After all these years there are still moments that seem utterly surreal. This – on the launch of the new Ferrari F12 Berlinetta – is one of them. We’ve had the deeply technical press conference of two hours (an hour and 58 minutes of which was indecipherable to anyone without an engineering degree) and now it’s time to drive the F12. We’re at Fiorano and on the demonstration lap, Ferrari test driver Raffaele de Simone is encouraging me to switch all the driver aids off. ‘Try for a few corners in Race – this is the fastest way, then CT Off [no traction control]. But you should try the car without ESC. You will enjoy and feel the balance of the car and the work of the E-Diff.’ I’ve never driven at Ferrari’s test track before and these will be my first moments in the F12, a car with 730bhp and performance figures to shade a McLaren F1. Raffaele has either mistaken me for someone else or he has boundless confidence in his new baby.
Of both minutes of the press conference that I understood (before it ascended into H3 and H6 induction and exhaust harmonics, multiple ignition strategies and the complexities of the F12’s many control systems), the stated aim for the car seemed clear – to introduce mid-engined agility, traction and roll stiffness into the front-engined V12 range. So while the big numbers might come to define the F12’s reputation, it’s the smaller ones – length, height, width and wheelbase (reduced by 50, 60, 20 and 20mm respectively) – that really start to hint at this car’s dynamic behaviour and the thoroughness of Ferrari’s endeavours to create a car that takes a giant stride over its 599 GTB predecessor – or indeed any other Ferrari that has gone before. The F12 is the most powerful road car ever to wear that famous shield and the quickest around Fiorano, too. With a time of 1:23.0 it blitzes the hardcore 599 GTO by a full second and the Enzo by 1.9sec.
I personally won’t be troubling that astonishing benchmark today, but what an introduction to the car and the place – two laps with Raffaele orchestrating the car beautifully, then three laps alone to see if this car is as poised and forgiving as he makes it seem. And to see if it can serve up the magical agility of the 458 Italia. If Ferrari really has made a 1630kg front-engined V12 machine that can match its little brother move for move and then streak away on 509lb ft down every straight, then somebody here must have sold their soul to the devil.
Twist the key, prod the ‘engine start’ button on the tiny hexagonal steering wheel and the 6.3-litre V12 instantly ignites into that familiar, flat, busy idle. It sounds just a shade sharper and a tone deeper than in the FF. Select Race on the manettino and prod the ‘auto’ button on the transmission tunnel to deselect the self-shifting programme (shouldn’t an F12 default to manual? Bloody hell, you only have to flip paddles these days!). Pull back the long, fixed blade of aluminium to get first gear, breathe, remind yourself not to get too excited and end up in a gravel trap, and roll away.
The very first impression, before you even get onto the circuit, is that the steering is very, very light and very aggressively geared. Shortening the wheelbase and quickening the steering ratio was a key part of hitting those agility targets, but in these first moments it makes the F12 feel darty and nervous. Thankfully, by the time the first right-hander arrives, the weighting has increased nicely – it’s heavier than the 599 GTB and 458 Italia racks and seems to impart a bit more information – but the sheer speed of it still makes it tricky to scribe one smooth arc to join up apex and exit kerbs.
Maybe that’s because your brain has already been overwhelmed by the fierce acceleration that seems to grow in intensity with every engine revolution and every new gear. To be honest, those first few moments of full throttle, heavy braking and diving into a corner are very hard to pick apart piece-by-piece, especially when you’re trying to fumble around an unfamiliar circuit. So you remember it in sensations – the pin-sharp precision of everything you touch, the feeling that you’re free-falling almost out of control as the engine peaks at 8250rpm, the way the rear of the car is so keen to point the nose into an apex, the spikes of oversteer on the exit as you hit full throttle. Ferrari made much of the ease of use of the F12 in that press conference and perhaps on the road we’ll discover it, but when you try to drive the car quickly on track, the basics of 730bhp, 1630kg and rear-drive mean it can be a real handful.
