Bring on the prancing LaFerrari horses

Damien Reid travels to Italy to take Ferrari’s flagship LaFerrari out on a regional-exclusive first spin.

Despite boasting plentiful electronic wizardry, LaFerrari’s technology doesn’t interfere with its driver thrills. It’s the most powerful car ever to leave the Ferrari factory, including the company’s current Formula One racers. Courtesy Ferrari
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In my first week as a motoring journalist, I was invited to drive the then-new Ferrari F40 – the only one in Australia, which had been imported by the local concessionaire as his personal car. It was the most extreme Ferrari ever made, limited in number and the last to be built under the company founder Enzo’s regime before his passing – it’s always been a special car. My boss got wind of the offer and, quite rightly, vetoed the invite. To make sure there’d be no discussion, he sent me to Tasmania for a Nissan launch, while he sampled the twin-turbo, V8 supercar.

I’ve waited 25 years for anything near that offer to come around again when the phone call came, this time via Ferrari Middle East.

“Would you like to drive ­LaFerrari?”

Even for a gear head like most of us who write about this stuff, it’s the sort of call that we all hope to get one day. It’s the spiritual successor to the F40, which itself followed on from the outrageous 288 GTO, using many of the same mechanicals. Since the F40, there’s been the F50 and the Enzo as the absolute pinnacle of Ferrari road cars, the closest that the company has ever come to putting its F1 technology on the street. The F50 went as far as using the then-current V12 Formula One engine that Jean Alesi had behind him, while the Enzo was developed with great input from Michael Schumacher. So it’s OK to admit that LaFerrari and this drive dominated my dreams, fears and every waking hour for the 12 weeks leading to my arrival at Bologna airport. Even as I step off the plane and into the waiting Lancia transport with the Prancing Horse logo on the door, my hands are clammy.

Behind the heavily secured gates of Ferrari’s Fiorano test track that backs on to the factory sits chassis #1/499, and, as if a Dh6 million price tag isn’t enough to keep the nerves on-call, the engraved owner’s plaque on the steering wheel – “Fernando Alonso” – makes the day that tiny bit more tense.

It’s in the pit lane waiting to be let loose, but alas it will have to wait, as I’m ushered to a second LaFerrari, which I’d thought was a static display sitting out front. Its door is open, the key inside and I’m assured that it’s full of fuel. “The exit gate is that way, turn left and the hills are up there, somewhere, with some windy roads to hunt down and we’ll see you back for lunch.”

And that’s it. I’ve had more complex driving instructions for a Volvo launch on Saadiyat Island, and yet here I am, about to venture out into the traffic with 963 roaring Italian stallions behind my head all going through the rear wheels.

This is the most powerful car ever to leave the Ferrari factory, including its current F1 race cars. Even without the 163hp boost from the electric motor, LaFerrari’s 800hp is more powerful than the last V12 engine the Scuderia used in F1 in 1995, and it develops the same aerodynamic downforce as the last of the big-winged racers from 2004.

Its giant, beautifully sculptured door that cuts into the roof, GT40-style, swings up and out on gas struts, making it unexpectedly easy to slither into. I buckle in, make myself familiar with the switchgear and press the red start button on the steering wheel. It fires into life without drama and, pulling the right paddle shift back to select first gear, I take a deep breath and mutter to myself: “Don’t stuff this up.”

Foot off the brake, easy on the gas and I gingerly idle away up the path – another huge exhalation to settle the nerves, but my throat’s as dry as sandpaper. As the metal gates to Fiorano slide slowly back, I pause momentarily to absorb the streetscape unfolding before me and make one final attempt to calm the nerves. Away from the smooth, F1-grade racetrack and the friendly, bicycle-pedalling Ferrari employees, a series of pothole-filled, gravelly shouldered local streets as narrow as a farmer’s access road await.

Trundling behind farm trucks, rusty Fiats and the occasional tractor, it must look like a UFO to onlookers as I come to terms with LaFerrari and, while not yet feeling comfortable, I’m at least making friends with its cockpit layout, dimensions in the lane and suspension travel over speed humps.

Surprisingly, LaFerrari is an easy car to manoeuvre, especially if you’re familiar with modern-day Ferraris. The steering-wheel controls are identical to the current 458, FF and F12, and don’t worry about the width, because it’s an illusion brought about by the mirrors on those long stems – it’s actually narrower than an Enzo. Inside, there’s plenty of headroom, thanks to one of the design pointers, which stated that there must be enough room to accommodate a helmet, and even for someone of my size, I find it a comfortable, even spacious, place to reside.

