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Ferrari SA Aperta: exclusive first drive

  1. Fraud. A small and pernicious little word that loops
    irritatingly – in various sing-song phrases – through my head as we drive
    through the chocolate-box Italian Riviera in a bright red, roofless Ferrari SA
    Aperta. A scene so perfect it should include a glamorous sequin-sheathed
    supermodel, a casino, kittens peeping cutely from a wellington boot and possibly
    the retching sound of someone choking on a cliché. Seriously, this couldn’t be
    more perfect. The pastel shades of the jumbled seaside houses, the livid greens
    and blues of the twinkly ocean, the warming thrust of spring sunshine straight
    through the middle of your chest and into your soul.

    Words: Tom Ford
    Photography: Joe Windsor-Williams

    This feature was originally published in the April issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. We pull over briefly, and an old man pedals past on a
    bicycle held together by rust and sweet nothings, waving his red Ferrari hat
    and shouting “Bella macchina!” He wobbles so viciously, shakily trying to offer
    homage in the face of a geriatric sense of unbalance, that I’m afraid he’ll
    fall off and hurt himself. Or more pertinently, the Ferrari. Within seconds, a
    small, appreciative crowd has gathered around the Modenese invader, and
    precisely no one, even when they have seen me arrive, park and lever out of the
    driving seat, thinks that I am the owner. I know why. The only fly in the
    ambience appears to be, embarrassingly, me. I should be black-tied to suit the
    mood, but I’m looking like tramp-chic gold at the homeless Olympics. Hence
    feeling like a fraud. Oops.

  3. It doesn’t help that the Ferrari is show-stoppingly
    arresting. This particular car is slicked in triple-layer paint so deep that it
    makes you want to lick it, and the clearcoat lounges so liquidly on the Aperta’s
    bodywork that you fear it may slide right off. It’s like an old-fashioned
    hot-rod candy colour, lacquered to triple dimensions. It adorns a car designed
    and produced to celebrate the 80th anniversary of styling house Pininfarina
    (Sergio and Andrea is the ‘SA’ bit; ‘Aperta’ means ‘open’ in Italian).

  4. It is based on the Ferrari 599 GTB, but without a roof, with
    bespoke bodywork and the 661bhp V12 motor, gearbox and drivetrain from the
    rabid 599 GTO. Oh, and a 12-into-two exhaust system virtually identical to the
    one fitted to the 599XX racing car. Which does not bode well for onlookers of a
    nervous disposition. And the Aperta - like that 599XX - is a car not so much
    ephemeral as extinct; all 80 examples sold before production started, even at
    the stiff asking price of £360k. TopGear is the only magazine in the world to
    drive it. A fact that perches in the forefront of your mind during urban
    Italian driving, where medieval streets meet lazy traffic enforcement. Streets
    where everyone is looking. And smiling. And pointing. I’m not surprised.

  5. Obviously the roof’s gone, but the flying buttresses
    haven’t, replaced by composite efforts in a matt silver finish that complements
    the cut-down and strengthened windscreen. The front grille is new, as is the
    entire front bumper, and there’s a new design for the sill covers wrought in
    carbon fibre. The bootlid is aluminium, heavy on the curvy superforming, and
    the rear end has a custom bumper housing a contrast-effect venturi also in
    silver, with ‘chrome shadow’ 20-inch five-spoke Ferrari rims, a redesigned
    interior and new and fantastic sports seats completing the package. It should,
    in all honesty, look like a bit of a dog’s dinner. It doesn’t. It looks bloody
    amazing. And even below 2,000rpm, it makes the kind of noise that draws the
    attention like the ball at a tennis match. At one point, I started the car some
    30 yards from a seaside café, and 60 heads all snapped round in unison. Subtle?
    Not very.

  6. But tooling it around town in the sunshine, you do get it.
    This is a playboy Ferrari for the oligarch-rich, a wanton bit of rosso whimsy
    destined to be spirited away to collections and be preserved in automotive
    aspic, stuck in the endless cloying amber of some rich blokes’ replacement for
    his self-worth.

  7. It’s not meant to be a practical and everyday tool. The ‘emergency roof’ takes fiddly minutes to fit, and even though it looks good and works well, isn’t rated past 80mph. And although the boot is bigger than the 599’s, it will probably never see serious use. Yes it sounds amazing even at low-range rpm and, yes, it looks suitably heart-stopping, but here in town it rides too well to possibly be fully committed and tootles too easily. In fact, it feels suspiciously unlike the 599 even though it has the 661bhp engine and drivetrain from the crackers GTO. After a bit, I’m relaxed in the knowledge that this car is a poseur’s irrelevance, and my preconceptions are comfortingly sated.

  8. In one of the galaxy’s infinite little sadisms, I’m not even
    allowed the lack of self-awareness that would allow me to drive a car like this
    through this kind of place without feeling like - let’s face it - a bit of a
    t******. Deep down, I’m loving every second, but that feeling is fighting
    through a deep layer of British reserve to wave its sparkly little hands above
    the parapet of my psyche. There are people around here wearing watches worth
    more than me, and you sense their easy richness because they have hair not cut,
    but coiffured, and wear fuchsia cashmere jumpers wound artfully around their shoulders.
    Nobody but the mega-rich do that. There’s probably a law.