That’s not to say that the F12 is unpredictable or unmanageable, just that the scale of the performance, the speed you can carry and the neutral balance demand that the driver stays completely focused on the job. You’ll be busy trimming understeer on the way into fast turns (there’s still a big lump of engine up front, even if Ferrari’s engineers seem to have bent physics to disguise it) and dealing with sliding rear tyres that can only be expected to do so much of the V12’s bidding on the way out. Even with the stability systems in Race or CT Off, the F12 wants and needs confident input. Yes, the F12’s ESC will save you, but really the electronics want to help you to go faster rather than just wipe your backside when you get it wrong.
Choose to go it alone by twisting the manettino clockwise as far as it’ll go, only letting it spring back to the CT Off setting when a yellow ‘ESC Off” message appears to the left of the huge central rev counter, and you suddenly appreciate that the systems are subtly brilliant at smoothing the edges and maintaining drive. However – and this is crucial – the F12 doesn’t fall apart or alter its essential character, and doesn’t suddenly become a mess of scrabbly wheelspin. In fact, once you adjust to that steering, the chassis balance is fantastically trustworthy, with mild understeer ebbing into a smidge of oversteer (or a whole heap of it should you ignore the warning signs). You have to be quick to stay on top of the F12, but then you’re going so fast that to expect anything else would be ridiculous.
And then it’s over. I’m back in the pits, car ticking and pinging in the 35deg C heat, and I’m stood looking back at it, squinting through the blinding sunshine, smiling. As introductions to the F12 go, driving a few laps of Fiorano takes some beating. What have I learnt? A whole book of muddled lessons, half-lost or instantly forgotten in a fog of fear and a blur of concentration.
I remember the engine – what an engine. I remember the superb traction that slowly leaked away as the tyres got hotter, and me holding on tight as they did. I think I remember thinking there was more body roll than I expected and a little more understeer, too. The thump in my chest and the moisture on my palms tell their own story, though. The F12 is a monster. The ’box, the brakes… stuff I haven’t really had time to decode. There’s still so much to find out and enjoy, but for now I need a coffee and a sit down.
It’s a good time for a bit of quiet reflection and to look at my scrawled questions that seemed so imperative yesterday, but were muscled out of the way on track by survival instinct and childish excitement. The list is long but breaks down simply into three questions: Is the F12 more fun, less intimidating and more refined at low speeds than the 599 GTB? Does it feel special enough to command £239,736? And is 730bhp too much for a car without the benefit of an engine sitting over the driven wheels? We head out to our old stomping ground in this part of the world, the Futa and Raticosa passes, to find out.
Clearly our final question is the one that has exercised Ferrari’s engineers the most. They insist that switching back to a mid-engined configuration for the F12 was quickly dismissed – the benefits it brings in terms of centre-of-gravity and traction were outweighed by sacrifices to practicality, useability and visibility. The F12 had to retain those GT credentials revived by the 550 Maranello after the wonderful-but-awkward Boxer series. So work began to create a lighter, lower, stiffer structure with a weight distribution conducive to exceptional traction.
You might think that making the F12 physically smaller is a bit of a cheat to shed a few kilograms. However, if you’ve ever tried to thread a 599 through a town or even along a fast A-road, you’ll know that it can only be a good thing. The 599 always felt huge. Besides, that’s just the first step to achieving those goals. Ferrari is continuing to develop its aluminium spaceframe structure, and for this application it uses 12 different types of alloy for a 20 per cent increase in torsional rigidity. Despite this, the body in white is 50kg lighter than its predecessor. More impressive still is that the suspension mounting points are twice as stiff as those on the 599. The V12 is mounted further back in the chassis and 30mm lower, and the dash and seats are around 25mm lower, too. The overall weight distribution is 46:54, helped by the transaxle layout. The suspension is by double wishbones at the front and the rear has a multi-link arrangement, just like the FF.
