Maranello, Italy — A man named Roberto drives me in a Lancia Voyager minivan to a deserted parking lot at the bottom of a hill-climb that leads to the village of Samone. After waiting a few minutes, we hear the shriek of a high-revving V-12 engine before we see the car it’s powering: a red-and-black LaFerrari pulls up, the winged driver’s door rises, and an Italian journalist climbs out. It’s now my turn to drive the most anticipated Ferrari since the 2002 Enzo. No explanations, no admonitions. Just get in and go, Joe.
On the road: The ultimate sensory experience
Twist the red key, push the red start button, and the 6.3-liter V-12 instantly ignites. Foot on brake, pull the right-side carbon-fiber shift paddle, foot on gas, and we’re off. It’s raining, so I dial in wet mode, the most forgiving of the manettino switch’s driver settings. This road is a tight, bumpy, badly paved series of switchbacks, sluiced with gravel runoff. There’s no sound insulation, so I hear, always, the intoxicating rrrrappp of the V-12, the road debris hitting the underside of the car, the clicking of the shift paddles, the brake calipers on ceramic composite rotors, the rubber on the road. LaFerrari is the ultimate sensory experience.
The steering wheel, flat on both top and bottom, is small and transmits lots of information about the road. The familiar red start button is on the bottom left of the wheel, and the manettino switch used to select driving modes is on the bottom right. The steering is light in effort but precise. The front Pirellis are still cold and are crabbing in corners. When I dial in sport mode, the upshifts are a little quicker and the rear end of the car is a little more lively. The rears warm up, and it’s easy to oversteer. I’m hesitant to select race mode in these wet conditions. I last drove on this road in November 2009 in the then-new Ferrari 458 Italia, and I remember marveling at that car’s ability to pivot effortlessly into corners, but it’s pretty clear that LaFerrari takes that ability to a new level. If only the road were dry.
The sideview mirrors on carbon-fiber struts, a foot long, are equally cool-looking and practical. Speaking of practical, these Brembo brakes. On the short straights, I downshift, mash the accelerator, and hold on tight as the 345/30R-20 P Zeroes try to transmit a level of power and torque to the ground that is almost comical in these adverse conditions. The rear end of the car is having little of it. Damn this weather.
If you must go slow, take some time to appreciate your surroundings
Resigned to the conditions, I take a longer look at the cabin. It’s pretty austere, but the four round vents are nice to look at, and everything is obviously high-quality. Virtually everything you see and touch is polished carbon fiber accented with black Alcantara. Thin rubber floor mats provide a bit of traction for your feet, there’s a slim map pocket near the passenger’s kneecaps, and there’s a little rectangular tray for your phone, because if there’s one thing Italians will make room for, it’s a phone. The door panels are widely scooped out, making for plenty of outboard elbow room, and you’re also unlikely to rub elbows much with your passenger. In the center console, a carbon-fiber protrusion that looks like a grab handle has buttons to choose reverse gear, auto mode for the transmission, and launch control.
I abandon the hill-climb and head back to Maranello on meandering two-lane roads, following Roberto in the minivan. I have to say, he really knows how to drive that Voyager. Now there’s more spray from the rain, and the big single wiper sweeps efficiently over the huge windshield. The car isn’t quiet by any means, but I can carry on a conversation with my passenger. I glance up at the rear-view mirror and see the top of the engine cover, framed by the very sharply angled window, and just a little bit of the road behind. The rear-view camera image in the driver’s instrument cluster is crisp and clear. The A-pillars are close and not particularly tall, so the forward visibility is quite good. I can’t see the front corners of the car, but I have a very good sense of it.
Time to try automatic mode for the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox. It’s flat-out wonderful and utterly benign; your mother could drive this car in automatic mode while sipping an espresso. Lovely throttle blipping on the automatic downshifts when you brake. It’s so easy to thread this car through roundabouts and villages.
We arrive at Pista di Fiorano. You think we had any problem getting the gates to open for us in our LaFerrari? Back in Roberto’s minivan for a ride to lunch at Il Cavallino, the famous restaurant adjacent to the Ferrari campus. The engineering team, who gave us a technical briefing last night, is there to finish telling the story of the development of LaFerrari, Ferrari’s first-ever hybrid automobile.
