While the UK was busy being battered by Eunice and Dudders, we were in Seville, in southern Spain, which, sorry to say, was like an oasis of balmy calm. There was alfresco dining - in mid-February for Christ's sake - in a setting beset with beautiful architecture, from gothic, baroque and renaissance, right up to modern wonders like the Metropol Parasol (or The Mushrooms, as the locals call it) with its delicate lattice structures. It's no surprise, then, that this city is blessed with not one but three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Making it a fitting place for Ferrari, which is a world-heritage car brand after all, to launch its latest mid-engined Berlinetta, the Ferrari 296 GTB..
Now, any new Ferrari is a big deal, but this one symbolises a new era so there's palpable pressure surrounding the event. The 296 GTB's name describes part of its epochal nature: 2.9-litres from just six cylinders. Yes, the V8, synonymous with every mid-engined Ferrari Berlinetta since the 308, is missing. In its place is an all-new, turbocharged V6 engine - the first in the manufacturer's history outside of racing or the de-badged Dino. The second twist of the knife, as some might see it, is a 'regular' Ferrari with plug-in potential - a battery that can charge in 2.5 hours and carry you along for up to 15 miles on electric power alone. Sacrilege? Perhaps, depending on your point of view. To assuage those of you that feel this dilutes the purity of Ferrari, let me explain the advantages: the electric motor is derived from the SF90's and adds 167hp to the 663hp the V6 conjures. That makes a total of...wait for it...830hp. In other words, a hell of a lot. Think about that. It's getting on for twice what an F40 makes.
Before we get to the driving aspect, there is a lot of detail that's worth covering concerning the car's concept and design. For a start, that new engine, which is called the F163. At its core is a forged nitride steel crankshaft with perfectly balanced rotating masses that allows it to spin to an 8,500rpm maximum. That's key feature number one. Key feature number two is that, after the initial forging, the crank is heated and twisted three times to deliver the 120-degree crank angle of the V6. And that's a notably wide angle, which was chosen for a few reasons. One is packaging. It's positioned very low in the chassis - impossibly low when you peer into the engine bay - and this contributes to the 296 GTB's centre of gravity dropping 10mm below the F8's.
Additionally, having such a wide angle means the turbos can nestle within the vee, which adds to the engine's compactness and eases the flow of gases into the combustion chambers. In fact, the combustion chamber design is the only aspect of the engine that isn't completely new. The concept is derived from the SF90's, with a central spark plug and swirl philosophy that maximises the engine's volumetric efficiency. Locating the two equally sized, counter-rotating IHI turbos in the vee is another boost to responsiveness, minimising any lag. These spin at a mind-boggling 180,000rpm and, in a further lag-alleviating push, have less inertia than the turbos fitted to the F8.
There was also harmonics to consider. As Raffaele De Simone, Ferrari's test drive, explained: "With a Ferrari the soul is the engine." And the 296 needs to sound soulful if it's to meet its stated objective of leaving "a big smile on your face every time you step out of the car." So the 120-degree architecture ensures a symmetrical firing order, and with equal-length, tuned exhaust manifolds, leading to a high-set, central exhaust outlet with no silencer in between (there's a particulate filter, but the noise-level requirements are met using valves in the exhaust) it's earned the nickname Piccolo V12. Or little V12. So Ferrari believes it makes a good noise. Just to make sure, it's added the Hot Tube system from the F8 that resonates the exhaust notes through a tube behind the driver's head.
Choosing a V6 also helps with kerbweight, and there are several other weight-saving additions. The plenum chambers, which you normally see sitting on top of Ferrari's engines, are semi-integrated into the cylinder heads. The exhaust is made from Inconel, which as well as being more heat resistant than stainless steel, can be made thinner and lighter. Overall, the V6 weighs 30kg less than the F8's V8. This helps offset the 130kg that's added by the hybrid system, 73kg of which is down to the battery. This is positioned low down behind the driver and is made up of 80 cells in series that are laser welded to ensure perfect contact.
In total, it's 7.4kWh with 6kWh of useable capacity. The dual-rotor, single-stator motor is sandwiched between the engine and gearbox and adds just 54mm to the power unit's overall length. Francesco Strati, who's in charge of the drivetrain, noted that, "it was really tough to integrate this into just 54mm, along with a triple-plate dry clutch that was capable of managing the torque and transitioning smoothly between EV and ICE at up to 4,000rpm." He also told me the software controlling the hybrid package was developed in-house, because "off-the-shelf software wouldn't have given us the opportunity to achieve the ultimate performance we were looking for."
The aerodynamicists have been busy, too. The 296 GTB's aero generates up to 360kg of downforce at 155mph, all without the upper surfaces of the car being cluttered with obvious add-ons. The only high-level wing is a small, active device that rises when required to add an additional 100kg of downforce. The rest is delivered with devices like the 'tea tray' in the centre of the front splitter. This creates energised vortices underneath the car that suck the front axle down. That's maximised by the close proximity of the floor to the ground, while the rear diffuser deals with sticking the rear wheels down. A multitude of strakes help keep the aero package balanced.
My first foray into driving the 296 GTB was around the Monteblanco Circuit in a car equipped with the Assetto Fiorano pack. This includes 12kg of weight saving, courtesy of lightweight dampers, more carbon fibre and a Lexan rear screen, along with track-focused for Michelin Cup 2 R tyres - instead of Cup 4s. And the first thing that struck me is I didn't fit. At least not with a crash helmet on, because my head was canted to the side. Still, who needs to be sat up straight when you have a new car, a new circuit and you're chasing ex-F1 driver Marc Gene around? Ah, it'll be fine, I decided. Until Marc told me: "The first time I drove the 296 at Fiorano, I thought, for a road car, it's the closest thing to a race car; the physics of the car - very little steering input, braking, traction and the change of direction - meant I drove it like a challenge car." Oh, marvellous. So 830hp to deal with and a nervous chassis.
