crankandpiston.com takes the Ferrari 458 Speciale for a spin on home turf. One that sends our deputy editor down a curse-filled memory lane.
It’s been quite a while since I’ve sworn this much during a test drive. Almost a year in fact. But this is not swearing with vitriolic rage at an incomprehensible SatNav, Bluetooth connection or adaptive cruise control. It’s swearing aimed internally. I’m not driving this Ferrari 458 Speciale as I should be.
Rewind 12 months. I’ve just been given a quick tutorial on the Speciale – Ferrari’s über honed, track-orientated version of its already mightily impressive 458 Italia – by chief test driver Rafaelle De Simone. He then casually mentions that for my first few laps of Ferrari’s official test track at Fiorano, I should ease my way up to 200kph gently rather than going hell for leather straight away, to not worry too much about the rain that’s started to fall, and then closes the door leaving me to drive solo. The only sound I can hear over the thunderous 4.5-litre V8 are the butterflies in the stomach growing a third set of wings.
Bizarrely, the specifics of the laps themselves escape me to this day: unable to rip my eyes from the windscreen or the rather solid looking Armco dead ahead, I have no idea what triple figure speed I hit down Fiorano’s main straight on that morning. Instead, it’s the sensations that stick with me, raw power meeting engineering perfection in a fine balance, the results of which cause my legs to turn to jelly. Down the straights, there is almost endless power capable of screaming its way past 9000rpm. Through the corners – tight and sweeping alike – there is poise, grip and a balance I’ve never experienced, the rear 20-inch wheels playing a devilish game of chicken with me, remaining perfectly aligned with the front but daring me to push harder so they can jink slightly, very slightly, out of place to keep me on my guard. The resultant lateral g-forces are beyond addictive, and soon I’m forcing myself to brake later, accelerate earlier, and – ultimately – go faster.
And this is when the swearing starts.
Faced with a 325kph Ferrari that will hit 100kph from standstill in a flat three seconds and race through corners better than any other road-going Maranello model, my right foot refuses to stay planted as marker boards fly past. Into the corners, I’m still braking much earlier than the Speciale is capable, feeding the power in much later than the grip can permit. I have only three laps to make the most of this privilege and I am squandering them. Dammit James, pull your finger out!
Fast forward to today. I’m watching in awe as the Speciale’s speedometer needle climbs to a dizzying 7000rpm, a bus-sized chasm lying between both it and the redline. On the top of the steering wheel, the fourth of six red lights blinks on, signifying that “y’know James, you really can push the gearbox much harder than this.”
“F*ck sake James, concentrate!”
I’ve just hit the Kalba run, a meandering stretch of tarmac that winds up a mountain range in the heart of Hatta before plunging back down the other side, it’s final stopping point the Fujairah coastline. Like Fiorano it boasts tight chicanes, tight apexes that flow into sweeping left and right handers, and straight stretches of road that end with heavy braking points. This time, I’m going to trust the car under me and ignore my right foot. THIS TIME, I am going to drive the 458 Speciale the way it was meant to be driven.
Four red lights, upshift.
“For God’s sake, come on man!”
Those of you wondering why this is so important may not fully appreciate the extent to which Ferrari has developed the Speciale. Indeed, upon its launch at last year’s Frankfurt Motor Show, Ferrari suits stated that the Speciale offered ‘unprecedented’ technical differences to the 458 Italia on which it is based, one-upping even the Challenge Stradale and 430 Scuderia it succeeded. This was no ‘limited edition bodge job, as a serious weight saving regime demonstrates: alongside shaving 8kg from the V8, 20kg from the bodywork was dropped thanks to a thin Lexan rear ‘window’ and RTM bumpers, carbon fibre racing seats were installed, the floor mats and glovebox were ditched, and the Speciale shaves 90kg off the already svelte 1485kg Italia. And that’s just the beginning…
At the front, a Ferrari-patented mobile aerodynamic system automatically ensures different configurations are adopted while cornering for maximum downforce. Those of you who mastered particle physics should find the owner’s manual a breeze (give or take a headache or two) but put simply, the system engages three flaps in the front wing, two vertical and one horizontal. Below 170kph, these stay closed to direct cooling air to the radiator. Above that, the flaps open to reduce drag on the nose, and above 220kph, the horizontal flap lowers to balance downforce between the front and rear axles, keeping all four wheels tight to the asphalt as it does so. There’s a fixed rear spoiler, the angle of which is more aggressive for greater rear downforce. Even the tailpipes have been moved slightly to make room for a new rear diffuser.
