The Assetto Fiorano pack is a £39,360 option. Naturally we had to find out if it's worth ticking…
By Dan Prosser / Sunday, October 24, 2021 / Loading comments
If this lonely cursor blinks at me any longer, I may have to launch my laptop out the window. Funny, isn’t it? You’d think after driving a half-million quid, 1,000hp Ferrari on the most famous test track of them all – Fiorano, the one Enzo built – the words would pour from your fingertips like water from a jug.
Yet here I am, staring at a near-blank Word document. In all fairness, it isn’t only down to the car itself. I’ve driven the Ferrari SF90 Stradale – with the £40k Assetto Fiorano upgrade package – on track only, and even then for no more than five or six quick laps. Maranello’s first series production hybrid is also a very difficult car to pigeonhole, splitting the difference between established production supercars like the McLaren 720S and limited-run hypercars with four-figure power outputs and seven-figure price tags. So where do you look for context?
But much of this writer’s block is, inevitably, to do with the SF90 itself. Right now, it is the state-of-the-art for petrol-electric hybrid performance cars, the point to which a century and a half of engineering progress has led us. It is unimaginably capable. The engineering that underpins it all but flawless. Yet for all that wizardry, it lacks whatever component it is that causes a car to burrow deep beneath your skin. It’s the maths genius at school – conspicuously brilliant, but not always seductive.
A car with three motors, two turbos, eight cylinders and this much power has such intense cooling, breathing and aerodynamic requirements, it’s a wonder it can be styled with any form whatsoever. Ferrari’s Chief Design Officer, Flavio Manzoni, describes the tension between his department and the aero team in the next building as ‘like a marriage’ – a relationship that demands understanding and compromise, in other words.
He says the flow of air is his main inspiration. “If you do not understand air flow, you cannot design a Ferrari.” He insists that by working very closely together, both his team and the aero department can achieve 90 per cent of their objectives – never 100 per cent, he agrees, though I’m beginning to wonder if modern performance cars have reached the point where fiercely complex packaging and extreme aero requirements have rendered the aesthetic a secondary concern.
No car is a sculpture, adds Manzoni. He likes the phrase ‘applied art’. Back in the coachbuilding era of the fifties and sixties, the design and engineering divisions could be dislocated by literally hundreds of miles. Nowadays they work hand in glove.
But where does the balance of power really lie? Aerodynamicist Salvatore Sedda says his team will be set a number of targets at the start of a project, and those targets will be hit. Falling short, be it on kilos of downforce or litres of cooling air, simply isn’t up for discussion. Interestingly, he tells me the strictest of all targets is the distribution of downforce front to rear: “Less downforce is better than imbalanced downforce.”
At the rear is what Ferrari calls a ‘shut-off Gurney’, a patented active aero system that diverts the air rushing over the engine cover to either reduce drag on straights or increase downforce in corners. The Assetto Fiorano pack includes a more prominent rear spoiler, helping the car generate 390kg of downforce at 155mph – a significant amount given the SF90’s body isn’t adorned with the sort of oversized aerodynamic devices that make the McLaren Senna look like it doesn’t belong on the road.
The Assetto Fiorano package, which half of customers are specifying, also includes track-going goodies like very sticky Michelin Cup 2 R tyres, more carbon fibre panels and a titanium exhaust system, helping to cut weight by 30kg. Another 10kg or so can be saved by specifying carbon fibre wheels, although at £19,200 you’ll need to be a lightweighting fetishist – or just so rich that it’s pocket change to you – to spec them.
Perhaps most significantly, the Assetto Fiorano upgrade (£39,360) ditches the standard adaptive dampers for passive items by Multimatic – essentially the type used by GT3 racing cars – and titanium springs. Inevitably this set up nibbles away at the SF90’s on-road refinement but, as we’ll see, the dampers in particular work beautifully on circuit.
Its steel chassis is derived from that which underpins the F8 Tributo, meaning its origins reach right the way back to 2009 when the 458 Italia was new, albeit with significant revisions to help it cope with the extra demands of a hybrid powertrain. Torsional rigidity is up by 40 per cent with no increase in weight. Elsewhere there’s electric steering and enormous carbon ceramic brake rotors.
The familiar twin-turbo V8 now displaces 4-litres, its bores having been enlarged, while the turbos no longer sit between the banks of cylinders but almost outboard, in front of each rear wheel. Peer through an SF90’s clear engine cover and you see just how low the V8 sits. In fact, the highest point of the engine is closer to the ground than the top of the rear tyres.
The 7.9kWh battery that feeds the trio of motors is long and thin, running across the width of the car behind the two seats. There’s one motor for each front wheel enabling very precise torque vectoring, plus a third that sits between the engine and gearbox. It’s so thin, Ferrari’s engineers have taken to calling it the pizza. Weighing only 22kg, the rear motor not only harvests energy under braking before deploying it under power, it also torque-fills while the big turbos are still spooling up.
The hybrid system delivers up to 220hp, adding generously to the 780hp managed by the V8. The SF90 has an electric range of 15 miles, although Ferrari says the main function of the electrically powered front axle isn’t short-range zero emissions capability, but to give the SF90 the kind of torque-vectoring capability that can be transformative for the way a car drives. The total weight of the hybrid system, however, is a rather portly 270kg.
