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Top Gear drives the fastest Ferrari ever

  1. The world tilts. The warm dawn sun, so peachy and recently risen, sinks back below the parapet; the trees slant, the horizon angles and nothing is the same any more. This twisted perspective isn’t a commentary on the impact the new Ferrari F12 Berlinetta has had on the planet itself, so much as the fact I’ve just driven one, gently, carefully onto the historic banked circuit at Monza.

    This is not a place to drive fast. Not because it’s early and the extensive parkland within which Monza sits currently echoes to the sound of nothing more than the footfalls of joggers and squirrels, nor because a heavy forest of green is slowly reclaiming this place, tendrils of ivy creeping inexorably down the steep concrete. I don’t doubt that the orchestral V12 would find favour amongst all who heard its 8,700rpm dawn chorus - be they man or beast - nor that the F12’s technologically advanced underpinnings could cope with running at speed high on these mossy slopes.

    Photos: Joe Windsor-Williams

    This feature first appeared in the September 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine 

  2. As is often the case with these decaying monuments to motorsport from an earlier age, Monza’s decrepit banking has an aura about it. It’s a place to be experienced in quiet solitude, marvelling at the heroism of those who braved its 38-degree upper banking.

    We didn’t simply choose to come here because Monza provides an iconic backdrop nor because this place of pilgrimage is now 90 years old. Instead, we’re here because it has a particular and indelible place in motorsport history, one that reaches across 52 years, deep into the heart of what the new F12 stands for. It was here in 1960 that American Phil Hill became the last man to win a Grand Prix in a front-engined car.

  3. It was, of course, a Ferrari - the 246 F1. By then it was in its third year of competition, outmoded by the influx of mid-engined (and principally British) talent that quickly proved more agile on twisty tracks. So legend has it that Monza, keen to help give old man Enzo a victory in his home Grand Prix, reopened the outer circuit for the first time since 1956, thus creating a faster, more open, more Ferrari-suited circuit.

    It may be that the story is only apocryphal, of course, but the history books don’t lie: Ferrari bagged a 1-2-3 that September day, and, with that, the front-engined F1 era died. The following year, the 246 was replaced by the mid-engined 156 ‘sharknose’. Ferrari had been forced to conform.

  4. It’s never been that way with the road cars. Consider the F12. Sure, there are front-engined rivals that play their games in the same ballpark - the Aston One-77 you can read about here and the DBS both spring to mind - but really there’s nothing else like the F12, as its power and price dictate that battle lines are drawn against mid-engined rivals, just as they were for the 246 all those years ago. And we know what happened then.

    I know, I know, the F12 Berlinetta looks genteel and calm, but one thing needs to be borne in mind at this point. This is Ferrari’s fastest ever road car. Faster than an F40. Able to see off the 599 GTO. Quicker than an Enzo, even.

  5. Maybe such straight-line ability is to be expected. It has 730bhp, after all, and a double-clutch gearbox of such startling talent that, right now, it’s sharing top billing with the engine in my mental things-I-love-most-about-this-car list. Ferrari claims that as the F12 punches its way to a top speed somewhere beyond 211mph, it will zip past 62mph in 3.1 seconds and 124mph in 8.5 seconds. I reckon this means a 0-100mph time in the six-and-a-bit range. Faster than a McLaren F1, not far off a Pagani Huayra, and pretty much even-stevens with the Lambo Aventador. Hell’s teeth.

    But that’s nothing. What really surprised me during last night’s presentation was that the F12 is also a bit handy around Ferrari’s Fiorano test track. In fact, a 1min 23.0secs lap time makes it faster than an F40 (1.29.6), Enzo (1.24.9) or 599 GTO (1.24.0). Maybe if Enzo had persisted with the 246, Formula One would look very different these days…

  6. So what we have here is a front-engined supercar, one of a diminishing number that still sports a naturally aspirated engine and hooks its V12 powerhouse up to the rear wheels alone. This is a familiar Ferrari template, of course: the F12 replaces the 599 GTB, and if you trace the lineage further back through 575M and 550 Maranello, plus bounce over a periodic gap or two, you arrive at the Daytona, which is quite a place to end up.

    Each of these cars informs the F12, so you could accuse Ferrari of looking backwards for inspiration and failing to update a lay-out and formula that most firms are now moving away from. Time for a more in-depth look. Oddly, the best way to do this is from further away, so I carry out an all-fours assault on the banking, and, having scrabbled messily to the summit, cling on to rusted crash barrier and peer down on the Berlinetta.

  7. It appears small. But then I am far away. Nevertheless, this is usually a visual trick made possible by the fitment of big wheels, and, sure enough, a set of 20s underpins the F12. But my eyes don’t deceive me: the F12 is smaller than the 599, and enjoys dimensions within a whisker of the 550’s. Its profile has more in common with that car, albeit with a slightly less thrusting prow. Slightly.

