What better place to test Ferrari's most powerful road car, the ferocious 599 GTO, than in the Italian marque's own backyard?
Maranello is a sleepy town situated in northern Italy, about 20km outside of Modena and with a population of less than 17,000. It's an industrial centre with a quaint downtown area in the heart of the country's ceramics industry, but there is one business that dominates this town, in size and stature. The Ferrari factory, a modern plant built of glass and steel, is located at the edge of Maranello. And if there is any doubt as to who the dominant employer, breadwinner and spirit is in the city, one walk downtown will show the fascination and dependence Maranello has on the world's most famous sports car maker. Shops dedicated to Ferrari's products seem to be on every block; more than a few storefronts have a line of various Ferraris on their lots, ready to rent out for exorbitant amounts to test pilots; and the Galleria Ferrari, a large museum dedicated to the Scuderia's Formula One glories and filled with its beautiful cars, does brisk business.
Beyond the town's borders is typical Italy: rolling hillsides and fields of long grass, the occasional smaller hamlet, with churches and cafes that dot narrow, winding country roads. This is where the true spirit of Ferrari is found, if you're lucky enough to find yourself behind the wheel of one here, especially at speed. It's on these tight, twisty roads lined with leafy green trees that Ferrari, as well as Lamborghini and Maserati (which are also based in the same general area), test out their latest products. "If you're driving a German car in the same manner here," says a colleague, who lives in Modena, as we whip around corners, "the locals would be up in arms. But if you're in a Ferrari, it's like flying the flag of Italy. They take pride in it."
If that's true, then their chests would certainly be puffed out today. Because I'm driving the Ferrari 599 GTO, the car maker's fastest, most powerful road car it has ever produced in its 63 years in the business. And in all manner of speaking, it is certainly carrying the flag of Ferrari's racing reputation with aplomb. The 599 GTO is a special edition based on the 599 GTB Fiorano, but more so on the company's 599XX track-only variant of the same car. The 599XX was built as a test mule for Ferrari, sold to well-off clients to have their track information recorded by the Prancing Horse and used to develop technology, which has culminated in this latest GTO. Ferrari has built just 599 of these new cars, with a focus on making them race track runners yet still legal for the street. Rumour has it that all of them have been sold already, though Ferrari won't confirm this.
The 6.0L V12 is based on the same block as the Ferrari Enzo and has most of the same components as the 599XX, and now produces 670hp and 620Nm of torque. The engine itself is a technological marvel, boasting printed graphite coating on the piston skirts, F1-style superfinished cam lobes, separate spark advances for each cylinder, even a more aerodynamic shape for the crankshaft counterweights to let it spin more freely. This V12 is about as far as a road-going engine can go when it comes to today's technology.
But the engine alone is not why this Ferrari is fast (it goes from zero-to-100kph in 3.35 seconds). Its six-speed, single-clutch F1-style gearbox gives gear changes of around 60 milliseconds. And Ferrari has taken great pains to trim off 100kg from the base weight of the 599 GTB, down to a kerb weight of 1,605kg, with carbon fibre panels, thinner glass in the windows, a stripped-down cockpit, lighter wheels and exhaust system - it even uses titanium bolts instead of steel on its diet.
Yes, that's all well and fine; but Ferraris have never been simply about their mechanics, they've been famous for how it all comes together. And on these small country roads, it all couldn't come together more beautifully. As I whip the car around the countryside on this gloriously sunny day, the GTO surprisingly feels like a much lighter and smaller car; in a series of one-after-another S curves, with constant, level throttle, it sticks to the asphalt with appalling ease. It's an extremely neutral-handling car; there is not a hint of understeer to it, and only when the throttle is pressed beyond reason do you feel the traction control start to search for grip with the rear wheels. The steering is well weighted and the tyres are very grippy - on rougher asphalt and in ruts, the wheel can suddenly rip from your grip, and it takes quick reflexes to keep it where you want it to steer.
