Track warrior by name...and nature

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The ‘Pista’ suffix is a clue to the latest Ferrari 488’s manner, but are such cars simply too potent for the real world?

Some day this is going to have to stop. I thought it when I drove the McLaren 720S and I thought it all over again during my day in Ferrari’s new 488 Pista. These cars are just too bloody fast. Not too fast in the sense that they cannot be controlled by drivers of merely average talent, but too fast for the domain in which these cars will be most regularly used, namely the public road.

Sampling the Pista on a route carefully chosen by Ferrari’s chief test driver, it never felt less than entirely hemmed in, a great white shark marauding around a goldfish bowl. Know the dream of the open road, of throwing gear after gear at one of Maranello’s most potent engines, delirious with the drama of it all? Forget it. You drive the Pista with saintly restraint in public or not at all, at least if you wish to keep it, your licence or liberty in the requisite number of pieces.

But can you criticise a car for having outgrown its environment, for effectively being too good? It’s an interesting philosophical point because, if it continues, cars will become ever less suited to the roads on which they are driven, which only sounds implausible until you consider the alternative: cars that are slower, narrower and, at least in ways that can be easily measured, less good than those they replace. And that will always be a hard sell. While you and I might agree that how a car feels in your hands to be the single most important consideration for the true enthusiast, those of a mind and in a position to drop £252,765 into a Pista will have a multiplicity of motives, of which driving pleasure will be just one.

And compared to, say, image projection, it may not even be that far up the priority list. People like to be able to measure how ‘good’ their cars are by power output, acceleration time, top speed and other metrics, because that’s how their place in the pecking order is determined.

But I’m here to assess a car, not its likely owner, and I guess what is so profoundly impressive about the Pista is that, despite the fact its purpose is to maintain interest in the ageing 488 platform – now in the autumn of its life – Ferrari has done such a comprehensive job creating it.

For instance, fully 50 per cent of the engine components are new. Ferrari could have just wound up the boost to liberate the requisite 50bhp over the 488GTB motor, but instead the Pista has been given a lighter crankshaft, titanium rods, stronger pistons coated in a special low-friction material called DLC, a higher compression ratio, new cams and valves – and that’s just inside. Outside the once-steel exhaust manifolds are now made from a superlight nickel-chromium alloy called Inconel, there’s a lightweight flywheel and even better turbo response.

Ferrari has also transformed the car’s aerodynamics, introducing a so-called ‘S-duct’ at the front that scoops air from under the nose of the car and over the bonnet to create downforce (albeit at the price of 25 per cent of the boot). It also has rear-facing radiators in the nose that direct the hot, dirty air coming off them away from the intercooler intakes at the back. Clever stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. A bigger rear wing, more effective diffuser being fed quicker, cleaner air add up to 25 per cent more downforce than generated by a 488GTB.

Other areas of improvement include an array of weight reduction measures that save 80kg (90kg if you spend £14,000 on carbon fibre rims). There’s also an entire suite of electronic enhancements that do everything from quite deliberately roughen up the gearshift in ‘Race’ mode and allow the engine to slam even more energetically into its rev limiter, to a device called a Ferrari Dynamic Enhancer that detects when the car is oversteering and uses minute brake applications to smooth out the spikes in the slide. And with 711bhp on tap to unseat the back end, this is a car that will slide and slide.

But the truth is that most of the time it feels like a 488GTB with a chunk of its fabulous real world usability removed, because most of the time you cannot drive it in such a way that what it does better than the GTB is apparent. I’d feared this from the start. Among journalists I know, I remain in a minority of one who considers the compromises forced upon the driver by the 458 Speciale (effectively this car’s predecessor) relative to the standard 458 Italia to be greater than the performance gained.

But the Pista is not like this: it is a less conceptually extreme car than the Speciale (though wildly faster) and all the better for it. The ride may no longer be extraordinary but it’s still good for this kind of car, while noise levels at a cruise are perfectly acceptable. The Speciale can make no such claims. Crucially and unlike the Speciale, the Pista is a car I would be keen to drive a long way.

I’m not going to describe how the car drives when driven at 10, nine or even eight tenths on the public road because anyone who does is either lying or deserves to be locked up. I know I’d be no slower in a normal 488 as you can’t begin to use all of its performance either, and I’d probably enjoy it more because it has a little more bump compliance.

So let’s retire instead to Fiorano. It seems somewhat contrary that you now need a race track to do a proper assessment of a production road car, but that is the point to which not only the Pista but the McLaren 720S, Porsche 911 GT2 RS and Lamborghini Huracán Performante have brought us. It is where the bar is set.

“It seems contrary that you now need a race track to do a proper assessment of a production road car”

And oh my goodness, it is incredible. I don’t know why I’m surprised: the 488GTB was possibly the best-handling mainstream Ferrari there has been and a lighter, faster version with more aerodynamic and mechanical grip was unlikely to be a duffer, but the way you can lean on a car of such monstrous all-round performance still amazed me.

It doesn’t feel quite as bolted to the track as the McLaren, but actually that’s not the criticism it might appear: the fact the Pista is so mobile is the source of all the fun. Sure it makes you work, but you can tell from the peals of laughter ringing around your helmet that it’s all worthwhile. Its composure beyond the technical limit of adhesion is a new level for this kind of car.

Indeed the biggest compliment I can pay the Pista is that in almost 25 years of coming here, the only car I enjoyed driving more around Fiorano was the LaFerrari, and that replaced the F40 as the greatest road car of any type I’ve ever driven.

My only sadness lies in the nagging conviction that most of the owners who will take delivery of a Pista in the next two years might never truly appreciate what their car can do. Ferrari insists 60 per cent of owners will take theirs to a track, but it’s not one of those cars you can enjoy to the full just by marvelling at the power and the grip. You have to twist the little manettino past its ‘sport’ and ‘race’ modes and turn the stability systems off in order to savour the promised land beyond. And then you need a take a deep breath and drive the wheels off it. If you’re prepared to do that, then the Pista makes all the sense in the world; if not and investment potential aside, you’re better off in a 488GTB.