Ferrari quotes a lightest possible dry weight of 1570kg, which means a non-Assetto Fiorano SF90 with fluids and a driver could weigh 1800kg. The cooling and electrical gubbins at the front of the car limits boot space to just 74 litres, meaning this isn’t the sort of machine you’d load up with a couple of suitcases and a loved one for a trip across the continent.
The 0-62mph time is a fairly ludicrous 2.5 seconds, while 124mph rushes by in 6.7 seconds. The top speed is 211mph. With the upgrade pack, the car’s Fiorano lap time is 1min 19secs, making it faster than the LaFerrari by the better part of a second and faster, indeed, than any other Ferrari road car. I’m told a LaFerrari would put some manners on an SF90 on a higher-speed circuit like Monza or Spa-Francorchamps, but not at Fiorano with its many traction zones.
This car is equipped with the optional carbon fibre seats (£5,760). Strapped into the driver’s chair, the top of my crash helmet brushes against the headlining. I worry that’ll be a distraction out on track, but once up and running, I don’t notice it. The harness holds me snugly in the seat, so I’m not rolling around as the car corners hard.
I have only a handful of laps before I’ll be called in, so I choose not to cycle through the numerous driving modes one by one, instead selecting Qualify for the powertrain – which gives full power for six or seven tours of a conventional circuit, or one lap of the Nurburgring – and Race mode on the Manettino, then leave the modes well alone.
For all that elemental power beneath my right foot, the complexity of the hybrid system and the clever active aero, it’s the suspension I notice first. On this marble-smooth surface, the car glides along delicately, feeling two-thirds its true mass. The passive dampers and titanium springs make me feel hard-wired into the track, so I sense through the seat how the car’s balance is shifting. There’s a transparency and a consistency here that you don’t find in cars with adaptive dampers, so while the steering wheel isn’t chattering away in my fingertips, I feel every inch of the car beneath me.
There is just enough roll in corners to allow me to sense the grip build down the side of the car, plus iron-clad control on the few sections of Fiorano where the track drops away or rises sharply. Meanwhile the steering is pin-sharp, intuitive in its ratio and rate of response, and just the right weight. I guide the SF90 into turns without thinking.
In the faster corners and even on warm tyres, there is some understeer. Some of that will be down to the weight of the car, but some may have been dialed in as a safety measure. Through the very fast sweeping corners near the start of the lap, the front end begins to wash away sooner than expected. At the exit, the SF90 is fearsomely accelerative. The front motors scrabble away as I flatten the accelerator pedal, meaning the car claws itself from a bend with a positivity and an immediacy that you just don’t get in a rear-driven car.
In Race mode, though, the SF90 is doing a lot of thinking for me, particularly at corner exits. I think I’ve opened the throttle but the car hesitates. It feels like old-school turbo lag. In fact, it’s just the stability control system managing the deployment of the V8, at least until the rear axle has found enough traction to cope with the engine’s full force – it’s the only time I’m aware of the car receiving my messages but thinking for itself. Once full power is unleashed, the acceleration I feel from behind the wheel is otherworldly, the soundtrack a deep, bassy blare. I’m pressed so hard against the carbon fibre seat I think I might feel a rib crack.
The eight-speed dual-clutch gearbox is faultless on circuit; upshifts bang in so rapidly there’s scarcely any let up in the accelerative force while downshifts drop with a quick flare of revs the instant I tug the paddle. The brakes, meanwhile, are enormously powerful and show no sign of fading during my quick laps. One of the biggest braking zones on the circuit is the lunge into turn one. As I hit the brake pedal and the pads squeeze hard against the discs, the rear motor is inverted and it gathers energy while also helping to slow the car. An instant later, the front axle begins harvesting energy, too, helping wipe speed away. Remarkably, though, I’m not remotely aware of the braking effort shifting around the car, simply feeling a firm and consistent brake pedal underneath my foot.
How quickly this car chews through a corner before chomping its way along the straight and towards the next bend is alarming. I’m working hard and thinking way ahead just to keep up. But I’m driving like I always do – not once do I adjust my approach or adapt the inputs I make with my hands and feet, for it’s the hybrid system that’s making endless calculations in real time. This car is so alert it’s almost sentient, yet it’s natural, consistent and easy to read. It isn’t difficult to drive at speed. Corners arrive and pass by astonishingly quickly, but don’t take much skill. Never has 1,000hp been so approachable, or a car this fast around a lap seemed so sure-footed.
And I think’s that why I pull off the circuit and into the pits impressed but not energised. I step out, remove my helmet and answer a few questions. I’m not quivering with the excitement of it all, nor jabbering away incoherently about the power or the grip.
But maybe the SF90 Stradale, even with the Assetto Fiorano pack, isn’t supposed to be that kind of car. It is staggering that a series production model is now the fastest Ferrari road car ever, around Fiorano at least. But it seems a pity to me that the very pinnacle of the Ferrari line-up now isn’t the sort of machine that’s able to plug itself directly into your central nervous system and fire shockwaves through it.
SPECIFICATION | FERRARI SF90 ASSETTO FIORANO
Engine: 3990cc, twin-turbocharged V8 with three electric motors
Transmission: 8-speed twin-clutch, all-wheel drive through electric front axle
Power (hp): [email protected] (plus 220hp electric)
Torque (lb ft): [email protected] (petrol)
0-62mph: 2.5 seconds
Top speed: 211mph
Price: From £375,000
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