Today is a historic day, as all days when a new flagship Ferrari is announced are. In the line dating back to the Ferrari 288 GTO, we now have a new top-of-the-marque member, the Ferrari SF90 Stradale. A plug-in hybrid with all-wheel-drive, it probably won’t be the “race car for the road” you’re expecting. And the Ferrari F50 is probably the reason for that.
The 288 GTO was originally built for Group B racing, and featured a V8 engine that had turbos attached, much like Ferrari’s F1 engines had turbos attached at the time. The Ferrari F40 that followed also featured a turbocharged V8, and had body panels made up of carbon fiber and kevlar, also like race cars of the time.
But the Ferrari F50, which followed the F40, had to go a step further. It had to be more powerful (it was), it had to be faster (it was not, at least not in a straight line), and it had to be racier. It couldn’t just have a race car “inspired” engine, it had to be as much of a race car engine as possible.
Out were the turbochargers and the V8, in went a 4.7-liter 60-valve V12 with 512 horsepower. That they then bolted directly to the car’s chassis.
Most cars don’t have their engines attached to the vehicle in such a manner, because attaching the engine to the chassis is very much like attaching it directly to the driver’s spine. The rear suspension, as well, was attached to the transmission. That sort of thing is fine in a race car, as race car drivers are disposable and have a short shelf-life anyway.
For the Wealths who bought it at the time, that was great, because who doesn’t love saying they just got a Race Car For The Road. People didn’t mind the vibrations, the driving experience, or the fact that it had wind-up windows, because that was part of the fun, as Jeremy Clarkson explained at the time:
But accelerate the clock a little bit to the present day, and of all the flagship Ferraris – the 288 GTO, the F40, the F50, the Enzo, the LaFerrari, and now the SF90 – it could be said that the F50 is the least beloved. Not that it’s unloved, per se, I’d still shave my right nostril just to have one.
But it’s not held in as nearly a high esteem as the others. Here’s Clarkson in 2013, talking about the Ferrari F50 in Forza 5:
He calls the whole experience “4.7-liters of total misery.” That’s because in the ensuing years from when the car first debuted in the 1990s, people figured out that, actually, they hate the vibrations, the driving experience, and the fact that it had wind-up windows.
Ferrari learned its lesson. While the Enzo wasn’t exactly resplendent with luxury, featuring bare carbon fiber all over the cabin, it wasn’t hell, either. It featured a mighty V12 like the F50 before it, but it wasn’t attached directly to the driver’s face. It was livable.
The LaFerrari followed, and even had a hybrid system and a seven-speed dual-clutch system instead of a stick-and-pedal, officially because that’s just faster and better and more akin to race cars of today, but very unofficially because the Wealths that tend to buy Ferraris tend to be older, and old people have bad knees and can’t operate a clutch, and also because no one wants to be laughed at stalling out in the streets of Monaco.
Each Ferrari just slightly further from a race car than the F50, though more and more beloved than the last.
Which leads to the SF90. It’s got approximately 1000 horsepower, because why not, but it’s also got all-wheel-drive, because Ferrari has apparently wisely determined that living customers are probably better than ones wrapped around a tree.
Gone from the interior is all the exposed carbon fiber (though Ferrari will almost assuredly provide you with that, if that’s what you want) replaced with fine leather and lovely carpets. It’s even got electric windows, because it’s fancy. It’s got screens for the dash and screens for the HVAC and screens for the lights. It’s a modern car, surely with some racey bits, but very much built for the road.
And you know what? It’ll probably be beloved, both instantly and eternally. Even if Ferrari had to learn from the F50 to get there.