SATURDAY, SPA. A couple of hun dred yards apart, James Calado and I are struggling in our Ferraris. The World Endurance Championship is in Belgium, at the universally adored Spa-Francorchamps circuit, for the first race of the 2018/2019 super-season. Calado’s racing his 488 GTE Evo; I’ve turned up in an 812 Superfast.
Exiting La Source hairpin, Ca lado pushes his 488 GTE’s throttle to the bulkhead. The Ferrari fires down past the back of the pits, glides through the gut-churning compres sion at the bottom of the hill and hurtles up over Raidillon - kerb- kerb-kerb-kerb as fast as you can say it - and screams off up the Kemmel straight. His foot hasn’t budged the whole time; still the pedal’s flat, still the engine’s at full stretch. But Calado knows he’s losing time nonetheless.
Calado’s AF Corse squad, here with a pair of 488s and a two-man driver line-up for each, is effectively Ferrari’s official entry in WEC’s fastest production-based class, GTE Pro. AF Corse are good; slick, well-supported, successful. Calado, too, is good. Young, handsome, fast, a Ferrari race driver and reigning GT driver’s champion, you’d expect him to be radioactive with happiness. But today he is not.
By way of explanation, Calado waves dejectedly at the quali fying times. AF Corse’s 488s are sixth and seventh, behind two Ford GTs, two RSR 911 Porsches and - most painfully - one of BMW’s box-fresh M8s. Ferrari are i.438sec off the pace. What’s more, there’s nothing they can do about it. The car’s faster than last year’s but the restrictions slapped on it by the series organiser - essentially more weight and less power - have sent it backwards relative to its rivals.
‘We look like idiots,’ Calado tells me. ‘I wouldn’t mind carry ing the weight if we at least had some power and the chance to pass. The car has so much potential but we just can’t exploit it.’ Clearly, Calado’s Ferrari isn’t fast enough. A couple of hundred yards away, separated by a dense tract of forest so thick the air’s somehow cool on an oppressively hot May day, I’m making a total hash of things in my buttercup-yellow Ferrari Superfast: braking too early, needlessly stabbing the same pedal again when I should be settling the car with the throttle and clumsily turning-in with none of Calado’s pace or poetry. Clearly, right now at least, my Ferrari is too fast.
I’m on the N62, the road that runs with the circuit south from Francorchamps. Just as the circuit goes full rollercoaster here, climbing and free-falling with the landscape like a sine wave, so too does the fiendish N62, careening up, down, left and right before opening up to mirror the flat-out Kemmel straight. Keep going and you effectively drive the first half of the old, much longer circuit layout: Burnenville, Masta, Stavelot.
Taking a breather with a very big bottle of water, a slightly smaller baguette and a legion of ants working hard to steal the shoes from my feet, I gaze upon the unapologetically outlandish form of the 812 Superfast.
Effectively a replacement for the F12, the 812 Superfast draws heavily on the limited-run tdf, which upped the Vi2’s output and debuted a couple of new chassis systems. In the 812’s nose, slung low between two impossibly wide front tyres, you’ll find the most compelling evolution yet of Maranello’s V12: 6.5 litres ( 6496 CC), the two banks of six feistily over-square cylinders (94mm bore, 78mm stroke - it’s the latter that’s bumped up capacity) splayed at 65°. This remarkable creation persistently nags the car’s rear Pirellis with anything up to, and including, 789bhp and 5301b ft of torque via a seven-speed twin-clutch gearbox and the latest evolution of Ferrari’s e-diff. Peak torque isn’t with you until yooorpm. Peak power’s at 8500rpm.
So, what is the Superfast? A GT? Kind of, but that term usu ally implies a generous (and heavy) layer of insulation between you and the action, to smooth fatigue on day-long drives. At 1525kg dry the Superfast is not heavy, and while I’ve much still to learn about it, I have at least ascertained that the 812’s no cruiser. Comfortable it might be, with an impressively sophisticated ride given the track-ready chassis, but it’s alive like a supercar. A super GT, then.