The aerodynamics are even more involved and the F12 is the ultimate proponent of Ferrari’s philosophy to subtract volumes from the shape, rather than supply addenda, in the name of aerodynamic efficiency. The ‘aero bridge’ in each front wing creates downforce by channelling air from the bonnet down the flanks. It also disrupts the wake from the wheel wells to reduce drag. Ducts divert air from the rear wheelarches up through a grille on the fastback and onto the Kamm tail – in effect, a sort of ‘blown’ rear wing. In combination with a flat underbody and a substantial rear diffuser with four fins (the middle two complete with vortex generators), downforce is increased by 76 per cent to 123kg at 124mph compared to the 599. The F12 boasts a drag coefficient of just 0.299, helped by active front brake-cooling ducts that alone contribute a seven per cent saving.
Technically speaking, then, the F12 is a giant leap on from the 599, just as the 458 Italia was from the F430. In fact, the 458 is significant not only because it raises expectations so high for the F12’s ultimate dynamic capabilities but because it shows beautifully how to create a real depth of talent. Quite simply it’s as good at going slowly as it is at tearing along with its hair on fire (although maybe I shouldn’t mention ‘458’ and ‘fire’ in the same sentence?). The crawl through Maranello, gentle amble across narrow country lanes to the A1 and then the bustling autostrada itself should tell us if the F12 can match that ‘any day, any mood’ versatility.
Gliding out of Fiorano, the F12 feels compact, effortless and as smooth as silk. Its dry-sumped, direct-injection V12 might produce 116bhp per litre but it’s also blessed with positively creamy tractability and generates 80 per cent of its 509lb ft maximum torque from 2500rpm. The F12 feels like it needs two gears, but it has seven and the dual-clutch ’box slips quietly between them.
Remember the 599 carried those magnetorheological dampers? The ones with instantaneous response and unrivalled range? Well, the latest dual-coil piston reduces friction, has a wider force range and cuts overall response time by 75 per cent to just five milliseconds. Such is the pace of progress in Maranello these days. The result, thankfully, isn’t an S-class-style waft, but is instead supple control and good wheel travel.
Only on nasty and suddenly subsiding tarmac (of which there’s plenty around here after the recent earthquakes) does the F12 skitter. Throw great visibility into the mix, throttle response of astonishing accuracy and much-improved road noise suppression and you get a relaxing and very useable package. The steering – very light at low speed, very quick at any – has yet to win me over, but I can’t say it’s actively spoiling the experience.
So the A1 comes and goes and the V12 thumps the F12 along at an easy Ferrari-in-Italy cruise (let’s call it 130, um, kph), stable as can be, quick steering – oddly – not an issue at all. I’m already infatuated with the drivetrain, which is scalpel-sharp and feels almost omnipotent. You want more? Just keep pressing that pedal – whatever the speed or gear, the F12 just keeps coming at you. The dual-clutch ’box is terrific, too. After years of moaning about the single-clutch ‘F1’ gearboxes, it would be wrong to look wistfully back at the sheer ferocity of the finely perfected 430 Scuderia or 599 GTO shifts. The F12’s gearchanges do lack a shade of drama but make up for it with speed and smoothness – vital when asking for a gear mid-corner.
The air is hot and thick at the Chalet Raticosa, and the bikers are out in force. We haven’t got much time but a square slab of cold pizza, a gallon or two of water and a coat of factor 15 seem like a wise precaution. I love it up here and, as usual, our secret stretch of mountain road is ignored by the boys and girls on their Ducatis. So we roll away refreshed and onto what feels like a private test facility, hidden from view, baked by the sun, bitten by frost and slithering gently with the spectacular Tuscan Apennines. I’d pinch myself if I didn’t have some driving to do.
Manettino to Race (has anyone other than a Ferrari test driver ever even tried the Wet or Sport modes? Perhaps if you do, the factory immediately calls and demands you return the car) and the dash display shows an illustration of engine, gearbox and tyres glowing green and simply says ‘go’. I don’t argue. Bam! The engine zings to 8700rpm, note building into a pure, frenzied V12 howl.