Efficiency of performance
LaFerrari is no tree-hugging exercise with a prancing horse badge. This is a real Ferrari, the most powerful roadgoing Ferrari ever built and, surely, one of the most desirable. While the word “efficiency” is in every other sentence that comes out of the mouths of Ferrari engineers, they’re talking about efficiency of performance far more than they’re talking about fuel efficiency or emissions.
Ferrari began working on hybrid KERS (kinetic energy recovery system) powertrains in 2008 for its Formula 1 Scuderia’s racing efforts. A Ferrari 599-based concept car slathered with fluorescent green paint and fitted with a HY-KERS powertrain debuted at the 2010 Geneva motor show, and development of the LaFerrari began shortly thereafter. In addition to its tightly packaged mechanical layout, which encompasses a V-12 hybrid powertrain in the same wheelbase and overall length as the 2002 Ferrari Enzo, LaFerrari’s claim to technical fame is its highly advanced use of carbon fiber for the car’s chassis-tub structure and body panels, made possible by hand-applied, time-intensive, proprietary techniques that are also a direct trickle-down from Ferrari’s racing development.
All carbon fiber is not created equal
Ferrari strongly feels that all carbon fiber is not created equal. Many of the latest carbon-fiber cars, including highly respected machines from the likes of McLaren, Porsche, BMW, and Lamborghini, use RTM (resin-transfer molding) carbon fiber, but Ferrari isn’t impressed.
“With RTM, you don’t get any better weight reduction than we already achieve with our advanced aluminum technologies,” says Franco Cimatti, the Italian-born, American-educated Ferrari veteran engineer who’s in charge of vehicle concepts and pre-development.
For LaFerrari’s chassis tub and body panels, Ferrari prefers pre-preg carbon fiber, which is pre-impregnated with resin before it’s sent into the same huge autoclaves that bake up all the pieces for the F1 race cars. “With pre-preg, we are taking a lot less resin for the ride,” quips Cimatti, “because our autoclave techniques allow us to squeeze out excess resin during the baking.” A particular type of extra-high-strength carbon fiber referred to as T1000 is used both in the F1 race cars’ nose cones and in the structure of the LaFerrari’s doors for crash protection. T800 UD refers to a type of unidirectional carbon fiber that Ferrari carefully places in the same direction as principal loads in key sections of the car’s structure.
In the end, the LaFerrari’s chassis tub and roof, which are bonded together with resins and mechanical fasteners, weigh all of 176 pounds and provide 27 percent more torsional rigidity and 22 percent more bending stiffness than the carbon-fiber structure of the Ferrari Enzo.
A user-friendly supercar
Ah, yes, the Enzo. It’s a constant reference point for LaFerrari engineers, so I ask Matteo Lanzavecchia, who’s in charge of vehicle performance and who once spent a year working for Newman/Haas Racing’s IndyCar program, what an Enzo owner might experience if he or she gets behind the wheel of a LaFerrari.
“If you drive an Enzo and you drive this car, if you are in the same gear, you will have double the level of acceleration,” he says without hesitation. “And you will reach it in one-third the time when you go on the throttle. You will also feel how easy and how safe it is to push the car to the limit. LaFerrari also requires 45 percent less steering activity [input] than the Enzo did, which makes it much easier to control coming out of corners.”
On a more elemental but perhaps more important level, LaFerrari is easier to climb into and out of than the Enzo was, or than most other supercars are. You see, many of the multimillionaires who can and do buy cars like these are not as petite as, say, Ferrari test driver Raffaele De Simone, a typically compact, trim Italian racer. The path to making the LaFerrari more user-friendly started, like everything else on this car, with its carbon-fiber construction, specifically that of the X-shaped roof, which provides enough rigidity to allow for huge door cutouts.
“The sills swell as they go rearward,” Cimatti points out, “our doors are hinged from above, and we have no conventional door posts to get in the way.” The result is a surprisingly large aperture into which you can thread your body quite easily. Indeed, I climbed into and out of our LaFerrari test car at least twenty times during our test-drive day, and it was by far the easiest ingress/egress I’ve ever experienced in a supercar. The doors are easy to open and close from both inside and outside of the car.
