FIORANO MODENESE, Italy — Before we get to the Ferrari F12tdf, short for Tour de France, a flashback: In the summer of 2012, I stared down the straight at Ferrari’s famous Fiorano test track for the first time, my hands death-gripped around a Ferrari F12’s massive manettino-clad steering wheel, daunted by the 6.3-liter V-12 just ahead of the firewall. “Seven hundred and thirty effing horsepower,” my thoughts tumbled, pondering the proximity of Armco and the potential frailty of my career. Minutes later during a cooldown lap, I was astonished to have tussled with a crimson pussycat — one with deep, intriguing wells of silky power and feisty fangs behind a velvety smile — but an effortlessly quick, surprisingly drivable pussycat, nonetheless.
Three years later, familiarity returns with a curious twist. The prancing horse on the wheel is the same, but this time I’m strapped in by a harness snug against a racing seat. Hot-to-touch metal floorboards and matte carbon-fiber panels have replaced fine carpet and fragrant leather. Oh, and that purring V-12? It now bleats an anxious thrum with a sharpened edge as if its cylinder sleeves are still soaked from an all-night whiskey bender.
The ol’ cat has sharpened her fangs for a limited production run, and I suspect there may be a more legitimate cause for concern this time. The devil I don’t (yet) know is the Ferrari F12tdf, named for the midcentury automotive endurance race that has since morphed into the eponymous cycling competition. The lowercase letters might have a cheery ring, but this creature’s personality has been so dramatically transformed that Ferrari kindly requested that the four U.S. journalists at this first drive possess a racing license. I don’t.
For a bit of historical context, Ferrari says the tdf is a spiritual successor to the brand’s saucy, race-infused grand tourers of yore such as the 250 GT Competizione and so-called Passo Corto models, whose shortened wheelbases lent them more dynamic handling. Ferrari altered virtually every aspect of the F12’s persona — from greater power, quicker shifts, and reduced weight to sharper handling, increased downforce, and beefier brakes. Though LaFerrari remains the brand’s technological tour de force, the tdf assumes a more analog approach through its holistic reconfiguring of vehicle dynamics, several of which trickled down from Ferrari’s Formula 1 and GT racing programs. Engine output increases from 730 horsepower to 769 hp, and from 509 lb-ft of torque to 520 lb-ft, and weight decreases by 242 pounds. The F12tdf produces the most downforce of any Ferrari (a weighty 507 pounds at 124 mph) and is the quickest sprinter to 62 mph (in 2.9 seconds). It also introduces the first use of rear wheel steering.
Forget the specs for a moment and climb inside the F12tdf’s cabin: Numbers seem irrelevant when you hit the big red start button and that unmistakably resonant V-12 comes to life. Acceleration is urgent, aided by shortened gears and a redline bumped from a sonorous 8,400 rpm to a resounding 8,900 rpm.
Heavy throttle triggers an instant feeling of liveliness that courses through the carbon-fiber driver’s seat. The thick-rimmed steering wheel also conveys a newfound sense of front-end bite. Like the standard F12, 46 percent of the vehicle’s weight rests on the front axle, but here it sits about 0.4 inch lower. The car wears 275-millimeter front Pirelli Corsa tires, the same as the standard F12. The rears likewise remain 315 millimeters wide. However, the Pirelli Corsas are formulated specifically for this application, and unlike the F12 (which can be had with Pirelli P Zero, Michelin Pilot Super Sport, or Bridgestone runflats upon request), the new model is only available with Corsas.
The first surprise at Fiorano is how impossibly quick the steering feels — as it should since the already fast F12’s hydraulic steering rack remains untouched. There’s a sharpness and ease of rotation that turns the F12’s GT-like demeanor into a saucier, more tossable tango partner. Though front-end traction is tremendous, any hint of remaining understeer is rapidly resolved as the chassis settles. A quick jab of throttle can yaw the tail out and slingshot you toward the apex (or spin, if all systems are off). But don’t let that pat description oversimplify the chain of events: Precise, delicate, and perfectly timed steering inputs are required to keep the front end pointed the right way, and even more deliberately timed throttle application is needed to cut the proper arc across the track. Fiorano’s smooth curbs have excellent grip, which eases anxiety as the gummy Pirellis slide their way through turns. Hesitate in how you tackle a corner, as I did repeatedly while exiting turn 2, and the beast bucks and lurches, itching its consideration of attacking the corner ahead. Commit or get committed: This Ferrari’s throttle response and chassis are sharp enough to punish both over-eagerness and hesitance and challenge the driver to get on point or give up.
The provocatively named Race mode limits wheelspin enough to prohibit properly competition-worthy driving, encouraging the manettino to get clicked into CT Off mode. Ditching traction control frees the engine to spool more power through the rear electronic differential, which in turn sends the tail sliding happily out; the libertine setting enables the vehicle’s generous 183.3-inch length to properly align for the fastest path around the track. The next and ultimate drive mode is ESC Off, requiring one more twist and a several second hold of the manettino dial before all the nannies are dismissed for playtime.
