twenty-five years ago I promised to buy you a Ferrari. Well, I'm sorry to say that as much as I still harbour the thought, as a 9-year-old I was a bit naive. I had no idea that 1) A Ferrari is as expensive, 2) I wouldn't win the Great Indian Sweepstakes 3) We'd have no place safe enough to park it without someone stealing its badges!
But I'd like to tell you that I recently drove my first Ferrari in and around Italy. A 458 Italia, in the kind of red that you've seen and admired on all those pin-ups that have constantly ruined your walls. It's a sensational paint job, every bit much nicer than my posters. You'd have liked it. A lot! I know I enjoyed it immensely.
So in the event that I may not be able to keep one of my promises to you, let me tell you just what the experience was like.
The 458 Italia is one of the most recent supercars to be introduced by Ferrari. Launched just over a year ago the 458 Italia is an all new car, designed and built from the ground up. It replaces Ferrari's F430 (one of the few Ferrari's to not find place on my wall), which though cutting edge in its time is nothing like the 458 which is heavily inspired by Ferrari's Formula One technology. Now when most manufacturers say that, it means you'd end up with a car in shiny colours with similar graphics. Not the 458, what Ferrari means by claiming this is the closest it has approached its Formula One car is that the 458 in all probability will hound a F1 car around a F1 circuit liked a dog after a bone, relentlessly close of the F1 car's heels.
Now I know you don't like watching the races and it's as alien a concept as Punjabi fare is to a Mangalorean woman. I know you don't understand why 22 men keep going around in circles with hardly anyone ever getting ahead of the other and still call it a race. But it is and those cars which look nothing like the cars you know of are the very pinnacle of automotive engineering.
The Ferrari Formula One car for instance is a work of engineered art. Every inch on that car has been designed to perform a particular task. There is nothing in there because it looks good. Every part has to work hard, work well and work for long in the most demanding situations.The very same characteristics have been embedded in the 458 Italia For instance the body work is not just a lot of flamboyant curves. That those lines, curves and sweeps of metal ultimately look fantastic together is a moot point. In fact the way this car's bodywork swoops and flows with holes and appendages placed strategically is all down to the science of air distribution and flow.
Now air is a very important aspect when building a fast car, because even though we can't see it, air has substance and weight and both of these affect the performance of a car. By forcing air faster through or across an object you can increase weight and as you drive faster the air in front of the car gets thicker. The consistency of air changes like water turning into jelly. So in the first case you can use air to make a car stable at high speeds because the car gets heavier and sits firmly on the ground, but you also need to sculpt a shape that will easily pierce jelly. That is why the 458 looks the way it does. As it spears itself through air faster and faster, the air rushes over those curves making it feel even more stable and focused at higher speeds than when crawling. In that sense this car is achingly beautiful; in fact if you knew what to look for you'd have noticed that it does not have a spoiler at the rear. That's because the rear end is sculpted so that air presses down the tail end of this car significantly as the speeds increase.
The various holes and odd bits also help in several ways. For instance the two wing blades on the front bumper are a very technical element. They move, change position and can change the direction of air flowing over and under them, guiding the air towards either the brakes for more efficient cooling or to reduce drag at high speeds. The small vents which look more like someone forget to fill in some gaps besides the headlamps are trick bits that reduce pressure between the tyre and the wheel well by circulating the turbulent air in that space out to increase stability.
Even at the rear the 458 Italia is just as sensational as every other profile, especially the three exhaust pipes that are inspired by a similar set on the iconic Ferrari F40. The three exhaust pipes in between the rear diffusers just make the 458 even more gorgeous.
The 458 then is a spectacularly designed and styled car, and you know that I wouldn't admit to something like that easily. I'm not much of a Ferrari fan these days; my loyalties have shifted 50km away from Maranello to Sant'Agata. Yet I admit the 458 Italia looked so sensational the moment I saw it standing in the parking lot of Ferrari's factory, my faith wavered for a second.
Though the car sits so low and close to the ground that you'd think it was kneeling at the pews in a church, it'd hurt your knees trying to drop into that cabin. It might look pretty large in the pictures but don't go by the photographs; they do nothing to flatter the way this car is styled. The 458 Italia is in fact one of the most beautiful Ferraris ever built, and beauty is something Ferrari seemed to have forgotten to inject into its cars for a long time. Yes, the Ferraris of the last decade have been striking, but then any sports car is, and it takes something very special like what the 458 Italia has to be ruled out as a timeless work of art.
At this point I know you'd want to get back to your cooking but spare a minute, the vindaloo can wait. I know you like Ferrari and this is going to interest you.
You see it's quite a tough task to build a car whose performance is so high up the order that it's called a supercar. And then to inject it with comfort, refinement and the kind of features you'd get in a regular car is almost magical. You have often heard me rant about how car manufacturers don't seem to approach automotive aspects more proactively and with a logical progression. For instance, car makers preach in their safety manuals that your hands should never leave the steering wheel. Yet, they place the controls for all ancillary devices well away from the steering wheel, so at most times either hand is off the steering wheel and fidgeting with something or the other.