Of course, the 812’s also a front-engined Ferrari V12 - part of a bloodline that stretches back through the likes of the 599XX, the Daytona and the 250 GTO to the 125 S and Ferrari’s very genesis. It’s a cold heart that goes unmoved by those names.
Three Frenchman join me in my reverie, a father and two sons, in town for a family wedding - but they’re car guys, hence the Spa pilgrimage. ‘Passion!’ the father proclaims, fist on heart. ‘It is beautiful,’ adds one of the younger men, with no little awe.
They’re from the Hautes Alpes, home of some of France’s best roads, and all of us take a moment to consider this car on the Route Napoleon. At least, that’s what I’m thinking about.
They leave me, heading off in a Renault full of waves and smiles, and I drop back into the Superfast and fire the engine: let’s have another go at this. This morning’s bleary-eyed thrash was a mess but now, late afternoon, with qualifying done and most of the traffic long since departed the circuit, there are fewer cars, cyclists and motorcyclists to deny me the rhythm I’m after.
In the Ferrari’s cosy cockpit I try to slow-breathe my way through the 812’s unsubtle attempts at intimidation: stuff like the yellow-faced tacho’s 9000rpm, the serious seats’ humourless embrace and the endless bonnet that stretches ahead like a carrier’s deck.
I snap on the harness (complete with prancing horse crests over your nipples), then release it again when I realise it’s so tight I can’t now reach the door to close it. Ferrari’s trademark Death Star vents pour much-needed cold air onto my brow as I click the right shift paddle and leave the layby in twin plumes of dust.
What is it CAR's in-house driving Yoda James Taylor always says, ‘Drive fast with slow hands’? Couldn’t be more relevant here. Where the mid-engined 488 implores you to get giddy, working the controls in spasms and living on your wits, the Superfast’s latent hyperactivity - ultra-fast steering, lightning turn-in response, hysterical engine - calls for a steadier hand.
Ferrari engineers hate understeer. To help banish it, you can just fit wider front tyres: done. But the pay-off will be a skewed balance and a wayward rear end, not something many owners look for in a £25ok V12. Hence the tdf s virtual short-wheelbase system - rear-wheel steering that works to increase stability and mitigate the corrupting effect of fatter fronts. That system is deployed here on the Superfast (recalibrated to be less nervous and more intuitive than it was on the tdf), as is another, unique to the 812, that varies the steering’s weight to help you out: firm ing the wheel’s resistance to increasing steering lock if the car’s convinced you’ll only understeer, and encouraging opposite lock when it detects oversteer.
All of which sounds needlessly complex, not to mention largely irrelevant on the road. Then you consider Maranello’s mastery of such systems (and, crucially, their trust-building implementation) in recent times. The tdf may have been a fickle mistress but the jump-in-and-thrash-it LaFerrari and now the ludicrously flattering 488 Pista are testament to some serious genius: complex, potentially intrusive systems made all but imperceptible.
So it is with the 812. You expect to have to spend time getting used to that ludicrously long bonnet, the rapid rack, the darting front end and the way the car moves with your inputs. And in truth, you do need to spend a couple of miles adjusting. But the fact that your initiation into such bewildering performance is so rapid speaks of an impressive intrinsic rightness. The nagging sense that the steering’s a little too fast never quite goes away, but in almost every other way the Superfast is intuitive. The clutch picks up when you expect it to, and at exactly the rate you expect it to. The engine’s impossibly smooth and tractable, the seven-speeder as buttery at low revs as it is exhilarating at full chat. And the weightless ease with which you’re soon guiding this imposing machine is surreal.
