Fantastic Four

We drive the back roads near Maranello in the four-seat, four-wheel-drive, 660-hp FF, then talk with GT Technical Director Roberto Fedeli about the car’s creation.

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September 2, 2011
Walking through the original gate of the Ferrari factory is always an exciting experience. But walking through the gate and finding a dark blue FF with your name on it? A different kind of thrill altogether.

This is the first time I’ve seen an FF (which stands for Ferrari Four) in the metal, and I’m impressed by both its presence and its visual compactness. The FF isn’t small, but given that it’s the same size as the 612 Scaglietti it replaces, has a long, tall roofline and sports enough room inside for four six-footers and their carry-on bags, it doesn’t seem big at all.

To my eye, the FF is also a good-looking car: aggressive, hunkered-down and simple. Some of the details don’t quite gel—the 458 Italia-esque headlights seem too extreme and I’m not sure about the front grille’s smile—but the overall design works very well. While the shooting-brake roof has been criticized in some quarters, it looks completely harmonious, and unquestionably Ferrari, in person. And, as is so often the case, photographs do not do this car justice.

While the exterior is a big departure from the rest of the Ferrari lineup, the FF’s interior embraces it. The instrument panel (a center-mounted analog tachometer flanked by a pair of digital screens) and the steering wheel (which features the Start button, manettino, controls for the lights, turn signals and more) are inspired by the 458. The air vents and center stack are updates of those found in the 612. The center console’s bridge, which contains buttons for the gearbox and launch control (and looks a bit like an Xbox 360 video-game controller), is a fresh take on the one found in the California. The seats and door panels are new, but very much in keeping with the California’s flavor.

It’s time to get going. The front-mid-mounted direct-injection 6.3-liter 660-horsepower V12 engine fires with a deep bark. The gearbox defaults to automatic mode at startup; I leave it there and gently push the accelerator. The FF pulls away smoothly, the gate raises in front of me and I stop at the street—where, to my surprise, the car promptly stalls.
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A FEW SECONDS LATER, I realize that the FF’s stop-start function, part of Ferrari’s High Emotions-Low Emissions system, has killed the engine. This feature, designed to save fuel and decrease pollution, will be optional on U.S.-bound FFs—American owners apparently not being perceived as environmentally conscious as Europeans. When the light turns green, I lift my foot off the brake and the engine restarts by the time I reach the gas pedal.

Puttering around Maranello, I’m initially struck by two things. First, with the windows up, I can’t hear the engine. That changes when the V12’s revs rise above 4,000 rpm, and a valve opens in the exhaust, allowing a mellow, brassy growl into the cockpit.

The second thing is the FF’s impressive ride quality. In Comfort mode, the car feels positively plush by Ferrari standards, although I can still feel the road surface. Adding to the comfort level are the thickly padded seat and the light, very fast steering. In addition, the FF has a very tight turning radius for a car this size—much like the 612 before it. The gearbox shifts smoothly, although it is overly eager to get into higher gears at low speeds, no doubt to improve fuel economy.

Even around town, it’s clear the FF is much improved over the 612. The ride is more comfortable, the new seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission is smoother than the old single-clutch, six-speed unit and there’s more power under foot—a lot more. The new engine produces more than 370 lb-ft of torque at 1,000 rpm, while the 612’s 5.7-liter powerplant peaked at 434 lb-ft.

THE REAL TEST OF A FERRARI isn’t conducted around town, of course, so I soon head out onto the back roads which wind their way through the Italian countryside. There, after flipping the manettino to Sport mode and putting the transmission in Manual, I discover just how impressive the FF really is.
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This Ferrari has an amazing ability to fly down rough roads. When the going gets bad, the FF seems to elevate above it all, distancing the driver from the clutter below while still maintaining an iron grip on the proceedings—especially when I press the suspension button on the steering wheel to select the softer shock-absorber setting. What this means in practice is that while the road pitches and heaves its way downhill through a mid-forest meadow, my right foot stays flat to the floor.

From the driver’s seat, the experience is a mix of astonishment and adrenaline. The only other cars I’ve driven that offer this kind of serious, effortless speed over battered tarmac are the Audi R8 and the 458, and I’m not sure either of those lower-slung machines could handle some of these craters as well as the FF. Big bumps seem to disappear underneath its wheels, thanks to the Ferrari’s new multi-link rear suspension and third-generation magnetorheological shock absorbers.

