Imagine suddenly discovering that Arnold Schwarzenegger is actually really, really good at knitting. For years I’ve happily worked on the assumption that Ferrari makes the greatest sports and racing cars in the world, and that’s more than enough for any company to achieve. In fact, in the guise of the FF, Ferrari has now gone and produced a car that can transport four people in unparalleled comfort, along with a considerable amount of luggage, while still providing all the excitement of the contemporary Ferrari driving experience. Coupled to this is some 21st-century technology of such disturbingly advanced intelligence that the car can be driven in conditions that would leave a lot of SUVs struggling. My day in the FF was remarkable in that much of the driving took place in areas where it wasn’t really possible to explore the car’s dizzying straight-line speed. Instead, I experienced it on twisting mountain roads where the ability to grip and get the power on to the road and around the hairpin corners took precedence.
The FF, as you probably know by now, is Ferrari’s first all-wheel drive car, though purists have nothing to fear: it’s rear drive most of the time, and the desired weight distribution front-to-rear (47/53) is unaffected, despite that mighty V12 sitting upfront. The way it negotiates slippery corners is uncanny. Unlike conventional AWD cars, the FF does without an additional propshaft to the front wheels and all its attendant mechanicals, and instead uses what Ferrari calls a “power transfer unit”. This mechanism weighs just 45kg, and is fiendishly clever and rather complicated, so bear with me. Basically, it comprises a set of gears (roughly speaking second, fourth and reverse) and a pair of continuously slipping wet clutches. This, and an armoury of electronics, sends torque to each front wheel when the system decides it’s needed. On a dry road, in other words, the FF is likely to remain a good, old-fashioned rear-driven Ferrari GT almost all of the time. It’s not dry up here, though.
Time was that when a performance car elected to intervene on your behalf, it would do so with all the subtlety of a brick wall, leaving the driver flailing mid-corner before exiting in a clumsy understeering mess. Not the FF. In “Comfort” or “Sport” mode, it optimises the available traction so seamlessly that you simply cannot tell what is occurring on your behalf. Progress isn’t just perfectly controlled, it’s thrilling too. The car’s electronics are so clever that they even monitor what sort of grip is going to be available during the braking and turn-in phase of the driving experience, and react accordingly once you’re there, no matter how injudicious your right foot might be. Yes, you read that right: the FF knows in advance what you’ll need. It’s like having the world’s most intuitive driving coach with you, only powered by a V12. With a bit of clairvoyance thrown in for good measure. I had been forewarned that at some point on this journey around the edges of physical possibility and suspension kinematics that a man with a piano accordion would be waiting. With a vision of a lederhosen-wearing yodeller in mind I was not in a particular hurry to arrive. (Please note that I have nothing personal against yodelling accordion players, with or without alpenhorns in attendance, but they do come rather far down my list of favourite things to listen to, in a car or anywhere else…)
Before that, however, we had an appointment at the San Lorenzo Mountain Lodge, run by Stefano Barbini where things took a distinct turn for the better. There was a warm welcome from Stefano’s wife Giorgia who showed us around this beautifully restored building before plying us with coffee and a substantial selection of homemade local pastries. This high-altitude pit stop in the Alto Adige allowed for an opportunity to gather my thoughts on the FF, and also ponder its distinctive “shooting brake” styling. As a Briton, I have a particular fondness for this unusual configuration, since due to our inclement weather most of us need something like this to transport our shotguns or golf-clubs in. I suspect it will take some getting used to, though you have to applaud Ferrari’s commitment to doing something different. The next test was to unpack the car. This was of particular interest as the challenge had been to fit an entire drum kit into the back, and I think to everyone’s surprise this was achieved quite easily. In fact, we could have added an extra drum or two, along with the odd (admittedly small) groupie or drum tech. It was nice to be reunited with this particular kit, a Prancing Horse special. I think there are still only two of them in existence. Made by the Drum Workshops in LA, with cymbals by Paiste, the kit sounds great and perhaps even benefited from being transported around in something as unique as the FF. A bit like ageing whisky in sherry casks on-board ships. I really must organise some Ferrari drumsticks to go with them…
In fact, this was to be a day of surprises, and the accordion player turned out to be the highly talented Herbert Pixner who uses the instrument to play blues and jazz in a way I had never heard before. The accordion actually lends itself surprisingly well to the genre, and the only way to describe it is to suggest that it’s almost like a giant harmonica in terms of the way it can provide a wailing quality to the music. I’m rather sorry we didn’t have more time together but, with only a day to experience the car, the priority was driving. We set off on a search for the perfect photographic location, which was surprisingly tricky given that we were touring through some of the most scenic mountain vistas in Europe, in the glorious Dolomites.
