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Supercar of the Year 2012: Ferrari F12

  1. The barrier lifts in front of Via Abetone Inferiore 4, Maranello, Italy, and a red V12-engined coupe noses out of the Ferrari factory gate, driven by Dario Benuzzi. If we were to boil down the entire sprawling mythology of the supercar, this combination of vehicle and place and man would be the resulting pure distillate.

    This is where heritage and future meet. An imperious 12-cylinder engine, a gorgeous two-seat coupe bodyshell to wrap it in, a factory that has been producing such things since 1948, the driver who’s pretty much the company’s longest-serving employee and is widely regarded as the don of supercar factory test drivers - the keeper of Ferrari’s flame and guardian of its soul.

    Photography: Lee Brimble

    This article originally appeared in the December 2012 edition of Top Gear magazine 

  2. But he is no fusty old-timer. As we trundle through the ‘burbs, the radio starts to issue some Italian rap. Benuzzi, rather than grumpily punching the off button, turns it up and starts gently oscillating in his seat. He is a man of our times. But later, the radio goes off (which is OK: Italy’s rappers fall some way short of their compatriots in the supercar trade). Because he’s driving me up some of his favourite test routes, I learn what happens when Ferrari brings 21st-century thinking and processing power to bear on the issue of making a supercar that’ll use its otherworldly 730bhp to accelerate the beating heart of a car lover of any age.

    And then… and then he’ll excuse himself and hand me the key, because he has no time to spare. He’s busy with the next one, the ‘F70’ - successor to the Enzo. So I will be liberated with the F12 for the following 24 hours, to go where I choose.

  3. But first, Benuzzi’s demonstration. The twisting vertiginous roads that cling - not always very securely - to the hillsides above Maranello and Benuzzi’s nearby hometown of Vignola are the motherlode for Ferrari development. Sure they do high-speed aero work in the wind tunnel and increasingly by CFD, and check it at the big ovals. They have the tracks at Fiorano and Mugello. They can computer-model a car, predict its Fiorano time, then modify it and recalculate its lap, all before they’ve built a prototype. But a car is a true Ferrari, Benuzzi insists, only if it can both cope with these bucking ornery roads and inspire its driver as it goes.

    From Levizzano Rangone, we ascend to Madonna di Puianello. On a track, his movements are smooth and liquid, rounding his lap time down by hundredths. But on the road, he’s constantly jinking the wheel, in dialogue with the car. He works the paddles, often short-shifting to use the torque, other times searing out beyond 8,000. He’s quick where he can see ahead, sensible otherwise.

  4. These aren’t fast roads - we’re seldom beyond 80mph. But if the car works here, he says, then he knows it’ll work anywhere. It’s immediately obvious the car uses its spring travel judiciously, the electronic damper regulation keeping the body from crashing out, even in places where the road has been bucked by the crumbling of the land beneath it. Every so often Dario turns to me and grins like he can scarcely believe it. “Fantastico… incredible.”

    I peer into the footwell at the man’s throttle technique. Even around these treacherously surfaced bends the authority of the traction is never broken. Yet Benuzzi’s right foot isn’t fluttering, even as the rear tyres ride the bumps and wet leaves and gravel. Basically, he gets to the apex and just plants it, letting the stability controls sort out this epic battle between 730bhp and a road whose grip changes quickly and unpredictably. As we cannon out of another snake-eyed second-gear curve, he takes one hand off the wheel and gestures as he looks across again: “Perfetto.”

  5. San Dalmazio, Marano sul Panaro, then down the main road to Ponte Samone and up the hairpins towards Zocca. He doesn’t slide the car, and the electronic systems stay turned on. They don’t kill the car, he says, and that’s because they were tuned out here in real life - the traction control working with dampers and e-diff.

    At one point we pause by the monastery in Madonna di Puianello and a monk appears, all huge straggly beard, brown habit, sandals. He smiles and politely asks if he can take a look at the car, apologising that he’s just in his work clothes. I ask Dario if the locals mind that his V12 exhaust rips so frequently through their lovely ancient villages. No. It’s part of what makes this area what it is. And of course it’s what makes a Ferrari what it is.

  6. Just as a Porsche feels like it does because of the roads around Stuttgart and the Black Forest, and you can sense Norfolk in a Lotus, and Michigan in a Corvette, so a good Ferrari carries the spirit of Emilia-Romagna, of these hills and of the fast, straight highways on the plain below. As Dario and I say our goodbyes and I squeeze the F12’s key in my fist, this provenance is exactly what I want to explore.

    That address, Via Abetone Inferiore, is something that always puzzled me from the time I first started picking up cars from the factory 20-odd years ago. Lower Abetone Road. But where the blazes is Abetone? It’s signed all the way from Bologna, but you never see it on a map of Italy.

