Ferrari 599 GTB Fiorano

Our reigning Car of the Year gets wrung-out on the dyno, at the circuit and up and down the mile straight

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  • Our current car of the year
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Ferrari F40. We see an icon; Ferrari sees a benchmark for the 599 GTB Fiorano. It sounds almost fanciful to set the performance of a genuine, mid-engined supercar as the target for a front-engined Grand Tourer.

The F40 may be almost 20 years old, but even by today’s standards the stripped-out, 1100kg, twin-turbo road-racer is stupendously quick. Fast Lane magazine stuck its test gear to one in the late ’80s and recorded 0 to 60mph in 3.9sec, 0-100 in 7.8 and 0-140 in 14 dead. Other independent tests reckoned it was a couple of tenths quicker to 60 and 100mph. Whatever, that’s a mighty challenge for a leather-trimmed, V12-engined GT weighing in at over 1700kg – that’s 55 per cent more.

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Of course, it helps that the V12 nestled well back in the long nose of the 599 is derived from that of Ferrari’s most recent supercar, the Enzo. The naturally aspirated 6-litre unit delivers a claimed 611bhp (we’ll get the exact figure later on the dyno) and 448lb ft, which should test the traction of the rear tyres, though as with the 612 Scaglietti, their task is assisted by the fact that the car’s masses are configured to give a rearward weight bias.

This philosophy is key to the success of Ferrari’s latest front-engined cars. A weight distribution approaching that of a mid-engined car gives enhanced traction, while having the engine set back behind the front wheels and the bulk of the car’s other heavy components between the axles promotes an easy, natural handling balance. It works on both the 612 and 599, though Ferrari’s engineers have had to put a lot more effort into making the sportier, shorter-wheelbase 599 capable of deploying its 600bhp-plus with ease.

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The 599’s fundamentals, based around the aluminium chassis technology shared by other current Ferraris, have been subject to an exquisite attention to detail, and the car also introduces such features as hyper-responsive ‘magnetorheological’ semi-active adaptive dampers, a bespoke ‘F1-Trac’ dynamic stability system and the quickest-shifting version of the F1 auto-clutch manual yet, appropriately dubbed F1-SuperFast. The result is a car that’s emphatically more advanced than the 550/575M Maranello it replaces.

Subjectively, it all works superbly – the 599 is our reigning Car of the Year – but can it really nail F40-matching figures? We’ll find out soon, because our latest encounter with Ferrari’s most potent production car ever (the Enzo is deemed a special series) starts at Millbrook. Like the 599 supplied for our Car of the Year contest, this example comes with the optional CCM (Carbon Ceramic Material) brake discs, the box for which has so far been ticked by all UK customers, and the F1-S gearbox – the traditional open-gate manual is expected to account for less than 10 per cent of sales worldwide.

When we put the 612 through our test programme earlier this year a couple of Ferrari staff from Italy were in attendance. It’s perhaps a measure of how important to Ferrari is the performance of the sportier Fiorano that staff writer Catchpole and myself are greeted at Millbrook by a phalanx of Ferrari personnel, six of them from Italy, clad in luminous red jackets. They’re here to ensure that the 599 is in fine fettle and to offer tips on getting the best out of it, which, as we shall see, prove rather useful.

We make camp on the southern loop of the mile straight and set to installing our VBOX test gear, only to find ourselves fitting it alongside Ferrari’s own. There’s a moment of VBOX envy when we realise that theirs is more up-to-date than ours, but this is quickly forgotten when we see that their dash-top display gives an instant readout of 0-100kph (62mph). This will save us having to download all our data there and then to check which is the best start technique – and there is some considerable technique involved, as test driver Michele Coughi Costantini demonstrates.

I belt myself into the passenger seat and Michele thumbs the big red start button. The starter motor whirrs at double speed before the huge V12 catches and booms into life. I smile. Yup, the resonant, deep-chested gargle of 12 cylinders sounds familiar; despite its squatter intake assembly and less freely curved exhaust manifolds, there’s no question that this engine is closely related to that in the Enzo.