There was perfection everywhere we looked. Eventually a suitably precipitous hairpin was discovered and I was dispatched to drive through it innumerable times – having to make three-point turns after each run. This was probably not a bad way of learning a little more about the car, especially its fabulously smooth sevenspeed dual-clutch gearbox. So much progress has been made on these systems in the past 10 years that it’s now almost impossible to mount a case for a conventional manual transmission, as much as I still love them. Not that such a thing would be able to cope with the sort of torque the FF generates. Despite its size and power, this really is a very tractable and friendly car. Not to mention incredibly supple in the way it deals with the sort of rough road conditions that would have made mincemeat of an F40 splitter plate, and limited an Enzo to low speed with the raised ride height in operation. I’ve been in the back of a few limos in my time, and the Ferrari FF really is every bit as comfortable as the best of them, and better than many of the less accomplished. There’s a new multi-link rear suspension to thank for that, as well as a new wishbone design in the front suspension architecture, and clever adaptive damping.
The FF, like all modern Ferraris, is thoroughly useable, only even more so. Useable, but still powered by one of the most astonishing engines you’ll ever come across. Now, I’ve been lucky enough to form a close bond with a variety of 12-cylinder Ferrari engines over the years, and I am well acquainted with the unique way they do their thing. I don’t wish to labour the metaphor, but there really is a musicality to the dozen-cylindered layout. There’s a definite harmony, but it’s muscular. The FF is another classic of the genre. The engine is new, 6.3 litres in capacity, pumps out a faintly startling 660hp and revs to a stunning 8200rpm. There are no turbochargers or other agents of forced induction hereabouts, and the result is a car that pulls like the proverbial freight train. Faster, in fact, than most trains I’ve ever been on, and certainly with a more seductive exhaust note. (The sound engineering on this car really would shame some big records I could name.) This is Ferrari’s definitive gran turismo, so while it will accelerate to 100km/h in 3.7 seconds and thunder on to 320km/h with no pause for thought, where conditions permit, of course, it will also settle into a phenomenally relaxed motorway cruise. Conversation with passengers is perfectly possible, in surroundings that are vastly more pleasant than those available in most commercial airlines.
I remember using my old Daytona to drive from the south of France to Le Mans, while Pink Floyd were recording The Wall there in 1979, and it’s a memory I cherish. The same trip in an FF would be just as stimulating, but altogether more soothing at the same time. And while it might seem a little churlish to discuss greenery here, it should be noted that the FF’s V12 uses direct injection to improve its emissions and reduce fuel consumption. One might get too hooked on the bloodcurdling wail of this amazing engine to worry too much about that, though. We covered another couple of locations in the local towns to complete the pictures, and inevitably there was the wonderful sight of the local kids rushing up to see the car, and being encouraged by the Ferrari personnel rather than being shooed away. That’s the way to generate brand loyalty! But now to the really good bit. I have to say I now have a new hero in my life. Dario Benuzzi has been the legendary Ferrari test driver for 40 years, man and boy, but he clearly can’t do all the work by himself. Several years ago at Fiorano I had a couple of laps with Raffaele de Simone in the FXX which were sufficiently stunning to suggest he could be the man to follow in the maestro’s stylish footsteps. I’m now convinced he’s the man, after a demonstration of the FF on a purpose-made snow circuit 2,000m up a mountain alongside the slopes and ski lifts in Brunico. Not only could he demonstrate the FF’s supernatural traction on this most unforgiving of surfaces, he was later perfectly prepared to sit as passenger and explain the technicalities of the system. If I were him I think I’d have been sitting there with my eyes firmly shut…
The car was fitted with regular winter tyres and the surface was compacted snow underpinned by an evil icy layer. And the FF was magic. The grip was extraordinary, and the system could be adjusted to allow the driver to push harder and harder without losing control. For the first time in my experience, the car could be driven faster with the traction control on than off and was perfectly content to let the tail hang out in a hooligan fashion, assuming the appropriate mode had been selected on the manettino control. Perhaps the setting should be changed from “Sport” to “Happy” or “Wild Man”, such is the degree of confidence the system instils in the driver. I also really like the touch of giving the passenger their own information read out – in a sliver of screen just above the glovebox – which they can alternate between power distribution, rev counter and speed and gear ratio read-out. I suppose it’s there to keep the poor souls distracted from the scenery whizzing by outside. Or so that they can help fill in the statement at the police station later on. Finally, the trip also gave me a chance to play with the FF’s launch control.
I’ve used it before on my Enzo, but it becomes so expensive on clutch wear that most owners soon stop as Ferrari makes it clear it’s a consumable, not a guaranteed item. Many thanks to the factory for three successive starts at someone else’s expense. However, I have to confess that I shall not be ordering an FF just yet. It’s a magnificent machine, and though it swallowed my drum kit with ease and has a sumptuous interior, it may actually be just a bit too practical for my particular needs. (Those, incidentally, will be catered for by the 599 GTO which is due to arrive soon.) For those who do wish to carry four adults to the ski chalet, or sample a truly world-class powertrain and some of the most dazzling chassis technology ever to appear on a motor car, the FF is arguably the most complete Ferrari ever made. Now, where’s my accordion?
Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine issue 13, May 2011