I have said many times before that the amount of fun a car provides cannot be measured alone by how enjoyable it is to drive, rather that multiplied by the number of times you feel inclined or able to drive it that way. The Speciale is an incredible engineering achievement and in the right circumstances among the most exciting road cars any amount of money has ever been able to buy, but by tightening its focus from that of a broad sunbeam to a pin-sharp, scorching laser, Ferrari has increased its appeal only at the price of narrowing it, too.
Let’s put it this way: to hustle around a track, the LaFerrari is the only primarily road-going Ferrari that I would prefer to drive.
But to own, use and enjoy as much as I possibly could, I’d call the still wondrous 458 Italia the better bet.
Engine: 4.5 litres, 8 cylinders
Power: 600bhp @ 9000rpm
Torque: 398lb ft @ 6000rpm
Transmission: seven-speed double clutch
Top speed: 203mph
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