Tuesday 1st June 2010


DRIVEN: FERRARI 599 GTO

Sutters turns it on (and off) in the 599 'Omologata'


"The thing to remember about the 599 GTO" says Marc Gene as we rumble back into the pits at Mugello after a couple of fairly wild demonstration laps, "is that dynamically it's been designed a bit like a fighter aircraft. In its natural state, without the electronics, it's actually a bit unstable near the limit."


And at that point I wonder what on earth the amiable Ferrari test driver is on about. Why would Ferrari design a car to be unstable on or near its limit? What possible benefit could that have to the real world punter who, for whatever reason, doesn't possess the same skill sets as the very obviously, exceedingly 'handy' Mr Gene?

"It's all about the front end," says Gene. "Just as in a fighter aircraft, the natural handling balance is so extreme it's quite difficult to drive this car - without the electronics - and be consistently fast, lap after lap, if you're right near the limit.
"But when you dial the electronics back in," he explains, "you can use that slight instability to go faster and that's what gives the GTO such incredible front end bite. Just like a fighter aircraft, the basic agility of this car is really amazing."


OK, so I think I get the theory now. What Ferrari has done is set the GTO up to be oversteery near the limit, essentially to ensure that it doesn't understeer anywhere - which is what big, heavy, front-engined V12s tend to do under normal circumstances. And to prevent it from lobbing its owners backwards into the undergrowth at the first corner they encounter, an electronic safety net has been thrown over them in the form of an adjustable traction and/or stability control.

Except in reality that's still not quite right, because in this instance, says Ferrari, the car is easier to drive fast with the systems at least partially switched on. Switch them off and, according to Gene, you can go faster round a circuit for perhaps one or two laps, but over 10 laps you'll make mistakes and go slower. Over 10 laps you'll be faster in Race mode, he reckons, in which there is assistance from both the TC and stability programs. Which is interesting.


So what else do we know about the Ferrari 599 GTO? One, it's the fastest, most powerful road car that Ferrari has ever built.
Two, it costs 299,280 and all 599 examples that will be made by Maranello over the next year and a half are, amazingly, already sold out.
Three, it's very probably the most sophisticated front-engined, rear drive GT car there has ever been.
Four, above 4000rpm it emits a noise that could make your ears bleed and, at a pinch, your heart explode - possibly at exactly the same time.

To describe the 599 GTO as a really rather decent piece of kit is, let's face it, something of an understatement. For this is a car that, thanks to its "super polished" 6.0-litre V12 engine and twin six-into-one exhaust banks, produces 661bhp and which doesn't stop accelerating until it nudges its rev limiter in sixth at 8500rpm and 208mph.


Yet the GTO is also a car that carries one of the most famous and revered badges in motoring history. So it should be a little bit special, after all. The fact that, if anything, it actually over-delivers on its promise is testament to the engineering commitment Ferrari has aimed towards this car, even if the O in its name - which stands for Omologata, as in racing homologation - is more than a little hollow in this instance.

But let's forget all that. Forget the petty arguments as to whether it's a proper GTO or not - because, in the end, this is an extraordinary car from Ferrari, no matter what kind of badge it may wear.
On the road it is, if anything, even better to drive that it is on the track. Dial the manettino back to sport and the ride is more than acceptable considering the amount of performance and composure on offer. And the steering, in any mode, is just gorgeous.
Ferrari has redesigned the system to require as little physical input as possible, and in the raw that's just how it feels. You kind of think the GTO through corners rather than physically steer it, yet at the same time there's a delicious amount of feel bubbling away beneath your fingertips at all times. It's a unique amalgam of cerebral and physical input, and that front end bite that Gene had talked about gives the GTO a genuine "on rails" feeling in quicker corners.


