2012 Ferrari FF first drive
"I am a rally champion. I can slide."
Thus we make our first acquaintance with former WRC driver Alex Fiorio as he grabs an exaggerated armful of opposite lock while demonstrating the correct technique to slide from 'airpin to 'airpin.
This cannot get any more surreal. Forget the place for a moment, though considering we're in St Moritz, forgetting takes some doing. What we are actually here to do is spend the entire day sliding. We will learn diddly-squat about the car; a frozen lake with a coefficient of friction nudging zero will see to that. We will not urge the FF towards its top speed, we will not engage launch control, we will not tickle the upper reaches of its redline; heck we will not even use the full travel of the throttle pedal. The few facts you will read in this story are courtesy Bertrand's short run in an FF on the peripheral roads of the Buddh International Circuit back home. If you're in the market to buy a Ferrari FF this is not a story you should base your buying decision on. This is a story fuelled on a cocktail of way too much power, loony Italian rally drivers and four-wheel-drive served neat on the rocks so go get yourself a beer and settle down.
But first if you want to throw up in your mouth, do go ahead. I understand. Even I, an unapologetic fan boy if there ever was one, felt the sick rise in the back of my throat when I first saw that bread box/shooting brake/barking mad backside of the FF. And worse, the first time I saw it at a motor show stand there was a stuffed dog in the back. Ferrari, maker of the mightiest supercars on the planet, provider of the reddest Formula 1 cars on the grid, had built a car to take Hari Singh's kids and dogs up to Dalhousie.
Or maybe, just maybe, Ferrari built a car for Hari Singh to rally. (If, perchance, he won the lottery. Twice).
It's no secret the only reason Enzo Ferrari made road cars was to fund the racing team. I can't claim to know what Enzo Ferrari's take was on rallying but back when he wielded that red phone in Maranello, race cars were more sideways and hit more trees than rally cars do these days; it wasn't for wanting two big balls of steel that Ferrari didn't go rallying then. And when they did dip their toes, tentatively, in mud what resulted was the '74, '75 and '76 WRC-winning, Dino-powered, Lancia Stratos, arguably the coolest looking rally car ever in that Alitalia livery. And among the scariest to drive.
What the Stratos needed was control and control, as we all know, requires four-wheel-drive. The FF has four-wheel-drive, the first application in a Ferrari, and what better place to test its effectiveness than a frozen lake that affords no grip (which I've just discovered having dutifully landed on my arse). That's the FF's first test: I can barely stand on the ice, let alone walk, but if the FF can get going then that's the first box ticked.
Another Italian with impossibly cool shades slides up as I thumb the starter button on the steering wheel (they might have an exaggerated sense of fun but nobody's going to let a journo loose on ice in a three and a half crore rupee yikes! Ferrari without adequate supervision) and runs through the five modes on the Manettino switch. We start with the obvious ice/snow mode tickle the throttle and the FF trundles forth, no wheelspin or even a chirp, only the sound of fresh snow crunching under the Pirelli winter tyres (no studs, I assume for more sliding action later on). Ahead of me is a neat little course marked out with red cones, abutting it is a ski trail that's as popular as the nearby airport that welcomes an endless stream of private jets, and in the backdrop are the snow-capped Alps: it's a location of breathtaking intensity, dripping with so much money that even the weather is described as 'tingling champagne climate'. This is a Ferrari event and Ferrari goes to where their customers are, not to the usual winter driving experience course laid out on a frozen lake in the icy wastes of the Arctic circle with one Moose for company (and dinner).
Gently then, as I thread between the cones. Ice/snow is the safest mode cutting power out at even a hint of waywardness from the tail, softening the throttle responses and keeping things nicely in check so that your grandma can take the FF to the shops when it starts snowing. As you can assume it is no fun either. Two (frustrating) laps and Cool Shades flicks the Manetinno into wet mode. This is a little better but the electronic brain still thinks you're a muppet and no matter what you do with the throttle or steering it still keeps pointing in the right direction. Two more laps, a coffee break to soak it all in, and we head back out, this time in comfort mode.
Now we are talking.
Ferrari are proud of their electronics, derived as they are from Formula 1 (I assume Alonso's car not Massa's). In a Ferrari the electronics obviously keep you from killing yourself (and crashing into Hamilton) but Ferrari are at pain to stress that the electronics also work with you to go faster (or not, if your name is Massa). And so comfort mode allows playing with the throttle to kick the tail out and start sliding between the cones. I look good and feel good, pulling a nice slide between the cones and wondering whether I should apply for Massa's job. But it is not me, it is the car. The electronics are so freakishly good that it knows you're running out of talent before you realise it, cutting in so smoothly and imperceptibly that you're lulled into thinking you're a hero.
In between the sliding around I also realise another thing: the FF is freakishly comfortable. The frozen lake is far from smooth yet in comfort mode the third-generation magnetorheological dampers deliver an extraordinarily good ride, so good that I can see myself doing daily Mumbai-Pune runs and not requiring spine-replacement surgery.
