x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Road Test: Ferrari F12berlinetta is pleasant and powerful

It's Ferrari's most powerful road car ever, but the F12berlinetta proves enjoyable in any circumstance.

The 2012 F12berlinetta isn't just a pretty face; it's body was created to help with downforce and handling. For example, channels in the bonnet and wings direct the airflow around the car at speed. Courtesy of Ferrari
The 2012 F12berlinetta isn't just a pretty face; it's body was created to help with downforce and handling. For example, channels in the bonnet and wings direct the airflow around the car at speed. Courtesy of Ferrari

The old man, clad in a shabby blue baseball cap, sprints out of his ramshackle house. As golden sunlight settles on the rolling hills of northern Italy, he waves maniacally at the metallic red blur flashing past on the winding road outside, a broad grin on his tanned, lined face.

He had advance warning of my imminent arrival, but not enough time to just casually saunter outside. The bellow of a 6.3L V12 engine tells all within earshot that something impressive is on its way, but Ferrari's latest creation conquers these winding roads so fast that the locals have to be fleet of foot to catch it.

While the world waits for news of the Enzo replacement, this new GT car holds the title of flagship at Ferrari headquarters. Three years in development, the F12berlinetta continues a long line of V12-powered grand tourers that, until recently, culminated in the 599 GTO. That car was the ultimate incarnation of the already ludicrously powerful and fast 599 GTB Fiorano. But the F12 is quicker, more agile, and more powerful than them both. Or, indeed, than any other road-going Ferrari. Ever.

The numbers border on the lunatic. That V12 engine, elements of which were seen in the FF, has been tuned to make 730hp. It'll hit 100kph from a standstill in 3.1 seconds and reach 200 in just 8.5. Find a stretch of tarmac long enough and it'll pass 340kph. And yet, Ferrari says it can, and will, be used every day.

Nevertheless, as I head out to Italy, I'm nervous. I've driven plenty of supercars, but this will be the most powerful yet. I'm concerned that, unlike the sublime 458 Italia that flatters the average driver, the F12 will have so much power that it'll overwhelm all but the most skilled of helmsmen. Where enthusiasm in the 458 results in a joyfully large spectrum of play with the back wheels, letting ordinary mortals feel like drift kings, I fear a fraction too much right foot in a car with this sort of power will result in a violent appointment with an Italian hedgerow.

My first glimpse of the car comes at the famous Fiorano test track, on the outskirts of Maranello, a stone's throw from the Ferrari factory. This is where all Ferraris, road and race, are tested before they're unleashed on the world. The pre-drive pep talk from the engineers is impressive. The F12 was designed to be a daily driver, suitable for long trips but more than just an evolution of the 599. It had to be comfortable, but still capable of providing the sheer thrills one expects from a Ferrari. At this point, I'm concerned; the four-seater FF promised something similar, but lacked a certain feeling of exhilaration despite its phenomenal velocity.

From an engineering standpoint, the F12 is lower, narrower and shorter than the 599 and, at 1,575kg, weighs 70kg less. Fifty kilograms of that saving was shaved from the chassis thanks to liberal use of aluminium instead of steel. Interior space, however, remains the same.

The engine - a 6.3L, naturally aspirated V12 - has been mounted as low as possible under the bonnet to keep the car's centre of gravity near to the tarmac for improved handling. The seven-speed, dual clutch gearbox is located at the back, with an electronic differential integrated into it to reduce weight and help with weight distribution. The powertrain produces 730bhp and 690Nm of torque, with a screaming rev limit of 8,700rpm. It's been timed at 1 minute 23 seconds around a lap of Fiorano, which is a second faster than the 599 GTO and two seconds quicker than the Enzo. This. Sounds. Fun.

Briefing over, it's time to have a good look at the fruits of Ferrari's labours. Parked outside Enzo Ferrari's house in the centre of the track are six F12s, clad in new Rosso Berlinetta paint and gleaming in the morning sun. The car is a lot prettier in the metal than in pictures, although Ferrari says all the major elements are formed largely by function. Of particular note are the "air bridges" in the wings, which allow air funnelled by channels in the bonnet to be directed down the car's flanks. Note also the flaps in the front bumper that open when needed to cool the brakes. And it has a rear, centrally placed LED fog light, styled after that found on Ferrari's Formula 1 car.