The ride is definitely not what you'd call plush; as a track-biased car, it's rough and jittery on regular streets, though not uncomfortably so. But the thin, carbon fibre-based seats are surprisingly comfortable, and they wrap your body to keep you in place during these kind of high-g manoeuvres. The 599 GTB's leather-clad cabin has been replaced with fabric and alcantra here to save weight, and the GTO's interior goes without a GPS option, but it's a very businesslike place suited to this car. I wonder about the air conditioning, though, especially for places like the UAE; even in the 30°C of Italy, it was struggling at its highest level to keep up.
Changing gears with the paddle shifters gives a very satisfying explosion to the already loud roar of the V12. Ferrari concentrated on a more dynamic sound to the engine, which it says is 8db louder than the GTB. In fact, though the intake manifold on the GTO is the same shape as that of the 599XX, it's made of aluminum instead of carbon fibre simply to add to the intake noise. But Ferrari may have gone too far, at least for public driving; in race mode, when it opens a valve in the exhaust, it was actually a little too loud. It's more of a drone than a satisfying rumble, and I left it in sport mode when poodling along just for that reason.
But the different modes don't just change the engine noise. Ferrari's racing manettino switch on the steering wheel allows the driver to adjust between five modes: low grip (maximum traction control), sport (normal driving), race (a limited traction and stability setup to allow for some slip) ct (turns off traction control and allows for 40° of sideways slip before the stability control kicks in) and cst (turns off all traction aids). And it's on Ferrari's famous and semi-secret private test track, Fiorano, that the beauty of this system, and the car itself, could be put to its limits.
Well, perhaps not by me. But in the hands of someone like Raffaele De Simone, one of Ferrari's four development test drivers, it's beautiful. The young, slightly-built Italian, dressed in a button-up shirt and sweater vest, looks like he might have just come down to the pit garage from the accounting department, but behind the wheel as he takes me around the track a few times for a thrilling demonstration, there is no mistaking his driving skills. He takes the GTO around the curves in different modes with hardly a difference in the line or performance of the car; it's when I take the wheel that those differences become apparent.
The track is a combination of longer straights, tight hairpin turns and sweeping, high-speed curves that puts any car through a good test (in fact, it's also where Ferrari experiments with its F1 cars). The race mode shows its mettle in keeping the car on track while letting a driver know when he's made a mistake; it kicks out slightly or dulls the throttle enough to transmit improper driving lines or too much throttle. The ct mode is the most fun; it allows the rear end to kick out in screeching power slides, but still reels it in when the car goes past a reasonable level. And the crt; well, with this much power on tap, let's just say I'll leave that to the professionals like De Simone.
The carbon ceramic brakes, along with carbon ceramic pads, were impressive on the road, but on the track they are amazing in their stopping power and, what's even better, show no fading. And, again, the front-end grip is amazing; it dives into tight curves, and the only understeer experienced was when the car was taken far too fast into a corner. It rewards proper driving while, in the right mode, forgives a certain amount of mistakes. But with almost 700hp, this is not a car for track-day amateurs - in fact, the 599 GTO now has the record of 1.24 minutes as the fastest road car on the Fiorano circuit.
Of course, this kind of performance comes with a price. Even if you could find one available to purchase, it would set you back a cool Dh1,361,570. But for that price, along with the thrill of driving a Ferrari comes the aura of the car maker, and no where is this more apparent than in Italy itself. In the small town of Zocca, a picturesque little place with steep hills and pavement stones just south of Maranello, my driving partner and I stop for lunch. Outside a small cafe with an outdoor patio, the waiter sees us rumbling slowly by, breaks into a grin and waves us to park in front of his entrance. As we sit on the shaded, vine-sheltered patio, enjoying the local dish of tortellini in broth, a group of locals - children and adults alike - begins to gather around the car in wide-eyed wonderment. We pop the hood to reveal the red-topped engine and allow a few to sit inside the GTO, and their excitement is palpable; it would be an experience they would talk about for a while.
Imagine if they could have driven it?