Experience now teaches us that it is nigh-on impossible to discuss the Ferrari F40 in general terms. There we were, myself, Barker and Catchpole, in the presence of Maranello’s greatest ever street car, and every time a lone voice looked like it might offer a neat summary of its greatness, and perhaps a link to the conceit of this story – turbochargers in supercars – it would be lost in a flurry of huffing hyperbole.
The mode of delivery was the same. We all began sentences with, ‘The thing about the F40 is…’ and I would stand there primed with the dictaphone to record tasty morsels of wisdom, only to see the wistful look return to the eyes as snippets of that last F40 fang filtered back into the memory and swamped any chance of general comment. ‘It’s just so sharp, and that engine… Can you believe how strong it feels from 4500rpm?’
No, no, no! I wanted us to take three steps away from the car’s actual performance and think about it as perhaps the ultimate turbocharged object, but the hypnotic power of the F40 driving experience is all-consuming. It leaves you entranced, limp and desperate for another fix. It precludes group conversation of a general theme, because as you begin to contemplate its role, the sheer pungency drags you back into those moments behind the wheel: the noise, the thrust – the comedy headroom. So the dictaphone was re-introduced to the jeans pocket and we three just stood there on a windy moor and talked like seven-year-olds about specific aspects of the Ferrari F40.
Turbocharging wasn’t deemed to be the acceptable face of supercar powertrain development until, perhaps, 1985. Sure, Porsche had been force-feeding a 911 for a decade by the time the Ferrari 288 GTO arrived with 400bhp and coachwork by the gods themselves, but the 911 Turbo always occupied its own little sub-supercar niche. It was too useable, too efficient. More importantly, its 300bhp output didn’t quite tweak the pelvis of the teenage magazine reader with the same ferocity as a Countach or a Testarossa.
This was strange on Porsche’s part, because on the race-track its use of turbocharging was reaching its zenith in the 962, a 650bhp ground-effect Group C weapon that remains one of the most winning racing cars of all time. During its 15-year turbocharging adventure, Porsche would produce a blown flat-12 with over 1100bhp (917/30), a 2.1-litre six with over 500bhp (RSR Turbo) and the majestic Moby Dick with 750bhp. But the street representation of this lunacy was tame: it began with 260bhp, graduated to 300bhp and was switching to 330bhp when, in 1985, Ferrari decided to squeeze big numbers from a ‘little’ V8.
Two years later, we heard about the F40, and we conveniently forgot that a supercar was supposed to be a few aluminium panels encasing a vast V12 motor. The F40 changed everything.
Its legacies – its imitators – are assembled here today, attempting to deflate the F40 myth. The Jaguar XJ220 was the British response to a global economy flushed with liquidity and desperate to spend it on fast motor cars, although were we to judge eligibility for this test on the blueprint drawings for each of them, the Jag would not be here. It was never supposed to run a twin-turbo V6, and when depositors found that the promised normally aspirated 6-litre V12 had shrunk back into a steroidal version of the Metro 6R4 motor, so too did prospective owners shrink away from the order book.
The XJ220 was a commercial disaster, but its convoluted mechanical gestation unwittingly represents the core philosophy of turbocharging – attaching exhaust-driven superchargers to ordinary engines with the aim of producing big, cost-effective horsepower. I will never forget skiving off double German to nip into town and buy Autocar on June 23, 1993. ‘0-100 in 7.9sec.’ Its performance potential was unfathomable to a 17-year-old.
Strange that Porsche didn’t celebrate its experiments into the outer reaches of forced induction while it was still making turbo race- cars, but this was a problem finally resolved last year with the arrival of the 911 GT2 RS. ‘It’s a 935 with licence plates and traction control,’ said someone from Weissach. Better late than never. Of course, the 911’s reasons for being turbocharged are entirely different to the others. Whereas their vast engine bays are one-part engine, three-parts plumbing apparatus, there isn’t room for anything more than a flat-six behind the rear wheels of a 911.
The GT2 RS is modern, extreme turbocharging at its most impressive, but it certainly doesn’t subscribe to the lag-free driving characteristics expected of these new installations. Last year the semantics of GT2 RS road testing were unfashionably consistent: ‘old school’, ‘terrifying’, ‘ditch-magnet’. Many of us loved this car because it was unashamedly turbocharged – it didn’t attempt to hide how nature had given it 611bhp, and we christened it ‘old skool’. But how old school does a GT2 RS feel in the presence of a cackling, wheeshing F40?
Or, for that matter, the new Noble. For the F40, meeting the M600 must be like looking in the mirror and seeing a younger version of yourself from the future – thankfully without a DeLorean and Dr Emmett Brown. The M600 worships at the feet of the F40 and its basic recipe is undiluted flattery: twin-turbo V8, plastic-over-metal construction, a pair of driven wheels and a stark message on the inside front cover of the owners’ manual: ‘So, you think you’re f***ing handy, do you? Well, think again.’