We make a few steady 100mph runs to bring the 599’s vitals up to temperature. These involve tyre-warming zigzags that would impress Alonso, each steering input so obediently and immediately translated into a direction change that I’m slammed into alternate bolsters on my seat. Satisfied that all is primed, we line up with the simple perspective of the mile straight in front of us and Michele talks me through the start procedure.

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This does not involve the button marked LC. Launch control is designed to save the clutch and transmission by spinning the rear tyres, which is spectacular but not fast. Instead the process is this: set the wheel-mounted ‘manettino’ switch to ‘race’ mode and then, with your left foot on the brake, select first with the ‘up’ paddle, then pull back and hold the ‘down’ paddle for a couple of seconds. There’s a beep which is the signal to mash the throttle. The revs build quickly but not as if the gearbox is in neutral, and as the tacho needle gets to 4000rpm you jump off the brake pedal.

I make a hash of my first attempt, releasing the brake too slowly without full throttle, which adds a tang of clutch lining to the cockpit ambience, but a few attempts later I make what feels satisfyingly like an optimum start. The 599 lunges off the line, weight transfer further loading the rear tyres so that they’re fully hooked up and driving all the V12’s furious, bellowing energy into the surface. Shoved hard into the backrest, all I need do now is summon the wit to pull on the upshift paddle for second gear just as the howling V12 swings close to 8000rpm, but without snagging the limiter. That done, I can enjoy the noise and seemingly undiminished urge that drives us through 100mph, and marvel at the speed and precision of the upshifts – they’re virtually seamless. We make an easy 160mph within the mile and top it with 170mph on the return run.

Interrogating our imperial-units VBOX, I find that the 599 is every bit as quick as it felt: 30mph comes up in a remarkable 1.5sec, 60 takes just 3.5sec and 100 is despatched in an equally awe- inspiring 7.4sec. Sure, at 14.3sec to 140mph the 599 is three-tenths adrift of the F40, but if they were lined up either side of the Christmas tree at Santa Pod, I wouldn’t know which to back. Not only that, checking back I discover that the 599 is as fast as the Enzo to 60mph and only four tenths behind at 100mph – heroic times given that it weighs hundreds of kilos more and has 40bhp less.

Other stand-out figures include an 11.6sec quarter-mile (at 128mph) and a set of third-gear times which show every 20mph increment from 40-60mph to 80-100mph takes no more than 2.0sec. On UK roads, it’s the overtaking gear of choice. Equally devastating is the 11.9sec 0-100-0 time, those massive carbon discs hauling the 599 down from 100mph to a standstill in less than 300ft and generating an average of 1.1g in the process.

There’s no question that the F1-SuperFast gearbox is a factor in the staggering acceleration times. Its fastest shift speed – a mere 100 milliseconds – compares with 150ms for the Enzo and 250ms for the 575. This time is measured from when the clutch begins to disengage to when it has fully re-engaged, and is what Ferrari calls the ‘acceleration gap’. It has been reduced to 100ms by slightly overlapping the disengagement and re-engagement of the clutch with the actual gear change (which takes a mere 40ms), the software anticipating the approaching parity in rotational speeds of the relevant shafts and gears.

Imagine the peachiest, near-synchro-beating manual shift you’ve ever made and you’re close. The lower-inertia twin-plate clutch helps, as do new gear-selector forks of pressed steel rather than cast iron, which again help to reduce inertia.

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F1-SuperFast isn’t all about making the quickest shifts, though. The overall shift time varies according to engine load and throttle opening, which is a welcome development of this type of gearbox and why, on the road, it goes about its business more unobtrusively than most. Compare this with, say, BMW’s SMG system on the M6, where the driver selects the shift speed; in its fastest setting the SMG gearchange is nowhere near as smooth or rapid as F1-S, and you’re constantly changing it to suit your mood (or you simply plump for the middle setting). F1-S judges your mood from the way you’re using the throttle. The only odd thing about it is that from start-up it defaults to auto mode.