Packaging efficiency and a lower center of gravity
Although LaFerrari does not require its occupants to have the size and flexibility of F1 racing drivers, their perches inside the cabin, Cimatti explains, are “inspired by the reclined posture of F1 drivers, which allows for space efficiency.” He elaborates: “We wanted to have cabin space that’s similar to the Enzo’s, but with room for helmets. We experimented with how far we could recline the seating position and eventually arrived at an additional seven degrees of seatback tilt. Anything more than that would create undue pressure on the necks of occupants.” Nevertheless, the change in seat position and the lack of a separate seat structure gained Ferrari engineers 2.4 inches of vertical cabin space (for helmets), even while the vehicle’s overall height has been reduced by 1.2 inches.
Crucially, the highly efficient use of cabin space also allowed Ferrari to lower the LaFerrari’s center of gravity by 1.4 inches as compared with, you guessed it, the Enzo. “This is a massive number,” Cimatti boasts. “In F1, we will completely redesign a car just to lower the center of gravity by a few millimeters.” LaFerrari’s center of gravity, at 14.8 inches above the ground, is also some 2.6 inches lower than the 458 Italia’s. Given the lack of a separate seat structure and the thinness of the seat bottom, this means your butt is perched about as low to the ground as it can go. Small, medium, large, and custom-size seats are offered, so a range of girths, if not extreme heights, of buyers can be accommodated. Our test car is equipped with size large perches, but they don’t feel overly large.
Lunch is over and we’re back at Fiorano, in the pit garage. My LaFerrari has been cleaned and shined, and its doors are soaring toward the ceiling. Noticing the big bulge of carbon fiber between the seatbacks, I ask Cimatti if he couldn’t have wedged in a little storage compartment. “That’s the fuel tank,” he replies with a grin. “It curves behind and between the seats. This is what I meant when I said [the previous evening] that there is a difference between ‘interior space’ and ‘the space needed for driving.’ ” By the same token, passenger footroom is reduced due to the fact that the air-conditioning unit is mounted just in front of the footwell, which helps keep the dashboard low.
Indeed, every square millimeter has been accounted for, says project manager Michele Giaramita, leaving room for only the tiniest of cargo compartments, some 40 liters in capacity, in front of the firewall and behind the front radiators, whose fans are visible through slots in the hood. This is not a car for road trips, but you could wedge a handbag and a jacket in there.
“Let’s go for a ride.”
Ferrari test driver Raffaele De Simone climbs into the driver’s seat and, pointing to the passenger’s seat, says, “Let’s go for a ride.” The seats are fixed in place, but the steering wheel and pedals are adjustable. Racing harnesses secured, we burst out onto the circuit, De Simone providing a running commentary, which I find impressive not only because English is not his first language, but also because he’s driving the balls off this car in a steady rain. Even with his skilled hands and feet, though, the rear tires are sometimes clawing for traction.
“All this technology has a physical output that speaks to the driver in a very natural way. Even in these difficult conditions you feel that you are driving the car, you are managing the power, and the behavior of the car is always giving feedback.” Reflecting on the extremely wet track, he continues: “When the mechanical grip is low, the aerodynamics makes a lot of work. So you have to trust a little bit. So even on a day like this, you can drive your LaFerrari.” Indeed.
The feedback I’m hearing is the mechanical sound of the big rear wing deploying under hard braking, at the same time as two rear flaps that are integrated into the rear diffuser. There are also three automatically deploying aerodynamic flaps under the front of the car, but they’re not visible or audible. There are, of course, all manner of sophisticated aerodynamic manipulations happening with LaFerrari, starting with a frontal area that’s ten percent less than the 458 Italia’s. The thing is, it’s all achieved subtly, without garish wings, in a rather svelte body profile.
Behind the wheel at Fiorano: Always, the V-12.
De Simone pulls back into the garage. “I would say sport and wet today are the best for you,” he gently advises, then steps out of the car. I’m on my own. I cautiously enter the circuit and head toward Turn 1, a tight right-hander. The V-12 sounds awesome. It’s pouring rain now, so, yeah, wet mode for sure.