The seat is not just fixed into position, it’s part of the carbon fibre tub with your posterior literally moulded into the base of the car. Having a car with your bum sculptured into it has to be about as bespoke as car production can get, surely. Owners visit the factory to get a seat fitting just like Ferrari’s F1 pilots Alonso and Kimi Räikkönen, and the result is that you not only sit lower but also you feel every nuance of the road and what the car is doing, literally through your backside.

The steering column and pedals are telescopically adjustable and, in no time, it feels like the car has been poured around you. As an aside, it also offers great vision through the glass and over the dials, because the designers knew exactly where your eyes would be from the fixed ­position.

In a tradition for Ferrari’s super exotics that dates as far back as the 250 LM of 1963, you can’t simply ring Ferrari and place your order. To be one of the 499 selected owners, you have to satisfy certain criteria, such as showing proof that you’ve bought two new Ferraris recently, purchased six in the past decade and can somehow prove that you are not a speculator. It also helps if you can show a valid FIA motor-racing licence.

The locals who live near the factory are used to seeing red flashes of brilliance blast past them on the short straights between hairpins in the hills, so, once out of town, I get lots of friendly waves from other drivers dotting the roads.

The car’s acceleration is difficult to describe. Initially, I do the usual overtake procedure, when, in reality, there’s no need. I slip it back to third, tickle the throttle and nail it, when only the last point was required. It’s like someone’s punching me sharply in the chest. It’s utterly explosive. With a quoted time of less than three seconds to 100kph, there’s no need to drop it back a cog or build up revs, as it fires like a canon from any gear, pretty much to its theoretical 350-plus-kph maximum.

Corners begin to flow and apexes connect beautifully with a series of punch, squirt, brake, turn sequences, while I laugh like a hooligan with each flat-out upchange of the seven-speed, dual-clutch Getrag ’box. It soaks up bumps better than I expected, and the hydraulically adjustable steering, aided only by an electric pump, means that its senses aren’t dulled by computer-aided inputs. It’s beautifully weighted, sending information directly to my fingertips like an open-wheel race car – light, yet communicative and accurate.

The only possible way to top a morning in the Italian countryside in this hypercar would be an afternoon on track, but as soon as I buckle into #1/499 back at Fiorano and hit the tarmac, the clouds that have lingered above decide to empty themselves in one sudden downpour halfway through my first lap. So, in addition to driving a multi-million-dirham car that may or may not be owned by a dual F1 champ, with just less than 1,000hp and no all-wheel-drive safety net in my care, I’ve now added a wet and very slippery track to the equation.

Joy of joys – and, although Ferrari is OK to let me keep playing, I’ve signed more documents than a ­real-estate purchase agreement, so I elect to ease off for fear of invoking the “you-bend-you-own-it clause” that I’ve probably agreed to.

Later, on a drying track, I can feel its active aero working over the front and rear, giving it grip levels akin to all-wheel drive, but without the weight hindrance. Vanes under the floor direct air towards the back and over or under continually moving rear wings and diffuser flaps, which move depending on myriad factors, such as throttle position, yaw and G-forces, and each lap repays me with large doses of confidence to push it harder.

The aero gives 360 kilograms of downforce at 200kph when cornering and 90kg on the straight, and, unlike some of its competitors, it’s permanently engaged, meaning there’s no way that you can override or flatten the wing like you can with the McLaren P1. To ensure that there’s always a massive kick of power out of corners, the engine engages what Ferrari calls “pre-load”, which marginally raises the revs as you lift off leading into the corner. This loads up the electric motor, so that as soon as you bury the right foot, you instantly have a 100 per cent electric-power supplement to get that instant snap of torque.

Like the Porsche 918, LaFerrari is incredibly flat through corners, with almost zero body roll, and its punch out of turns from the electric motor is equally mind-blowing – but the Ferrari has the performance edge.

Yet the Bugatti Veyron, as old as it is, remains quicker to 100kph, has a higher top end and is more powerful than the Ferrari. It’s heavy, though, nowhere near as nimble and, around a track, this Ferrari would no doubt be quicker. McLaren’s P1 is the only rival that I’ve yet to drive, but the Ferrari has a higher top speed and a better power-to-weight ratio, so there’s a bit of a yardstick.

Yep, it was a phone call that was worth waiting 25 years to receive. It might have a silly name, but the LaFerrari is undoubtedly the greatest road car ever to wear that famous badge. It’s a technical tour de force, yet the electronic wizardry doesn’t get in the way of driver thrills for a split second. All 499 examples have already been sold, meaning that this really will have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, but there’s no need for a second opinion: it’s already one of the all-time greats, an unforgettable and uniquely exciting instant classic.