The Ferrari F12 Berlinetta versus... a train
One of the fastest Ferraris ever made goes loco in a TG challenge...
Posted: 29 Apr 2014
A few thousand horsepower of stout locomotive versus 731bhp of bright red supercar. An overnight blast from one end of the country to the other: one on rails, one on roads, and a writer in each. Inverness to Euston, one shot, no unnecessary stopping.
This is how we'll spend our time with one of the first Ferrari F12s to reach Britain since we first drove it a few months back, answering some important questions: can Ferrari's fastest-ever road car do a decent impression of a GT and outrun a relentless train? What's it like on the finest driving roads in the country? Will the bloke in the Ferrari get carried away and be placed in a small prison cell for the remainder of time by incensed Scottish traffic police? Despite the potential for this little trip to go very badly indeed, hands were hoisted high in the office as soon as a plan was hatched...
DR: A new Ferrari, in the correct colour with the correct number of cylinders, through the night, on empty roads? How could I say no? I consider all this from my seat on the 20:26 from Inverness to London. Through the steamy window, I stare at the F12 parked beside the platform, full of fuel and unfortunately also full of Piers Ward. He and photographer Lee will handle the car. I'll be your willing correspondent on the train. Dammit.
PW: This will not end well for you. I have seen the future, and in it, you will be a loser. A well-rested loser. But a loser nonetheless.
DR: Ah, but this isn't just any old train. This is the Caledonian Sleeper, a quarter of a mile of rolling stock plus a diesel-electric motor up front. One of two remaining sleeper services in Britain, it usually dispatches the 569-mile journey in under 12 hours through sheer, grinding monotony. We have toilets on board and a dining car. No traffic to concern myself with. Which should give the car something to worry about if it has to wiggle its way down the country through speed camera and traffic-infested A-roads and motorways. Unless Piers does something risky.
PW: A ridiculous thought. This is going to be like relieving a toddler of his favourite brand of biscuits. Quick jaunt down the motorway, job done. The seats are comfy, we're well stocked with food and water, and the aircon is set to an unsteamy 20°C. I'm already enjoying this. As Dan and the Caledonian ease out of the station with a gentle burr of diesel power, I fire up the satnav and find a route that promises 652 miles of motorway. Ouch. Immediately, I see a shortcut across country. At least, it looks like a shortcut. Still, that train is already nearly entirely gone, so I need to get a shift on. A quick twist of the key and a prod of the wheel-mounted engine-start button and, wham, the F12 fires up with the ambiguity of a modest nuclear warhead. Dan - your train is boring me already. It's 20.27, and we're off....
DR: Evidently Piers is enjoying the F12, which is currently leaving streaky black lines down the station exit road. Ruffian. If he keeps on like that, the Ferrari will be in a ditch by dawn, and I'll win. There'll be none of that behaviour on the sleeper. I'll be dining in the lounge car this evening and - as it turns out - sharing a table with an actual Knight of the Realm, complete with tweed jacket and yellow cravat. Genteel travel personified. Gin is poured, and we settle into the long ride. He's made this journey for years, since "nice chaps in waistcoats served with serviettes over their arms", and as we slip gently out of Inverness and into the embrace of rural Scotland, he lists the roster of beasts - wildcats, otters, stags and the like - lurking in the surrounding Cairngorms, a slightly dumpy collection of mountains that streak by like iced Christmas puds.
PW: Wildlife, you say? Well, yes, seen some of it, and the Ferrari is dodging most of them right now. It's only 21:02, and I'm already feeling more than a little stressed, as Scotland's fauna hurls itself before the F12, on twisty roads that could probably do without the wildlife chicanes. It's getting dark. I'm dodging frogs and other, less identifiable stuff and have immediately discovered two things: one, the F12 is awesome and sounds like an F1 car on steroids. Two, this is not a bloody shortcut.
DR: It's 21:10 and I'm in Aviemore. The gin tastes good in Aviemore. I can feel the tension being leached from me as the train's rhythm mutters away underneath. I have no idea where the Ferrari is. I'm not actually sure that I care...
PW: Dammit. Dan's just texted to say he's already in Aviemore. We're miles behind, somewhere in the Highlands or, possibly, Cornwall. I'm not exactly sure, and currently very unhappy with map-reader Lee. On the plus side, though, he's worked out our porn-star names. This, as you may know, is a popular game. Name of first pet plus mother's maiden name equals comedy alias. I'm prevaricating. We've got lost in the first 50 miles, on a straight piece of road.
DR: Piers, it would appear, is actually Whopper White. I share this with my dining companion, who politely excuses himself and retires for the night. The train ploughs southwards, pounding the wooden sleepers in a quick waltz. Producing around 3,500bhp, the Class 67 locomotive would ordinarily dwarf any car engine. But the Ferrari's 6.2-litre V12 isn't just any car engine, so the train is actually just four-and-a-half times more powerful. Considering the Ferrari weighs roughly 56 times less than the engine unit alone, and isn't pulling 16 massive trailers, it should be cresting the hilltops like a freshly dispatched fighter jet right now. We, meanwhile, make brief stops at Dalwhinnie and Pitlochry to collect more nocturnal travellers.
