Theoretically this is supposed to be a facelift, but there’s rather more to it than that | BY ANDREW FRANKEL
Two statements, one of fact, the other an opinion. Together they paint a realistic picture of where Ferrari is relative to its road-car rivals and just how hard a task now confronts those who would seek to outdo it.
First, every Ferrari on sale today is based on an ageing design. The 488GTB, California T, GTC4 Lusso and this ‘new’ 812 Superfast are, in fact, merely revised versions of the far older 458, previous California, FF and F12. Second, and despite this apparent limitation, if Ferrari has had a stronger line-up in its 70-year history it was before my time, and I’ve been in this racket for nearly 30 of them. To me the only possible period to rival today came in the early 1970s, when the Ferrari offer comprised the Daytona, the Dino and the greatest 2+2 it ever made, the exquisite yet still relatively anonymous 365 GTC/4. No wonder its rivals are opting to take the vast and fast bucks afforded by an SUV project rather than engaging Ferrari on equal terms.
The reason for Ferrari’s incandescent excellence seems simple enough. Ferrari has not allowed the fact that only a tiny proportion of its owners (13 per cent) buy its cars for ‘driving emotions’ to stop it pouring resources into its products. Despite what its outlandish appearance might suggest, this new 812 Superfast is a car driven by a desire for engineering excellence. In literal terms it might be a mere facelift, but in reality the car has been transformed in every area that matters.
We should start with the engine because this is, after all, a Ferrari. Would it surprise you to learn it’s descended directly from the V12 that first popped up in the Enzo some 15 years ago? But now with its capacity expanded from the 6.3 litres of the F12 to 6.5 it offers an unprecedented specific output for a normally aspirated motor of this size and a total of 789bhp, up from the F12’s 730bhp. How did it do it? Well the additional 234cc is a mere detail: in fact 75 per cent of the engine’s components are new.
Nor would any normal manufacturer revisit gear ratios at mid-life revision time, but Ferrari has devised a completely new strategy. So despite a massive increase in mid-range torque, first gear is actually fractionally shorter than before and every subsequent gear is relatively and increasingly shorter still until you get to seventh, which has been left approximately (but not exactly) where it was. It has also managed to cut upshift times by 30 per cent and downshifts by 40 per cent so that now the average shift in maximum attack takes just 40 milliseconds, approximately five times faster than you can blink.
If anything, the chassis has been given an even more radical suite of modifications. At the back four-wheel steering has been introduced, at the front electric power steering for the first time on any Ferrari. Following the lead of the frankly deranged F12 tdf, the front tyre width has increased by two sections but those at the back have been left unchanged, to reduce understeer or promote oversteer depending on which way you see it. You can take it as read that all spring, damper and roll bar settings have been revised (the aim being to instil near-tdf levels of dynamic response without either wrecking the ride or inducing heart failure), but there’s more even than this.
That electric power assistance has allowed the front and rear steering systems to be fully integrated into the car’s electronic architecture, so now not only does the front know what the back is doing, it can take this information and if its learned judgement is that it’s in the hands of an idiot, it can at least try to alert said dummkopf to the error of his (or her) ways. It does this by artificially adjusting the amount of effort required to turn the wheel in the desired direction, encouraging the driver to increase lock if the car is losing grip at the front, and reduce it if grip is lost at the back. It won’t actually apply the opposite lock for you and I only noticed its operation when I went looking for it, but it’s both a smart safety net and further evidence of the depth of Ferrari’s technical know-how and its desire to save its customers from themselves.
There’s more even than this, including a dramatically overhauled braking system and new moveable aerodynamic devices at both ends, including a diffuser at the front that is passively stalled by airflow at more than 124mph and another at the back whose three elements operate actively by electric motors and according to need. Combined with new surfacing and an extended rear wing, near tdf levels of downforce have been achieved (though Ferrari won’t say what they are) without a commensurate increase in drag.
But when you take up station behind the wheel, the 812 still seems much the same. Ferrari says the interior is new but it all looks very familiar to me. The steering wheel is still pointlessly covered in switches whose operation has never become intuitive in all the years I’ve been using them, the satellite navigation remains woefully, laughably inadequate. I’d presumed the new and really rather good centre screen used on the Lusso would be here too, but sadly not. Then again the F12’s excellent driving position, all-round visibility and interior space have been retained too.
