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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
Turn the key, the ignition lights flash. Push the plastic starter button near the key, and the V8 twin-turbo engine, just behind your right shoulder, stutters into life, firing unevenly, tempestuously, at first,. But give the throttle another dab, and the engine roars cleanly, and then settles down to a deep uneven growl.
The clutch is much heavier than the 959, and the spring loading of the gear lever is much stronger as well. Select first, down and over to the left, give the engine a few revs, for this car gives the impression that it would not be difficult to stall, let out that firm clutch and you’re on your way. Perfetti and Ori are still engrossed in their morning smokes, and seem not to notice as the F40 gingerly makes its way out onto the circuit.
The engine is not cammy, despite the uneven idling note. As with the GTO’s engine, on which the F40’s unit is closely based, it pulls easily from as low as 1500rpm, even in quite high gears. The tractability of the engine is astonishing: it can tootle along with the riff-raff, or hurtle past the best. Ferrari has always built superb engines, and the F40’s is one of its finest. It’s a slightly expanded version of the GTO unit – up from 2855cc to 2936 – and boost pressure and compression ratio are both increased, too. The upshot is that maximum power is up 19.5 per cent, to 478bhp at 7000rpm. That’s 28bhp more than the 959 can muster. The Ferrari’s on-paper performance lead is heightened by the Italian car’s weight advantage, of some 550lb. We were expecting the F40 to be the faster car, despite what we had just experienced in the 959, on that run from Germany.
We were not surprised. It only took a lap to confirm it: the F40 is faster. It probably doesn’t jump to 60mph, from rest, any quicker, for the Porsche’s four wheel drive is an unanswerable boon here. And, according to Ferrari’s own claims, the F40 is only 0.8sec quicker to 125mph, from rest. But where the Ferrari feels faster is in the important mid-range and top-end acceleration bands.
For a car that will be driven on the road – alongside the Escorts and Minis of this world – the F40’s performance is absolutely astounding It is a road car unlike any other: a machine that will venture onto the street and dismiss all other performance machines built before it with arrogant, disdainful ease. Only the 959 comes close.
The blowers deliver their urge from quite low down in the rev range, and explode into action at about 4500rpm. After that, the performance is plain frightening. The engine is screaming, making the sort of noise that comes from the back of Berger’s Ferrari every other Sunday, and the sharp red nose with its sinister spoiler and orifices gathers in the horizon with the sort of speed that means you don’t really have to be on top form to stay in control. Don’t misjudge your braking distances, your cornering speeds; don’t fumble your gear changes, or tread heavily or insensitively on that drilled metal right pedal, which can summon up more power than the throttle of any road car ever built. Damn it: this Ferrari F40 musters the sort of muscle that formulae one cars used to deliver back in the pre-turbo days.
The noise is almost as overwhelming as the power. Forget about the distant wail of the 959, which becomes a full-blooded growl only at high revs. The engine of the Porsche is well-insulated: it’s noticeable and exhilarating, but never obtrusive. In the Ferrari, the engine is all. It’s the reason the F40 is so quick. And because it’s so loud, it totally dominates your thoughts, as you sit in the cockpit. The spine-tingling, riveting, bellowing growl of the F40’s engine is just about the most exhilarating note you’ll ever hear in the cockpit of a car. And it’s also just about the loudest. Forget about a quiet little Sunday drive down to the pub in this car, or a relaxing trans-Continental dash. This car is incapable of generating relaxation. It breeds anxiety and tension, yet it also delivers more sheer exhilaration than any car ever built, owing to its speed and its noise.
And mastering it requires sheer physical effort. The steering, although beautifully descriptive, is heavy, the clutch, although superbly progressive, needs athletic muscles if you’re to activate it frequently; and the brakes, unassisted, require almost the leg power of Daley Thompson to use when the car is travelling at speed.
And we were travelling at speed. The twin Japanese IHI blowers supercharge the V8, and send the crank revs racing towards the red-line with absurd ease. Snatch third gear, just after exiting one of the tight Fiorano corner, get back on the power, and even though the revs don’t run out until 7750, you’ll need to grab fourth soon after, so quick is the acceleration. Straight back on the power, and the motor screams in fury, silencing what seems like some wind gush as well (the tyres, no doubt, are also howling, but the thunderous engine note overwhelms that, too). Another tight corner approaches, so press on that middle pedal – hard – and blip the throttle as you change down through the box. Ferrari understands these actions so well; better, indeed, than Porsche. The brakes, though heavy, have tremendous feel, and terrific retardive powers, and the pedal set-up is just perfect. Ori, or one of the other test drivers, clearly spent a lot of time getting these details just right.
The F40 rides on huge rubber – Pirelli P Zeros, 245/40VR17s at the front, 335/35VR17s at the back – and the level of traction, needless to say, is enormous. The handling, at racing speeds on Fiorano, is also superb: sharp turn-in, just a touch of understeer as you power through the bend, come out on full power and the tail just does a little sideways as the car rockets down the following straight. Once or twice, the tail slewed alarming out of line on the damp circuit. Yet the chassis is very communicative, so an immediate opposite lock flick kept the red car out of the Fiorano Armco. In short, on the track, the F40 behaves like a pukka sports racer. The only surprise is the docility of the V8 engine at low revs.