PW: For the record, Dan's dirty pseudonym is Lady Night. And I think I know where we are. Scotland. As you were.
DR: Despite the wining and dining, this isn't quite the Orient Express. On the outside, it's a streak of purple to match the freshest Highland heather. Inside, it's a bit... drab. The lights are dim, and the curtains are grey. Once upon a time, this would've been a very romantic journey, full of polished wood, moody candlelight and ladies in nice hats. Today, it's a touch more utilitarian, but there's still something charming - romantic even - about it. People talk to one another, not to their phones. And there are no TVs - just many windows through which to view nature's own film set. Whopper calls. The time is 23:15.
PW: I can feel your presence, bearing down on me. I don't like it.
DR: That's because the road runs roughly parallel to the track for the first 100 miles or so.
PW: I can't see you. We're 10 miles from Perth. I think.
DR: I'm in Perth. The gin also tastes good in Perth. But we'll have to stop here for a bit to restock the foie gras tray or something, so you should leapfrog me soon.
PW: Good. I need that - we're still staring down the barrel of another 460-odd miles and over seven hours' driving. Annoying, because I could have already pulled out a lead if I hadn't ignored the satnav and headed off on my intensely enjoyable but time-wasting pseudo-shortcut. Basically, I ignored the A9 and have been exercising my glands along the back roads, via Tomintoul, Braemar and Blairgowrie. Actually, I won't apologise. Not until we actually lose, at least, because this is what the F12 was made for; roads with plenty of vision - twisty enough to be interesting, fast and open enough to be exciting. But less than fantastic right now. It's raining, foggy, and more importantly, dark.
Our little diversion is ruining our average speed, and, just as importantly, it's making me seriously tired. Dodging a combination of hares, deer and various other wildlife means I can't relax for even a split second. There are no street lights, no catseyes to guide our way. It's rare to find a stretch where there are even painted lines down the edges - grey road blends into dark grass, with no indication where one ends and the other begins. And because the Ferrari arrived from Italy just yesterday, the headlights aren't set up correctly. Which would have been great news if we'd been looking for roosting woodpeckers, but is less handy for working out where the road goes.
DR: My train has excellent headlights. Apparently. Tell me more about your car.
PW: It's properly fantastic. Best car I've ever driven? It's in the top five, certainly. The way it takes every single good point from the Ferrari 599 - the engine, the accessibility of the speed, the way it flatters mortal drivers - and adds in yet more goodness is impressive. There's a balance to the chassis, power and steering that belies the front-engined layout - the F12 might have a great big lump of V12 out in front, but it's set so far back in the chassis that it feels like you're sat in the middle of the action. It's the most mid-engined-feeling front-engined car I've ever driven.
DR: Very good. How was your dinner?
PW: Houmous. Two types, fed to me by a man called Lee, which is less than ideal. Don't interrupt. The dual-clutch gearbox is slick and rapid, but don't expect any rifle-bolt changes like in the 458. The F12 is smoother, more mature. The gearbox is superb on this car, but it isn't as integral to the character as it is on the 458. The V12 engine, on the other hand... now that's important: 6.2 litres, 731bhp, 509lb ft, in a car that weighs 1,630kg. Fast? Just a tad. Accelerate hard, and it feels like the F12 could give a neat non-surgical facelift - the 3.1-second 0-62mph time is oh-so doable, time and time again. I've tried it a lot. I have to keep stopping to read the map, or Lee gets houmous-loaded fingerprints over all the important junctions.
DR: That's nice. Anyway, it's midnight, the Caledonian and I are somewhere around Edinburgh, and I'm calling it a night. A sailor's-stagger down the shoulder-width corridor leads me to my sleeper cabin. It might be smaller than an average prison cell, but the bed's comfy and the door locks. Have you even caught up with me yet? Do you even know where you are?
PW: Sort of. I've also discovered a new secret weapon, because I've just explored the last inch of throttle travel. Before now, I simply hadn't needed all the pace, and three-quarter throttle felt like more than enough. But in the interests of science... well, suffice it to say, all sorts of chaos lurks in an F12's full-bore acceleration. It's even enough to make you (briefly) question the logic of buying one. Superlative engineering achievement it might be, but it does make you wonder what all the point of this is. It's utterly brilliant, but both my talent and the world will run out a long time before the Ferrari gets to the edge of its envelope.
DR: Try harder.
PW: Aren't you asleep? This twisty road is coming to an end. The sky's glowing orange in the distance. Sunrise!
DR: Or the lights of a town?
