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Ferrari F40 vs Porsche 959 (CAR Magazine, July 1988: Another World)
Georg Kacher and Gavin Green
19 June 2012 10:00
The skies over Ferrari’s Maranello headquarters were lead-grey and swollen with rain when we arrived in the Colgate-white Porsche 959. It was just after 8.15am and our Ferrari host for the day, the new PR boss, Giovanni Perfetti, was not yet at work. But those famous green gates were open, and some of the workers had already clocked on. Most stopped as they passed the 959, grit-mottled from its dash down from Stuttgart on the previous day.
It is not a pretty car, the 959, and nothing like as striking as the car with which we were about to compare it – the Ferrari F40. Those Maranello workers, I dare say, guessed our intentions, yet seemed impressed and complimentary, about the nearest thing the F40 has to a rival. They stopped near the car, peeked in through the 911 carry-over glass, smiled, waved their arms, whistled approvingly and chatted loudly.
Perfetti arrived soon after 8.30am – he wasn’t due in until nine, the security man had told us – greeted us warmly, and didn’t seem too surprised that there was a 959 parked a few feet away. We had not told Ferrari of our intentions. Yes, yes, they knew we were coming to drive an F40, the first British magazine invited to do so. What we hadn’t told them was that we reckoned the best way to evaluate the fastest-ever Ferrari was to see how it stacked up against the fastest-ever Porsche. Yes, Perfetti said, there would be no problem taking the 959 onto Fiorano, Ferrari’s private test track less than a mile from the Maranello factory. And yes, it was possible to go flat out, in Fiorano, in the F40 (‘but be careful, it has been raining and the circuit will be slippery’). In short, the two greatest supercars of all would shortly lock horns.
The drive down from Germany had reminded us, yet again, what a wonderful tool the Porsche 959 is. The flat-six 24-valve quad-cam engine, based on that of the 911 but using much of the technology gleaned from Group C racing cars such as the 956 and 962 punches out 450bhp, yet it is docile enough to allow the 959 to trickle through town with the Fiestas and Golfs. Also on offer are an electronically-controlled four-wheel-drive system, ABS brakes, adjustable dampers, a six-speed gearbox, a body utilising weight-saving Kevlar panels, and enough computer-controlled hardware to earn the 959 the title of most technologically advanced supercar yet built.
We stormed down the autobahn, occasionally nudging 200mph when the conditions were suitable. In most cases, they weren’t. Besides, 160mph seemed a comfortable cruising gait, especially as there were the odd drops of rain. At 160, the car was quiet, stability was exemplary, and the car felt unstressed, lolloping along easily. Even at 160, there was plenty of acceleration in reserve. Push the throttle to the carpet, and the engine note would deepen as the two turbos delivered more boost, and the car would jump. The danger threshold, we thought, was passed at about 185mph, 12mph short of the car’s true maximum. Over that speed, the car starts to wander a little, minute constant corrections are necessary on the steering wheel, cross winds begin to concern you, and you have to concentrate so hard that there is no real pleasure in cruising that fast. So, we backed off, and drove conservatively. Nonetheless, the 959 rocketed past the other autobahn traffic – we’re talking about Porsche 911s, BMW 7s and S-class Benzes, not just the small fry – with such remorselessness that the impression was of travelling by jet while the rest of the world goes by Tiger Moth.
A lorry would occasionally stray into the 959’s path, but each time those huge brakes would quell the car’s enthusiasm. It’s not just that the brakes are strong: they have such a delicate, communicative feel as well. And that’s all the more extraordinary whjen you remember that ABS is usually a feature that deadens feel.
The Porsche’s engineers have paid a great deal of attention to the drivers environment, as you would expect. The clutch is beautifully weighted, and progressive. The steering, although power assisted, has superb fluency, but it suffers the slight deadness endemic to all 4wd sports cars. The gearchange is quick, and short of throw. There is the usual solid feel to the Porsche’s interior: thump the dash, or the door trim, and it feels strong and likely to last. The overall mood of the cabin, though, is undeniably 911 – from the steering wheel to the architecture of the dash, to the seats. Only the gauges would confuse the 911 owner, because, as well as the usual 911 ware, there is a water temperature gauge (for the liquid-cooled heads) and instruments that relay the state of such unlikely functions as the front-to-rear torque split, and the locking ratio of the rear diff. There is even a column stalk through which you can tell the transmission about the weather conditions – sun, rain, snow or gravel. A computer then automatically programmes the transmission to deliver optimum grip. Most 959s also have an automatic ride-height control, but our lightweight sports-pack model (deliberately chosen as a more appropriate competitor for the F40) did not. A further control is the rotary switch which manually adjusts the damper settings; no matter what the setting, the dampers do stiffen automatically as the speed increases. Indeed, the suspension is one of the most extraordinary features of this most extraordinary of motor cars. Our overnight stop, before heading down to Maranello early the following morning was in a farmhouse outside Brescia, reached by a potted gravel road. The Porsche rode up that track better than a Jaguar XJ40 and a Citroen BX GTi, which had also happened to be staying the night. And yet, as the drive down from Germany had shown, the 959 rolls barely at all – even at the most astonishing speeds.