Out on the road, this track-car tautness clearly exacts its price. The car is very firmly spring and damped, and the wheels communicate the bumps just as sharply as they do the steering and handling messages. It is not a comfortable car in the open road; but then nor was it designed to be one. The cockpit also gets oppressively hot. Ventilation is poor, sound and heat insulation are almost non-existent. After my first eight laps of Fiorano, I was soaked in perspiration – partly from the sheer mental effort it took to stay on top of a car that’s not that much slower than the sort of machine that wins the Le Mans 24 Hours, and partly because from the want of cool, invigorating air.
Ferrari allowed us to take the 959 onto Fiorano, after we’d sampled the F40 that morning (we returned later, to repeat the exercise in the afternoon). And yes, the car that only the day before had seemed like the quickest thing to ever hit the road, did feel slower than the Ferrari.
It acceleration urge was just that little bit more tardy; its throttle response just a little weaker. But, remember we are talking about a car that can hit 60mph from rest in 3.7sec, 125mph in 12.8sec and doesn’t run out of energy until 197mph. Remember, also, that a 959 had probably never been to Fiorano before. You’d expect a Ferrari to be faster around the track it was developed on.
The 959 still felt wonderful, despite its inexperience of Fiorano. Just a little more nose plough on the right corners, just a touch more body roll. On the slightly greasy surface, the 959 got its power down better out of corners. The gearchange, although less intimidating to Fiesta 1.1L drivers than the Ferrari’s, is actually a little more vague than the F40’s, although it is quicker of throw. The six gearbox speeds do not offer any major speed advantage over the five-speed F40: first, in the 959 is very low, and both cars have so much torque and power that five cogs are quite enough. Both cars have superb clutch progression, although the Porsche’s is, perhaps, slightly better. Like all the 959’s controls, it is certainly lighter.
The lightness helps make the 959 an easier car to drive than the F40. Add, too, the compactness of the Porsche, which occupies far less ground area, and its substantially better visibility. Apart from a few strange gauges, you could be in just about any car when you settle down behind the wheel. There’s carpet and leather and nice trim, and conventional seats. Inside, it feels only marginally more special than a mid-range Escort. Yet, on the road, or on the track, the car feels only marginally less special than its group C brother. That’s where the Ferrari is so vastly compromised: it feels and looks like an uncompromised racer, inside and out.
Yet it is not a racer. Ferrari has no plans to campaign the F40, because it would not be competitive in the group C category – not against the likes of the962 or the Jaguar XJR-9 or the Mercedes C-9, all of which have a good deal more power than could realistically be extracted form the F40’s unit, and all have full monocoque racing chassis, as opposed to the old-fashioned (for racing) tube frame chassis used on the Ferrari. Given that it is no racer, fitments such as the lightweight Perspex sliding windows, those wraparound competition seats, the cord interior door handles, and the stark cabin, do start to look a bit silly. They are all annoying for road use, the very environment in which F40s will spend their time.
So how does the F40 stack up as a road car? It is sensational, no doubt. Both to look at, and to drive. Probably the most sensational sports car ever unveiled. It is certainly the most accelerative. The most exhilarating. Never before has a machine so overtly aping Silverstone machinery, had the opportunity legally to drive down to Sainsbury’s. It is also beautifully made, a joy to examine in detail, and to touch. It is a much more exciting, gratifying car to look at, and observe, than the Porsche 959.
Ferrari plans to build just under 100 F40s (the original idea was to build 400), and they have all found buyers – such is the attraction of the Ferrari name, and such is the appeal of buying a car possessed with such blinding performance. Most, I suspect, will be bought by middle-aged men, very wealthy middle-aged men, who see the F40 as a source of stimulation as amusement, and as a way of getting as close as possible to the race track, without quite donning the Nomex and full-face. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Yet, the feeling around here is that the F40 is a strangely pointless machine. It hasn’t the beauty of the GTO, on which it is based, and which preceded it as Ferrari’s limited edition flagship. And it’s never likely to gain the appeal, and pedigree, of past Ferrari Berlinettas such as the original GTO of 1962, the Le Mans, or the 250GT – cars that were built to race and which won major events. The F40 is too harsh, too impractical, for serious long journeys. It would be uncomfortable on long journeys. It is a racing car that can legally be turned loose on the road.
The 959 was built for a different purpose entirely. It is an older machine, conceived for group B racing, and later to become a mobile test bed for a host of high-technology features, some of which will find their way into future production Porsches. It has raced at Le Mans, and did well in its class. It was the single greatest product of the group B craze which swept car makers back in the mid-‘80s. Its sheer speed was the prime reason that the recent GTO, great car though it is, never raced. Ferrari knew that, against the 959, it stood no chance.
That is, I suspect, one of the main reasons Ferrari built the F40. To prove to the world it could build a faster, more exhilarating street-legal car than the 959. Ferrari has succeeded. For breath-taking excitement, the F40 is supreme. Yet, for all-round greatness, there is little doubt that the 959 is the better car. It would be quicker on a long trip, because it is less tiring. It would be quicker on an Alpine pass, in the hands of anyone short of Gerhard Berger’s talent, because it has better traction, and greater nimbleness. It would be quicker on slippery surfaces, thanks to the grip offered by its four-wheel drive. It is a far greater technological statement. In simple terms, the F40 is a superb engine wrapped up in a lightweight body. The 959 has a fractionally inferior power plant, but offers truly innovative transmission and suspension, both of which increase the speed, safety and comfort of the car. In short, the 959 is a technological milestone, likely to be remembered as the greatest sports car of the ‘80’s. The Ferrari will be remembered as the quickest car of its era, yet speed alone is no substitute for greatness.