    The bonnet still defines this car, drawing your eye with its complex, voluptuous curves. Curves that weren’t drawn by the styling department. I’m briefly going to skip forward many hours. It’s the end of the day, and I’ve been summoned to meet Ferrari CEO Amedeo Felisa to tell him what I think of his new baby. This is quite nerve-wracking, but, in the course of what is a perfectly affable exchange of views, he comes up with this: “Let me tell you that when we were starting with the styles, we were in real difficulties, because the shape was OK, but it was not special, so we asked our aerodynamics people, ‘What should be the new ideas?’ And they came back with the Aero Bridge, and, without that, it was not enough.”

  8. So there you have it: aerodynamicists are responsible for the way the F12 looks. Usually designers design, then aero engineers tweak, but, at Ferrari, the two work side by side from the outset. So where the 599 had its famous buttresses, the F12 has Aero Bridge - cuts through the front wings that channel air down into the carved flanks to clean up airflow. Similar aero touches are everywhere. Vents on the back deck allow pressurised air to escape from the rear wheelarches. There are flaps beyond the edges of the front grille that open only when necessary to boost brake cooling. My personal favourite is the central bonnet vent that extracts hot air from the engine, which mixes with air passing over it to reduce pressure build-up at the base of the windscreen - a key aero consideration, apparently. The end result is a drag factor of 0.299Cd and a car that doesn’t look half bad.

  9. Not perfect, though. As I edge gingerly along the top barrier, I glance down and occasionally catch a duff angle. I’m not sure about the faintly Japanese window line and the hint of catfish that exists in the correlation between the full-width grille and juxtaposed headlights. What I am impressed by is how low the bonnet is, how abbreviated the Kamm tail, and, while it lacks the drama and visual titillation of a mid-engined machine, how much sheer presence it has for a car only a foot longer than a GT 86 (if 10 times the price).

    The chirruping birdsong and distant church bells that heralded our arrival at Monza were long ago out-decibelled by the distant tooting horns of Milan’s morning rush hour, and, as peace returns to the wooded parkland, the sun gains altitude, sharp rays sparking off the deep Rosso Berlinetta paintwork. It’s getting hot out here, and even the holes in these optional carbon-framed sports seats aren’t going to prevent clothing sticking to sweaty backs. We need the aircon working flat-out. We need to drive.

  10. Ferrari may insist the F12 is more sports car than GT, but its remit is a broad one that encompasses practicality and daily use. In fact, Ferrari’s research shows that the front-engined V12 two-seater is the most used of all their models. It covers more miles on average and is often driven every day (last night, the 458 Italia was referred to as ‘the Sunday car’). And this means usability matters.

    So it has a hatchback, a 320-litre boot and deftly designed load separator/parcel shelf that can be removed completely, allowing 500 litres of clobber (ideally stashed in the optional fitted luggage). My one bag, plus Joe’s several, fit happily in the well-shaped space.

  11. I fit slightly less happily in the cabin. I’ve used these sports seats with their fang-like under-thigh protuberances before and always found them rather hard. They look superb, of course, even from the back, but with minimal adjustment available, you need to fit them rather than them you, and I’m too narrow and short. Six foot and 14 stone would be about perfect, I reckon.

    Bar some funky new air vents, the cabin is largely free from surprises. If you’ve peered inside a 458 or FF, you’ll recognise the steering wheel and dash lay-out: no column stalks and just one central dial - a bright yellow rev-counter - flanked by a pair of info screens. It’s a bit of a fiddle, but you get used to the way it works. Certainly, as we slipped away from Maranello at 4.30 this morning, I was grateful for this familiarity, able to trigger full beam easily, find somewhere within reach for phone and wallet, plus select the softer of the two damper settings.

  12. I took it easy on the cruise northeast to Monza, mainly because I wanted to see if the F12 could do soothing, would permit me to cover 125 pre-dawn miles while resting my elbows, would look after me on camber changes and the like (it did), but also because, in the back of my brain, a simple bit of maths kept tapping persistently on my frontal lobe: 730bhp + rear-wheel drive = …

    It is a forbidding equation, even if you have 315/35 tyres through which to dilute the power’s influence. But, from the outset, it was happily manageable - it was the car the engineers had promised me they’d created. Accessible. Why? Because it was felt that only good drivers could get the best from the 599, so the aim with the F12 was to make it friendlier to drive, and give owners the full-fat Ferrari experience without the associated fear factor.

  13. That’s as may be, but you don’t point a £239,736 Ferrari into the tail end of Milan’s rush hour without some measure of trepidation. The bonnet looks flatter from this side of the windscreen and soon dips out of sight, but the F12 isn’t occupying too much road width, and keeping an eye on weaving scooters is easy, thanks to that big back window. Gearbox in Auto, manettino in Sport and the F12 hums and purrs out towards the autostrada, dispersing precisely as much or as little of the 6.3-litre’s torque as you require. This is the true genius of this engine. Not that it produces 730bhp and 509lb ft at 6,000rpm, but how accurately it can be measured out. Honestly, I reckon I could drive the F12 in ski boots and not fluff it up.

