Ferrari 599 GTO driven
A Ferrari GTO is a rare beast – this 599 version is only the third in 63 years. We track it down in Tuscany, but Stig also has the scent...
Words: Bill Thomas
Photography: Joe Windsor-WilliamsAdvertisement - Page continues below
In the 16 long years I've been doing this job, I've never looked forward to anything more than the launch of this car. Never. I woke up at 5am excited as a six-year-old kid at Christmas - and that was two weeks before the plane flew to Florence. The night before I was due to drive it, I woke up at precisely 3:37am and lay there in the hotel room grinning, trying to get back to sleep but not really caring whether I did or not. Counting dark alloy GTO 10-spoke wheels did the trick.
There have only been three GTOs in Ferrari's 63 years of building road cars and this is the third. You probably know that already, so we won't bore you with a history lesson here. It's enough to just say that it has 661bhp and runs from 0-124mph in under 10 seconds. No history required.
If we were being cynical, all Ferrari needs to do here is make the standard 599 GTB a tad lighter, a bit more powerful and harder-looking, then plonk that exclusive badge on it - and the cars would sell out even with this heavy price tag of £299,280 in base spec. And all 599 examples did indeed sell out, within months of the car being announced. Wow, 599 x £299,280 equals £179,700,000 of cash, and why not? This company, like any other, is in business to turn a profit. Still, it's a big badge to live up to.Advertisement - Page continues below
Ah, the badge. GTO stands for ‘Gran Turismo Omologato', the last word meaning ‘homologation'. Ferrari is saying that this car is a ‘homologated' version of the track-only 599XX special. Well, no it's not, because the need for homologation is defined by the rule-makers of a race series, who demand that a certain number of road car versions of the racer are built to make the competition car legal. Ferrari hasn't ever raced the 599XX, nor will it ever. So the new GTO is not a ‘homologation' version of the 599XX at all.
Does it matter? Probably not. Let's get a handle on that 599XX first. Knowing that the GTO takes a lot of stuff from that car is enough to get anyone excited.
The XX is a high-end, track-only, £1.4m development ‘mule', featuring some of the most advanced technology ever built into a car. It is set up like a fly-by-wire fighter jet. That is, it's designed to be far superior to a ‘normal' car dynamically with its electronic systems turned on, with the sacrifice being instability with them disengaged. In fighter jets like the Eurofighter they call it ‘relaxed stability', where computer control intervenes constantly to keep the aircraft trimmed in normal flight in a way no human could - but when it comes to manoeuvrability, the thing is incredible, far better than aircraft designed to be naturally stable. Same with the XX's chassis agility - the ESP systems are integrated into the suspension design from the start to help sort things out for the driver into, through and beyond the apex of a corner.
Talking to Marc Gene, Ferrari's F1 test driver, about the 599XX was interesting. Apart from very obviously loving it to bits, the Spaniard said he'd find it impossible to lap a circuit faster with its stability system turned off than with it on. He said he might be able to get close once in a while, but never over a series of laps. So let's get this straight - the car's stability systems are so advanced and quick and integral to the car's chassis design, and the thing is so pointy, that even a demonic F1 driver with the reactions of a rabid squirrel can't go faster round a track with them switched off.Advertisement - Page continues below
The GTO has a similar set-up. The elements are an F1-derived traction control system integrated with an electronic differential - called F1-Trac, as seen on the 430 Scuderia and now the 458 - with advanced ESP (electronic stability control) and SCM2 suspension control. The latter uses magnetorheological dampers (there's one for a spelling bee) which change the viscosity of a fluid within the damper in reaction to a magnetic field. It works in a millisecond (literally), giving instant reaction to the road surface. The standard 599 has similar dampers, but the whole thing has been ‘XXified' for the GTO, with three new accelerometers and new advanced software. The GTO also has superior carbon-ceramic Brembo brakes, complete with special carbon-fibre cooling inlet rams and ‘donut' aero brake coverings. And the car is 100kg lighter.
Like the XX, the GTO's new suspension was designed from the outset to work with the stability-control system. Most of the chassis control work has been concentrated at the front end - Matteo Lanzavecchia, Ferrari's chief chassis engineer, talks about the ‘power' of the front end, its ability to turn the car and generate G-force. The front tyres on the GTO are 285/30s and 9.5in wide, compared with 245/35s at 8.0in wide on the standard 599. So the GTO's front rubber is about halfway in width between the GTB's and the XX's. At the rear, the width has gone up from 11.0in to 11.5in. So the relative ‘power' of the front end has increased a lot more than the rear - it gives a 20 per cent increase in lateral G for any given steering input over the GTB, and a 20 per cent reduction in the time it takes the car to settle. The steering ratio itself is unchanged.Advertisement - Page continues below
So the thing's turn-in should be phenomenal. Is the GTO faster with the stability control system on than with it off, like the XX? I put the question to Gene. Not quite, he says. It's not tuned to such an extreme level, so he could go quicker with the system off in the GTO, using his own freakish skill. Remember, this car has to be controllable by ordinary - even rubbish - drivers who might choose to switch everything off on the road. In the wet. The point is that the system allows ordinary drivers to leave it on and experience the full force of the car's turn-in and thereby go faster, without having to worry about losing control. The car won't allow itself to spin, even on sheet ice. But Gene says the difference in lap time is slight and that he'd be very happy to race the car with the stability systems activated.
