Gun at a knifefight? More like a water cannon at a splashpark. The Ferrari SF90 Stradale is playing by the established rules of the hypercar game, just on an entirely different level - to the extent that the biggest question thrown up by a day in its company is why it has been made so much better than it probably needs to be.
Ferrari's first plug-in hybrid is a tour de force, but a hugely complicated one. We know that other supercar makers are looking to add electric power to future models with one or two motors, but Ferrari has gone for three, a pair at the front - one for each side - and a state-of-the-art 'axial flux' motor sandwiched between the twin-turbo V8 and the new eight-speed twin-clutch gearbox. And while the combined 1000hp is the feature that will get most attention, the e-motors' ability to significantly alter the way the car drives is the more impressive achievement.
Not that experiencing it was the easiest thing to do, with the ongoing pandemic and the shutdown of most European air travel. Getting to Maranello meant I had to fly to Rome - the only Italian airport with a direct flight from London at the time - followed by a four-hour transfer to Maranello. I collected the car from a group of mask-clad technicians outside the factory with strict instructions that nobody else was to be allowed inside the cockpit until it had been sanitised.
Some will be surprised that the SF90 shares many traits with lesser plug-in hybrids, most obviously in its ability to travel under pure electric power. This is both an acknowledgement of the way the future is undoubtedly heading, but also a neat trick that Ferrari reckons owners will use when they want to sneak out early or late without disturbing neighbours. (Those owners who are poor enough to actually have neighbours, that is.)
It's not just a party piece. Every time the SF90 starts up it defaults to its Hybrid mode, which will prioritise electric traction under gentle use, and it is also possible to lock it into an eDrive mode which can be used at speeds of up to 84mph, with the 8kW/h battery pack providing up to 15 miles of range. Electric drive is delivered exclusively through the front motors, so I leave the factory piloting a FWD Ferrari EV for the first time. We know that Enzo believed that more engine was the solution to pretty much any problem, but this is almost certainly not what he had in mind.
Electric performance is reasonably sprightly - Nissan Leaf, subjectively - but it's hardly the point of such a car and I've switched the powertrain's e-Manettino to the Performance setting that keeps the engine running well before leaving Maranello. The sudden arrival of V8 noise is a startling contrast to the hushed way mainstream plug-ins unobtrusively start combusting. But it's also a useful reminder of the star feature.
The V8 is a development of the F154 V8 from the 488 and F8 Tributo, with a redesigned cylinder head, higher injection pressures, a capacity increase and new turbos. It weighs 25kg less than the Tributo's engine but makes 59hp more. The three e-motors add up to 217hp to that, but the limiting factor on the ion-fuelled side of the powertrain is the battery's peak flow rate rather than the hardware. So although the front motors both stop contributing at speeds above 130mph, the rear motor is able to absorb the whole 162kW current by itself.
You'll be unsurprised to hear that it's hugely fast. In the strange world we live in the official 2.5-second 0-62mph time isn't outside the frame of semi-regular reference. A better measure of the SF90's astonishing pace is the claimed 6.7-second 0-124mph time. That's a tenth inside the McLaren Senna, despite the Ferrari being substantially heavier and better trimmed.
Driven hard the SF90 sounds exactly like a Ferrari should, with throbbing menace low down, mid-range snarl and a savage top end. But experience of full noise is necessarily limited - the car is so fast that getting the accelerator to its stop on a public road is something that will only be done occasionally, and for very brief periods. Short-shifting well before the 8000rpm redline and employing little more than half throttle, the Stradale genuinely feels quicker than many bonafide supercars.
The big difference compared to the senior Ferraris that preceded it is how well the SF90 puts the power down. Traction feels impeccable, even coming out of tight corners - only the occasional flash of the stability control icon on the digital dashboard shows how hard the various systems are working. The car has torque vectoring across the front axle, but I only got the very occasional hint through the steering of any power reaching the front wheels. It also has what is effectively electric traction control, controlling wheel slip by harvesting extra energy rather than knocking back the engine.
The SF90 also debuts brake-by-wire in a Ferrari, something the engineers say was necessary given the level of regeneration the motors are capable of delivering. While the blending between harvesting and friction braking is done invisibly, the e-boosted pedal has a very short travel with little pressure needed for a gentle stop, something that initially felt strange. The more forceful weight needed for bigger stops seemed much more natural. By the time I got back to Maranello after a two-hour road route I'd adapted well enough not to notice. The new eight-speed gearbox is also, somehow, even quicker and more decisive in its changes than the company's lightning fast seven-speeder. And it doesn't have a reverse gear - the SF90 always backs up on electric power.
