Driving along in fourth gear on an empty stretch of road, I stomped the throttle on the new Ferrari F12. Half expecting a momentary lag, I went about re-adjusting my driving position a touch. But before the process was complete, the rev-counter climbed with fury and the car pulled ahead like I’d hit launch control. In fourth! It was as if Gulliver’s mighty palm had pushed it, with a dozen boosters nailed to the back of his hand. But everything was so smooth, it was just the turn of pace that left me utterly gobsmacked. Not even the Lamborghini Aventador, a car that re-defined the super sports car category had shown such a rapid change of velocity, sound volume notwithstanding.
It’s then that Ferrari’s technical briefing made sense. In any gear – 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 5th one can access up to 90 per cent of the power in just half a second by simply standing on the throttle. The competition? Well, it takes 2.5 seconds in some cases. Yet, working furiously through the new, FF-derived 7-speed dual-clutch transmission can make matters a bit dull. Not so much by the experience, but the fact that the manner in which the shifts had started to become quicker with the F1 transmission (200 milliseconds for the 575 and 100 milliseconds for the 599) is now no longer a hot topic of discussion. Tifosi anoraks will now have to contend with other details, details that sound even nicer to the ears. Like the near 123 kg of downforce (up from the 599’s 70 kg) available at 200 kph. Or that it is a full two seconds quicker around Fiorano than the 2003 Enzo. Crikey!
But like I said, the gearshifts are smooth. Dawdle around in sport on the manettino and there is none of the whiplash effect of the Aventador’s ISR, 50-milliseconder unit, nor is it sterile like most other dual-clutch boxes. The sharpness is just enough to keep you entertained. Want more? Want to give it an extra pair of lungs? Simply flick the manettino to Race. The plenums on the end of either bank of cylinders help it gain that extra bit of performance. The soundtrack too is distinctive, as several locals seemed to suggest, with a warm smile and a twinkle in their eye as the F12 just roared past them. Honestly, a gorilla chest-thumping 731 bhp at a screaming 8700 rpm is truly spectacular, especially since even the 661 bhp from the same unit on the FF can cause your toes to twitch.
And twitch the car doesn’t. Around Modena’s, twisty uphill sections, the F12 shrinks pretty rapidly. Going through a tight hairpin at a pretty good clip, I didn’t feel the need to put the outside wheels on the hard shoulder as an oncoming, seven-tonne Iveco decided to tackle the curve at the same time. Mid-corner flicks of the manettino are no longer fraught with a sense of fear either – you can change the character even at such moments without fearing an untimely meeting with some bushes. But don’t even for a moment think that accessibility to all that performance has dumbed down Ferrari’s V12 supercar line. With the road slightly damp after a morning shower, the F12 wasn’t quite easy to get sideways for some photography, the muscle memory of that stab of the throttle clearly having worked its course. Don’t indulge in tomfoolery though and the F12 will reward you with one of the finest chassis balance you will find on a front mid-engined car in recent times.
What Ferrari have tried to do is replicate the handling characteristics of a mid-engined car with some clever engineering and packaging. You literally sit in the dead-centre of the car, with everything else just between the axles. The engine now sits even lower and closer to the driver, the fuel tank has been moved just ahead of the rear axle and then they hit the jackpot. They realised their customers were getting larger (and in some cases taller), so they found ample resources to make a 6 foot 4 incher feel perfectly at home in a supercar. But the headline news is this – the centre of gravity is even lower than a Lotus Elise, and that is enough to cause consternation on a small island just off Western Europe. Because the weight distribution is 46:54 and because the frame is built using 12 different alloys to improve stiffness and reduce weight, the F12’s handling starts to make sense.
The steering is quicker turning and a bit lighter too. Just when you think it lacks that bit of feel just off-centre, you approach a corner, catch the steering just as it starts to load at the top and find there’s still enough of that ‘touchy-feely’ Ferrari steering that has created many a fan since the end of the last World War. It is deadly accurate too. Finding a stretch of road that could only be driven in anger, the F12’s sublime steering was matched by its precise weight distribution and the manner in which the 20-inch Michelins dug into the tarmac was spectacular. The double-wishbones in the front and multi-link at the rear setup is tuned to make you feel like a superhero. And all along, the grip, the poise and the on-limit behaviour is predictable, controllable and guffaw-able. You want to hold onto your stomach and let out a loud laugh, the lout of a V12 with its 6-into-1 equal length exhausts just adding to the chuckle-ability factor. Yet you hold on to the steering, chuck it into a corner and let your eyeballs grow by a factor of two. The third-generation electronic e-diff and that smarter-than-a-couple-of-Apollo-missions ESP gets you thinking if you can ever shake it off and cause those tyres to chirp a bit. So you hit Race and the process re-initiates.
The character changes by a sniff. The gearshifts start to feel a wee bit more aggressive, the throttle a touch louder. Then you turn it all off by flicking the manettino all the way to the right. Do that and the F12 becomes a bit like the Ferraris of yore. Slightly twitchy, but completely in control. Find an open enough stretch and it will hit 100 kph from a standing start in just over three seconds. Find some more and it will hit 200 kph about two seconds quicker than the 599 GTB. And that’s friggin’ fast! Sure, off the line, in an imaginary situation, the Aventador with its all-wheel drive setup will whisk its was past the Ferrari to 100 kph by 0.2 seconds. Think off-the-line traction. But hit 200 kph and the F12 starts to put the Lambo firmly in its rearview mirror. Such is the sheer dominance of the powertrain. Step on the anchors and watch how the third generation carbon ceramic stoppers just bring you safely and firmly to a stop with a dash of feel to it.
Do that, step out and be amazed by what Ferrari and Pininfarina have to offer. Those FF-style headlamps, the California-like stance, the use of cooling ducts under the head lamps whose flaps open when the brakes get too hot, the aero-bridge just behind the front wheel arch that aids downforce, the shoulder line that runs past the aero-bridge and ends at the tail lamps and that F1-derived Kamm tail; the parts do make for a greater sum.
Step back in one last time before handing the keys to the nice gentleman at the back gate at Maranello and you will love the manner in which everything falls to hand. You no longer crib about all major controls finding their way on to the steering, instead you let off a little whine when you find the insides of the centre-console arm-rest slightly poorly finished. The instrumentation leaves you with a feeling of awe, the fact that you now get modern touches like Bluetooth, USB, a better GPS unit that could be well, er, even better and the fact that you find so much space for yourself. And your weekend luggage. You thumb the engine once again, blip the throttle just once, feel like you are the only audience in a 100-man symphony and then let those pistons go back to their resting position.
You leave the gates of Maranello, catch a glimpse of the car one last time as it rolls back into the inner sanctum and pause to reflect on a wonderful day gone by. Not many cars have done this to me. Not many cars might do this to me. But I am going ahead and shooting from the hip, maybe to regret it later. The F12 is the best car I’ve ever driven.