There’s little doubt the 599 is developing the quoted horsepower, but our next stop is the Dyno Dynamics rolling road at WRC Technologies, Silverstone. Lashed down, warmed up and driving hard in fourth gear, the Fiorano sounds terrifying and looks ready to leap off the rollers. All is not right, though. The first run peaks at no more than 570bhp and the next few are no better. Engine calibration engineer Giorgio Francomarco plugs in his laptop as the 599 roars on the dyno and confirms that nothing is amiss at the pointy end.

The little black crumbs peppering Kenny P, rather bravely installed at the rear of the test cell with his camera, suggest another reason. The rear P Zeros are getting so hot that they’re throwing off morsels of rubber and may actually be sticking to the rollers, increasing rolling resistance. A fresh, cool set is bolted on, and on the first run the graph shows peak power of 621bhp. Ferrari quotes 620 PS (611bhp) so that’s better than expected, but only by 1.6 per cent. Torque is up by a full 10 per cent on the quoted figure, though, peaking at 493lb ft rather than 448.

The softness of the tyres is interesting. Ferrari wouldn’t be the first company to get extra grip by specifying a soft compound. I ran a long-term Honda NSX back in the early ’90s that was lucky to see 5000 miles from a pair of rears, while the original-equipment semi-slicks on recent Mitsubishi Evos are similarly short-lived.

On the road, the 599 is infused with a satisfying tautness. It starts with the seat, which is deeply sculpted, firmly padded and perfectly aligned with the pedals and fat-rimmed steering wheel. The transmission controls the clutch more positively in manoeuvring than other F1 types, but just as smoothly; the throttle and brake have good weight and feel; the low-speed ride is firm but not crashy.

Right from the off, the V12 sounds glorious, and the ebb and flow of its complex, thunder-laden note when you press the throttle deeply in a high gear is epic. There’s a distinct pick-up in the delivery at 3000rpm and another at 5500, by which time you’re fast approaching three-figure speeds in fourth. The 599 merely feels like it’s getting into its stride, the ride having settled, wind and road noise subdued. Floor the throttle and it snaps forward instantly with a force that stuns passengers.

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The work of the magnetorheological dampers goes largely unnoticed, which is as it should be. By applying a magnetic field, the viscosity of the fluid within them can be increased, firming them up in about a quarter of the time it takes for an adjustable-valve damper to react. Roll, pitch and squat are tempered by the system, yet the 599 feels quite natural through a series of curves. Through the seat of your pants it feels pretty much as heavy as the scales will later show it to be, yet it is a terrifically agile car.

Push hard through a sequence of corners and it changes tack more eagerly than, say, the mid-engined Lamborghini LP640, though personally I’d like a bit more weight at the wheel. Understeer can build if you’re a bit ambitious with your entry speed (it’s quite easy to arrive at a corner more quickly than you expect…) and this might be better telegraphed with a more distinct sensation of the steering shedding weight.

That said, the manettino’s default ‘sport’ setting feels perfectly judged for keen driving on dry roads. You can feel the back end hunker down under power mid-corner and the rear tyres edge towards slip at the exit, but the situation will escalate no further. The F1-Trac system subtly modulates the power, based on the inputs of various sensors, including some measuring front- and rear-wheel speed, which are fed into a dynamics model stored in the control system. For less favourable conditions there are the ‘ice’ and ‘low grip’ (read: wet road) settings, which make the dampers softer, while regular ASR takes over from F1-Trac, allowing less slip and activating individual brakes if necessary to maintain stability.

One notch above ‘sport’ is ‘race’, which is deemed suitable for track use only. It offers maximum shift speed and backs-off the stability and traction controls to permit larger degrees of slip, though in extremis there is still some tailoring of the trajectory based on the F1-Trac dynamics model. Reckon you can do better and a final twist of the manettino cuts out all stability and traction controls entirely, leaving you with only anti-lock brakes. Helpfully, a coloured bar at the top edge of the electronic screen to the left of the rev-counter indicates at a glance which mode is selected.