You’ll have guessed that, by the time we arrived at Maranello, we were somewhat enamoured of the 959. Could the F40, for all its power, for all its Ferrari breeding, possibly be better than the white car, just behind the Maranello gates? While we were wondering, an F40 puled alongside the Porsche. It was red and low and wide and aggressive, and looked rather sensational parked next to the rather unhappily proportioned Porsche. If you wanted to turn heads, there’s no doubt which car you’d choose. Later it became clear: if you wanted to snap necks, the F40 is also better.
The test driver who delivered the F40 – a certain Claudio Ori – waited in the cars for a few minutes, before Perfetti gave them the all clear for the trip to Fiorano. Moments later the two-car £300,000 convoy (Ferrari £160,000, Porsche £145,000) tuned out onto the main Modena – Maranello road, took a quick right, and then turned into the road named after Gilles Villeneuve, just before the statue of the great little man, to the Fiorano circuit. A solitary guard, in a small cabin, lifted the front gate. Fiorano was deserted: green and lush and beautifully surfaced, lying empty under brooding black clouds that threatened to empty at any moment.
The F40 and 959 parked in the pit-road area, and Ori and Perfetti sought shelter in a nearby garage as they lit morning cigarettes. Can we go out on the circuit? ‘Yes, yes, but be careful, the circuit is slippery.’ Then they went back to their cigarettes, back to their chat.
So, there it was: the Ferrari F40, The car journalists the world over have been queuing to drive since its launch last summer. A car that has been displayed at motor shows all around the world, yet only been driven by Ferrari’s own test drivers. The car that succeeds the wonderful GTO as Maranello’s fastest sports car; its flagship.
It looks just like a group C racing car, what with its big rear wing and side skirts and deep chin spoiler, with front orifices for engine and brake cooling. It is not a beautiful car, not in the same was a GTO is. But once you’ve laid eyes on it, it is mighty hard to take them away. The finish of the body (mostly Kevlar-reinforced composite) is excellent, and the paint finish is better than the Porsche’s.
Open the driver’s door, using a GTB-style catch, and the first impression is of the extraordinary lightness. Little wonder it’s light, there is no trim inside. Instead, the door is a hollow composite shell, with a piece of plastic cord dangling inside. That cord, incidentally, is the rear door catch. Pull it, and the door opens. Owners of early Minis will find this feature of the F40 familiar. Slding windows will also make old-Mini owners feel at home – though in the F40 they are made of plastic, rather than the more up-market glass used in the Mini. In our test F40, the windows were awkwardly stiff to operate.
By the look of the door, and the exterior, you could be forgiven for thinking that the F40 is little more than a group C racing sports car for the road; look indie the cockpit and the impression is reinforced. Race-style deats that have massive side bolsters are just the sort of thig you’d expect in a Porsche 962: there are even a couple of holes in the squab for the racing harness shoulder straps. Our test car wore a conventional intertia reel three point belt though, and it looked slightly feeble handing from that seat.
There is no carpet in an F40, either (what do you expect for 160 grand?). Instead, the floor is simply uncovered composite material. Just like in a racer. The dash is covered in a grey felt-like material, as is the centre console. The roof lining is simply perforated vinyl (the same as in the Porsche). Luxury, there ain’t.
It’s awkward to clamber over the sills and the high-sided seats, and drop down into the racing chair, but once you’re in position things start looking good. There is a gorgeous three-spoke Momo steering wheel, which falls beautifully to hand, the gearlever, jutting out of the six-fingered metal gate, is just where your right palm would wish it. It’s a very Ferrari GTB-type lever: thin chrome stalk, capped by a round black plastic knob.
The sculpture of the dash is excellent, and the main dials all lie attractively and legibly, in the main binnacle, just beyond the Momo helm. The tacho is red-lined at 7750rpm. In the middle of the dash, pointing to the driver, are further gauges, for the oil pressure, fuel tank level and oil temperature. Already the massage is clear: forget about any idea of matching the cosseting luxury of the 959. There is no-top grade carpet on which to rest your shoes, no leather-clothed dash or door linings. Why, there aren’t even any rubber caps on the foot pedals: all three are simply drilled metal. Have a little practice before the action starts, and you can soon tell that heel and toeing will be a joy. Easier than in the 959.
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