While not quite plush, the SF90's cabin definitely feels like a step forward from the company's other mid-engined models and with softer materials than the normal supercar carbo-crypt (my test car having plenty of optional carbon upgrades, too). Ferrari is proud of its new 'human machine interface' which uses touch sensitive panels for most functions and has a 16-inch display screen ahead of he driver's seat featuring both instrumentation and display information. This generally worked well, although with a strange 'page turning' noise played when swiping between certain functions. The SF90 also enjoys an impressively pliant ride for something so potent and it seems remarkably laid back at cruising speeds.
Okay, so I did have some ergonomic niggles. The dashboard top is moulded in such a way to throw up some nasty reflections on the inside of the windscreen in Italian sunshine, and the metalwork that surrounds the auto-manual, reverse and launch control transmission modes - intended to reference the shifter gates of those far-off manual Ferraris - got dazzlingly bright as well. The climate control fan is noisy, and the system had to work surprisingly hard to keep the cabin at acceptable temperatures in low-30 ambient temperature.
After the traditional lunch at the Montana restaurant, sitting beneath faded sets of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichellos' team overalls, it was time for the equally traditional chance to experience the SF90 around the company's Fiorano test track. COVID restrictions meant no chaperone, so instead I was sent out with the near impossible mission of trying to stick with factory test pilot Fabrizio Toschi in a prototype version. I immediately regretted eating so much pasta, another Ferrari launch ritual.
Before reaching the track I turned the e-Manettino to Qualify, which ensures the powertrain is always giving everything, and twisted the stubby version of the conventional Manettino on the other side of the steering wheel to a position corresponding to Race. Acceleration felt even more impressive on track, with the chance for a sustained blast, and Fiorano immediately started to feel smaller than it did on any of my previous visits. That's despite the introduction of a lift-and-coast section to help meet noise limits after one of the track's neighbours improbably complained about the sounds of hard-wrung Ferraris.
But the big surprise was discovering just how oversteery the car had become in the slow corners, and even some of the quicker ones, with some yaw angles that seemed impressively liberal for the machine-curated slides I presumed I was experiencing. It was only after a lap of this I realised the Manettino was actually in its TC Off position, not something I'd normally contemplate doing in a 1000hp Ferrari. Switching to Race imposed discipline, and increasing confidence gave the chance to get to speeds where the SF90's peak 390kg downforce could be felt working. I still didn't catch up with Toschi, though.
Hard track use was the only time the SF90's extra bulk over more svelte exotics was discernible, specifically when slowing down. Braking performance is impressive, but not a match for the face-tearing deceleration of the McLaren Senna that represents my high watermark for retardation. But for a car not designed to live on track - Stradale being Italian for 'road' - it's a pretty remarkable performance.
Okay, so the standard SF90 isn't quicker than the LaFerrari. It takes specification of the Assetto Fiorano handling pack - a £39,360 option in the UK - to get the revised motorsport grade dampers and extra lightweighting that allows the SF90 to go one second under its predecessor's time on a Fiorano lap. But the standard car that I drove is apparently only just slower than the LaF.
It's hard not to look at the SF90's specs without thinking of Moore's Law, the principle that the power of a given microchip would double or the price would halve over a two year period. Something similar seems to be happening with hypercars as we move towards electrification. When the LaFerrari came out 2014 its hybridised V12 powertrain was somewhere beyond the cutting edge and Ferrari produced just 500 with a price tag of £1.1m a throw. Six years later and the SP90 has lost four cylinders but has more power and a vastly more advanced hybrid system. It's not one of Ferrari's limited edition super specials, meaning there's a slight chance that a sufficiently affluent mortal could manage to buy one, and it costs less than half as much.
Other supercar makers have a huge amount of catching up to do.
SPECIFICATION | FERRARI SF90 STRADALE
Engine: 3990cc, twin-turbocharged V8 with three electric motors
Transmission: 8-speed twin-clutch, all-wheel drive through electric front axle
Power (hp): 770@7500rpm (plus 217hp electric)
Torque (lb ft): 590@6000rpm (petrol)
0-62mph: 2.5 seconds
Top speed: 211mph
Weight: 1570kg 'dry'
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