Ferrari 430 Scuderia

Ferrari's fastest, slickest car to date is so smart that you'll only slow it down if you do your own thinking, says John Simister

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Seatbelt on. Check. Ignition on. Check. Neutral selected. Check. Force field engaged. Check. The force field is, indeed, standard issue when driving a very fast, very new Italian car in Italy. Like nowhere else in the First World, Italy seems to bend the rules when there's a brand-new supercar to be driven, especially if the driving happens near the car's birthplace. Those paper number plates that denote a factory test car help, too: they show that you're on a mission to find out about the car for the greater public good.

We're driving the Ferrari 430 Scuderia past a group of teenage boys. They cheer and clap as the Ferrari drops down through two gears and accelerates away in an explosion of sound and thrust. Were it not for the hostile connotations, it would be tempting to call this car the Scud. Now we're heading downhill towards a village and an oncoming Fiat Punto's headlights flash. Is it outrage at our outside-village speed? Appreciation for the Ferrari's perfect paintwork? Neither: the driver is warning us of a speed trap ahead.

What the heck is this Scuderia, then? And isn't a standard F430 fast enough already? Well, even a standard Ferrari is a compromise between outright pace and everyday usability. Today, more Ferraris are being used as everyday cars. But there are always people who will want them a bit harder-edged, who like to think they might use their Ferraris for track days even if not many actually do. That's what led to the Enzo, the ultimate roadgoing Ferrari to date.

Ferrari went down a similar route with the 430's predecessor, the 360, and made a Challenge Stradale version that was road-legal but really built for racing. The 430 Scuderia isn't quite like that. Instead, it's a car to fulfil all the what-might-have-been fantasies of Ferrari's keenest buyers. It weighs 100kg less than the standard car but has an extra 20bhp. It has not only the clever electronic differential of the ordinary 430 but also the F1-Trac traction and stability system first seen in the larger, front-engined 599.

There's more. The sequential-shift transmission can now shift gears in an astonishing 60 milliseconds. A current Formula One car can do it in half that time, true, but a couple of years ago this was the state of the F1 art.

All of this, plus aerodynamics modified for more downforce (and hence more grip) at speed, has had one particularly astonishing effect: the Scuderia is actually faster around Ferrari's test track at Fiorano than the mighty Enzo, even if it can't quite match that car's 200mph-plus top speed. In real terms, the 430 Scuderia is the fastest roadgoing Ferrari ever built.

I'm sitting in the passenger seat next to Mark Gene. Once a Formula One racer, Gene is now one of Ferrari's main test drivers. He and one Michael Schumacher had a big say in how the Scuderia should feel to drive. Gene fires up the 430. It's a more resonant, more metallic sound than the standard car's, thanks to a lightweight, thin-walled exhaust system whose tail pipes emerge higher up to make way for the revised airflow around the tail. You don't want to be walking past this Ferrari's aft end when that start button is pressed.

Mark Gene wants to show me the amazing tricks that the combination of electronic differential and F1-Trac can play. The first of these systems automatically alters the relative speed of one rear wheel to another while keeping optimum torque flowing to both, thereby helping the 430 to head in the desired direction even when on the edge of grip. The second is a very sophisticated traction and stability control that controls engine power and the braking of each wheel.

So we're in the "race" setting, with F1-Trac active but very lenient. We hurtle into a fast corner, aim for the apex, then Gene floors the accelerator. I can hear the engine howling, hesitating, howling again in staccato succession, and the Scuderia hurtles out of the corner as fast as it physically can, just like a modern Formula One car. Gene switches off all electronic aids before powering through a corner at full chat. The tail flicks out and, F1 driver that he is, he catches it beautifully to hold a long, tyre-smoky slide. "Actually, I didn't mean to do that," he says.

The Scuderia is quite the semi-racer inside as well as outside: carbonfibre, cloth, Alcantara and metallic nakedness. The floor covering is that of a Pret à Manger store, the doors are hinged directly from the 430's aluminium skeleton, welds proudly displayed. Air-con, a stereo and electric windows remain, however; there are limits to the deprivations people will tolerate.

My turn. I scream down the straight past the pits, feel the carbon-ceramic brakes kill the speed before the sharpish right-hander, try to make myself floor the accelerator at the bend's apex. It goes against all instincts given the Ferrari's massive power and minimal weight, and I chicken out even though I know, intellectually, that Race mode will do all that's needed.

A couple more laps, becoming ever braver as I marvel at how such a projectile can feel so easy, so friendly, so unintimidating. No wonder people say that today's F1 drivers don't need much skill any more. Earlier, Mark Gene said that with a little practice, any driver of reasonable skill should be able to get within half a second of his lap time in the 430 Scuderia, thanks to its electronic systems.

So I try some corners with the systems switched off. As expected, the Ferrari becomes quite wayward at the tail. Point proved: Race mode is a lot cleverer than this writer's own built-in set of processors.

And on the road? Normally, as you select ever more adventurous settings on the 430's manettino (the knob that controls the traction and stability systems), the suspension's dampers are also made firmer. Not so on the Scuderia: there's now a separate button to soften the dampers, suitable for high speeds on bumpy roads. Apparently Schumacher himself insisted upon it. The result is a car of staggering adhesion and flow which, combined with an engine able to pull across a vast speed range and that super-fast, easily smoothed gearshift, makes for a searingly thrilling drive.

This is not only Ferrari's fastest road car, it's also light, compact and agile in the way all future Ferraris will have to be. You have to hope the electronics don't throw a strop when you're committed to an F1-Trac-controlled corner with a sheer drop on one side, but the engineers assure me there are plenty of failsafe scripts in the system. That's comforting to know when you're being almost as quick as an F1 driver.

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