Ferrari 488 GT3 track test

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Don’t expect a cuddle

Its predecessor ‘put an arm around’ amateur drivers, but this pricey new thoroughbred is a much tougher proposition 

I don’t mind admitting that I’m a little apprehensive. Scared even. I’m staring at a bow-tie steering wheel and a dashboard of Space Shuttle complexity, and it’s all alien to me. But most of all, I’m acutely aware that I’m about to venture out onto the Silverstone asphalt aboard a car worth nearly half a million quid. What’s more, it’s the first and only one of its kind in the country right now. No pressure, then.

My mount for the day is a Ferrari 488 GT3, a car that comes with a list price of €555,000 before taxes and a load of the kit required to take it endurance racing. So that means a starting price of just over £445,000 in our money, or significantly more than any other GT3 car on the market right now. 

Which brings me back to my fears. I’ve turned down the chance to sample GT3 machinery on multiple occasions in the past. That’s why I’m wondering just how I got coerced into driving the most expensive, probably the most advanced and, for the time being on our shores, the most exclusive example of the breed.

***

The new 488 is a departure for Ferrari and out-of-house tuner Michelotto, which has developed a line of competition machinery for the Prancing Horse beginning with the Group 4 308 GTB rally car of the late 1970s. The relationship spawned the F40LM and its derivatives, a line of racers for the GT2/GTE and GT3 categories, and an on-going sequence of Ferrari Challenge cars. Previous GT3s have been based on its Challenge one-make machines, but this is a full-house racer developed out of the GTE version of the twin-turbo 488 that won the first two rounds of this year’s World Endurance Championship. It’s not so much a close cousin, as the same car. 

That goes a long way to explaining my quivering presence at Silverstone today. This very car could well be sitting on the grid for the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2018. Owner Ivor Dunbar is setting out on a three-year quest to take part in the French enduro together with coach and mentor Johnny Mowlem, a driver with nine participations in the great race to his name. Dunbar was always going to plump for the 488 for his first full season of international racing in 2016, because he’s a Ferrari enthusiast and collector, but his new Ferrari can take him all the way to the fulfilment of his dream.

The latest Ferrari, uniquely for a GT3 car, can be updated to GTE specification. New wheel arches and splitter are required at the front and a new rear wing and diffuser at the rear. Then it’s a choice between having the engine converted to GTE regulations, which allow for greater freedoms, or buying a new one. Apart from a couple of other bits and bobs, that’s it. The cost of the kit has been put at approximately €130,000 (£100,000) if you buy a new engine and half that if you go for the upgrade. 

The parallel development of the GTE and GT3 explains the exclusivity of the 488 when, prior to the start of the season, I get my chance behind what isn’t a steering wheel in the traditional sense. That’s another departure from the 458. The GTE took precedence, which is why there were no new GT3s on the grid in the GT Daytona class for the season-opening IMSA SportsCar Championship enduro at Daytona in January. The race debut of the car would have a wait of a few weeks until the Sebring 12 Hours IMSA round in March.

Ferrari and Michelotto aren’t sure how many 488 GT3 customers will decide to move up to the higher class in the WEC, the European Le Mans Series or IMSA in North America. It is, though, definitely in the plan for Dunbar and the Silverstone-based FF Corse squad
running the car as they gear up for the target of Le Mans 2018. 

Ferrari felt it didn’t have any choice but to step up when it came to replacing the GT3 version of the 458 Italia with the arrival of the 488. The GT3 machinery on offer from its rivals has been getting ever more complex and, of course, faster. Just look at the intricate aerodynamics of the latest Audi R8 LMS – introduced last year and delivered to customers for this season – or the build quality of the Bentley GT3 Continental that made its debut at the end of 2013. 

“Our competitors have built some very extreme cars and we couldn’t lag behind,” says Antonello Coletta, who is boss of GT racing at Ferrari in his role as the head of the inelegantly named sporting activity department. “Ferrari has built a car in accordance with the regulations and consequently done everything possible to make it fully competitive.”