    Throttle response is so accurate, so precise, and the power is so readily available that accelerating is as much thought process as physical interaction with the car. This means that even when you do nail the pedal, the resulting snap of acceleration isn’t vicious - you’re somehow ready for it, fingers poised on the paddle to grab the gear that the change-up lights will oh-so-soon be demanding.

  14. During Top Gear’s exclusive technical briefing last night (seven of them, one of me), the engine briefing went on for three-quarters of an hour and ran to 17 pages of detailed PowerPoint presentation, but amid the talk of 200 bar pressure for the direct-injection system, a new scavenge pump for the dry sump, hydroformed exhaust manifolds, six-hole injectors and tuned engine harmonics to improve the acoustics, one particular fact stuck with me: the response time to get to 90 per cent of maximum acceleration.

    Just me, then. But I’m writing this, so you’ll have to bear with me. As long as you have 2,000rpm on the dial and are in any gear up to fifth, you’ll have near-maximum possible thrust in under 0.7 seconds. An equivalent turbo car takes up to three seconds to get up to speed, and other, peakier V12s are nearly that tardy. But, in the F12, such is the torque and response that you plant your foot and you’re there, enjoying the squashed-internals sensation in a jiffy.

  15. As I’m about to demonstrate to the A4, where other road users want to see the F12 Berlinetta work, and work hard. Phones are pointed - behind each an encouraging smile - and when a gap presents itself, the F12 fires through it as though twanged there by a zen archer. This is bottomless, endless acceleration of the very best kind, although what this any-rev, any-gear ability means is that there’s less reason to hold on for 8,000rpm.

    I said less, not none. Clearly 8,000rpm in a V12 Ferrari is a special place. Especially now that head of engine development Jean-Jacques His (he of the 45-minute presentation) and his team have worked so long and so hard on the sound. This is brutal noise, familiar to the FF in its strident top notes, but zappier and more nape-prickling.

  16. It is a sublime thing to use, this engine, almost worth the entry price on its own, good enough that using it feels like a privilege. With one minor drawback. Pipes on each inlet duct now channel induction noise straight back to the front bulkhead, but it’s too indistinct and muffled, overpowered by the trumpeting exhausts.

    Bergamo heaves into view, and the half tank we’ve used in 150 miles (call it 16.5mpg) is replenished. Up ahead, beyond interminable villages and countless old Fiat Pandas, lies the Passo di San Marco.

  17. Getting there is a headache, but adding 2,000 metres of altitude always seems to make things better. At the summit, I join the few tourists and marvel at the view: this car in this scenery - it just doesn’t get much better. It makes me think of all the effort that’s gone into the F12, all the years of development that have resulted in a car 70kg lighter than its predecessor, that carries more weight over the back axle despite being front-engined (46:54 distribution) and enjoys a centre of gravity a literal finger’s width higher than the 458’s. All this expertise is now at my command. That’s a good, good feeling.

    Remember what I said about Ferrari making this car accessible? They’ve gone about it in a counterintuitive way. You expect it to be softer, but, in fact, it rolls 30 per cent less than the 599 they’d said was too challenging, has a 30 per cent stiffer structure, an even more direct steering rack, plus faster reactions. This sounds like the recipe for a car that will fling me off the road and deposit me in the reservoir I can see far below if I so much as look at the manettino in a funny way. But the opposite is true. This is a 730bhp car you can really drive - and drive hard - on a mountain pass.

  18. It’s all down to how carefully and exactly it’s been honed. As with the engine, Ferrari has decided that it’s best to give drivers the most accurate steering, brake and chassis information possible and trust them to work it out from there. Muscling 509lb ft out of an open-sided hairpin should be utterly terrifying with steering that had seemed somewhat darty hours previously, but now it’s a natural process. Personally, I’d like a bit more weight to the steering for the extra sense of reassurance that would bring - and the same applies to the carbon-ceramic brakes, too. But I admire Ferrari’s standpoint here: it didn’t want the F12 to challenge drivers, but to deliver its thrills readily and willingly. It does that spectacularly well. Brush the Brembos, and they bite hard - yet another perfectly modulated component in a car that seems to be constructed of nothing else.

  19. So, I’m free to speed confidently back and forth, using more of the V12’s shove than I would have ever thought possible, relishing the way the nose spears at every apex, the whole car so placeable and perfectly balanced. Traction is fabulous; the electronics that underpin the chassis are thankfully undetectable - the whole thing is a wailing, rampant, compact, tight ball of energy that devours this road and fills me with perfect memories. Especially when I shift down and the savage crackles echo back like cannon fire.

  20. And yet the front-engined Ferrari is not as vivid and exciting as a mid-engined machine - you have to sit higher to see over an engine that’s mounted closer to your toes than your ears. But noris it meant to be. This is a different type of supercar. A genuine everyday machine for the well-heeled that includes a free seven-year maintenance package (really), the ability to conduct conversations on the move and real long-range ride comfort. Front engines may have fallen out of favour in Formula One, but they’ve got a bright future with Ferrari.

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