► Our early go in Ferrari 488 Pista
► We drive a prototype supercar
► Georg Kacher on road and track
Challenge Stradale, Scuderia, Speciale, Pista... Ferrarispeak for power, speed, lots of money and restricted availability. We drove a pre-production version of the new 488 Pista in torrential rain, up snowy hills and on a heartbeat-tricky pista. But although the weather did to an extent scotch our high-flying expectations, this Ferrari does warm your heart and butt, even on radically low-friction surfaces.
It just wasn't meant to be. Instead of donning the traditional rosso corsa livery, the new Ferrari 488 Pista arrives in Fiorano dressed like a clown in swirly shrink wrap. Matching this drab appearance is the depressing weather, drenching the lowlands and sugar-coated the surrounding hills. This must be the first ever Ferrari launch where the objects of desire are forced to wear skimpy M&S all-seasons tyres; previous-season Pirelli Sottozeros, to be precise.
More detail and specs on the Ferrari 488 Pista
Assembled in the three-room pit garage, warming their hands while still shaking with cold, the five men in red are sticking their heads together for a rather long time. According to one smartphone, the sun may soon put in an appearance north of Florence; according to another message the autostrada is cramping south of Bologna, and we are running out of time. What to do?
'Vai provare,' says the chief test driver Raffaele de Simone, grabs his helmet and heads for the car, the engine of which is ticking away at idle speed. The man everyone calls Raffa makes a point in taking it easy out on the track shrouded by low-hanging nearly-black clouds. Which is just as well. Because when you follow the speckled 488 on the numerous overhead monitors lined up in the command centre, il cicuito die Fiorano looks more like lake scenery seen from a plane than a proving ground.
Testing the Ferrari 488 Pista on a very wet Fiorano
Recurrent obstacles include large puddles of standing water, red-and-white kerbs glistening like officer Kojak's skull, and rivulets criss-crossing the circuit as if they were mercury veins. Raffa is constantly short-shifting to keep down the revs, and when the car eventually passes the pits the cold tyres hum sotto voce like Pavarotti and his three brothers. Second time round, the pace increases by a notch or two, and by lap four it's pure routine again for Raffa who calls the Nordschleife his second home.
'It's okay. We can stay here.' Off comes the helmet, out comes the index finger. 'You go first, Georg.' There is no better trick to kick the heartbeat right to the redline, to pull out all the adrenaline stops and to make the blood pressure soar like a couple of drones. Right-e-o. The XL bucket seat must have shrunk since my last visit to Maranello, the four-point harness almost runs out of belt material when pulled tight, and when did I last search in a Ferrari for the rear window heater switch?
The Pista cockpit looks familiar, but it is actually different. The glovebox has gone, the widespread Alcantara rash barely stops short of the greenhouse, and plenty of red accents ensure that one doesn't mistake this crackerjack for a lesser piece of kit. While the ignition key rests in its own recess below the air-con controls, you must still press that game-charging red starter button to uncage the 3.9-litre V8.
Our 'normal' Ferrari 488 GTB review
The full 720bhp experience in the Pista
'A posto?' A posto, confirms the pretender. With 720bhp behind your back, it's best to join the track in a gentlemanly manner - such overtly responsible behaviour helps to calm the crew and the ego. Lap one is merely a rekkie, with upshifts at 4500rpm, a conservative line, early on the brakes and the manettino firmly locked in Sport. All good, Georg, you're doing fine. Except that helmet and glasses are not perfectly synchronised, the windscreen is now also beginning to fog up, and ambition is already threatening to get the better of the man at the wheel of this €300k future collectible...
It's still raining heavily, but after a few more circulations you know the worst aquaplaning spots by heart, and it is of course imperative to stay clear of the liquid soap kerbs. In these grande casino conditions, where on earth can one safely relish 8000 revolutions per minute, where do torque and those mushy tyres bond safely with the wet blacktop, and where exactly is the demarcation line when you flick the red fate selector to Race?
It clearly takes more laps to find out. Initially, there's too much smearing and sliding, not enough poise and precision. But when you start working with the Pirellis rather than fight them, the balance promptly changes from latent snap-oversteer to enough room to move. Having said that, winter tyres plus soaked tarmac plus low limits make it virtually impossible to decipher the difference at the limit between Normale and Pista settings.
The 50 newfound horses rest in hibernation, the g-force bonus is grey theory, and the 90 kilo weight loss makes for an impressive paper tiger. Although the innovative ground-effect aerodynamics pay only off in full beyond the courage-eats-angst threshold, the top-of-the-line 488 retains the playfulness and the homogeneity of the GTB. The overkill electronics that govern differential, brakes, dampers, steering, transmission and engine make even those of us who were born with clumsy fingers and a timid right foot feel like superheroes.
We test the Ferrari 488 Spider
How many 488 Pistas will Ferrari make?
In total, Ferrari will build around 3500 Pista units. All of them have been pre-sold, not to common millionaires but to collectors with a stable full of limited-edition Modenese specials. Most customers pay extra for the bespoke Tailor Made treatment (careful - the Taste Police is watching you), featherweight racing seats complete with roll cage and superlight and super expensive carbon fibre wheels.