But not in this car. The 458 Italia comes close to fulfilling all that I have ever wanted 'driver's' cars to be. If you choose to, you will never need to take your hands off the steering wheel. That steering wheel like in the Formula One car controls everything, just by touching a few buttons. So there is a button to switch on the engine, adjust the suspension, a dial (famously known as the Manettino) to adjust the differential, a button for the wipers and even buttons for the indicators. And it all works logically. The wiper button for instance; pull it up for a single wipe with wash or you could push it down once for intermittent wipe, increase the speed by pushing it down again and once again for max speed. Or pull up to reduce the speeds. Works like a charm.
Of course I have yet to drive the perfect car, and the Ferrari for all it does, has a few flaws. One is the instrument console; the LCD screen placed on the right side of the rev counter either displays the speed or the navigation system, you can't have both at the same time, which as I discovered on the long road to the Raticossa Pass is a bit of a bother.
Then there are the seats; the carbon fibre buckets may be very supportive and lightweight and all that but over a moderately long drive they are more exhausting than comforting. But that drive is nothing if not sensational. The 458 makes even the most mundane twist of its wheel an epic journey.
Thumb the starter and the engine barks to life with a note crisper than those you heard on your Kenwood hi-fi deck. This squeaky clean and shiny engine that looks good enough to fry your dosas on is placed near the middle of the car. So it sits right behind your head and under a plexiglass cover laying bare its 8-cylinders aligned in a vee configuration. This engine is as much a work of art as are the exteriors of the car, especially when you peer into the engine bay and see the brilliantly finished red cam covers with chrome garnish. This all-new direct injection V8 with variable valve timing is built by Ferrari incorporating several technologies from F1 and it is more efficient, powerful and torquier than the previous engine in the F430. I won't get into much of the technicalities here, but rest assured it is more complex than your prawn pulao.
The 458 Italia gets 570PS of max power which is good enough to send the bulls running in frenzy. I know you don't like speed and travelling too fast and you'd rather take the train to Mangalore than sit in the same car with me. But this Ferrari is so fantastic you'd enjoy the way it behaves like the perfect gentleman, the kind who'd hold the door open for you or offer you a seat. At anything below 3000rpm this engine is as refined and quiet as a Toyota Corolla. It will drive easily in traffic without ever giving you the sense of wanting to charge ahead like Usain Bolt from his starting blocks. It controls its aggression like J Jayalalitha, who knows when to keep her emotions in check and when to unleash them.
But prod the throttle and the engine responds quite unlike any other car I have driven, exotic, sporty or just plain muscle and yet this car is eager like none other. It revs all the way upto 9000rpm, unheard of in run of the mill or even special exotics, yet it never at any time feels like a bull in a china shop. It is even under those impressively rapid bursts of acceleration, refined and cultured.What makes this car even more interesting is that despite the max power being delivered at 9000rpm, at engine speeds well below that mark it never ever feels underpowered. So most of the performance envelop can be experienced even at 6000-7000rpm. Honestly if you aren't on a track the possibility of ever getting up to 9000rpm and scaring yourself silly are grim.
Ferrari claims this engine can go as fast as 325kmph plus, and no I did not drive it that fast, I promise, but it can. It can also do a 100kmph in 3.4 seconds, figures which are considerably better than the F430. But how fast this car travels is not the only defining characteristic of this car. It's also about the way it sounds.
Ferrari has engineered the exhaust system in such a manner so as to keep the exhaust note pleasant at low revs but get sensational whenever its performance needs a matching tune. It does this by a system of valves that stay closed at low rpm, but open up in performance conditions when the engine is revved hard. Even the inlet tracts sound has been engineered with enhanced geometry and materials to enhance certain frequencies and provide full bodied harmonics.
The 458 Italia also uses a F1 style gearbox with a dual clutch system that in automatic mode is one of the slickest most enjoyable gearboxes on any car. Incidentally the 458 Italia is one of very few Ferraris to not offer a standard manual transmission with that gated stick. And that really does not matter when you have an automatic this good, this quick (shift times are nearly down to zero) and this involving.
But what truly defines the 458 Italia are its dynamics. Because of that engine mounted rear midship, the front end is light and that allows the steering to be immensely precise. That same lightness also makes it easy to maneuver in the city. Initially though the steering may feel a bit oversensitive but you soon begin to appreciate the way the steering is geared, with almost F1 like precision and operation the effort and movement needed is minimal when driving this car hard.
The dynamics are further enhanced with the e-gear differential with its various drive modes. In standard drive mode without having to resort to the Race mode for instance, the 458 Italia provides immense grip and more. It shoots from one corner to another with such consummate ease and tractability that you'd think you were steering a WagonR. And the grip goes on forever. But for the most amount of fun, turn the Manettino past the Race mode and you get to select two additional modes, one more than what was available in the F430. Both these modes allow the driver more control over the vehicle by reducing the vehicles safety and dynamic traction systems from intervening all the time. Yet the 458 is almost forgiving in nature, protective even, much like the way you held the reins on me, letting me get silly but knowing well enough when to keep me in line.
But in the end what impressed me most mom, is that given the right amount of infrastructure you could drive the 458 Italia every day. And that makes it a very special sort of supercar. So I do hope that when Ferrari does come to India this year they sell the 458 alongside the Scaglietti. Because I'm glad that my first ever experience of a Ferrari was in a car like the 458 Italia. It certainly helped erode some of the disdain I had developed towards this brand over the last few years. And then I could in some small way keep a part of my promise to you. Even if I couldn't buy you a Ferrari, I'd most certainly drive you around in one for a short while. You'd definitely like that!