  7. Turns out Abetone is on the border of Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany, which means it was an international crossing post well into the 19th century. It would be a forgotten village now, but for the fact you can ski there, so it has a few apartment blocks and a cheesy disco-bar called the White Wolf. Today is a perfect warm autumn day, so there’ll be no slush on the road up there, or slow-moving queues of MPVs with skis on the roof. My route traces the historic artery running unbroken from the Austrian border at the Brenner pass, all the way to Abetone, and actually beyond to Pisa and the coast, and every so often in a village centre you pass giant faded signwriting on buildings indicating how far along you are. The section just beyond Abetone is shut annually for a hillclimb. Noble territory for a Ferrari to visit then. Let’s fire up and go. From the Zocca road, it’s back down to cross the Panaro river, then up over the next ridge, another of Benuzzi’s favourites, down to Pavullo to meet the Abetone road again.

  8. At risk of sounding like I’ve quaffed freely at the charming Dario’s Kool-Aid, the F12 is just extraordinary.

    This 6.3-litre V12 is not something you idly take charge of. It can seem like a flick-switch. You’re over there almost before you’ve left here. Bang. It’s thrown you down the road. If you didn’t calibrate your aim just-so before you threw the switch, more fool you. And the immediacy of its rush to the redline can leave you with no time to savour its sounds and character. The performance can seem like a dark, fathomless well. So peer gently over its rim at first. Shift up early. Relax. There’s still an instantaneous answer, and a massively strong one, all to the stadium-venue concert of the mechanics and organ pipes of the V12 chords. Then gradually allow yourself the full-strength brew and open the throttle on this brutal force. A Christmas tree of shift lights illuminates the steering wheel, and a tap on the right-hand paddle brings the next gear and more of the unrelenting surge. It’s the lights that make you shift - the engine sounds delighted to be visiting 8,400 again. A corner now, and barp-barp-barp down through the sawtooth of ratios, exhaust pipes spitting, your forearms bracing you against the steering wheel under the braking loads.

  9. But south of Pavullo I’m thinking my route selection was fatally flawed. Even this engine can’t overtake an endless chain of traffic on a road that never goes straight, especially when there’s another chain coming the other way. Still, there are other ways to appreciate this car, and that’s its strength. It rides pliantly. You can dawdle smoothly. Later that night, when I set off on the long route back to Maranello, it hums along the autostrada, holding its course like an arrow, its cockpit a placid cocoon unless you’ve got the ruddy Italian rap on. In the towns it’s easy to see out, amenable to manoeuvring. Only its idiotic steering-wheel control system mars things. (Example: the indicator switches swap left for right if you have lock on, and the passenger in a RHD Ferrari can’t reach the radio volume. And yes, the sainted Benuzzi was as much responsible as anyone.) But in its major characteristics, this car is refined and very mature.

  10. But right now I don’t want to be grown-up. I want to play. And suddenly all the traffic magically peels away down a valley route and I’ve got the old road to myself. It snakes its way along the sides of the jagged, conical Apeninne landscape, the morning sun dappling its way through deciduous woodland curling into autumnal gold, the distant Monte Cervone lifting itself clear of the pale blue haze of the valleys below. A glorious morning, a glorious road. A magical car.

  11. Some supercars would falter here. The road is epic but it isn’t perfect, and its cracks and dips would take the chin off some of them, and crash out their suspensions. But the Ferrari - especially when you press the ‘rough road’ damper button - finds a way to fly cleanly over the ground, while keeping its tyres and your hands always keyed in. So I steel myself and find the courage to do what Benuzzi does. Get into the corners and then just floor it, and keep it floored. How’s this going to work? I’m fearing it’ll leave the car video-game numbed. No worries. You feel fully wired in. You can swivel the car towards an apex, the steering atom-accurate, feeling all you need from the wheel. And then it just squats and goes, the back tyres scribing their line and sending messages through the seat about how much power they can use. If the manettino is set to wet then sure the car will be cautious, but if it’s cranked through sport to race, everything tautens and the tail definitely edges outward. Correct the wheel a little and it’ll allow you some more slip. It’s not the car doing everything; it’s the car working with you. “I’m not making a car for me to exploit,” Benuzzi explained to me earlier. He’d done that with the 599GTO, an edgy scorpion-tailed slap in the face for anyone whose abilities are shy of his. This one is for us civilians.

  12. It’s all built on the right fundamentals. The F12 has a more rigid body than even the 599, and it’s more compact, and the weight is concentrated in the centre. This keeps it agile. The rack is direct, so Benuzzi and his people had to labour over all the little details from the tyres upward, just to keep it from being nervous and to get the self-centring just so. And because the fundamentals are right, you can actually turn off the controls, and find that it’ll play it for the sideways laughs with a bear-hug friendliness. But when I’ve checked that out, I switch things back on again, because somehow this isn’t that sort of car.

    What sort of car is it? Regal but not intimidating. Blitz-fastbut not scary. Ridiculously brainy but never distant. Far better than me, without patronising me. Breathtakingly beautiful, did I mention that? Confident enough that it doesn’t feel the need to be theatrical or bellicose. Sympathetically usable and untiring mostly - but crazed and noisy when that’s what you want… and you will want, often. It’s surely the suavest supercar ever, and it’s the TopGear Supercar of the Year.

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