Except it isn't. Yes, the steering is quick and light, so you need just the tiniest of inputs. Yes, the car switches direction like it has the mass of a fly. Yes, it has so much grip on Cup 2 Rs that it can average up to 1.5g lateral grip. Yes, it delivers up to 2.2g on the brakes, which are so stable and so powerful that, braking from nearly 180mph at the end of the straight, I thought my eyeballs would fall out. And yes, it has 830hp (or probably nearer 780hp as we weren't using the qualifying mode, but who's counting?) that arrives pretty much instantly. But not once did I feel overwhelmed. I found that astonishing. You can spend time perfecting your entry, apex and exit speed and it'll reward your efforts, or you can play the idiot, turn the Manettino to 'CT off' and slide it like it's an MX-5. And all that after too little sleep. That shouldn't be possible.
It's made possible not by my skill, of course, but by the cutting-edge software working in the background to keep me alive. Think of it like the Eurofighter, which would drop out the sky were it not for the billions of bytes holding it up. In the 296 GTB the electric power steering feeds information to the Side Slip Control, so that it estimates the grip that's available, and it can do that 35 per cent quicker than any other Ferrari. It has a new ABS control system that works with the brake-by-wire to maximise the braking effect and stability. And that's taking information from the six-way Chassis Dynamic Sensor (6w-CDS), which replaces the yaw sensor, and measures the acceleration and rotation of the car on three axes each. The best bit? I didn't have a clue it was all happening. Had Ferrari not mentioned all this computer trickery I would be telling you that I am a driving god.
So it feels completely natural, but does it sound amazing? Well, it's not a 458 but, compared with the turbo V8s it's right up there. Better? I'd need to drive them back-to-back, I think. While there's a bit of Nissan GTR at times in the rev range, there is a hint of twelve-cylinder harmonics when it's screaming away at the top end. In some, ways it reminds me of a high-revving, highly-tuned superbike, which, as far as I am concerned, is no bad thing.
Of course, it's all very well being good on a track, but this is a road car and, surely, it's too fast and the limits too high for the highway? Well, yes and no. The straight-line pace it delivers is simply phenomenal. There's no getting away from that. Quoting times like 0-62mph in 2.9 seconds doesn't really explain how this feels in real life. Nor does 0-124mph in 7.3 seconds, to be honest. Instead, imagine an engine with injectors firing Deep Heat onto pistons made of scrotums, while someone pours Vicks Vaporub into the air intakes to help it breath. It's that sort of fast. And the weird thing is, when you put your foot down you can hear the boost building in the torpedo tubes behind you, which tells your brain to expect an imminent explosion of speed, but that's already happening. It's sucking in the horizon like a V6 leaf blower set to reverse, because the motor has filled in the all the blanks. I don't remember anything that creates speed like this, and certainly nothing with just two driven wheels. The relentless speed of the gearbox when you're 'on it' only adds to the effect - although it's a tad slushy when you're not.
Yet it still doesn't feel overwhelming or too fast to enjoy. There is an empty stretch of road on the route north out of Seville that's just corner after corner after corner. And it goes on for miles. In between each kink is a smallish straight that allows a burst of speed without sustained, licence-losing silliness. At the end of which I would stamp hard on the brakes, relying on their unfathomable bite and feel, turn in, ride the improbable grip and power out the other side and repeat. I cannot think of many other cars that would live with the 296 GTB's sensational abilities along there, but it felt manageable and mightily good fun. The only issue I had, and this is genuinely true, is it produced so much G-force, from every direction, that halfway along I had to pull over because I'd turned green. I've never made myself sick while driving before. Still, after a moment to clear my head, I was back on my way enjoying the rollercoaster ride once more.
Just as it does on track, the car manages you and keeps everything safe - but never in a nannying or even knowing way. I rarely even saw the traction light blink. And it ceaselessly plugs you into the experience, through steering that's full of feel and the forces acting on your torso telling you whether it's about to slide. Oh and the damping. Especially the damping, which keeps the wheels in contact with the road so adroitly that even when I was on the power, rear axle pinging off a crest, it never bit back.
What's also remarkable is that it does all this while being comfortable and grand tourery. So if you wanted to use a 296 GTB to hop down to the South of France, you could. It rides beautifully for a sports car. There's isn't too much wind or road noise. It glides silently on electricity around town and switches slickly to petrol when you're not. The seats are comfortable, it's beautifully made and swathed in fine-grain Italian leather, and you can see out - well, at least you can out of the front and sides. And if you're going backwards, there is a camera to show you the way. It's supremely easy to live with. In fact, that's my one small criticism: I quite like my sports cars to be a bit rawer.
Many people don't, though, and that's why the 296 GTB is an astonishing thing. I thought it would be terrifyingly spikey on track and way too fast for the road, but it was neither. It was approachable on the circuit and awe-inspiring away from it. So much so that, when I arrived back to at Monteblanco, I had to sit quietly for a while and think about what I'd just experienced. How can a car of such remarkable extremes marshal them in a way that is not only intoxicating, but also conquerable to a mere mortal? I decided it's the very definition of man and machine working in perfect harmony instead of fighting each other for supremacy. In that respect, it is a modern wonder, much like Seville's Metropol Parasol. And wholly worthy of Ferrari's world-heritage status.
Specification | Ferrari 296 GTB
Engine: 2,992cc, V6 twin-turbocharged
Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch automatic, rear-wheel drive
Power (hp): 830 @ 8,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 546 lb ft @ 6,250rpm
Top speed: 205mph
Weight: 1,470kg (Dry)
Price as tested: £241,550
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