When the roads are damp and the four protagonists’ collective power output confirms that my adding skills stop at 2200, there is only one car you drive first. The one with full stability control. Ignore the lips, lumps and flashes of colour and there’s little indication that this is the most powerful production Porsche ever made. All of the contact points are familiar to anyone who has driven a 911 – the key, the seat, the wheel – and when the motor fires it’s the clatter of single-mass flywheel rather than any intake or exhaust noise that gives the suggestion of oversize performance.
Is the performance intimidating? At first, yes. The throttle springing is light enough to encourage your right foot to venture deeper into the footwell and, it can be assumed, within a few minutes of first being acquainted with the GT2 RS, the curious driver will have felt a surge of boost and spied a yellow triangle flickering on the dashboard – he just won’t know if it was the traction control warning or the shift light, because his brain will be busy piecing together those last few moments. A few seconds ago, I was there; now I’m here. How did that happen?
The shove is addictive. To me, it just doesn’t matter that the GT2 RS is so mute you sometimes wonder if it’s propelled by an internal combustion engine at all: what you lose in aural gratitude you gain in squeeeeeeze. It’s the surging nature of the performance that is so addictive, but also the reason why those sage, purist voices side with natural aspiration as the optimum specification for enjoyable motoring. I’m not sure I agree. I arrived at this test in my GT3 and for the first few miles I drive the GT2 RS badly because I make the mistake of imposing the same driving method onto the turbo car. It just doesn’t work.
Powerful force-fed machines require a level of anticipation that is at first unsettling, but quickly becomes absorbing: you no longer react to the message of the vehicle and apportion throttle, brake and steering – instead you look further down the road, scouring everything from surface condition to camber, to glean information that will allow you to make the best possible deployment of boost . This way you find rhythm, you expose the brilliance of the Porsche’s chassis and the inherent benefits of 325-section rubber and a rear-mounted motor. The suspension is firm but supple enough to stop the car being deflected. You admire the steering’s transparency and you relax into a shockingly rapid form of motoring. Is it as good as a GT3 RS? No. Does it do things the normally aspirated car cannot? Absolutely – scare you shitless, to name just one.
Minutes later, I’m in the F40 – cramped, the wheel set too high and the fixed bucket pinching my midriff. It is over 130bhp weaker than the Porsche and those huge Pirellis are pretty fresh. The road is drying fast enough to tempt the unsuspecting driver (me) into waking that Veglia boost needle. In second gear, I push the pedal down, register the needle crossing 3000rpm, hear the gurgle-stammer of flat-plane-crank V8, wonder what all the fuss was about with this shoddily assembled kit car and then with virtually no warning, I’m left wondering if Thrust SSC has just rear-ended me. The car erupts with a violent hissing – like some angry snake – and launches itself forwards. But not for long: the shove lasts a fraction of a second and abates, but the noise continues. Slipping clutch? Slipping rear wheels – calmed by a small amount of corrective lock and greeted with grinning respect by the bloke behind the wheel.
Back at base, John Barker is wearing the perma-smile of a man recently enlightened: ‘It all goes nuts behind, the hammery engine note almost consumed by the whoosh and hiss of the blowers. And the chassis twitches and then the rear tyres are unstuck and – this is the magic bit – it feels comfortable with it, and so do you. You don’t back out, you steady your right foot, steady the boost, and the rear wheels paint lines as they scrabble on a smidge of opposite lock this way, a smidge that.’
In fact the throttle springing of the F40 might just define the way the car drives. It is much firmer than the GT2 RS’s and of course it is actually connected to something mechanical. Whereas in the Porsche you push to add extra performance, in the Ferrari you learn to add throttle, then hold it there and wait for the boost to arrive – it’s almost like pre-selecting the shove you require, and it demands accuracy. Genuinely, the Porsche feels normally aspirated next to the F40.
Matched against the delay in power and torque delivery is a startling lack of inertia in the rest of the car. As Henry points out: ‘The whole car just feels so light, you can’t believe they strapped an engine that potent to something so insubstantial. Just to get in it, the car feels light – unlike this, which after the F40 feels like a sitting room on wheels. One of these side bolsters probably weighs as much as an F40 seat.’ For the avoidance of doubt, we’re sitting in the Jaguar XJ220.
A few minutes into driving the 542bhp XJ220 I have to resist the temptation to head back to find John Barker and bow down before him. The heavy controls, vast exterior dimensions, vast interior dimensions and utter recalcitrance of the powertrain at normal road speeds simply do not square with the machine John hustled around the West Circuit just 1.6sec shy of a Lambo LP640 (evo 131). The force required to push the accelerator down is shocking after the Porsche and the gearchange isn’t interested in being hurried. Right now, I can’t even summon the courage to wake the turbochargers, which leaves me driving a 3.5-litre normally aspirated V6 in something the size of a whale shark. Remind me why we plonked an XJ220 into this test? Intimidation has a new name.
