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James May

James on: improving his Ferrari 458

Published: 07 Nov 2013

Having lived with it for a bit, I can say that there isn’t much I don’t like about the Ferrari 458.

Yes, I know, and I hear you all crying as one nation: the buttons on the steering wheel are a bit silly. Hammond and Clarkson have complained about them, but really, what’s the problem? The left indicator is on the left and the right one is on the right. Most of the time your hands are in the quarter-to-three position, so it makes a certain amount of sense.

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Lots of BMW and Harley motorcycles have separate indicator switches at opposite ends of the handlebars, and no one thinks that’s daft. The headlight switch is also on there, and the wiper switch. They have to be somewhere. And there’s that Mantovani knob that sets up the chassis, but that just stays in the Sport position.

I know, it’s all a bit of a sop to F1 fantasists, so you could argue that it’s a bit juvenile. But if you’re worried about being juvenile, you wouldn’t have a supercar in the first place, because they’re ultimately for people with arrested development and who don’t fly fighter aircraft.

I find the controls for managing the satnav and music a bit convoluted and badly positioned. They’re over on the right, which means your passenger can’t work that stuff for you. You are forced to do it yourself, which is quite tricky because most of your capacity for logical thought is being used up trying to remember what all those buttons on the steering wheel do.

Meanwhile, your passenger does have access to the control knob and display that deals with the current status of the traction control, various engine temperatures and a trip computer. I don’t want Clarkson to touch any of that stuff. They should be the other way round. 

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But my only serious complaint is that it does seem terribly wide. I don’t mean in the anthropological sense – as in “Mike Brewer? He’s a bit wide” – but literally that it’s too far from one side to the other, like many of my mates these days.

I’m actually not quite sure why this two-seater ended up so big. When I look at the engine – they put a glass bit at the back so you can check this too, next time you come across one – it’s nothing like as broad as the car. Yet the two occupants sit quite far apart. Baffling.

There is a well-understood law that is something like the opposite of diminishing returns at work in a supercar. The engine is powerful, so the tyres must be fat, and everything must be kept low so it doesn’t fall over in corners and so on, and you end up with a Ferrari 458. Lamborghinis generally arrive at similar dimensions.

So not only does it barely make it through the garage door with around half an inch to spare each side, it’s also slightly intimidating on those winding little roads where a Fezza ought to be great fun. I didn’t spend all this money on a car to only enjoy it if there’s no one coming the other way.

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The answer, I’ve decided – wait for it – is a smaller Ferrari. Why not? If we ditch the requirement for a ludicrous top speed, we can have a delicious, high-revving small V8 of around 2.5 litres in a modest, lightweight and very chuckable car. It will be more than an MR2, because it will still have the gut-wrenching styling of a Ferrari and will still be anointed with exquisite Ferrari details, like beautiful instruments and those Daytona seats.

Chris Evans, the celebrated radio broadcastist, would now bounce up and down in his chair shouting: “You mean like the Dino, you fool!” and yes, I suppose I do. Something a bit like the Dino. There you go. But then I came across a picture of a 1966 Honda S800 roadster, and it struck me: not a new Dino, but a miniaturised front-engined Ferrari. How fabulous would that be?

Soichiro Honda, after all, embraced some similar philosophies to Ferrari’s. He liked short-stroke and high-revving engines, and saw that as a way to extract impressive power from small capacity. That was the legacy of his motorcycle-racing work. 

It would mean that low-range torque would be a bit lacking, but so what? It’s a Ferrari, not a diesel-engined car for David Brent, “good at the motorway cruise”. You want to be encouraged to wring its neck and revel in the fizz.

Imagine that: sitting in a perfectly proportioned but pint-sized Ferrari and watching its little bonnet swell as it sniffs the air at 9,000rpm. Never mind the LaFerrari. This would be LaFerrariPiccola. Bella.

I tested the idea down the pub. “You mean a bit like an MX-5?” said someone. Yes. A bit like that. But with a more complicated steering wheel, to make me feel special.

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