On cue Cool Shades grunts an appreciation and asks me to pull over. It's time for proper fun and we repair to a figure-of-eight course to practice some serious drifting. Easy-peasy and I ignore sport mode on the Manettino and go straight to full ESP off. Accelerate, whack left, whack right, floor the throttle and whup I'm facing the wrong way. Err. Again. Gently on the throttle. Whup the tail comes around. And again. And again. Shit. It dawns that for all my driving talent, my so-called rally driving experience, an FF 4WD or no 4WD is no walk in the park.
I'll come clean. I'm no stranger to these ice driving courses having done them twice before. I really do know how to slide a car but the FF is unlike any other car I've driven. The FF is manic; manic in its responses. The FF's electronic brain does not so much as react to what you're doing as anticipates what you are about to do and dials in an appropriate response well in advance. But it expects the same from you, it expects lightning-quick wheelsmanship, an anticipation of what's about to happen, not a lazy wait to absorb what the car's telling you, process it, and dial out an appropriate response.
And the steering, good god the steering. It looks and feels similar to the 458 Italia's and let me tell you about the 458 its steering is like a go kart; preposterously direct, light as helium, and with almost zero turns lock to lock. First time out in a 458 (provided you're driving like a Ferrari ought to be driven) the steering scares the life out of you; it feels hyper direct, too darty, too freaking eager to turn and change direction. But as you go along you realise the 458 turns with your thoughts. You think and it turns, barely a suggestion is required at the steering wheel, not a twirl of the 'wheel. So too the FF. You twirl the 'wheel and inevitably you've dialed in too much input. You correct and you've corrected way too much. Every input at the steering wheel is way too much. Everything you do is wrong. You're an idiot and the FF makes no bones of the fact. No wonder we have WRC drivers teaching us, if any car needs time to learn and skill to play with it in tricky conditions it is the FF.
A double shot of espresso. Alex takes the 'wheel and shows me how it is done. Half a turn of lock, that's it. Anticipate what the tail is going to do and wind on opposite lock. Half a turn, never more. Feed in the power, gently with the throttle. And look ahead, to the next corner, not the corner you're in. The latter, that's the most valuable advise anybody's given me in a long time. See all those helmet-camera shots in F1, notice how the driver's head is turned into the corner well before he turns the steering wheel? Want to drive fast and not get overtaken by a Sauber? Look way ahead, at the vanishing point (or Hamilton's gearbox), and invariably the car will go there.
And have respect for power. Until the F12berlinetta broke cover this direct-injection V12 was the most powerful in a road going Ferrari, kicking out a massive 650PS at a stratospheric 8000rpm. On ice there's just no way to deploy all that power without digging through the ice and into the lake so I will have to go by Ferrari's claimed 0-100kmph time of 3.7 seconds and its 335kmph top speed. What I can tell you is that it has diesel-like torque with 500Nm (out of a total of 683Nm) available at just 1000rpm. This is more torque than the California makes at its peak and is enough to kick the FF sideways at any revs in any gear. Nevertheless I keep it in the lowest gear and the highest revs I can handle just to soak in that beautiful noise courtesy six-into-one exhaust headers and two resonance tubes that deliver the deep intake snarl directly into the cabin. Power corrupts, but equally so does the wail of a V12.
Satisfied I've understood the technique Alex hands me the 'wheel and it now comes together. It is never easy, mind you, and I still spin far too many times for somebody who has a shelf-full of rallying trophies but I'm getting it, working the throttle, playing with the weight balance, feeding the power and getting the tail to sing to my (off-key) tune. It's intoxicating. Bloody hard work, but intoxicating.
We break for lunch and then I'm let loose on a faster course with a combination of corners: long fast ones where the FF can be held in an endless four wheel drift, tight esses which call for a Scandinavian flick, slow corners to reign in the enthusiasm and work the brakes it's like I've died and gone to oversteer heaven. Yet Bertrand tells me on dry roads it is impossible to coax the FF into any sort of oversteer. Equally impossible is to get it to understeer. The four-wheel-drive works so unobtrusively and quickly that you can never make out that point of transition where the rear starts to slide and power is shuffled to the fronts; it is four-wheel-drive but it feels resolutely rear wheel drive. Push bloody hard on dry tarmac and at the point where you expect the rear to break traction you find that instead of sliding you're still continuing to ride an enormous surge forwards. Fast corners become a test of bravery. Ferrari claim that four-wheel-drive is only for situations where conditions are less than favourable (as opposed to a performance and handling aid like on a Lambo) but all I know is there's so much traction that FF owners will never be able to slide off a mountain, much to the appreciation of the dogs, kids and wife.
On ice it's an altogether different matter, sideways everywhere yet always in control. At one point I snatch third gear, probably 150 clicks, chuck it into a right hander, balance it on the throttle, just a hint of corrective lock, eyes peeled for the next corner and kick up a rooster trail of snow to blanket half of Switzerland.
I may not be a rally champion. But I too can slide.