The big Jag needs speed and space to uncover its character. Get it up and planing and the ride smoothes, the car finds balance and you are granted a window into what was, for a while, the world’s fastest car. The gearing is preposterous by modern standards – you almost have to ride the clutch to get it rolling – but the need to reach 220mph with just five forward ratios was more important to the marketing department. In powertrain terms, this is not a communicative car: the long-travel throttle and heroic turbo lag combine to demand a concentrated version of the anticipation technique learnt in the GT2 RS. Only here you choose your moments more carefully and give the gearchange plenty of time.
You find yourself chastising the car for being in possession of such a characterless engine, then your eyes sneak a glance at a speedometer that reveals startling information, and in that split second you understand the XJ220. This is a car unconcerned with the manner in which it delivers forward motion. It was built to deliver numbers, which it does in impressive quantities, but after the F40 it is a flat experience.
The unassisted steering is a highlight at speed, even if it does kick-back at times, and the chassis has uncommon balance and excellent damping – but again, you have to be travelling very fast to unravel these aspects of its performance and the car never fizzes with exuberance the way the Ferrari does.
Seems John finds the XJ220 a very different beast on the road too: ‘You never feel totally relaxed with it here – you want to see what happens over the edge of grip to feel comfortable. It has loads of adhesion but the weight of the steering gives it an old-school supercar feel. You get it straight before giving it the beans.’ Too right.
The last time I drove a Noble it broke traction on me in a straight line at a not insignificant speed somewhere in Scotland, with the company’s MD in the passenger seat. I loved it for being so raw. This is the finished production car and it now has a carbon body, which Noble claims takes the kerb weight down below 1200kg. If ever a car didn’t need an improved power-to-weight-ratio, it was this one.
Think of the M600 as the antidote to the 911 Turbo S and McLaren MP4-12C, and you’ll be much closer to understanding why, despite not offering ABS or stability control for £200K, it will always be a car we adore. It is a newer, faster interpretation of the F40 formula: simple, lightweight, terrifyingly fast.
You have three engine maps to chose from: Road (450bhp), Track (550bhp) and Race (650bhp). In shandy mode, the car is considerably faster than my GT3. Switched up a notch, it demolishes the Jag and F40, and matches the Porsche. Those brave enough to use everything the twin-turbo Yamaha V8 can offer will experience a level of performance far removed from even the new McLaren. Yet there are no paddles behind the steering wheel, no chassis electronics to allow the driver to hold full throttle and then leave the computer to decide how much of that request should be routed to the rear wheels. The driver asks, the powertrain responds; the rear Michelins decide if they can cope. In third gear, on cold, damp asphalt, they cannot.
The carbon body is beautifully finished, the cabin sparse and well built. The Ford switchgear is naturally unbecoming of something that costs Ferrari 458 money, but just as the F40 was forgiven its shoddy interior fittings, so should this car be cut some slack. It is all about the driving experience: the thrill of deploying 650bhp onto the road surface with no assistance. The car rides well at low speed and settles further once up and running, all the time giving that delicious feeling of low mass and limitless torque. John reckons losing 50kg in body mass and keeping the same suspension settings has slightly altered the car’s balance, though: ‘It feels different; a bit firmer, less supple in detail. I preferred the previous one myself, but it’s a proper car, a legendary turbo car already. Love it.’
In fourth gear, at relatively low speeds, it squirts past traffic with disdain, and it somehow makes a virtue of its lag characteristic. In this respect it neatly dissects the Porsche and the Ferrari, being a little slower to respond than the 911, but better than the F40. All the whooshing and chattering is there in abundance, building as the acceleration burgeons from around 3500rpm and pulling all the way to 6500rpm.
In fact the M600 helps us define what it is about certain turbocharged cars that really matters, because turbocharging done well, and by that I mean giving brutal performance and theatre, adds to a car’s greatness. I cannot say for sure if the Noble would be a greater car if it had a 600bhp non-turbo V12 that revved to 9000rpm, but the suspicion is that it would lose that barmy roll-on characteristic, those blissful moments on full afterburner when the car almost takes control of itself and leaves the driver breathless. These things, only turbocharging can deliver.
Which brings us back to the F40, for me the greatest road car ever built. There are dozens of aspects that contribute to its greatness – among them steering, appearance and historical significance – but once you drive the car, and you find yourself feeding opposite lock into its countless little slithery moments, laughing aloud at how easy it is to do such things in a 478bhp turbocharged, mid-engined Ferrari, you are left under no illusion that the F40 is a better car for being turbocharged. So much of its overall performance, be it objective speed against the stopwatch or the peripheral theatre that comes through noise and even those great silver intercoolers that dominate the engine bay, the car owes to forced induction.
And here we are, poised to enter a new era of turbocharged performance. If these cars prove anything, it’s that there are exciting times ahead.