Black-and-White Ball

Oakley Design lightly massages the 458 Italia’s engine, aerodynamics and underpinnings, and produces some serious fun.

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February 2, 2011

The 458 Italia is the best Ferrari I have ever driven. It may not be as charismatic in some respects as the brutal F40 or make as nice a noise as the spectacular Enzo, but as an all-around, state-of-the-art supercar at a relatively affordable price, it is unmatched, both within the Prancing Horse stable and against its marketplace rivals.

All this means that any changes made by the aftermarket must be very carefully executed. Last summer, British tuner Oakley Design decided to try its hand in the Italia game, tweaking the 458’s engine, suspension, wheels and aerodynamics. And in October, I traveled to the Silverstone racetrack, home of the Formula 1 British Grand Prix, to sample its handiwork.

As much as I like the looks of the standard Italia, I was absolutely stunned by the Oakley version. The company started with a white car, then added a black carbon-fiber roof panel, black carbon-fiber aerodynamic bits and black forged-alloy wheels. (This is Oakley’s basic “house look.”) However, the 458’s arched cant rail remains white and accentuates the sweeping roofline over the door glass. The overall effect is sensational and radically changes the Italia’s appearance, making it look even lighter and more stylish.

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I was most interested in the new aero bits, however. With each generation of road car, Ferrari increases its focus on aerodynamics, but the Oakley team, led by company founder Jon Oakley, wanted to develop more downforce without unnecessarily increasing drag. To that end, they took the Ferrari to the Motor Industry Research Association (MIRA) wind tunnel. There, they established that the stock Italia produced 540 pounds of downforce over the front axle and 280 pounds over the rear axle at 180 mph.

The Oakley crew returned home, and began work on their new aerodynamic addenda. Soon, with prototype parts in hand, they returned to MIRA. More wind-tunnel time revealed that their new spoiler lip added 55 pounds of downforce over the front axle, while a combination of extended side sills, a rear Gurney flap and a longer, deeper rear diffuser increased downforce over the rear axle by 51 pounds.

They also discovered that the car’s aerodynamic center had moved forward to just aft of the car’s centerline, closer to its center of gravity. In addition, the aerodynamic center of pressure had moved back towards the center of gravity. Both of these changes would improve high-speed stability.

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As expected, the Italia’s drag coefficient suffered, increasing from a stock .33 to .36. However, the MIRA engineers calculated that overcoming the additional drag would require only 10 hp extra at the car’s top speed. As it turned out, that wouldn’t be a problem.

OAKLEY LEFT THE ITALIA’S 4.5-LITER V8 ENGINE untouched internally, making changes only to the intake, exhaust and ECU. However, these alternations still raised total output by more than 10 percent.

The first step was to dissect the plastic factory airbox. A  new, larger top half was made from carbon fiber. Next, an internal divider was removed (this allowed air from both side air intakes to feed both the right and left manifolds) and the molding on the bottom half of the OE airbox was smoothed out.

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On the exhaust side, Oakley retained the factory’s four-branch exhaust manifold and catalytic converters, but replaced everything after the cats with a new titanium muffler system. The factory setup utilizes three tailpipes and a series of bypass valves that open and close based on engine load and throttle position, keeping the car quiet during normal use and enhancing low-end torque. The new system does away with these valves, which means its center exhaust tip is only for show; exhaust gases flow directly out of the outside pipes.

While the goal was to reduce back pressure and increase sound, a positive side effect of using titanium was reduced weight. The stock exhaust tips the scales at 77 pounds, while Oakley’s replacement weighs in at just under 7!

After remapping the ECU to optimize the fuel and ignition curves for the new intake and exhaust, the Oakley team put the car back on the dyno, and were gratified to see a significant increase in power and torque. Where the stock Italia produced 568 hp and 403 lb-ft of torque, the modified car made 644 hp and 461 lb-ft—increases of 76 hp and 58 lb-ft.

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The dyno charts revealed that the new exhaust creates a slight drop in torque below 3,000 rpm, due to the loss of the stock car’s exhaust valves, but then torque instantly rises above the factory level. Overall, the modified V8’s power and torque curves mostly mirror the shape of the factory engine all the way to the 9,000-rpm rev limiter.

These changes were detectable as soon as I pressed the Start button. The engine woke with a gruff bark; at idle, the exhaust note is both louder and deeper than stock. A minute later, I put the car in gear and trundled down the pit lane, eager to experience this 458 at speed.

SILVERSTONE IS A VERY FAST AND TECHNICAL TRACK, one which rewards cars with plenty of downforce. A car’s underpinnings have to be up to snuff to take advantage of any aero effect, of course, but, interestingly, Oakley only lightly massages the factory suspension.

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The most obvious change is the wheels. Oakley is in the process of developing two-piece carbon-fiber rim/forged-alloy center wheels (it recently purchased the tooling from the now-defunct Dymag company), but for now is using one-piece forged-aluminum wheels.

These are available in 19 or 20-inch diameters, and measure 9 inches wide up front, 11 inches wide in the rear, a half-inch wider than the factory wheels. They are lighter, too: Compared to the stock 20-inch rims, a set of Oakley’s 20-inchers weighs an astonishing 49 pounds less.

Tire sizes for the 20-inch wheels are the same as stock: 235/30 and 295/35. Oakley recommends the 19s for track use, fitted with 245/35 and 325/30 Pirelli P Zero Trofeo rubber.

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The Italia’s lower ride height comes courtesy of a new set of springs, which drops the front by 15mm, the rear by 10mm. The factory magnetorheological shock absorbers remain untouched, as do the stock carbon-ceramic brakes. Oakley is also developing a hard-core track-day suspension, but figures that this setup will be perfect for 99.9 percent of its customers.

So how did the fettled Ferrari feel? At speed, the chassis is simply stupendous, so well-balanced and eager to please. I found myself enjoying exiting the slower corners with power oversteer as a matter of course, as it was easy to both initiate and control.

The quick steering is a perfect match for the responsive chassis, and front-end grip is fantastic, allowing me to turn-in confidently and get back on the throttle earlier than I would have expected. The extra downforce from the new front spoiler lip likely plays a welcome role in Silverstone’s medium and fast bends, while the wider wheels marginally improve steering feel and grip.

The engine felt very strong as I accelerated past 150 mph. I had wondered if the slight reduction in low-end torque shown on the dyno sheets would be noticeable, but I never felt it; the engines revs past 3,000 rpm in the blink of an eye, rendering the issue moot. Indeed, while Jon Oakley was testing the car at the CERAM test track near Paris, he faced off against a Ducati 1198 superbike—and to everyone’s amazement, the acceleration runs to 140 mph between bike and car were a dead heat.

The lightning-fast shifts and closely stacked ratios of the dual-clutch seven-speed gearbox help here, keeping the engine on the boil. Not that it needs it, exactly; this flexible V8 has an extremely broad powerband and revs to the sky.

At the end of the day, I was thoroughly impressed by Oakley’s efforts. The company has taken a truly superb car and played to its strengths, improving grip and power without upsetting the overall balance. Like the stock Ferrari 458, the Oakley Design Italia is a winner.

Also from Issue 108

  • Italian hillclimb racing
  • Dino Berlinetta Competizione
  • F1: End-of-the-year heartbreak
  • Marcel Massini profile
  • 612 Scaglietti One-to-One
  • ALMS:Year in review
  • The Quail concours
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