Prototype Drive: Ferrari 488 Pista
Upon arrival at Maranello's famed circuit, there's a rather nasty rain/snow mix falling from the sky and the thermometer displays a bone chilling 1-degree C. Through the heavy precipitation I barely make out the historic Enzo Ferrari-era buildings scattered amongst contemporary architecture. I can't help but think how crazy it would have been to run a 288 GTO or F40 around Fiorano in the 1980s in these treacherous conditions. But then I remember that the near-production spec Ferrari 488 Pista prototype, noisily warming up outside, develops 710 hp from its 3.9-liter twin-turbo V-8—232 hp more than the F40's 2.9-liter twin-turbo eight-cylinder. It's the most powerful V-8-powered road car the Italian company has ever produced.
Engineering the more focused version of the 488 GTB isn't a simple exercise in raising the boost pressure of the turbocharged 3.9-liter V-8. Over 50 percent of the engine components are new to the Pista. Titanium connecting rods and Inconel exhaust manifolds are two of the tricks. 40 lb of the roughly 200-lb overall diet comes from powertrain changes. Their effort wasn't solely about outright power, though.
Ferrari wanted a faster revving, quicker-responding engine. It claims a 17 percent drop in engine inertia. Speed sensors are added to the turbos for the first time on a Ferrari road car, allowing more precise tuning of boost pressure. When the company switched to turbocharging as the 458 made way for the 488, it didn't want the usual dilution of both response time and visceral characteristics. It pushed even further with the Pista. Graphs shown during the technical presentation demonstrate improvement. But diagrams only reveal so much.
A last-minute change due to the horrid weather means Pirelli Sottozero winter tires are fitted and I'm sent on a short road loop for my first stint in the Pista. The tarmac around Maranello is very rough, so it's a game of dodging wheel-bending potholes. It's clear the Pista is stiffer than a 488 GTB but the dampening is spot-on. I run the magnetic dampers in the softer 'bumpy road' mode. The ride is never harsh. It's quickly apparent that Ferrari pushed the performance of the Pista while keeping much of the usability and drivability of its less-powerful sibling.
The Pista features more rolling refinement than the old 458 Speciale and develops gobs more torque thanks to the two turbos. Power is progressive and it never hits too hard, unlike many turbocharged engines. My eyes overlook a particularly deep, hidden pothole but the Pista takes it in stride, almost rally car-like. The steering is typical Ferrari—read: quick. But I adapt and appreciate its directness. Final thoughts on steering feel will wait for the standard Ferrari-spec Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires.
Back at Fiorano, the weather hasn't improved. Winter tires remain installed and I'm immediately thankful for a well-tuned traction and stability control, advanced and refined on the Pista. The tweaked engine is a gem. It's incredibly powerful, pulling like a madman to 8,000 rpm. When my brain signals my right foot to move 20 percent for 20 percent more power, the V-8 does exactly that.
Even more impressive is the well-judged response when rolling off the throttle to adjust my line through a high-speed corner. These aren't the usual characteristics of a boosted powerplant. There's a more aggressive throttle map that comes into play in 'Race' mode. It's a bit much for the ultra-slippery conditions but adds sprightliness to an already alert engine. The Pista is a seriously quick car, and so direct.
The retuned seven-speed dual-clutch automatic is fantastic, especially the firm and ultra-fast shifts in 'Race' mode. Pushing the Ferrari harder during my second stint, the steering wheel keeps me briefed as the Pirelli winter tires scramble for traction at both axles. Exiting the low-speed corners in 'Race' mode, the Pista rotates quickly but progressively and I feel the beautiful, intrinsic balance of the chassis. Sure, dry runs on the standard, track-focused tires would have been preferred but I don't want my stint to end, even in the despicable conditions. The 488 Pista is never intimidating or scary, and always rewarding.
As I gaze at the entrance into the historic Ferrari factory over lunch at Ristorante Cavillino, I chat with chief development test driver, Raffaele De Simone. I ask if Ferrari will ever build a throwback purist car like a Porsche 911 R. De Simone explains that Ferrari uses technology to advance the car and reward the driver. He says that they'll continue offering products that are rewarding to drive but also easier for their customers to exploit—they want their buyers to feel all aspects of the technology. A Ferrari colleague adds, "If you want to buy an analog Ferrari, buy an older Ferrari." Based upon my first taste of the 488 Pista, I'm not remotely left wanting for a more visceral experience and I welcome the technology. In fact, I'm rather relieved I wasn't driving an F40.