I noticed the steering first, and before we were beyond the gates of Fiorano. To me the only consistent error Ferrari has committed in recent years is to make
its steering too light, too quick, too aggressive off-centre and lacking in feel. Given that I’d never preferred any car’s electric system to the hydraulically powered helm of its predecessor, I feared I might hate the 812’s steering. In fact it’s been transformed for the better. It still needs more feel and remains too quick, but it has more meat and is far more linear in its response. It is at last an asset, and no longer a liability.
The ride is terrific, too, and lets you retain its suppleness even in the ‘Race’ mode that is, somewhat counter-intuitively, best for the open road. Just hit the ‘Bumpy Road’ button and whipcrack throttle response combined with compliant damping can be yours.
The foundation work is done, so now we can get down driving it like all Ferraris should be but are all too rarely driven. And despite all that power and torque, when you first find the space to press the throttle all the way to the floor, the expected bang in the back fails to materialise. This car doesn’t kick, it surges. Inexorably. In a world increasingly populated by turbocharged cars with torque curves that look more like torque cliffs at low revs, the 812 does its own thing. Although it will hurl you impressively towards the horizon at just 2500rpm, from there torque just builds. It doesn’t stop building until it hits 7000rpm, with peak revs at close to 9000rpm. And if you can imagine what a 6.5-litre V12 Ferrari engine sounds like at such speeds, the car will deliver almost entirely on that promise. Actually, I felt the 6.3-litre motor in the Lusso I reviewed last month sounded even sweeter inside the cabin. Outside, as I found out later as other hacks whizzed by at full chat at Fiorano, it felt it might just make the best noise in the world.
The new steering helps plot an accurate path between the cars, trucks and scooters that populate the hills above Maranello, but we’re not going to find out much about how this car behaves up here. I was reminded of the frustration I felt trying to drive a LaFerrari on the same roads and this was almost as futile. But the car does feel narrower than before (although it is not), easier to thread through the traffic and less heart-stopping when, as happens all the time up here, something comes around a corner on almost entirely the wrong side of the road.
But really we need Fiorano, and a gentle amble back to the track reveals none of this car’s Grand Touring credentials to have been degraded in Ferrari’s unquenchable thirst for more power and greater dynamic response. Critically for those who will actually buy these cars, rather than mere hacks who just get to thrash one into the ground for a single day, in terms of ride and refinement the Superfast really works.
And it’s so good on the circuit that you need constantly to remind yourself that this is quite a heavy car, to whose owners comfort is probably a more important priority than delicate on-the-limit handling.
It is a beautifully balanced car and so long as you select a mode that preserves a last line of electronic defence, one that can be skidded around with confidence if not impunity. Turn everything off and you’ll still need to be on your toes because of the car’s weight and relatively soft settings, but I don’t mind that in the Ferrari because it’s entirely optional. I might get a kick out of seeing what angle of yaw I can persuade it to adopt and for how long; others might not and the point is they don’t have to. On the track it will be almost any car you want it to be.
And that’s the joy of the Superfast. I tend to recoil slightly when I read stories praising expensive supercars for appealing so much to our short-trousered instincts for power and oversteer without acknowledging the real world in which even cars like this must operate. The brilliance of the Superfast is that it works wherever it goes because it’s not just ludicrously fast and exciting, it’s also quiet, comfortable, spacious, offers good visibility and has
a big boot.
Finally, remember how this story started: however good the Superfast is, and in parts it is extraordinary, it is not a new car but an old car renewed. Ferrari will know already exactly the form and specification of its replacement and that will be genuinely new from the ground up. All I can tell you for certain is that it will retain a normally aspirated V12 engine. The Superfast has set the bar stratospherically high, but you can be sure Ferrari’s engineers are already set on beating it.
ENGINE 6.5 litres, 12 cylinders
POWER [email protected]
TORQUE 529lb [email protected]
TRANSMISSION seven-speed paddle shift, rear-wheel drive
WEIGHT 1630kg approx
POWER TO WEIGHT 484bhp per tonne
TOP SPEED 211mph