After the constantly busy thrills of the 348tb, the F355 F1 Berlinetta feels like a wonderfully soothing place to be. There’s no clutch to worry about and just a dinky T-bar where the teeth of the manual gate once were. The two pedals are less offset and although the fat steering wheel has swallowed an airbag, power assistance means it couldn’t have been easier to twirl when manoeuvring out of the car park.
Some traits still remain: the top of the wheel is still canted away slightly and the seating position feels laid-back and very low. There’s a strong suspicion that your bum would be sporting scratches if you ran across any conkers still in their cases.
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The conker’s spikes would, of course, have to penetrate a full-length undertray, as the F355 was the first of the V8s to foray into F1-inspired aerodynamics. The most obvious F1 inspiration, however, comes in the shape of two small-eared black paddles behind the wheel. There’s a disconcerting amount of clutch slippage as you pull away from a standstill, but in the first few gentle miles the hydraulically actuated, paddle-operated manual is not the hesitant, jerky experience I had feared an early paddle-shift ’box might be.
In fact the whole car flows in a very relaxed manner, the supple suspension with its electronic dampers breathing with the road and filtering out any rough edges. Then, just when it’s all starting to feel a bit tame, you let the revs run a little higher. The hairs prickle on the back of your neck and goosebumps spread like wildfire across your forearms.
The sound as the five-valves-per-cylinder V8 (the reason for the last 5 in ‘355’) homes in on its 8500rpm red line is a howl wrapped up in a bark and enclosed in a shriek. Spines tingle, ears rejoice and you almost crave a Spider version just to make the most of the sound. This car actually goes even further as it has a Capristo exhaust on it, which sounds perfectly normal around town and through villages but rips the air to shreds as soon as the bypass valves open above 4000rpm. I, and probably every petrolhead in Wiltshire, heartily recommend one.
As you revel in the engine and your progress across the ground inevitably increases, the F1 ’box starts… to show its age, with blip-less downshifts… and 0.15-second upshifts (0.25 seconds if you’re not in ‘Sport’) interrupting… the flow a little. The handling is much friendlier than the 348’s, with the weight feeling lower and more balance front to rear, but you’re not really encouraged to explore it thanks to the slightly slow and over-assisted steering, which feels very light either side of the dead-ahead. Metcalfe has driven a couple of 355s recently and agrees: ‘It has a very talented chassis, but I only found this out by trust and not by the initial feel from the wheel. It’s not helped by the electronic dampers feeling a little “loose” to begin with, giving you the sense you’re never truly wired into what’s happening at the point of contact with the road.’ We both agree that we want one, though, even if it’s just for tunnels.