  9. So we wind out and through the tight little villages and
    away from the oppressive attention of the seaside, wincing and sucking in tight
    little breaths as we round blind corners on half-width roads, listening for the
    last-minute warning toots of oncoming lorries and coaches. Eventually the
    houses peter out, the road wiggles a couple of times and opens. Convinced the
    Aperta is more about shout and show than grip and go, I flick the manettino from
    Sport to Race, drop a couple of gears and firmly snap the throttle pedal to the
    stop like a proper driver might. In the brief milliseconds it takes the gearbox
    to flicker between ratios, I genuinely believe that I hear the sound of a very
    large engine taking a very large breath. It is the automotive equivalent of
    hearing the pin tinkle out of a grenade.

    And then God punches me in the forehead.

  10. My head snaps back against the rest, my lungs gently bow
    backwards to embrace my spine and I swear the hairs on my chest all line up.
    The Aperta spews itself up the road in a scrabbling, furious bellow,
    wheelspinning in first, second, third, fourth. It’s fifth before the car hooks
    up. Fifth. In the dry. The car might well be capable of 62mph from rest in 3.6
    seconds on a sticky drag strip, but try it on the road with the traction off,
    and I seriously think you’ll struggle to find the grip in the face of the
    engine’s delivery.

  11. The gearbox flicks between ratios with barely believable
    speed, dodging between gear ratios six per cent lower than a standard GTB in
    just 60 milliseconds. An F1 car only takes 45. Downshifts take 120 milliseconds
    - you can ‘multiple downshift’ like the GTO by holding the left-hand paddle -
    and are accompanied, should you be going fast enough, by a rev-matching bark so
    loud it makes you flinch, followed by a full racing car overrun cackle you
    could light fires with. It is absolutely, without caveat, bonkers. Glorious.
    Then I look down and realise that I’ve been short-shifting at 6,500rpm. That
    this V12 engine, this animate collection of inanimate bits, redlines at
    8,400rpm. So I hook third to see what that feels like. As it nears 6,000rpm,
    I’m expecting a lessening of the brutality, a softening of the push. But it
    just goes. Again.

  12. It’s like using a running F1-car’s exhaust as an
    ear-trumpet, an amplified dentist’s drill that winds through the revs as if the
    bottom of the needle on the rev-counter has suddenly become a lead weight. Peak
    power arrives at 8,250. Peak torque at 6,500. And although I’ve driven faster
    cars, I’ve never, ever driven anything that sounds like this. So loud it
    actually hurts. I giggle childishly and wonder how the hell I’m going to write
    anything that even vaguely resembles this experience. And the truth is, I can
    only tell you that this is the loudest, most insane noise I’ve ever heard from
    a car this side of Le Mans or an F1 pitlane. There’s a new bespoke stereo in
    the Aperta. I never even thought to switch it on.

  13. It handles too, neatly forcing me to eat my metaphorical
    hat, though not quite as fearsomely as the noise would suggest. It feels more
    elastic than a pure road racer, even though it’s lower and the spring rates
    have been increased significantly over a 599. The rear anti-rollbar is thicker,
    the centre of gravity is 10mm lower and the ‘SCM’ magnetic dampers have been
    recalibrated, but the Aperta still manages to incorporate lumps rather than
    bounce, leaving you to enjoy going fast rather than worry about hitting a
    mid-corner pimple and launching off into the arms of the local A&E. It’s a
    usable and friendly set-up, even though both roll and pitch are bridled more
    tightly than the 599. You could probably screw a few more tenths of a second
    around a track out of it by making it harder, but the fact is that on the road
    it works with you, the compromises made to give you a chance at duality.

  14. Thankfully, any exuberance is easily recouped via massive -
    and standard fitment - carbon brakes. Brakes called into frantic duty almost
    immediately, since we cruise at relatively high speed around one corner to find
    the road covered in pork. Roughly 30 stone of pale pink, floppy-eared,
    pre-bacon sow waddling down the median like some giant hairy beanbag, dragging
    her own V12 of nipples along the dusty gutter. Little bullet-shaped piglets ping around in the bushes, and when you look at the hillside, you realise the whole place is infested with piggery of some sort or another. 

  15. We pause in a lay-by for a moment - only
    slightly white-faced - pondering the insurance form wording necessary to
    describe a high-speed impact of a £360k limited-edition Ferrari and a giant
    mountain swine, and a helicopter immediately lands roughly 30ft away. In a
    lay-by on top of a mountain. Disconcerted, we leave, wondering whether pig
    farmers have suddenly got very sophisticated and very rich in this part of the
    world, or whether we really should find some new medication.

  16. So then, the Ferrari SA Aperta: not so much a wolf in
    sheep’s clothing as a screamingly insane wolf wrapped in the meaty bits of
    other wolves. You think you can prepare for it to be noisy and fast, simply by
    looking at it. You can ponder the specifications and decide what it might feel
    like based on previous experience. You will not be prepared. 

  17. The Aperta is not particularly practical. It is not the
    fastest Ferrari, nor perhaps the most coherent in overall vision. Personally, I
    don’t actually like the silver bits. It has the guts of a racetrack refugee,
    but if you took an Aperta to a track day, people would laugh. And possibly
    throw stuff. But the Aperta has a massive, irrepressible dose of character. A
    huge and uncompromising sense of humour. It’s a car that will make you smile
    every single time you sit in it, make an adventure out of every banal and
    insignificant little journey. More than that, when you’re done and you walk
    away, this particular Ferrari leaves you with a bone-deep ache of need. And
    that’s why we should all be very jealous of those lucky 80 who have bought one.
    Because they’ve just purchased one of the most exciting cars in the world.
    Because they’ve just purchased a little slice of history.

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