As we effectively lap the circuit, if frustratingly just outside its enviably unregulated expanses (few cars prompt frustration with speed limits quite so vociferously as the Superfast), the 812 and I start to reach an understanding. I’m learning to trust its grip, to relax and to let the Ferrari flow - and the car relishes the smoother inputs. With so much power it’s easy to assume the V12 Superfast is a point-and-squirt device but nothing could be further from the truth. Soon we’re covering ground in a blur of composure and control, confidence soaring thanks to the car’s poise, sheer grip and - quite appropriately given I’m struggling to think of an engine to rival this for response, reach and distance-ravaging savagery - its deli ciously potent and feelsome brakes. There’s perhaps 3mm of play at the top of the travel. Then, as you build pressure at the pedal, so the car’s rate of deceleration swells proportionally, your effort extrapolated into a chest-squeezing, speed-slaying bear-hug.
There’s more to come - quite a bit more I’m sure - but the 812 and I are at least on the same page now. Time to head back to base, a half-hour cruise to nearby Verviers. On the multi-lane E42, my gear stashed in the tiny boot, the Ferrari feels like home. I’ve mastered the initially standoffish infotainment and even the thumb-operated indicators on the steering wheel are becoming second nature. Each slip road and empty roundabout is now a playground; every overtake an opportunity to let the engine do its quite awesome thing. The 812 hurtles into town like a comet, its exhaust note of immaculate breeding flooding the sun-soaked streets.
TODAY'S SUMMER sunrise feels like Christmas morning; that same giddy buzz of anticipation. Already the air’s warm and perfumed by the forest all around, the circuit’s pre-race serenity striking once the 812 and I find our way in, park and kill the V12.
I catch up with a calmer James Calado. ‘The car is absolutely amazing,’ he tells me as we walk to an autograph session (him, not me), his cool impressively unmoved by my comedy ‘I V WEC’ sunglasses. ‘This year’s car is chalk-and-cheese better than last year’s, and the data shows it. The car has come on leaps and bounds but we’re fighting for last place. It’s not in Ferrari’s nature to even finish second, so they’re not happy about it.
‘Ferrari is special,’ he continues. ‘They don’t see themselves as a race team - it’s a family. At Maranello you’ve got the road car production, Formula 1 and the GT cars - it’s a sea of red. The Italian way of working is so relaxed and yet so passionate, and for that reason you’re under huge pressure to win. It’s not just at the beginning of your Ferrari career either, it’s all the time. Only a win will do. It’s always been that way, since Enzo. They’re doing well in F1and I’d like to say we’ll do the same but at the moment we’ve got no chance. But I do love racing for them and I love Spa - the lap is fast and flowing, one of the best, and today we’ve good weather for once, too....’
Is that a smile? As quickly as it arrived, it’s gone. If Le Mans last year got me thinking World Endurance might just might be The Best Thing Ever, Spa serves as emphatic proof.
The flagship LMPi class is straightforward, with Toyota and McLaren F1driver Fernando Alonso - complete with megawatt smile and superstar status - jetting in to bag his first WEC win (a feat he’ll repeat at Le Mans). But the GT classes spin myriad narrative threads, the six hours of racing fraught and breathless like a Touring Car 15-lapper.
Half an hour into the action the Porsche 911 RSRs and Ford GTs are in a league of their own. Eight seconds adrift, the two AF Corse Ferraris run together, on a par with the BMWs and ahead of the new Astons. I alternate between the AF Corse pit and the circuit’s perimeter path, its shadier spots the perfect vantage points from which to take in the gladiatorial contest on track. I’m in the garage when, on screen and with two hours to go, one of the 911 RSRs catches and passes Calado’s 488 like he’s left the handbrake on. Calado’s team-mate Alessandro Pier Guidi shrugs, as if to say, ‘What can you do?’ On the next straight the Porsche pulls away effortlessly. In his Ferrari’s cockpit I can picture Calado hopping up and down in his harness with rage.
