Superfast engineering – 15 minutes with Ferrari chief technology officer Michael Hugo Leiters

Published: 08 March 2017

► Ferrari's chief technology officer 
► Interviewed at 2017 Geneva show
► 'I hope natural aspiration can go on'

Away from the bustle of the 812 Superfast reveal on the Ferrari show stand at Geneva 2017, Maranello’s chief tech man, Michael Hugo Leiters talks, about the magic of a non-turbo V12, virtual steering feel and the problem with concept cars.

Electric feel – introducing Ferrari power-steering trickery

‘The 812 is the first time we’ve put electric power steering on a car. Our first goal was to have the same feeling as a hydraulic power steering system. This was challenging because we have a very direct steering ratio. It’s more complicated to have this direct feeling with an electric steering motor, on the roughness of the street, and give the all-important feeling that you have the car in your hands.

Ferrari 812 SuperFast

‘We found out that with this motor we have other possibilities. The mechanical set-up of the car is quite similar to the F12tdf. That car had rear-wheel steering; so does the new 812. But our concept is very different to other carmakers. Normally you want a neutral behaviour, or neutral to understeer. If a car is too neutral on the limit then you are faster but it is difficult to drive. Fine for Seb Vettel but a normal driver gets into difficulty. Our concept was to make the set-up very neutral, so at the limit of performance, and then to compensate for the loss of drivability with the rear-wheel steering.

‘Now the EPAS brings two more features, Ferrari Peak Performance and Ferrari Power Oversteer. If you go to the limit of the car, we vary the torque of the steering so that the driver is feeling through the steering that he is getting near the limit. The system does not actually steer, but it delivers a change in the level resistance to communicate the limit. The sensation is like when the steering goes light in a conventional car when the front tyres are understeering.

'If you go over the limit, we invite the counter-steering with Ferrari Power Oversteer, again by using the torque of the steering motor to promote the counter-steering. This is why we are proud of this system. This technology has allowed us to deliver additional functions. It does not change our philosophy, which is that the fundamental chassis set-up has to be the best we can do. The control system doesn’t improve the performance of the car; it improves the performance of the pilot. They feel more confident to go to the limit. This is the first touchdown of this electric steering system, and now the plan is to bring it to other models.’

The Nurburgring’s for engineering, not showing off

Ferrari 599XX at the Nurburgring

‘For me the Nurburgring is a technical target; an engineering target. It is the most challenging circuit and if you are quick on the ’Ring the car will behave well on the street. It takes a trade-off between a stiff racing set-up and a certain pliancy otherwise you lose traction on that circuit. But there are so many variables you can play with to set the record or not set the record – I don’t like that.’

Long live the non-turbo V12

‘I hope there is no limit to how long the naturally aspirated V12 can go on. We are working hard on this – it will be difficult. You have the emission regulations, but we are in a special situation because we have small-volume agreements almost all over the world. But there are some regulations with no exceptions, and the customer has a certain expectation on emissions and the technology we are using.

'If you compare a downsized turbo V12 to one that is naturally aspirated, the specific output of the turbo engine is higher. But we are convinced our customers love the n-a engine; the sound, the continuous increase in power with revs, the involvement. So for us it’s a real asset, and we are working hard to retain it.

Ferrari V12 from the 812 SuperFast

‘This car [the 812] must stay in the market for four years, and afterwards we have to see what new tech we can put on to meet new regulations. We already have a 350bar injection system, which helps improve the spray and the combustion process. In the end there will be a limit on power output too, of course.

'At the moment we have something like 130 horsepower per litre [121bhp per litre], which I guess is a record, but for our customers the power isn’t even the most important part: that’s the sound and the emotion. What’s important is that every time we present a new car it must be a step forward in how fun it is to drive. I’m not sure an electric motor [hybridisation] will help prolong the V12 but on the smaller engines, the V8s? Yes.’

We will do a new supercar only when we are ready

Ferrari LaFerrari

‘We are not working directly on a LaFerrari successor at the moment. Our philosophy is not a new supercar every ten years. We do it when we have defined our road map of innovations and new technology. When we’re convinced these will create a new level of Ferrari performance, then we will develop a car and present it.

'You talk about hypercars with F1 engines. We did it with the F50 – you have to use the revs. It’s emotional, F1, but you have to leave that behind. Those engines rev to 16,000rpm. To use a road car with this kind of engine you have to take it to 16,000rpm – you can’t do it. This is very difficult.

'We are working on this road map. We will do another supercar when our bottle is full of interesting things and we want to combine them on a new car. And the technology must be applicable on other cars in our range.’

Electrification is interesting

‘The F1 hybrid turbo engines are interesting. But there are factors like the battery and the electric motor – battery technology is key. You are talking about a lot of weight, which is not good for fun.

Ferrari F1

'In a straight line, performance is easy: all the power, a big battery – but the car will be heavy and you will lose the fun-to-drive element because when you drive a Ferrari you are feeling also the lateral acceleration, the inertia of the car, and this is one of our secrets.’

Can four-wheel drive be fun?

‘At a certain power-to-weight ratio then all-wheel drive [on a Ferrari sports car] could make sense. Can it have the feel though? That’s something we have to investigate. You are impacting the behaviour of the car in a very important way. You get a more natural behaviour – the car gets easier to drive – but the trade-off is not to make it annoying, and to make it still fun to drive.’

I don’t like concept cars

‘You can go to the limit but what do you bring home from this limit? You don’t have to homologate it, you don’t have to sell it, you don’t have to make money with it. You see the concept car, then the series car derived from it, and what remains? Only the design usually. And that’s diluted.’

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By Ben Miller

The editor of CAR magazine, story-teller, average wheel count of three