If this wasn’t anal enough, Ferrari has also fitted the Speciale with a world first Side Slip Angle Control (SSC), which despite the effectiveness of the specially developet Michelin Pilot Sport Cup2 tyres calculates lateral acceleration, steering wheel angle and vehicle speed to allow smooth, controllable oversteer for those of you keen to stick the arse out on a $290K Ferrari. Technical wizardry that, despite four separate readings still causes my head to spin, also sees power hiked from 562bhp in the Italia to 597bhp in the Speciale, making the 4497cc V8 the most powerful road-going naturally aspirated eight-cylinder the company has ever produced.
This is no ‘version’ of the Italia. Indeed, so seriously has the Speciale been taken that ‘Sport’ on the drive mode switch on the multi-function steering wheel is akin to ‘Eco’ in any other car, the other options including Race, CT Off and ESC Off, the latter of which turns all but the most basic driver assistance systems off. Only the hairiest chested, steel-nutted individuals need apply…
Four red lights, upshift.
We’re only through the first few corners, and the red mist is starting to descend. The part of my brain that predicts the titanic bollocking I shall receive should my hooning efforts go horribly wrong is still in control of my right foot. Once again, I’m not getting as much from this drive as I should. “Come on James. COME ON!”
We’re still climbing at this moment, and though shifts through the ‘more urgent’ seven-speed F1-style dual clutch transmission are eye-blinkingly quick, I’m happy to let the revs rise to carry momentum through the turns. Still tentative, my right foot is nonetheless rolling on the throttle, the power delivery immediate as 597bhp is fed through the rear wheels. Balance, as you’ve no doubt guessed, is superb, with body roll not even registering on the map.
Four red lights, upshift.
The opening salvo of corners is done almost before I noticed, leading us to the mouth of a tunnel carving its way through (and up) the mountain. It’s here that the truly biblical soundtrack can be heard in all it glorious, high-revving mania taking a brief front seat so we can enjoy the V8 wail bouncing off the walls. It’s a soundtrack Ferrari has taken great care to emphasise, so much so that even at idle, the V8 rumble fills the cabin. Without surcease. We’ve been on the go for several hours now without a break, and though blood is not yet running from my nose, I’m convinced the BRRRRRRWWWWWAAAAA emanating at multi-decibels behind my right ear has left me partially deaf. It makes me wonder why Ferrari bothered installing a radio…
Having levelled off, the Kalba run begins to make its way back down the mountain side, the opening turns much tighter in keeping with the undulations of the rockface.
Now things really start to get interesting. Already the steering has proven itself hefty, inch-precision from those front Michelins keeping the angular nose pointed at any and all apexes that dare show their faces, the balance once again beyond criticism. With gravity now pushing the rear bumper, the Brembo brake system – lifted essentially from big brother LaFerrari – begins to show its effectiveness into the sharper corners. Boasting Extreme Design callipers and next generation (silicon-heavy) HT2 discs, only sheer will stops my face ripping from its moorings when the anchors are thrown out. And yet amidst this on/off power lies a fine balance, feel through the pedal allowing me to scrub speed gently without the fear of the pads and discs fading, even on this trickiest of mountain roads.
Five red lights, upshift. “F*cking hell James, come on!”
We’re running out of time now. The road has started to level off and I can feel the turns opening out. Though the brakes are not being put to as much angst as they were just a few moments ago, the balance and grip are being exploited. And yet still, even as I feed the power in through the first long sweeping left, then right, then left again, the Speciale refuses to budge. I know I’m starting to run out of time…
Five red lights…
Just a few more corners. That’s all I need. Just a little extra time to turn off the part of my brain screaming at me, pleading at me to lift off, sheath the V8 and live to drive another day. “It’s only six lights. What does it matter?”
Five red lights…
It shouldn’t matter. It really, really shouldn’t matter. But it does. Like most supercars I’ve had the privilege of driving, I know that its limit and mine are hilariously different: should I find myself at a limit set by Ferrari’s most talented, I will be in serious trouble.
And yet there’s something about the Ferrari 458 Speciale. It’s a feeling that first struck one year ago, and continues to niggle today. Honed to as good as it can possibly be and designed to be driven like it was stolen on-track or off, it gets under your skin. Simply ‘driving’ this car doesn’t feel right. It feels disrespectful. It feels like failure.
Five red lights. “Dammit James!”
I’ve reached the bottom of the run. That final light had eluded me, but I’m already turning the car around for another run. Perhaps this time I’ll get that final light. Perhaps the time after that. I just know that, at some point, I have to hit it. Regardless of how much swearing it takes.
Full technical specifications on page 2