The naturally aspirated 6.3-liter V-12 is a wondrous and seemingly bottomless source of torque, pulling nearly from idle all the way up to its screaming 8,900 rpm redline with a seamless, progressive wave of power. It’s easy to shift several thousand rpm shy of the rev limiter because the sonic disturbance becomes intense at those upper reaches. But once the red LEDs atop the steering wheel become familiar (and you keep an ear open for the maximum tonal harmonics), well-timed taps of the tall carbon-fiber shift paddles make it easy to strategize gear changes. When triggered, upshifts are up to 30 percent quicker and downshifts 40 percent quicker than experienced with the already swift F12, and each cog swap from the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox produces a not-so-gentle thwack on the back.
Quick Front, Slow Rear … Fast All Around
It takes a quantum mental leap to tackle the F12tdf’s elevated abilities; every driver input, from steering and throttle to gear selection, must be executed with the utmost attention to speed and direction of travel. Interestingly, the most dramatic component is the one that remains untouched: steering. Because Ferrari engineers didn’t want the F12tdf to become a snap oversteer-prone nightmare, they set out to increase front grip while maintaining overall stability — part of their so-called Passo Corto Virtual (i.e., virtual short-wheelbase) approach. The solution resulted in Ferrari’s first use of rear steering, and unlike other applications that use countersteer, or toe-out, to aid vehicle rotation during low speed handling, this system aims the rear wheels in phase with the front. The rear wheels typically rotate at about 1 degree to help stabilize the car but can turn as much as 2 degrees.
Ferrari sourced ZF’s rear-wheel steering hardware but developed its control-logic algorithms internally, and started development with computer simulations that eventually led to real world testing. To simulate exaggerated grip differentials, certain test conditions dictated racing rubber employed up front and stock tires at the rear. Though a tame tail might seem anathema to a more track-focused creation such as the F12tdf, the lively front end is balanced by oodles of power spilling through the rear e-diff, a punchy point/counterpoint that requires the careful interplay of conscientious steering input and judicious throttle application.
Just as that relationship becomes evident on my first lap, I dive deep into turn 6 — a slow 180-degree left-hander — so deep, in fact, that I almost miss the corner. This is a surprise; after all, these carbon-ceramic brakes are plucked directly from the mighty LaFerrari. Lead test driver Raffaele De Simone later explains that the longitudinal grip was not ideal because the tires were not yet up to temperature. Fair enough.
I carry on and start from scratch again, pushing limits as hard as my reptile brain allows without stepping over the edge and making me curse the day I tangoed with the tempestuous F12tdf.
A second track session inspires greater confidence than expected from the high-strung F12tdf. Perhaps it’s the mental recalibration that realigns sense memory with this highly focused machine, or the paradoxical reward of downforce created by the flick ups, gills, and diffusers that draw air from beneath the vehicle and suck it down to earth. But something about the extra laps leaves me weirdly copacetic with its hot-headed persona. The F12tdf connects directly to its driver’s craving for speed and is sympathetic to those basic instincts; it turns, goes, and (given sufficient tire temperature and considerable pedal efforts) stops like mad, playing to the driver’s wild side with plucky repartee, responding with such absurdly dramatic dynamics that it could not be anything remotely other than a beautiful, batshit-insane Italian sports car. Against that archetype, my street drive reveals an entirely different side of its personality.
The Ferrari F12tdf seems even more focused when it leaves Fiorano’s gates for the real world. Away from the autopian, glassy smooth surfaces of the track, the suspension transmits every joint, kink, and crevice in the pavement, conveying a bas relief map of the road directly through the thin carbon racing buckets. Even in its most forgiving Wet mode setting, the front end feels itchy at low speeds, tramlining a tad under less-than-ideal surface textures.
Bombing through the hilly passes outside of Maranello, the F12tdf comes alive again, tackling tight esses and decreasing-radius turns deftly. The shrieking engine sounds like sweet overkill for public roads, but the car’s eagerness to tangle with the twistiest of tarmac makes it an irresistible companion for these undulating surfaces, regardless of how track focused it may be. Tightly wound but tremendously capable, there’s a far bigger onus on accuracy and restraint on the road, especially since the more aggressive modes will allow this big sled to stray out of its lane under heavy throttle.
The Fortunate Few
Like the 599 GTO derivation of the 599 GTB, the $490,000 F12tdf will be available only to the most hardcore brand loyalists — in this case, prospective buyers with at least five Ferraris in their garage. Lest you cast doubt upon Ferrari’s brand equity, consider that not only do these special editions sell out reliably every time, they typically resell for a considerable premium in the aftermarket.
As for the F12tdf’s significance in the grander scheme of the supercar microcosm, it’s not unreasonable to consider this model the torch bearer for platonic Ferrari ideals with its massive naturally aspirated V-12, unrelenting suspension, and insistence on total driver involvement. The F12tdf is challenging enough to intimidate and rewarding enough to make you feel like you’ve earned its respect. But above all, it is an example of how focused tuning can inspire you to become a better, more accurate, and deliberate driver.
Thrilling, edgy, and just scary enough to startle the most jaded supercar pilots, the F12tdf flies with a rowdy edge and a streak of adrenaline in its blood. On that measure alone, this Ferrari exudes a sense of occasion not because of its flashy bodywork or high-dollar heritage but for its relentless focus and fierce sense of self.