When the downhill stretch ends with a hairpin, I wait as long as I dare before standing on the brake pedal. The Ferrari slows startlingly quickly given its 4,145-pound curb weight, although the front tires screech in protest. The FF wears Brembo’s third-generation carbon-ceramic brakes, which, despite wearing pads that reportedly last up to eight times longer than before, feel as powerful as those on the 599. (They are also stronger than the 612’s stoppers, if not as strong as the 458’s.)

The hairpin reveals the FF’s heft, but only through benign body roll. The car turns in sharply—far more quickly than its size would suggest—and tracks true. The FF can’t dance on a dime like the slalom-conquering Porsche Panamera Turbo, let alone an extreme sports car like the 458, but it feels very athletic and extremely amenable to hard driving.

When I get back on the power, the FF rockets out of the turn with the urgency of a 458. It might even be quicker, given the V12’s horsepower and torque advantage, the FF’s four-wheel-drive system, which is designed to kick in when the rear tires lose traction, and a traction-control system that won’t let the rear wheels spin unless all the electronic driver’s aids are turned off. (This manettino setting used to be called CST Off, but now, due to European regulations, it’s ESC Off.)
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The 6.3-liter V12, which feels noticeably stronger than the 620-hp 6.2-liter engine in the 599, offers very linear power delivery throughout the rev range, although there’s a noticeable surge in intensity around 5,000 rpm. The engine howls toward its 8,250-rpm redline with a rich blare, the noise wonderfully intense and perfectly loud—just enough to completely fill the cabin and raise my heart rate another few beats per minute without becoming overwhelming.

Given the FF’s wide powerband, there’s not a lot of shifting required. Second and third gears are all I need, at least until the engine’s redline forces a change to fourth somewhere around 120 mph. The shifts themselves are smooth and essentially instantaneous; I pull back the right-hand paddle and the car upshifts at the same time. It works the same way going down, although then each shift is accompanied by an automated engine blip and a raucous bark from the exhaust.

At one point, I drop the transmission back into automatic mode and discover it’s a more-than-willing partner during a flat-out attack. The seven-speed ’box is happy to hang at 8,000 rpm without upshifting and poised to bang off a downshift the instant I lift off the gas.

ALL TOO SOON, it’s time to head back to Maranello. I haven’t had enough seat time to plumb the FF’s full depths—we’ll publish a follow-up road test in an upcoming issue—but there are a couple of things that are already clear.

First, the FF is a far more sporting machine than the 612. The 540-hp Scaglietti was and is a great car, but the FF operates at a completely different level of performance, in much the same way the 458 raised the bar over the F430. And, despite this, the FF is more comfortable (at least around town and on back roads; I didn’t get enough highway time to make this call definitively).
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Second, the FF beats the California, Ferrari’s other Gran Turismo, at its own game. The California used to be the Ferrari I’d most like to drive every day for one simple reason: It makes every-day driving more enjoyable than just about any other car out there. The 458, for example, is a thrill when attacking twisty roads or a racetrack, but while it’s perfectly capable of handling the daily grind it often feels like it’s tugging at the reins, unhappy at being restrained. On the other hand, the California feels relaxed and refined around town, sporting at real-world speeds and somehow exciting all the time. The larger FF delivers this same feeling, but the newer car is smoother, more comfortable, much faster and more composed when speeds climb.

I pull back into the factory gate, park and shut off the engine. I’m disappointed to hand the key back, but don’t have much time to dwell on it. After a quick lunch in the Ferrari cafeteria, it’s time for my second FF appointment of the day.

ROBERTO FEDELI’S OFFICIAL TITLE is GT Technical Director, but he’s really the man responsible for overseeing Ferrari’s new-car development process. He reports directly to Ferrari CEO Amedeo Felisa, who held the job before him, and all of the departments involved in creating a road car, such as Powertrain and Engineering, report to him.

Fedeli is practically a Ferrari lifer. He joined the company in 1988, a couple of years after he graduated from university. An aircraft engineer by training, he was hired to build a wind tunnel at the factory. After it was completed, he starting working on the aerodynamics of Ferrari’s road cars, a position he held for the next half-decade.