PW: Oh, good point. But we're reeling you in somewhere near Glasgow. Overtaking is definitely imminent this time. In fact, I think we just swapped places.
DR: Click. Brrr... Zzzz...
PW: Dan's gone quiet, and I assume he's gone to bed. The swine. Which is where the grind really starts in the F12. Edinburgh at midnight. Glasgow at 1am. Cities disappear into the background, but we're making up time and pulling out a lead: 150 miles in the first three hours turns into 150 miles in the next two-and-a-half and that includes a fuel stop. He might not know it, but Dan's stopped in Edinburgh while another train couples onto his, for the haul to London. So we reach the M6 while he's somewhere north of Berwick. Things are looking up for the Scuderia.
It's a happier F12 cabin that greets 2am. Lee settles into the passenger seat, we've got a full tank, Fleetwood Mac's Greatest Hits is on the iPod and the F12 reveals its GT side. Suspension set to Bumpy Road to soften the dampers, V12 engine note nicely subdued in the background, the F12 devours motorways as easily as the best German saloons. Somewhere around Penrith, the eyelids start to droop, so Lee takes over. Good news, because there's been a large black crow flying in front of the car for the past few minutes, and I don't remember the M6 being this bendy. I think I might be overtired. I wake up around Preston. Fortunately, the crows have disappeared. It's 3am, and it feels like we've broken the back of the journey. Technically, that's true, but the nav reads 228 miles to go, and we're still above Liverpool. Liverpool is in the North, and we need to be in the South. There's been no word from Dan, though according to our calculations, he should be somewhere around Newcastle.
DR: At this point, I believe I was into my third dream. Something about two men feeding each other houmous off their fingers...
PW: Trains have big advantages; there are lot of passengers, and they only need one driver. So does the F12, but that person is me. And I'm starting to lose the will. We carry on, mile after mile, unlit stretch of motorway blending into unlit stretch of motorway. There is other traffic out here, but it's mainly lorries - few cars are venturing out during the witching hour. Fuel stations come and go, the only time we're static. It's an odd feeling, standing still in the eerie quiet, after doing motorway speeds for hours on end. But eventually things start looking up. As we hit the M6 toll, the sun is starting to make an appearance. Still no word from Dan, though. Time for his 5am alarm call...
DR: Hello. Just enjoying some juice and tea after a successfully unmolested sleep. Managed about five hours. But lying at 90 degrees to the direction of travel - like a damsel tied across the tracks - meant I was almost tipped off the bed a few times when the brakes came on. Lovely sunrise, though. Where are you?
PW: Somewhere just south of Birmingham. My eyes are full of grit. Also my brain.
DR: Ah. That's a shame. Things are a little more civilised on the train, and definitely smell less of unwashed man. Britain continues to slide by the window, a constant film reel of sunrise landscape. Cows. Mist. Fields. Cows. The loco steams on, topping 90mph, although it's taken the slower east coast mainline today instead of the usual west coast route, due to planned engineering works. A couple of hours later, the golden countryside turns grey and brown as we reach the southern commutervilles. Into London we go, looping through the north of town and into some lengthy sidings near Wembley stadium. The engine detaches from the front while another joins the rear, pulling all 16 carriages the last few miles down the tracks. This may ruin my chance of victory.
PW: We're in London. It's 6:45am. And I appear, despite having lived in London for years, unable to find Euston railway station. Or indeed my arse with both hands.
DR: Moving out of Wembley now. I could call Piers. I don't.
PW: Aaaagh. Where's the entrance to Euston? Quick left down Melton Street, look for the right turn into the station. Sail gaily past it. Reverse. Turn right. A barrier? Get it sorted, Lee. Oh for goodness' sake... I'm not losing now...
DR: We hit the stoppers in Euston, and a little tea spills over my cup. So I gather my bags, reach through the window to undo the door handle and step off... to be greeted by a shiny F12 and a ruined Piers, already on the platform, grinning like a tired loon.
PW: Still keen on your train, Read? I want to do a victory dance, but my feet are apparently made of concrete. The same stuff as my eyelids. We got here at 7:20, a good hour before the train. The car won. And in style.
DR: Ah. I appear to have been vanquished. But, yes, the trainis still the thing to have. It might have lost some of its old glory, but this Sleeper still does a proper job. If nothing else, it's a very productive way of going to bed. Nod off here, wake up there. All for about 150 quid for a first-class ticket. In a world of driverless pods and charmless airports, it's a uniquely old-fashioned way to travel. Mind you, you could say the same thing about the F12. Point your long, V12 bonnet down an empty road and off you go. Just glorious noise and energy and good looks. Would you choose it over a train? If you read TopGear, of course. But like an old record player, the sleeper service is still a decent thing to have around. On the right night, in the right mood, you wouldn't have it any other way. Now, where are those Ferrari keys?
Words: Dan Read and Piers Ward
Photos: Lee Brimble