x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Ferrari's first four-wheel-drive supercar, the FF, is for all seasons

In the frozen wilderness of northern Sweden, Chris Chilton finds the FF, Ferrari's first AWD, is no ordinary supercar.

Arjeplog, northern Sweden, is just 70km from the Arctic Circle. It's the place where the world's car makers come to pit their prototypes against the extremes of nature on race tracks carved out of frozen lakes and in temperatures that can drop to -44°C. The UAE, it most definitely is not.

It doesn't sound like a natural environment for human habitation, let alone for driving a Ferrari. But then the FF isn't your usual Maranello fair-weather supercar. The replacement for the 612 Scaglietti is Ferrari's first four-wheel-drive car. The man sitting next to me isn't your usual Ferrari test driver, either. He's Markku Alén, part of the team that helped develop the FF, but better known as one of the legendary Scandinavians that dominated rally driving during the 1970s and 1980s. And someone obviously forgot to tell him he's retired. We're driving on a snow-covered handling course that feels like the love child of the Nordschleife and a bob-sled track.

I know from the new digital display located above the glovebox in front of my passenger seat that we're touching 150kph in places, but the way the trees are smearing past the side windows you'd think it was more like 250. And I certainly don't need the rev counter bar graph below it to tell me he's using the full rev spectrum. My ears can compute that just fine from the heady noise reverberating around the cockpit.

Right now, though, I'm close to letting out a yelp, myself. Quite how Alén is finding grip in these conditions is a mystery.

Because we’re not on the metal-studded tyres you’d expect a car to be wearing in these conditions, the sort of rubber the locals’ cars are shod with. When I climb out to take a look, I discover we’re on ordinary Pirelli Sottozero winter tyres. I am stunned. Which is probably exactly what Ferrari wanted. The FF is a response to customer demand, says the Italian car maker; those in the Middle East and the US’s big, warmer coastal cities, the places that will swallow much of the production run, won’t feel the benefit of the FF’s clever four-wheel-drive system, but those in northern North America, northern Europe and in Russia certainly might.

And it is a clever system. Engineering a car like the FF to have four-wheel drive is tricky because the engine is at the front but the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox is at the back. Nissan’s GTR has the same layout, so it employs two separate propshafts running virtually the full length of the car: one taking power from the engine to the rear gearbox, the other taking it back to the front wheels. It works, but it’s heavy and complicated. So instead, the FF takes power from both ends of the V12’s crankshaft. The rear of the engine drives the gearbox at the back of the car but, at the front, there’s an entirely separate gearbox, a little two-speed unit Ferrari calls the PTU, or Power Transfer Unit, which only comes in to play under slippery conditions. At 40kg, Ferrari’s four-wheel-drive solution weighs half as much as rivals’ because the PTU does the job of both the centre and front differentials in a regular four-wheel-drive car.

In first and second gears on the proper gearbox, you’re in first on the little front ‘box. That shifts up to the second of its ratios when the rear transmission is working in third and fourth. But above that, the PTU disengages altogether; the traction isn’t going to be bad enough to require four-wheel drive if you’re doing the 200kph that fourth gear allows. The front gearbox has the added benefit of being able to shuffle power between the left and right wheels and, together with the active rear differential, means the FF can move the power to where it’ll do the most good.

Now it’s my turn to try it for myself. We’re in ice mode, the safest of the five manettino modes. What’s immediately apparent, even with the inevitable wheel-slip caused by the snowy track, is that the FF feels monstrously fast in a straight line. The new direct-injection 6.3L V12 pumps out 651hp at 8,000rpm, but just look at the torque: 683Nm is an awful lot of punch for a naturally aspirated engine, and there’s 500Nm all the way from 1,000 to 8,000rpm. In optimal conditions, Ferrari says it’s good for 100kph in 3.7 seconds, while a top speed of 335kph means it’s Ferrari’s fastest current
road car.