With a big burst of speed coming out of third gear, Enzo’s house is visible out of the corner of my right eye. I brake hard, downshift to second for the uphill of Turn 4 and the bumpy, tricky approach to the bridge. I often screw this up, because you want to get some speed up to get over it, but then you have the immediate hard right of Turn 5. I’m still contemplating that challenge when another one arises: a big pool of water. I hydroplane into a runoff area on the left but gather it back up (with the able assistance of the electronics) and swivel gently through the tight lefthander that is Turn 6. More standing water, and I can feel the rear tires clawing for traction as the V-12 angrily tries to tell them who’s boss. Hard braking for some acceleration toward the gentle swell of Turn 7. This is the moment when you feel like you’re aiming right toward the big ceramics factory, smoke billowing from its chimneys, which borders this side of the track. But you’re not. At least, I’m not.
At the end of the straight is a tight left toward the last corner, Turn 8, a fairly broad but slow loop, and the apartment building is hard on the right. Every time I’m at Fiorano, I wonder, who in the world lives there, with a bird’s-eye view of Fiorano? A blessing for some, a curse for others, I imagine.
Now onto the straight, the paddock on the right, and the V-12 sounds so, so amazing, brapp brapp, brapp. The sound of a Ferrari V-12: nothing like it, and nothing is muffling it here, trust me. Electric motor? I have no clue. I don’t hear it.
Now, just the slightest movement of the steering wheel to the left to enter Turn 1 from the correct angle. Braking blipping blipping blipping click clack click of the paddle shifters. Always, the V-12. And the single wiper blade, furiously sweeping.
For more information on the LaFerrari hybrid powertrain, see the sidebar after the spec panel.
Ferrari LaFerrari Specifications
- Base Price: $1.4 million (est.)
- Engine: 48-valve DOHC V-12/electric hybrid
- Power: 789 hp @ 9000 rpm
- Torque: 517 lb-ft @ 6750 rpm
- Motor: Permanent-magnet AC synchronous
- Electric Output: 120 kw (161 hp)
- Batteries: 2.3-kWh lithium-ion
- Total Output: 950 hp
- Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
- Drive: Rear-wheel
- Brakes: Vented discs
- Tires: Pirelli P Zero
- Tire Sizes F, R: 2265/30R19, 345/30R20
- L x W x H: 185.1 x 78.5 x 44.0 in
- Wheelbase: 104.3 in
- Center Of Gravity: 14.8 in from ground
- Weight Dist. F/R: 41/59%
- Cargo Volume: 40 liters (1.4 cubic feet)
- 2.9 sec (per manufacturer)
The HY-KERS Powertrain
The hybrid components add a total of 322 pounds to LaFerrari but also provide an additional 161 hp and 199 lb-ft of torque to the 6.3-liter V-12’s 789 hp and 517 lb-ft, for a grand powertrain system total of 950 hp and 716 lb-ft. We’d say that’s a fair trade-off. The two battery packs, each consisting of four 15-cell modules, for a total of 160 cells, reside just below and behind the seats, under the fuel tank and ahead of the V-12. The lithium-ion cells are provided by Samsung, but the battery packs, which are protected from road debris by a layer of underbody Kevlar, were designed by Ferrari in-house. A layer of glass electrically insulates the battery pack from the rest of the cabin.
The V-12 resides behind the batteries and fuel tank and is of course followed by the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. A Magneti Marelli electric motor is attached to the back of the gearbox via a gear set, and two electric inverters are mounted on top of the transmission housing. That electric motor is at the very rear of the car, which helps explain why cabin space — and space in general — is at such a premium in this car. Nevertheless, it’s all crammed into the same size package as the Enzo.
Lest we give you the impression that Ferrari is unconcerned with emissions, powertrain chief Vittorio Dini points out “our goal was to reduce CO2 but also increase performance, with more power, more torque, and a higher maximum engine speed. You always work to manage maximum power versus maximum torque, and the electric motor allows you to make different compromises and choices.”
Vehicle performance chief Lanzavecchia elaborates: “Since we added weight to the car by adding the hybrid system, we always want it to either be boosting or recharging. Otherwise, you are carrying around weight for no reason.” LaFerrari takes advantage of the electric boost in a straight line, where the tires can handle the extra power output, but when the car is exiting a corner and the tires, limited by grip and lateral acceleration, can only transmit a limited amount of torque to the ground, the KERS system uses the V-12’s excess torque to recharge the battery pack. “Normally, with braking, you are turning energy into heat. Instead, we are turning it into chemical energy for the battery,” Lanzavecchia says.