His day then goes south. Just as all looks pretty serene, the two AF Corse 488s keeping their performances respectable with neat driving and well-drilled pitstops, an ill-judged pit release sees Calado collide with an Aston Martin in the pitlane, splintered bodywork and damaged suspension and steering the brutal result. The car’s dragged back into the garage, mechanics piling onto the affected corner and tearing into the repair job.
Collared for a TV interview, Calado’s more bothered by the car’s lack of straight-line speed than by this cruel slice of luck. ‘We’re nowhere,’ he opines, clearly livid at having just spent hours pedalling a car that’s generally in the 2:17s while the Ford GT bangs in 2:16.2s...
Still, it’s not all bad news. With five minutes left to run, the other AF Corse car, that of Sam Bird and Davide Rigon, is running fourth, 35 seconds down on the leading Ford but tucked right up behind Richard Lietz’s 911RSR. The ensuing scrap is savage, Lietz desperately trying to stay ahead through a combi nation of blocking and his Porsche’s obvious speed advantage.
With corner speed to burn, Rigon tries going around the out side at the plunging Rivage right-hander, only for Lietz to lean on the Ferrari and run it wide over the kerbs - battle is joined. A few corners later the Corse garage gasps as, through the ul tra-quick Blanchimont, a faster prototype makes it round Rigon but has to cut between the two battling GT cars, ducking into a space that - at three-figure speeds - simply does not look to exist.
But Rigon won’t be denied. Lietz’s rearguard continues into the next lap, with three minutes of the six hours left to run. Out of Fagnes they split spectacularly to go either side of a backmark- er, the Porsche using the track and Rigon’s Ferrari taking to the grass. Then, the move. Rigon runs deep into the first part of the Bus Stop chicane, looking for all the world like he’s blown it, but leaps onto the second apex. Both cars accelerate away furiously but the Ferrari has track position, repaying Lietz’s earlier tap with one of its own as the 488 GTE claims third in class. The Corse garage erupts like they’ve just won the title.
It’s late by the time I leave the circuit, headed for Calais and home. But there’s time for a last run on local roads, and a not particularly direct route north. Still giddy from Ferrari’s against- the-odds podium and good friends now, the 812 and I don’t hold back.
The engine remains absolutely captivating - Calado and friends would do well to try to sneak one into the back of their 488. It is smooth as glass. At idle it sounds highly strung, like it’s going to be grumpy and rough at low revs. But there are no such histrionics, just a clean trebu- chet’s sweep of titanic power, the Ferrari’s engine management and variable intakes dodging the usual drawbacks of lumpy cam profiles and racy valve timing.
Keyed into the steering now (with more effort comes some feel, but the 812 isn’t big on steering small-talk), the Superfast pours into corners at scarcely credible speed. So fast and light is the steering that there’s no physical effort to changing direction but still the experience is visceral and thrilling. At the same time the car’s mighty body control balances steadfast resistance with enough movement to let you know where you stand, your carbon seat squeaking a little as cornering forces swell.
On we power, carving at undiminished speed through corners we crawled through yesterday. The hot Pirelli P-Zeros’ grasp of the clean, smooth tarmac is al most total, even as I brutalise the rear tyres with more and more of the engine’s shove, earlier from each corner. Now I’m holding onto gears until the LED shift lights flash across the top of the wheel rim, the V12 again streaming to its redline, tearing the air with beautiful noise and echoing its cultured cry across the valley.
To gel with the 812 is to feel superhuman, the machine’s performance slackening the normally immutable laws of physics. Even when you’re moving so fast as to think the car has nothing more to give, the Superfast always offers options: to subtly shift your chosen line, however and whenever you wish; to add speed in a moment; or to slow so hard you’re grateful of the harness.
At Calais, UK passport control wants answers: ‘How fast?’,
‘How much?’, and ‘Where have you been?’ With the 812 the answers are always the same: ‘very’, ‘too much’, and, now that I must shortly hand back the keys, ‘not far enough’.