Three laps in and I’m getting cocky. I’ve cycled from the safety of the steering wheel manettino’s ice and wet settings, through comfort, which allows a good balance between slip and tidiness, and have settled in sport. With 53 per cent of its 1,880kg bulk over the rear wheels, the FF feels much smaller than it is, turning in obediently, and clearly telegraphing any loss of grip through your seat and steering. If you want to have fun out here in the FF, sport is the place to be, and right now I feel like an absolute hero. Right up until the moment I stuff the car into a snowbank, that is. When I return to the makeshift pits, there’s no disguising my off. There’s an igloo’s worth of snow wedged into the air intake and Ferrari’s technicians quickly set to work scooping it out before letting me out for another couple of laps.

I could do this all day, but eventually, the arm of a red Ferrari coat waves me in. Seems they’ve got another challenge for us. Whatever it is, it’s a 10-minute drive away, which gives us a brief opportunity to sample the side of the FF’s character most customers are likely to see. So we slot the gearbox into automatic mode and rumble out onto the main road. With the manettino back in ice mode, the FF feels absolutely secure, nipping any yaw movements in the bud. It’s not exciting but it would be piece of mind when hauling children about in bad weather.

A couple of turns later, we arrive at a locked gate. On the other side is a vicious hill climb. It starts with a 1km straight that gets progressively steeper before tipping you into a hard right, followed by another shorter straight, a hard left, then a long, daunting pull uphill to the finish. And all covered in a blanket of sheet ice with a dollop of snow on top.

Alén goes first, managing that racing driver trick of driving absolutely flat out while chatting away as if he’s sipping Espresso back at the hotel.

“When I first got involved with the FF project, the car was only about 65 per cent right,” he says of the dynamics while winding on a whole turn of corrective lock. “But they’ve got some really good boys at Ferrari, I could see how fast they were learning.” Alén is now 61, and long since retired from international rallying, but you can clearly see the magic that earned him the 1986 WRC title – for a couple of weeks before a FISA ruling gave it to rival Juha Kankkunen.

After we’ve finished playing rally drivers, I decide to try to catch the FF out: stopping halfway up the steepest section and trying to pull away again, or sticking the manettino in sport and reversing up the hill. On every occasion, and with barely a flinch, the FF claws its way up the incline.

“The difference between our system and others is that other manufacturers try to use the traction of the four-wheel-drive system first, and then bring in the ESP,” says Matteo Lanzavecchia, the FF’s chief development engineer. “But with the FF, we use the ESP right from the start.”

You can probably tell I’m impressed with how the car copes in these conditions. But what about the rest of the package? What’s the FF got to offer those of us who don’t live within an hour’s drive of the Arctic Circle? Well, it’s not a conventionally beautiful car, but not many recent Ferraris have been. It’s the wheelbase that does it. Ferrari’s refusal to produce a GT car with four doors to match its four seats makes it difficult for even Pininfarina’s magicians to hide that enormous 2,990mm stretch between the front and back wheels. But see it in any angle other than side-on, and its really starts to work: that menacing face, with its swept back toothy grin, those muscular rear arches and that massively practical estate body. And that muscularity means that, to my eyes at least, it’s a much more successful piece of aluminium than the old 612.

And though the 612 was never a truly relaxing GT in the manner of something like the Bentley Continental – it was too nervous – it didn’t feel overly like a sports car either. But the FF does both. Yes, if you plan on using the rear seats all the time you might wish you’d plumped for a four-door Aston Rapide or Porsche Panamera Turbo. But neither is as good to drive.

I have to admit, I approached the FF believing it to be one of Ferrari’s least desirable current models, but left convinced it must be one of the best. For pure excitement, the 458 is still the pick of the range. But what a great companion the FF would make in your garage. It’s such a shame that Ferraris traditionally clock up so few miles, because the FF really is a car you could use every single day of the year. And even though, just as you’d likely never test that 335kph top speed, you’d probably never get around to that Arctic touring holiday, it would be great to know you could.