Cheap - for a Ferrari super-car

It's Ferrari's finest entry-level model and the F430 justifies its high price tag, says John Simister
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It is every small boy's dream (and possibly, nature or nurture notwithstanding, that of many a small girl). Or so it should be; but some of today's juniors do not seem as fired up by automotive things as their forbears were. I blame the schools: too much green indoctrination, too little excitement in case the little darlings get damaged and their parents sue. But I defy anyone not to feel a frisson when there is a new Ferrari to drive.

It is every small boy's dream (and possibly, nature or nurture notwithstanding, that of many a small girl). Or so it should be; but some of today's juniors do not seem as fired up by automotive things as their forbears were. I blame the schools: too much green indoctrination, too little excitement in case the little darlings get damaged and their parents sue. But I defy anyone not to feel a frisson when there is a new Ferrari to drive.

Especially not if the Ferrari is to be driven at the Maranello company's test track at Fiorano, where Messrs Schumacher and Barrichello set the odd hot lap in an F1 car, and where there is just such a racing car exploding periodically into life for testing. We are used to seeing F1 cars on television, but little can prepare you for the sheer savagery of the things at close quarters.

Not that the Ferrari I have come to drive is exactly slow. It is the new F430, yours for around £117,500 from early next year. It is the latest in a long line of "entry level" Ferraris. The earliest of this type was the Dino of 1968. The Dino was named after Enzo Ferrari's late son and wore no Ferrari badge. It was Maranello's first mid-engined road car, a beautiful machine with a 2.0-litre V6 engine. It was followed by the 246GT, 308GT4 and GTB, 328 GTB, 348, F355 and, launched in 1999, the all-aluminium 360 Modena. The smallest, least expensive Ferraris have often been the most appealing, which shows there is some justice in the supercar world.

In the case of the F430, the six figure price tag includes the sequential, clutch-pedal-less "F1" gearshift, although you could save a few thousand pounds and have a regular manual instead. Not many have done that with the previous bargain loss-leader Ferrari, the 360 Modena, except in the UK where Luddites (of which I would have been one) have bucked a trend which has seen 80 per cent of buyers elsewhere going the F1 route.

That the F430 costs more than £100,000 is one sign of the times; another is that this humblest of a very unhumble breed produces more power than Ferrari's ultimate car of the 1980s, the F40. With twin turbochargers and considerable tractive drama that car released up to 478bhp. Today's F430 gives you 490bhp, and not a turbo in sight.

Do you like the way it looks? I love it. The 360, though pure in its unadorned curves, seemed a little bulky and lacking in visual tension. The F430 is broadly the same size as its predecessor but looks tauter, meaner and more compact despite sharing a developed version of the same all-aluminium structure. The design is once again Pininfarina's, albeit with input from Ferrari's recently installed design director Frank Stephenson (of new Mini repute); but this time Ferrari's ownership access-point looks like a smaller, tidier version of the extraordinary Enzo supercar.

Retro references abound. Separate air intakes in each front corner are today's motif for the ultra-fast sports car, popularised by the 360 in 1999, but those of the F430 are shaped to recall the sharknose of Ferrari's 1961 F1 car in which Phil Hill won that year's world championship. The intakes on the rear wings resemble the air-scoops of the 1965 250 LM. The tail, though, is pure Enzo, with its protuberant tail-lights and its mesh grille. Beneath this is an obvious air diffuser with replaceable plastic strakes, one of several ways in which the F430 uses technology gleaned from Ferrari's F1 activities.

Three other pieces of racing-world are headlined in the F430. You can have, for another £9,000 or so, a set of carbon ceramic brakes. This will appeal to those who exercise their Ferraris at track days, and Ferrari claims to have solved the rapid-wear problem that has afflicted some other cars with these brakes.

Next is the manettino, a five-position rotary switch mounted on the steering wheel. This lets you select the right traction/stability program and suspension setting: ice, rain, sport, race, all traction/stability systems off. And then there is the "e-diff", the electronic differential which apportions torque to each rear wheel according not just to the needs of traction but direction. More torque to the left wheel, for example, encourages a right turn or discourages a left one, which has intriguing possibilities, as we shall see.

You can just about see the e-diff's casing through the rear window. Here, displayed like the metal art it is, is the 4,308cc V8 with Ferrari's usual flat-plane crankshaft. "What on earth is that?" you ask. It is to do with the firing order and relative piston positions of the eight cylinders, which here make the engine behave and sound like two manic four-cylinder units in surround-sound. Most other V8s do it differently, causing the emissions to be deep and gruff. Time, then, to wake it up.

The particular F430 I tested has semi-racing seats and contrasting stitching on its leather-clad dashboard. I am not a fan; it makes the dashboard look too busy. Nor am I convinced by the "F430" embossed in the carbonfibre console panel, nor indeed by the similar embossing on the door mirrors (whose double stalks are designed to focus airflow into the engine intakes). This number-confirmation seems superfluous, although we should indulge Ferrari in its silver dashboard plaque boasting of multiple F1 world championships.

But these are details. More important is to press the red starter button on the steering wheel, mirroring the manettino, and hear the V8 erupt with a bellow and a burst of activity from the rev-counter. Two things strike me immediately as I move off into the country roads around Maranello. The F1 shift changes up very quickly and smoothly, so much so that I can lay the Luddite in me to rest. And this car feels more like a racing car than I expected, a feeling that marks it out from, say, a Porsche 911 or an Aston Martin DB9. It is loud, and the sound is music. That is not the reason, though; it is the way the tyres bite, the nose darts into a corner, the suspension hugs every contour even though the ride is rounded and there is not a single rattle.

The steering seems too light at first, and then you realise that this is a car to be driven gently. Then it flows, talking to you, responding to your inputs, revving beyond 8,500rpm if you like, pulling harder than the 360 did. Ferrari claims "over 196mph" flat-out. The other key difference over the 360 is that you can relax in the F430. If you exploited the previous car's grip too enthusiastically, its tail could turn. The F430 is benign; it lets you feel the limits and looks after you so you feel slightly heroic. Use the "sport" setting on a dry road and you will have all the entertainment you could want.

Back on the track, it's time for the "race" setting, which allows more freedom for the tail to drift while still reining in any driver ineptitude. Out of the pits, easy left, hard right - and what on earth is happening behind? I brake into the bend, turn before getting back on the power, feel the tail begin to edge out and suddenly it is held just there and the power propels the Ferrari forwards. Not sideways. That is the e-diff at work. Where it scores over normal stability systems is that is does not cut power but ensures that it is optimally deployed. It is worth three seconds a lap at Fiorano, and those colossally powerful carbon brakes play their part, too. After three laps I trust this Ferrari and love the thrill, howling past the pits in an explosion of high-pitched energy. What a fabulous Ferrari this is.

Then the F1 car emerges again. A leap of hyperspace into the next dimension. Still, at least I got to play with the manettino.

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