But it's the engine and gearbox that really define the GTO experience. And the noise it makes, which is absolutely raving monumental. To describe this car as quick in the traditional sense doesn't get anywhere near what the GTO feels like when you open its taps wide in second gear and then flick your way up through the gearbox.
It feels maniacally rapid in a straight line. Within the confines of a single carriageway public road it's actually a bit uncomfortable to begin with; the scenery - and the on-coming traffic - comes at you at such a lick, it feels unsociable to give it everything when there are other people around. And that's before you so much as mention the din it emits while doing so.


As a result the car tends to be received in one of two ways by the general public, even amid the hills of Tuscany; people either fall to their knees and applaud, or they hold their hands over their ears and burst into tears. And then give you the finger as your disappear over the horizon in a gale of drama. Either way, the GTO makes an enormous spectacle of itself wherever it goes, and that's surely what a car of this name should do?

A little later I drove it around Mugello circuit, not with Gene in the passenger seat but all on my lonesome. "They don't pay enough to sit next to the likes of you" he said through a wry smile. And I'm fairly sure I'll never forget those magical few laps in the GTO; the first two with the manettino set to Race, the last with the TC switched off.
Although it still felt a teeny bit soft on the circuit, and therefore not perhaps quite as focused as something like a 911 GT3 RS, the GTO was still incredibly well sorted around Mugello considering how big it is, how much it weighs (1605kg) and where its engine sits.

Gene is dead right, it basically doesn't understeer at all, which means in Race mode all you need to do is pick a braking point for each corner, hit your mark, turn in, hit the apex and then nail the throttle wide open. That's when it gets really spooky in the GTO because, basically, from that point onwards in the corner the electronics take over; and only when the car knows it is ready to deploy full power towards the exit does it actually give you full power. Various sensors detect how much lateral grip there is, how much traction there is at each rear tyre, and what your steering angle is - and only when all the signs are good does the throttle continue to open.


Spookier still is the way the gearbox will deliver multiple downshifts with just one single pull on the lever. So, at the end of the pit straight at Mugello there's a second or third gear right hander, depending what sort of mood you're in. Either way, all you do is, again, pick your braking point and then hold the left hand paddle shifter; and at the appropriate moment the gearbox will go bang-bang-bang and shift automatically from sixth to third (or second). And all you do then is go hunting for the apex.

In Race mode my first lap was a 2min 13sec, my second 2min 12sec. And then I had a go with TC fully switched off, as in no traction control and no clever turn in assistance whatsoever. They call this the "best of luck" button at Maranello - because you are very much on your own once you select it.


For the first three corners it felt quite a bit faster without the safety harness. There was more acceleration available at the exit without the TC intrusion, and a bit more bite to the turn in somehow; the data traces that Ferrari showed me later proved my impression to be right. I was quicker without the TC through turns one to three. But then I got confident and had a huge slide on the exit of corner four, which I only just managed to correct. And then again at corner seven I made a mistake, out-braked myself a bit, got wheelspin at the exit and basically blew a good half a second with unnecessary (but quite enjoyable) sideways histrionics. Result; without the TC I did a 2min 10sec lap - and very nearly shunted the thing at least two times during the lap. I had more fun, true, but it felt so knife-edgy that, if for some extraordinary reason it were my GTO and I was driving it on a circuit, I'm fairly sure I'd leave it in Race mode.

Either way, anyone lucky enough to be able to make that choice in real life is going to relish the 599 GTO in whatever mode they select. Pound for pound it's the best, most exciting Ferrari of the modern era. And it deserves to wear that badge with pride.


Factfile:
Ferrari 599 GTO
Price 299,280
Top speed 208mph
0-62mph 3.35sec
Economy 16.1mpg (combined)
CO2 411g/km
Kerb weight 1605kg
Engine V12, 5999cc
Installation longitudinal, front, rear-wheel-drive
Power 661bhp at 8250rpm
Torque 457lb ft at 6500rpm
Gearbox 6-sp F1 paddle shift
Fuel tank 105 litres
Boot 320 litres
Wheels 20in front and rear
Tyres 285/30 ZR20 f, 315/35 ZR20 r
Michelin Pilot Super Sport

Author: sutters