Grab a shift to get right back into the crazy part of the delivery (the gears are much shorter than the 599’s), then repeat and repeat and don’t dare look down at the speed display. Brake hard. The CCM3 carbon-ceramic brakes have much improved response and, despite a longer travel than you might expect, they never get that curious dead feeling that afflicts earlier Ferraris so equipped. There’s some dive but the F12 doesn’t stand on its nose like the 599 could, and as you bleed off the brakes and turn, the front 255/30 ZR20 Michelin Pilot Super Sports bite hard.
The occasional understeer felt on the track, especially when rapidly changing direction, is not an issue at all on the road and could well have been due to the extremely hot conditions and already-abused tyres. What happens next is extraordinary. Before the apex, I let the rear tyres take it all and I sense the E-Diff digging the F12 out of the corner with no wheelspin at all. Mid-engined traction and security? Not far off at all. Wow.
This road couldn’t be more revealing and ahead is the best section of all, a series of esses all taken in third gear at almost exactly the same speed without so much as a metre of straight linking them: a super-giant slalom laid out in tarmac. Now we’ll discover if the rate of response at the front is too much for the rear to handle. Aim left and the front lunges in, body roll present and more obvious than the 458 roll stiffness comparisons would have you believe. The rear follows faithfully and then as the car flicks right, it follows again with no delay and adopts a small yaw angle. Left again and I fear the oversteer will build and that the F12 will flop gracelessly into a messy slide, but it remains constant, fending off understeer but not requiring even a hint of correction. The pattern is repeated left-right-left-right-left and only through the final right-hander does the oversteer finally build into something more serious. The aggressive steering demands pinpoint correction but the advantage is that only a tiny angle is required to rescue most slides.
After the shock and awe of the F12 at Fiorano, I’ll admit I was worried that 730bhp really was a step too far, that the car might seem undriveable on the road without leaning heavily on its F1-Trac and ESC control systems. Yet here – admittedly in dry, hot conditions – the F12 feels totally in control of itself, working hard to deploy the power but not tying itself in knots. The E-Diff in particular is impressive at laying down 509lb ft without interruption.
Only when the tyres overheat does the power feel almost comically overblown, but even then the F12 retains its essential qualities of stability and balance. A special mention here also for the amazing linearity of the normally aspirated V12, which allows such accuracy, making an F12 much easier to drive on the limit than, say, the tiny but boosty BMW 1M.
Surreal is the right word, then, from those first clumsy moments on Fiorano to the final few runs on that incredible piece of road. What a day! What a machine! The F12 isn’t perfect but it does so much so well. It blitzes the 599 GTB. The vastness of its performance gives it an edge over the 458 that never diminishes, even if it can’t quite match the delicacy and control of the mid-engined machine. And while its wider role means it doesn’t feel quite as focused as the 599 GTO, as a mad, life-affirming supercar, the F12 is pretty darn special. What’s most pleasing is that it rediscovers the effortlessness that made the 550 and 575 so bewitching. Ferrari was right to stick with the front-engine layout.
That said, for me the steering is just too fast, particularly through quick corners. The brakes aren’t as instantly responsive as those of a ceramic-equipped Porsche, either, and I’d sacrifice some suppleness to cut body roll even further; I guess there might be a HGTE version at some point in the future. Some people feel the interior isn’t quite special enough to justify the price, but that wouldn’t worry me a bit. The noise, the dynamic polish and the performance all speak of expense.
Questions remain, of course. It’s all very well finding grip and traction in bright Italian sunshine, but it’s a very different matter to do the same in the UK on our terrible but addictive roads. In December. However, there’s no question that the F12’s size, suppleness and inherent balance should give it a fighting chance. And if you’ve got £239,736 to sink into a car, I suppose you could always buy a place in Tuscany so you can drive it as Raffaele and his team intended. I know the perfect location – with a very long private drive.
Jethro gets to grips with the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta below...