The interior is less immediately impressive, as it's largely styled the same as other Ferrari models. Having said that, it's still pretty good, with plenty of leather and a centre sculpture holding buttons for the gearbox. The dash comprises a large centre rev counter flanked by two screens that show all necessary trip, navigation and entertainment information. In front, dominating the cockpit, is the by-now-familiar steering wheel, styled after that found in the F1 car and adorned by myriad buttons. Lights, indicators and windscreen washers are all controlled from the wheel; there are no stalks to be found in modern Ferraris.

I settle into the sculpted sports seats mounted low on the floor pan, so my backside is just inches from the tarmac. As it should be. A twist of the key primes the engine and a press of the red button on the steering wheel starts it up with a snarl, before settling into a surprisingly low-key idle. As an "everyday" car, burbling exhausts are a no-no at low revs.

I twist the wheel-mounted manettino switch to Race, which puts throttle and gearbox at their sharpest. And then it's on to the Fiorano asphalt, where countless world champions have gone before me. Still wary of the F12's immense power, I take it easy for the first few corners. On the other hand, I only have three laps. So I build up speed corner by corner, tentatively pushing to heat up the tyres and find the limits of grip. The steering is light, but the front end is beautifully nimble, especially considering the hulking great engine underneath it. At the tight right-hander going into the bridge I push the nose in hard, and it just grips and goes. By the end of the first lap I'm already feeling pretty at home with the car, so I give it full beans out of the final hairpin and onto the straight.

Wowsers. Seven hundred and thirty brake horsepower goes straight to the rear wheels and I head for the horizon. The acceleration is crushing; I can feel my internal organs checking out the back of my ribcage. The delivery is peak-free and immensely strong, the gears whipcrack past faster than the blink of an eye and the car feels immensely stable. Clearly those fancy aerodynamics work - Ferrari says that at 200kph, there's 123kg of downforce keeping things in check.

And then there's the noise. Acoustic engineers have worked their aural magic on both the exhaust and the intake sounds, the latter of which is channelled into the cabin from the engine. From the outside, the sound of the F12 accelerating starts with a deep, hard-edged tenor, rising in pitch and volume. At mid-range, a soprano takes over, adding a piercing shriek over the top that's interrupted only by the chattering wastegate during braking. It's loud, unmistakably Ferrari and glorious. Inside, the intake noise is different, more complex, textured and layered. It's like having the London Philharmonic playing Ride of the Valkyries as I hammer along; I feel like a warrior heading to battle.

After an all-too-short three laps, I hit the roads around Maranello. I'm hugely impressed by how manageable the car is at the limit on track, but still concerned that all that power will be virtually unusable on the road. As a comparison, the 690hp Lamborghini Aventador is superb at full chat but an utter pain in the backside at low speeds. However, Ferrari says it aimed to create a car that felt sporty in all conditions and not just at the limit.

Which is just as well, as I emerge from Fiorano into half an hour of fairly slow-moving traffic with no opportunity to overtake. In the Lambo, this would be torture - harsh ride, jerky gear changes and an intense feeling of frustration. Not so in the F12. The numerous bumps and potholes are beautifully soaked away through the new suspension set-up (double wishbone at the front, multi-link at the back, dual-coil dampers for a faster response), and at low revs it's quiet enough to have a virtually whispered conversation.

So relaxed am I, watching the beautiful Italian countryside pass by, that I almost fail to notice the traffic thinning. But on a long straight I can finally get past the diminishing train of lorries and the local elderly. Three tugs of the left hand paddle and away we go. The 12-cylinder symphony roars and I'm off, leaving small towns in my wake and heading for the incredible hill roads that snake across the map. It's as good on the road as it is on the track. Better, in fact.

What's so impressive is that it's enjoyable in just about all circumstances. The throttle is beautifully weighted so that it's instantly responsive without being jerky or tricky to judge. Cruising along sweepers at a medium pace? You'll be entertained without feeling frustrated at not being able to use the full power spectrum. Attacking tight hairpins? You'll be astounded by the grip and braking ability, and at the traction when rocketing out of the corners. My fears of intimidation are completely dismissed.

It's very easy to cover lots of ground, very quickly in the F12berlinetta. And it's stupendous fun, whether you're absolutely hammering it or just enjoying a leisurely hack across country. Unlike the somewhat sterile FF, this latest Ferrari is genuinely engaging, monumentally fast and manages to feel special without being scary. It really is that good, and well worth the excitement of the old man in the blue baseball cap.