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Richard Hammond on Ferrari F40 vs Porsche 959

  1. How do I explain what this photoshoot represents?
    To some – maybe you – it’s just two red cars, fairly old ones, on what could be
    the TopGear track. To others – again, maybe you – it’s an image so full of
    potency, testosterone, glamour and power that you’ve taken your copy straight
    to the lavatory for a bit of privacy and you are most emphatically not going to
    be reading the words, just looking at the pictures. It’s a knotty one.

    Words: Richard Hammond
    Photos: Justin Leighton

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

  2. You see, to
    encounter the Porsche 959 and Ferrari F40, together, making their wondrous
    music on our humble little track at the same time, is like walking into your
    local to find Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton ripped off their respective tits on
    tequila, locked in a guitar battle over Gemma Arterton. OK, well that’s a bit
    weird, but you take my point: to those who remember them, this is the most
    significant pairing of cars imaginable. 

    Let me try one
    last time to paint a picture for you that will convey the significance of this moment. If in 25 years’ time you were presented with a magazine feature showing
    the Pagani Huayra and the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport, then you would hop up and
    down, waving the pages in your kids’ faces and telling them what the cars meant
    to you. These two are the Veyron and Huayra of their time. The ultimates. No
    doubt about it.

  3. Let me take
    them individually, ‘cos talking about them both at the same time is a bit too
    trouser-tinglingly tricky. The Porsche 959 was first born in 1983 as a race
    car, and what you see here is a homologation special - one of those road cars
    that only exists so that a manufacturer can qualify to enter their race car in
    a particular series. The series in question was Group B Rallying, and by the
    time the race car was ready, it was a) too heavy compared to the Lancia Delta
    Integrale, and b) the series had been closed down. Nonetheless, Porsche had
    committed to producing the 959 road car to get through the FIA regulations. It
    did rally in the end: Porsche put it in the Paris-Dakar in 1986, which it
    promptly failed to finish before going on to claim first, second and sixth the
    next year.

  4. This, then,
    should have been viewed as something I can’t write here, but that rhymes with
    fluster-cluck. The only thing is, the road car Porsche had designed to get
    homologation was immediately reckoned to be the most technologically advanced
    road-going car ever produced. It introduced technology that has gone on to
    define the 911 through the decades. Twin turbos boosted the 2.9-litre flat six
    to 444bhp.

  5. Like modern supercars, the body was made from exotic, cutting-edge materials to keep weight down: aluminium, Aramid - a hugely strong synthetic-fibre material most often used in body armour at the time - Kevlar composites and Nomex. These components, and the fact that the wheels were made from magnesium, kept the weight at just 1,450kg, allowing the car a 0-62 time of 3.9 seconds and a massive top speed of 197mph. The gearbox contained six gears, and the four-wheel-drive system - since introduced on all 911 turbos - used a torque-split system still reckoned to be pretty advanced today.

  6. And, speaking of today, it really does feel, sound and drive
    like a modern supercar. Despite being the product of an era dominated by images
    of crass bankers with 911s and aggression issues, it’s creamy smooth and feels
    planted and confident. I anticipated a terrifying surge of acceleration as the
    turbos spooled up and deposited all 444bhp in my lap in one big lump. But no,
    the power comes on insistently and quickly but not in a panic. The
    four-wheel-drive system splits the power between the wheels according not only
    to grip but also to steering angle, throttle position, cornering g-force and
    how much boost the turbos are throwing into the mix. And, despite the
    outrageous performance, the result is a civilised, very grown-up, very
    sophisticated drive, even by today’s standards. What must this have felt like
    in 1987, when it arrived as the fastest production car in the world?

  7. Well, owners didn’t have long to savour the moment, because
    just eight months after the 959 arrived, the Ferrari F40 rocked up and stole
    its crown. To celebrate Ferrari’s 40th birthday, here was a 200mph car built
    not to gain race homologation, but seemingly for the pure, unadulterated joy of
    creating the fastest, sharpest road car in the world. It was razor-edged and
    stripped of everything but the absolute bare essentials: a 2.9-litre twin turbo
    V8 and a steering wheel.

  8. The original concept versions had non-opening plastic
    windows and bits of string to open the doors. This degree of self-flagellation
    was ultimately compromised when it went into production, but only as far as
    fitting manual-winding windows and straps in place of string. And remember,
    this was no homologation special. It was loosely based on the 288GTO Evoluzione
    Group B prototype competition car. As that never actually raced, Ferrari spoke
    to Pininfarina and got them to fit the race car’s underpinnings with a body and
    seats, and so, for my money, one of the most classically beautiful,
    aggressively styled supercars ever built was born.

  9. Many credit the F40 with being the last modern Ferrari
    overseen and commissioned by old man Enzo before he died in 1988, and no doubt
    about it, there is a romance, a wonderful sense of specialness that pervades
    the F40. Enzo’s legacy. Prowling about the TopGear car park, it has all the
    presence of a quietly furious lion at a wildebeests’ watering hole.

  10. And, just as it was in 1989 when it first hit the
    track at Laguna Seca for a round of the IMSA, it is awesome. Back then, it was
    driven by Jean Alesi as an ‘LM’ model, finishing third behind a pair of Audi 90
    spaceframed specialist racers and beating a field full of mental machinery in
    relatively modest modified trim. But here, evenin ‘normal’ road-going spec, the
    noise, the feeling of mechanical purity and precision, the lack of anything in
    the way of a techy ‘interface’ between the driver and that magnificent 474bhp
    V8, makes this as visceral and edgy an experience as the 959 is refined and

  11. The reasons are many, and not just because you pull the
    doors shut with that sliver of red fabric. The F40 is just as obsessed with
    materials-science as the 959, but in the pursuit of lightness more than
    anything else. The panels are - just like the clever bits of the über-Porsche -
    made from aluminium, carbon and Kevlar for strength and rigidity. The ‘glass’
    is actually plastic, and the lack of carpet, significant trim or entertainment
    system mean that you are exposed - raw and quivering - to that guttural V8 and
    its twin IHI blowers.

  12. It is, as you’d expect, pretty hardcore to drive. Heavy steering at slow speeds translates into something mind-reading when you go faster; the gearbox is hugely mechanical, clanging between gears like you’re slamming a bolt home on a particularly massive rifle. Something loaded for bear. Or perhaps mammoth. The F40 weighs just 1,100kg - less than half the mass of a Veyron - and has nearly 500bhp, produced at 7,000rpm. So it’s vicious and a bit silly, but childishly thrilling: 0-62mph in less than four seconds, 0-120mph in 11 seconds (faster than that 959) and the first road-legal production car to break 200mph.

  13. It sounds like it. After a bit, my ears were cringing. It
    may be a piece of Italian exotica, it may have cost more than the average house
    when new, and it may have sentimental links with the maestro himself, old man
    Enzo, but it is brutal. And wonderful.

    And so there they are: the sophisticated, techy Porsche that
    cost twice as much to build as Porsche sold it for, is the Bugatti Veyron; the
    Ferrari F40, a turbo-charged razor fight, is the Pagani Huayra. Legends both.
    Don’t you forget it.

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