In the mid-1990s, during the development of the 360 Modena, he moved in a new direction, taking over responsibility for vehicle components, such as tires and suspension. He later became responsible for the testing department, and in 2007 took on his current role.
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Fedeli welcomes me at the door of his large, minimalist office, which contains his desk, a conference table, some photos of recent Ferraris on the walls and little else. He shakes my hand, waves me to the conference table and immediately asks, “What did you think of the FF?”

After I tell him, he asks, “Did you have a chance to experience the four-wheel-drive system?” I say no—then pause, and say, I don’t think so. He nods, happily.

“The intervention of the four-wheel drive is only when you need it,” Fedeli explains. “This means that you can feel the car as a normal two-wheel-drive car in 99 percent of conditions, and you have four-wheel drive only when the car needs torque in the front axle to go faster.”

Faster certainly sounds like a very Ferrari reason to do something, but I wonder about that one-percent reasoning. Since the first official photographs of the FF appeared, Ferrari has been positioning it as an all-season vehicle, going so far as to release movies extolling the car’s capability in the snow. So I ask Fedeli if snow performance was a particular requirement for the FF.

“You can drive the other cars—the 612, 599, California—in the snow, no problem,” he replies. “The main problem is to restart on a hill if you stop. The maneuver you have to do is not so easy in this kind of car, since the torque you need in the front axle is higher than, well, zero.
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“Then, if you want to drive the car in a sporty way in these conditions, the situation is completely different. In the 612, you can drive this way but you must take care because it’s not so easy. With the FF, you can drive normally without any strange movement, like a normal four-wheel-drive car.”

It’s worth noting that the ability to drive safely in the snow was not a request that originated with Ferrari owners. Based on its annual customer surveys, the company thinks the people that buy its cars like them just the way they are. But, says Fedeli, “this is a common situation we have in all our products. Normally, we have to think of new features, new content to put on the cars ourselves, because the customers are happy already.”

So, Ferrari decided on a four-wheel drive setup it calls 4RM (RM stands for ruote motrici, which is “wheel drive” in Italian). This is the first such system ever used on a production Ferrari, and it is unique in the modern automotive world.

The challenge Ferrari faced was wanting to minimize both the system’s weight and its intrusion on the passenger compartment while keeping the FF’s gearbox at the rear of the car for improved weight distribution. The Nissan GT-R, another front-engine/rear-gearbox design, has two driveshafts—one sending power back from the engine to the transaxle, the second sending power from the rear to the front differential—which adds weight, complicates packaging and reduces interior space.

Ferrari’s novel solution was to drive the front wheels through a small two-speed-plus-reverse gearbox mounted on the front of the engine, connected directly to the V12’s crankshaft. The secondary gearbox’s first gear covers the spread of the main gearbox’s first and second gears; the secondary’s second gear corresponds to the main’s third and fourth. The four-wheel-drive system doesn’t function at all when the main gearbox is in fifth, sixth or seventh, since Ferrari figured it wouldn’t be needed once the car was travelling at triple-digit speeds. Instead of a differential, wet carbon-fiber clutches direct the appropriate amount of torque to each wheel as needed. The system weighs 90 pounds, half that of alternate setups.
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“It was a very hard project, because nobody in the world had this kind of solution,” says Fedeli. “You have to invent all the components as well as the electronic controls, and then you have to understand and study the integration between the rear gearbox and the electronic differential, the front gearbox and the engine in the middle. Then you have to understand the best way to control the torque on the front axle, the best parameter to put the torque in the left front wheel or the right front wheel and so on. There were a lot of sub-projects that we developed in parallel in order to put the system together in the FF, but I think it was a good exercise.”

How long did it take to design the gearbox itself?

“It was roughly, very roughly, 3.5 man-years to develop the component, with six people,” Fedeli says. “That’s a very small number of people; with this kind of component, if you went outside you would probably have to multiply the number by ten or 15. The secret to this very small number is that the team knows all the other components of the car, and knows the whole car, and knows very, very well what we need. This means you can speed up the activity because everyone knows the objective you have to reach.”