At the Bedford Autodrome we slip the Ferrari onto the scales. Ferrari quotes a kerb weight of 1688kg for a manual gearbox model. This car, with its F1 gearbox and optional carbon brakes (which save 13kg) settles at 1733kg, split 48/52 front/rear.

For the laps, I start with the race setting. I’ve got my own target time: 1:24.45, set by the fastest front-engine/rear-drive car we’ve yet tried, the 505bhp, 1400kg Corvette Z06. Many powerful cars feel strangely slow out on the wide, flat West Circuit, but not the Fiorano. Glimpsing the odd moment of 8000rpm acceleration on the road is a huge thrill to be savoured. Keening the V12 to within an ace of the limiter for three laps is veering towards sensory overload.

Race mode certainly allows you some freedom of expression when cornering, yet once acclimatised to the phenomenal pace of the 599 it becomes apparent that there is a definite style to be adopted for the quickest lap. As on the mile straight, the aim has to be to keep the rear tyres hooked up so that you’re using all of the engine’s power to drive forward rather than daub the track with black lines.

This is fine through the simple, medium-speed corners, but through the scary-fast second part of the Palmer Curves, understeer dominates, and wrestling the car into oversteer doesn’t feel (or prove) any faster. Also, at the exit of the fast corners at the end of the lap, the Fiorano is poised under power until the very last, and then swings further, as if its tyres have just got too hot. Happily, in race mode F1-Trac intervenes whenever there is excess like this, stopping it going any further, but without slowing the car as ASR tends to.

Exactly what F1-Trac is doing across the lap becomes apparent when I twist the mannetino and take full control, and responsibility, for the last couple of laps. It’s mighty difficult to be as hard on the power quite so early in the corners without the rear tyres then spinning up towards the exit. On the plus side, it’s huge fun to balance the 599 in a heroic oversteer slide, calmly winding the lock on and off. On the downside, you know that you’re wasting time, and the VBOX shows it – around a second is lost to the best time in ‘race’.

We’re under the Z06’s time, but I reckon there’s more to come, because the carbon brakes don’t have the bite they did on the mile straight. Normally we’d make the best of what we’ve been given, but with six Ferrari staff on hand, we can get close to a perfect car. So we grab a coffee while a new set of pads is fitted, along with a pair of the optional 20in rims for the front to see if they give less understeer through the Palmer Curves.

‘The fastest drivers go slightly quicker with all the systems turned off,’ says vehicle engineer Martino Cavanna, mildly. I don’t think it’s going to work for me, and with a few clean laps in the refreshed car (with only a very slight reduction in the understeer), I consider we’ve given the Fiorano a good shot. I’m happy with the best lap of 1:23.10 – that puts it ahead of the Z06, F430, 911 GT3 RS and Ascari KZ1. However, it transpires that the Ferrari boys had their own target and they’re disappointed that I haven’t been able to beat the time of the four-wheel-drive Lamborghini Gallardo (1:22.80).

I don’t think that really matters. The 599 GTB is an extraordinarily accomplished car: five hours at the wheel, from Maranello to Castellane for our recent Car of the Year contest, proved its GT credentials, and here it has shown that its all-out performance is a match for the F40. That’s amazing given how much heavier it is, but then it does have one of the best engines in the world… that just happens to be paired with the most impressive paddle-shift manual we’ve ever tried.

Simply put, there isn’t another GT that comes close to matching the exceptional breadth of the 599 GTB’s ability, nor the richness of the experience. It will be some machine that topples it from its position as the world’s greatest GT.

Specifications

Engine65-degree V12, 5999cc
Max power611bhp @ 7600rpm (tested: 621bhp)
Max torque448lb ft @ 5600rpm (tested: 493lb ft)
0-603.5
Top speed205mpg (claimed)
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