There is also the little matter of what was known as convergence, an attempt by the FIA and Le Mans organiser the Automobile Club de l’Ouest to bring the regulations of the GTE and GT3 classes together. It ultimately came to naught after 12 months of meetings in 2012-13, but the template laid out for convergence has been largely followed by Ferrari and Michelotto in the development of the racing 488 twins. 

It has resulted in a more expensive racing car. The 488 costs just over €100,000 more than its predecessor. But then the 458 was, says FF Corse boss Anthony Cheshire, “a Challenge car with a Hewland gearbox in the back”. The old Ferrari GT3 even had a bolt-in roll cage. 

***

None of this helps my anxiety as I ease my way into the 488. It’s a full-house racing car of the like I have never driven before. The quickest thing I’ve previously sampled on a race track was an Aston Martin Vantage N24 running in GT4 spec, a machine that’s definitely of the road-car-with-a-cage ilk. 

I’ve also received some warnings. One Ferrari regular told me that the old 458 Italia “put its arm around you and said ‘there, there’” whereas the new one requires more commitment, a bit more driving if you like. The 488’s predecessor was all about mechanical grip and straight-line speed. The latest Ferrari GT3 racer is most definitely an aero car. 

“The 458 really communicated with you as a driver; it was much easier to drive,” explains Mowlem, whose Ferrari experience includes the GTE title in the 2013 ELMS and a near-miss in the GT2 class at Le Mans with the Risi Competizione squad in 2007. “It’s harder to tap into the performance of the 488. It’s not one step forward in terms or aerodynamics – it’s four or five. That means it’s all about creating a stable aero platform, and the trade-off is in mechanical grip.” 

My nerves are calmed a tad by a clean exit from our box at the end of Silverstone’s Formula 1 pitlane. Johnny has told me that I’ll almost certainly stall trying to get out on track. Probably multiple times. Good job I don’t know I’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by a helping hand as I let out the clutch. A gentle shove from the FF Corse boys sets me on my way without hiccup.

I’m all too aware that I’m not going to get anywhere near the potential of the 488, not in a couple of five-lap runs on the Silverstone International Circuit, a layout that dives off the grand prix track at the Loop and back on again at the exit of Chapel. That and my fears for the well-being of this precious machine mean I’m very much in point-and-squirt mode.

The car doesn’t fill me with confidence in the slow stuff. Someone of my limited talents would have been better off with a cuddle from a 458, but I really can feel the downforce even at my tentative pace. The Ferrari is glued to the track through the left-hand sweep at Farm. 

The traction and stability control settings have been whacked up to 11 for my run, and Johnny tells me that I’ll have trouble spinning the thing. I don’t set out to prove him wrong, but I reckon I need to see what she’ll do when you get on the gas early. The slow Village right-hander is probably the place to do it, I decide. The Ferrari, gizmos maxed or no, catches me out. I spin. Predictable.

***

GT3 was conceived essentially as a class for amateurs, but it has gone far beyond that. Just look at the effort the manufacturers put into winning the Nürburgring 24 Hours and to a lesser extent the twice-around-the-clock enduro at Spa. Cars that rely on downforce to achieve their speed aren’t normally amateur-friendly. I’m not sure I can categorically make that accusation against the 488 GT3, but it’s a conclusion I reckon I’d reach if I had a go in a 458 or another
older-generation car. 

Yet what we term as gentleman drivers are still queuing up to buy Ferrari’s latest GT3 racer. Michelotto expects deliveries to hit 40 by the end of the season, but then GT3 is big business right now. Audi has sold more than 60 examples of the latest R8 and Lamborghini 40 new Huracan GT3s. 

The high price of the 488 GT3 – £150,000 more than the Audi and £77,000 clear of the Bentley (which comes with a spares package) – apparently isn’t putting off buyers. 

“It doesn’t matter so much what they cost to buy,” reckons Cheshire. “It’s what they are worth when the customer has finished racing them.” 

A Ferrari is always going to hold its value and thankfully Dunbar’s example didn’t undergo a rapid depreciation in my hands. I kept it out of the barriers and in one piece.

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