The Pista may have got what it takes to keep its master young, fit and alert, but its own DNA is ageing, and it shows. The complex ergonomics are for instance second-rate, the ho-hum connectivity is hit by bouts of amnesia, the monitors are minuscule by current standards. Users probly won't miss 4WD and RWS, but an update in terms of driver assistance systems would come handy, as would a head-up display. Although any kind of electrification is conspicuous by its absence, a plug-in hybrid is under development for the next 488.
Another pow-wow, this time over coffee, Coke and cookies. After the second espresso, we finally receive the okay to take the car out on public roads. 'Piano, please. We only have these two mules.' Having made a mental note of this, the Jurassic Italian traffic chaos swallows the zebra coupé complete with Prova plates. Sooner than later, the Ferrari is fighting a losing battle against sludge, snow, congestion and trucks struggling for traction.
Since even the snow plough barely pulls through, we decide to head back to the ranch where the lost son is greeted with applause by a row of smiling minders. Can we now go back on the track, please? On this bewitched Monday, Fiorano is indeed our first and last hope. For a moment, the devil inside ponders whether to select the CT-OFF mode which allegedly makes drifting this 488 even easier. But the guardian angel intervenes, and moments later the Pista lets its tail hang out for three or four seconds even in Race, anyway. Bravo! Can't wait to see the in-car footage.
Ferrari 488 Pista: specs, numbers, performance
The heavily revised twin-turbo V8 has shed 18 kilos in weight, responds even more promptly to throttle inputs (even if the normally-aspirated 458 still comes to the point fractionally faster) and is claimed to average a fancifully unrealistic 24.5mpg. With the DCT in seventh gear, the 420bhp engine floods the dfferential with up to 568lb ft of torque. Why only in top gear? Because like all turbocharged Ferrari engines, this one staggers its twist action delivery in accordance to the transmission ratio.
In low gear, grunt is thus dished out in smaller doses; in high gear, the full punch feels like a jet plane just before take-off. This engine/transmission strategy may not be plausible immediately, but it works really well, also thanks to the fact that peak torque is available at an accessible 3000rpm. As soon as you climb the rev ladder, a wall-to-wall sound attack is prone to produce Toblerone-size goose bumps...
It's almost lunchtime, and the heavy rain has at last turned to a drizzle. This is the second and last chance of the day to put the Pista to the real test. I want to see 8000rpm in third now, about two thirds down the start-finish straight. With the wipers still on intermittent, the Pista peels out of the final left-hander like a hungry cobra out of its basket. Already in third, the right foot firmly planted on the F40-style carbonfibre floorpan, now is the time to give it stick.
A blink of an eye later, the guys look up from their monitors in unison, watching the car tank past with that vibrating trademark roar as it trails a train of spray longer than the wedding dress of a giant. No difference between the 488 and the Pista? Quite the contrary. But the dams don't break until the rev counter hits 6000 or even 6500rpm. At that point, the imaginary afterburner sets in with a vengeance, pushing the four camshafts, eight cylinders and 32 valves hard towards self-destruction before a tiny chip saves them from overrev harakiri.
What's the gearchange like in the maximum 488?
In the Pista, flat-out upshifts are an eye-watering kick-and-rush adventure. While the chargers hold up the revs, the dual-clutch transmission whets the gears through the gates without ever missing a beat. Rapid downshifts feel even more physical. Keep the respective paddle pulled, and the cogs will count down the ratios molto presto and hiccup-free, if need be from seven to one. What makes all the difference compared to the standard model is the torque overboost which maximizes the deceleration like a very strong headwind.
Only a bungee jump airs the pit of the stomach as throughly as the 2.85sec 0-62mph acceleration, a time which depends on the standard mixed-to-order rubber 305/30 R20 Michelins. Only a videogame makes the head spin as viciously as the blaring near-zero-back-pressure V8 hammering the 1385kg Pista in a swooshy 7.5sec from 0-125mph. Only an excursion to virtual reality conveys the full force of the in-your-face stopping power of the carbon ceramic brakes which need merely 31.0metres to reel the car in from 62mph.
You don't have to push the Pista to the limit to relish its motorsport genes. Even at seven-tenths, this coupé feels nimbler, crisper and peppier than any other mid-engined Ferrari. Unlike its predecessors, this is not a blunt weapon on steroids but a surprisingly accessible and forgiving supercar. After a short familiarisation peroid - by now on virtually dry turf - one begins to appreciate the positively magnetic roadholding, the quicker reflexes, the even sharper handling and the big band sound of the Jekyll-and-Hyde Kraftwerk.
Rev it hard in manual mode, and the V8 is as explosive and blatantly loud as such a sophisticated high-revving turbocharged engine should be. But when you stick the transmission in Drive, it can be as courteous and obliging as one of the high-output fours mama Fiat has under her wings. In addition to the amazing forward thrust, the Pista comes with an extra helping of Ferrari flair in the shape of additional fairings, diffusors, splitters, ducts and spoilers. The design is not OTT, but in places close to it.
Unless you are best buddies with Sergio Marchionne or the Elkann brothers, the 488 Pista is - scusi, ragazzi - out of reach for mere mortals unless they have very deep pockets and can pay the premium independent retailers will undoubtedly charge. Alternatively, you could still try to get your name on the waiting list for the Pista Spyder due in 2019, or you may consider settling for a used high-performance drug from the Emilia Romagna such as the memorable 360 Challenge or a late-model 458 powered by the marque's last normally-aspirated eight-cylinder engine, which is an icon in its own right.
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