The idea that gave birth to Escape on Wheels was very simple: if in a world of dreams somebody would give you the keys of one of the cars you like, where and what would you do? I can’t recall how many times in our “petrolhead’s career” we heard this question but I was sure about the answer: for me, it has always been a special Ferrari.
Saying that the F40 is the ultimate supercar is a bit of an obvious statement. This wild (possibly the wildest?) Ferrari is so widely celebrated that saying that it is one of the greatest cars ever built feels like repeating a common belief. Yet, it’s true: this car is one of the greatest ever built. Its stunning simplicity and raw performance are still a sort of benchmark to this day.
I have never paired myself to the usual chit-chat nonsense about driving “purity”. To me, bragging about how pure the manual transmission is and how much we need it to keep “cars real” is 90% fashion and 10% real desire for it. There’s a great chance that many of these “weekend-driving-purists” care more of their appearance than to know how to properly shift gears and drive a real car.
Back when it was introduced in 1987, it was clear that it was made for pure driving and nothing else. It was a pure Ferrari, and by pure I mean as Enzo intended cars to be: racing cars for the road. What else should you expect from a man who sold road cars to finance his racing activities? Although the F40 was never meant to be used a track car it was capable of serious performance: it was the first production vehicle to be able to reach speeds in excess of 320 kph.
It reflected the philosophy of the Old Man: you need to stand up to a challenge to earn it by giving the best of yourself. To fully enjoy such a car, you need to give the very best of yourself. That’s why I love the F40 so much: it’s designed to put the abilities of its pilot to a test. To be worthy of this car, you need to be able to drive it first. Allow me a bad joke: cash is secondary.
This car hails from an era when cars were designed by technicians and test drivers and not by eloquent and snobbish marketers. It was all about creating a car capable of putting all the expertise of Ferrari in one package.
Above all things, the F40 is a legend, a myth: it is a dream for many and a reality for few. If there ever was a car which could be considered the archetype of a driver’s car, that could be this car. It has all the qualities that make it an almost perfect enthusiast’s car. You never approach this car with lightness: it’s not rare (1311 produced, excluding the 3 prototypes) but you never get used to it.
So…what are you going to do if you have the keys of an F40 for half a day? You might be surprised that time for photos and “location scouting” has been willingly cut short: if you got the opportunity to talk with a hero, you try to spend as much time together as possible. In our case, our talk was a blast in the fields south of Milan, enjoying the fierce acceleration on the long straights and savoring the wonderful balance of this legendary car.
My childhood was spent playing around with a yellow 1:18 scale Bburago F40 and looking at Ferrari photographs in magazines. The Prancing horse has been the major culprit for making me a die-hard car nut: Ferrari stormed my imagination, making me daydream of high speeds and driving the ultimate performance cars in the world.
However, if I had more time to allow myself to reach back for more memories I could not even drove this beast: so, I entered my full “professional” mood and turned the key and pushed the starter button. The 2.9-liter twin turbocharged F120A, non-catalyzed V8 erupted to life with more politeness than expected. Modern technology has been treating us to theatrical start-ups over the last 5 years, so the start of this engine feels remarkably civilized. Engage the notchy dogleg first gear and with the help of little revs, the car eases away with a refinement you don’t expect.
Many believe that the F40 is a track-day only car, but in truth is more like a very extreme GT: it was developed for the road and that’s where it was supposed to be driven. Air conditioning, a standard option at the time, blows fresh air into the cockpit, relieving you from the heat coming from the engine. The suspension (in this particular car we didn’t have the later active system) is well articulated and it never feels excessively rigid: the factory bump and rebound setting are superb as road imperfections don’t make the car feel like it’s falling apart. This
Forward visibility is not bad, while it’s impossible seeing anything from the rear. But I can assure you, with 479 bhp behind you that is never a problem. What is surprising is that the F40 is the Italian version of Dr. Jekill and Mr.Hyde: docile and pleasant at less than 4000 rpm and brutal and relentless above that threshold.
The legends are true: when the turbos kick in there’s a quick surge or torque, which propels the car to a time-warping acceleration. Ahhh, the joys of old school turbo-lag! Nowadays even a standard performance saloon accelerates faster, but it will never feel as exhilarating. The limit of 7000 rpm is reached within few, terrifying seconds, especially thanks to the short gearing of first and second gear. Where in modern supercars going full throttle is “fun”, in the F40 feels more like a white-knuckle ride.
Shifting the F40 requires some lost skill: if you try to change gears as quickly as possible, you’ll hurt the synchronizers and will put too much strain on the transmission; change it slowly and the car will respond you with a quick loss of revs and a concerning BANG on the clutch. Passing from 1st to 5th while keeping a constant acceleration requires skill: you should co-ordinate your moves in order to keep the turbos spinning. When you get it right, you’ll be rewarded with the infinite satisfaction of that gorgeous click of the open-gate shifter and a nearly-seamless acceleration. Nailing the heel-and-toe is a joy and it makes you feel on top of the world and gives you more confidence in pushing the limits of the car.
The steering is accurate and lighter than expected, which is remarkable for a non-assisted rack. The brakes also, are exceptional and offer great feedback: once again, the only ABS and safety controls are the responsibility of the driver in every situation.
What’s absolutely great about the F40 is its stunning functional minimalism and the fact that everything is real and happens for a reason. The twin IHI turbos hiss and the wastegate produces a lovely “puffff” during gear changes; the exhaust crackles due to the turbos still spinning when you lift the throttle; there is a rear plexiglass louver to increase the cooling and the only “driving-modes” are decided by the inputs of the driver. Also, the notion of “power-to-weight” is brought to extreme levels: 1.1 tons and 478 hp! The F40 body was entirely made out of kevlar and carbon fiber, and to keep things to a bare minimum, only 2 liters of Rossocorsa paint were used to finish the car. This might be one of the few (if only) Ferraris with a full cloth interior. Everything from the seats to the dash is covered in lightweight fabric. Mind you, there’s still room for a cup holder. Doors are fitted with only a carbon fiber panel, windows are manually operated and instead of handles, there is a rubber latch.
I could go on talking about this car for hours and hours. I would love to go on and talk about the endeavors of the LM and GTE racing versions on track but it’s better that I stop before the article will become a boring history book.
The rush of adrenaline that the F40 gives you will stay with you for days. It’s impossible to forget the sound and the acceleration: cars like these will never be made again and the ones that are out there are rarely driven. Constantly requesting manufacturers to build similar cars is anachronistic and so is this obsession with the manual transmission and all. It is with cars like the F40 that boys will be separated by men by their skill of driving: if you want to be worth speaking with the Queen, you better know what to do.
Long live the Ferrari F40, and Happy Birthday.