Hacker's Notebook: Ferrari Hits Its Stride

[Big welcomes all around to Nick Hall, international man of letters and reviewer of the world's most potent and storied tractors. This is his first in what we hope to be innumerable Hacker's Notebook columns. And by innumerable, we mean he's being compensated in dollars Kelvin. Thanks, Nick — ed.]

It took about 3.5 seconds to accept the invitation and had my mother's funeral been scheduled for the same day, I would have screamed foul play, demanded a police autopsy and left her above ground to stink up the joint in the summer heat. That's the power of an invitation to Ferrari to drive the new 599 GTB Fiorano.

But, really, it shouldn't have that sway. Because Ferraris, historically, have never quite matched the feeling of anticipation. They were like opening an Xbox-shaped present at Christmas, and finding encyclopedias.

They were always beautiful, and always fast, and you kind of got the impression that the components were rolled on the thighs of virgins and cooled in ass's milk, but can anybody honestly say that a Ferrari was ever the world's best handling car? The world's best cars in terms of build quality then? The world's fastest in a straight line perhaps? Err, no...

But nobody seemed willing to incur the wrath of the company and say it like it was; Ferrari's road cars were good but not the best and they broke down with the regularity of Hollywood celebrities. And yes they'd get you laid, but so would $100,000 in cash...

Ferrari's success depends on an alchemic mix of myth, racing success, good PR propagated by the lucky few allowed through the door and the sheer illusion that the most expensive and exclusive car has to be the best. The truth rarely intrudes on such matters, because we didn't want it to.

How much would we have enjoyed Magnum PI riding the bus because his pistons had flown through the crankcase and showered Higgins with molten scrap metal? Or Don Johnson thumbing a list after his essence of cool, the Testarossa, had given up in town and made him look like a prized tool? We'd have hated it...

We all wanted to believe Ferraris were faster than Superman, would keep flying till the end of time and could actually snap a woman's knicker elastic through some form of higher power. We wanted to believe they were the best cars in the world, so they were.

It was willing suspension of disbelief on a global scale. Just like with Marilyn Monroe, who was, in essence, a bit of a sturdy girl with a twinkle in her eye before romance and myth built her into a beauty queen.

Even hard-nosed journalists found themselves describing "character and flair," when they really meant the door handle had fallen off and the gearbox sounded on the edge of self-destruction. I'd even lay money there's a church devoted to the marque somewhere in this twisted world.

In the whole history of cars, that I can find right now anyway, only one man suggested that the Ferrari was anything less than perfect. He was told in no uncertain terms that it was not the car that was the problem; it was the ignorant farmer behind the wheel. His name was Ferruccio Lamborghini, and Enzo's ancestors are still licking those self-inflicted wounds.

But the truth was even when they worked, old-school Ferraris needed the tender loving care you'd afford an unstable girlfriend holding a knife in one hand and crack pipe in the other. In the wet the F40, for instance, would spin you out in your driveway...

A friend of mine who owns several 1970s 911s, themselves widowmakers that required lead in the fenders to prevent the back overtaking the front, lusted after the F40 like teenage boys want Christina Aguilera. And on the magic day of purchase he drove it one mile, one, before returning and begging the dealer to take it back.

That sums up the Ferrari ownership experience in too many historic cases. Fearful handling and scarier maintenance costs turned a dream into a nightmare for a good portion of the elite few.

Of course they have got progressively better, especially on the reliability front, but even the 355 was a knife-edge car and disabling the traction control was like booking an appointment with the nearest tree for many of the bonus-splashing money junkies that could buy them. But of course that might have been down to the coke they'd snorted, or hair gel in their eyes...

Then there were the interiors, which in the past have been so liberally splashed with Fiat components the car looked built to compete on cost with Mazda's Miata. But they could have slapped that badge on a dog turd, much as Porsche did with the Cayenne, and people would have paid premium rates.

So I shouldn't have been so excited. But still, it only took one email and I was hopping round like a small kid on Christmas Eve.

And this time something magic happened. There was no disappointment, no problems to skilfully hide away under the Italian eccentricity badge. There was nothing to suck the wind out of this experience, because the 599 GTB Fiorano is a landmark car for Ferrari: it's really, really good.

There has been a shift in focus at Ferrari, they no longer rely on the badge to sell cars and are leaping forward in terms of technology, build quality — just about everything. The F430 is a solid machine, with sublime handling, and the 599 genuinely, and there is no myth here, kicks arse.

Yes it goes 205 mph, yes it accelerates so hard it can post your kidneys through the seat and it sounds like Sirens singing from the cliffs, but they all kind of did that.

No, the really impressive bit about the 599 is that it sticks to the road like molten asphalt, that they put in a twin-plate clutch, seemingly without being asked, that the gearbox is absolutely the fastest thing attached to four wheels, that they realised the best damper technology could be brought from Buick and didn't turn up their nose. And then they actually went to the trouble of designing an exquisite interior, before gluing it together properly.

After 100 km of running nothing broke, nothing even rattled, it felt like an Audi or BMW would give way first. And it hadn't tried to kill me once. It just kept howling after the horizon with the heart and soul of an Italian tenor AND the clinical efficiency of a German heart surgeon. This car was built with more than love; they used computers and everything.

This, as much as the lung-blistering performance, excites me about the new line-up of Ferraris. And it should excite you too. Ferrari is no longer a tangled web of myth and romance, it now produces some of the best cars in the world.

Mother, plan your death very carefully. Should it coincide with a future Ferrari launch, I will leave you above ground — stinking up the joint. [by Nick Hall]

Related:
Ride the Pentagrams: Ferrari Launches 599 GTB Fiorano; More Nick Hall [internal]