Once the system was finished, it was time to test it. But because Ferrari didn’t then have in-house expertise with four-wheel-drive cars, it hired former World Rally Champion Markku Alén to assist during the first two years of development. All this for a system which was ostensibly, if not literally, designed to work only one percent of the time. In addition, 4RM won’t necessarily have a wide reach across other models, because Ferrari, unlike arch rival Lamborghini, doesn’t view four-wheel drive as always desireable.

“We don’t think it is the solution for dry conditions,” Fedeli explains. “It’s a compromise between the weight gain and the performance gain. For example, because we don’t think a supercar must deliver very high performance in the wet or on the snow, we don’t think we would use this kind of solution.”
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Four-wheel drive is just one facet of the FF. What else was on Ferrari’s wish list when it was designing the car?

“When we first thought about the FF, the first requirement was to maintain the same weight as the 612 and maintain the same dimensions,” says Fedeli. “Then we had to gain more space inside, both for passengers and for bags and so on.”

According to its spec sheet, the FF has nearly twice the trunk space of the 612—and that’s before the rear seats are folded down (separately or together). The desire for additional interior space inside the 612’s footprint was what led to the FF’s unusual shape. And once the basic shape was selected, it was time to style it.

“A car’s shape must be beautiful, otherwise we cannot go to market,” explains Fedeli. “We changed the shape until it was very, very good. But while we did a lot of modifications to the shape during development, which is normal for any new model, the volumes we have now are the volumes we had at the start of the project.”

Another styling goal was to make sure that the FF could easily be recognized as a Ferrari, independent of badges. According to Fedeli, there was no particular car from the past that served as an inspiration. Instead, certain recognizable elements were incorporated.
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“The shape is a mix of some specific parts, like the front air duct, the wheel arch, the front and rear hood and the volumes,” he explains. “In our mind, the volumes are not a very important part of recognizing the car as a Ferrari, but some of the parts, like the air duct, are very important; they must be done according to the past, according to the brand. The hood is another important part of the car, and so is the rear; for example, the diffuser is an important sign. Then there is the internal styling, where you have to recall something that you can understand is a Ferrari. However, sometimes that has to change, otherwise nothing is going forward.”

Most of the FF’s cockpit was styled by Ferrari’s internal design department. This is a departure from the past, when the entire car was done by Pininfarina, Ferrari’s design partner since the 1950s. Today, however, Pininfarina is struggling financially and it’s not known what state the company will be in in the future. Ferrari’s internal design group has been growing over the last several years, although in some ways it’s still in its infancy.

“Because the department is very young, they are learning to understand the Ferrari style and the job that Pininfarina has done in the past,” Fedeli says. “They are doing this by designing, and trying to put on the models a lot of shapes that we look at and choose from. Right now, the cars are a mix between Pininfarina style and internal style.

“But I think this is a very strategic decision for us, because we don’t know what help we will receive from Pininfarina, or any external styling department, in the future. Also, this world is moving in a certain direction; all the car manufacturers have their own styling department inside.”

As you would expect from Fedeli’s job description, the future looms large in his mind. It is, he says, what he spends most of his time thinking about, as well as what makes his job exciting.
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“We are in a very important phase of the car story from the product point of view, and there are a lot of possibilities, a lot of choices ahead,” Fedeli explains. “We are doing a lot of projects now, starting with the hybrid solution we presented at Geneva last year [the 599 HY-KERS, which was featured in FORZA #102—Ed.] and the new turbocharged engine we are developing.”

While Ferrari has regularly referred to road-car turbo-charging in the abstract, this is the first time I’ve heard it stated concretely. (It’s well known that Scuderia Ferrari, like all F1 teams, is developing a turbocharged 1.6-liter V6 engine for the 2014 season.)

“So the technology is changing in a very fast, dramatically fast way, and the most important thing I do is to think of the Ferrari way to put this technology on our cars,” Fedeli continues. “I can’t put the same components or technology on our cars the way other car manufacturers are going, because then the next generation of models would not be Ferraris.

“Every day, you have to start with a blank piece of paper and put a lot of ideas on it,” he concludes. “It’s the right time to invent something for the future.”

Before production of the FF has even begun, it appears Ferrari may already be thinking about its successor. But that’s what it takes to stay ahead of the curve, and that’s just what Ferrari has done with the FF.
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