Enough of the technical stuff, give us a GTO to drive! We have come to Ferrari's magnificent Mugello circuit near Florence and the roads around here in the Tuscan hills are majestic, a combination of fast, smooth sweeping A-roads and tighter B-roads. Two bright red GTOs sit gleaming in the morning light in front of an F1 support truck brought specially for the occasion. We'll do our track stuff later. Let's hit the road first. B-road and twisty, please.
The car is immediately welcoming and comforting. I love the 599. It's a proper front-engined, rear-drive car, a big one, with plenty of room inside. The beautiful steering wheel, complete with red starter button and a five-stage ‘manettino' switch, adjusts perfectly for reach. I bring it close, set the manettino to ‘race', which means louder exhausts, harder dampers and ideal slip in the traction control.
Turn the key, punch the red button. The V12 wakes up with a bark.No road car has ever disguised its weight better than the Ferrari 599 GTO. It weighs 1,605kg, which is far from light, but it feels like half that. You push and push and push and push and still don't get near to the thing's limit. The pushing part is all about how much speed you're prepared to carry into a corner. Go too fast on the way in to a bend and a car will head straight off the road, its steering useless - that's understeer, and you know about that. But you have to be going almost untenably fast to make this GTO run even a millimetre wide. Understeer has effectively been dialled out.
It's that front end ‘power' the Ferrari engineers were talking about. You brake late and work more speed into the corner entry, safe in the knowledge that those fat front Michelin Super Sports up front will bite. And bite they do, with the strength of a pit-bull. There is little body roll. Once you've turned in about 20mph faster than you think possible, and still not experienced a trace of understeer, you attack the next bend 20mph faster again. Ah. Still no understeer. Right, faster then, faster. And so it goes.
You have to be brutal to make these tyres squeal, and travelling very fast indeed. Once they make a noise, you know you're being a dumb, senseless idiot - and technically, probably travelling slower than you would if the tyres were silent. Feel what these fantastic Michelins are capable of, work with them and trust that amazing front end, and the GTO is one of the fastest point-to-point cars in the world, certainly in dry conditions. Turn-in feels so much better than the standard 599's and the 599 HGTE's - the damping feels far more natural and less floaty too, and when you finally overcook it, you feel the gentle hand of the stability system doing its thing. It's subtle, though, not a slap or punch, just a light breath of help, straightening the car's line almost before you've thought about correcting with opposite lock.
Then, get to the apex and punch the throttle and the magic starts again. Exits are almost as much fun as entries, which seems faintly ridiculous, but it doesn't take you long to discover it. As Marc Gene told me later at the track, you can't get on the power any earlier than you would with the ESP system turned off, but you can slam your foot hard to the floor at the same point, rather than feeding it in, safe in the knowledge that the system will sort out all 661bhp on exit. I can't speak highly enough about the feeling this car gives you on the way out of corners. F1 magic is at work here, supremely effective. And when you're not going fast, the car rides superbly. It's docile, almost soft, and the transmission works well in automatic, too.
It took about 10 minutes of hard running in the new GTO for any cynicism to be washed away. And before you ask, yes, this is the best car I've ever driven. The 458 held that title for a while and it would stay with the GTO on a tight road like this, but for me, a V12 engine beats a V8 every time and I like my engine up front, not behind. This is the pure essence of Ferrari - awesome race-derived tech, with raw speed beyond the 458's now, wonderfully engineered and with enough noise built in to scare small animals 15 miles away.
Ah, the noise. A new intake system and new exhaust have been tuned to give even more sound - and better quality of sound - than the standard 599. The engine note alone is worth the GTO's extra price. It is a sharp, shrill V12 trumpet, more soulful than any V8's, and more raw and intoxicating than the standard 599's.
When Stig appeared, it was from a far pit garage without warning. There was the faint odour of pine and wild rosemary as he stretched out a gloved hand for the keys. He took the GTO and shook it, hard, with some of the longest, loudest, most freakish drifts I've ever seen, ESP off, natch. With the V12 screaming at the limiter, the tyres howling, you could see his furious hands working the wheel in perfect synchronisation with his right foot. He didn't say a thing afterward, merely hopped out and strode off in the direction of Poggiforzoli. But as you can tell from the photos, he liked it. A lot. (For further proof, watch our hand-held vids.)
For me, this new 599 GTO fully earns its badge. It's not a profiteering exercise like the Lamborghini Reventón, which is identical to the Murciélago LP640 under the skin despite its £900,000 price tag. The GTO is far more capable than the 599 on which it's based, a technical tour de force. Roll on 2041.