Big Time

We tackle the Circuit of the Americas in an F12 Berlinetta.

Photo: Big Time 1
February 20, 2014

Despite its wide-open spaces, America isn’t particularly friendly to the modern automobile. The problem? Today’s cars are simply too fast for U.S. roads. Even the most mundane four-cylinder is easily capable of topping the highest posted speed limit found on American soil—which, as of this writing, is 85 mph along sections of Texas State Highway 130.

This begs a question: If a base Honda Civic can top this 85-mph limit by a comfortable (and governed) 35 mph, what hope is there for those who want to properly exercise their sports cars or, even worse, full-on exotics? Answer: Not much—unless you happen to take the aforementioned Texas State Highway 130 and head south from Austin to the Circuit of the Americas (COTA).

COTA is one of the newest tracks on the Formula 1 calendar. This newness is important to this story, in that there’s a scale to this latest breed of Grand Prix venue that a larger-than-life automobile such as, say, the Ferrari F12 Berlinetta you see here, demands.

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Before advancing too much further, however, let’s look at the facts and figures, and see how the F12 measures up to the track and vice-versa.

FIRST, THE TRACK: Put simply, it’s massive, a grandiose stage upon which to play with the most powerful machinery in the world. The complete Grand Prix circuit measures 3.4 miles in length and comprises 20 different corners. The tarmac is incredibly smooth throughout, subtly off-camber in places and of substantial grip from start to finish; even the 30° temperature swing I experienced when I attended the Ferrari Driving Experience there during the first week of December had little effect on how well the cars stuck to the track.

COTA takes its inspiration from other Grand Prix circuits, including England’s Silverstone and Turkey’s Istanbul Park, and also has a final turn that is more than a little reminiscent of the last bend at California’s Laguna Seca. The consensus is that the track challenges drivers, and while it may be lacking in overall flow there are still interesting features here and there, particularly the two gloriously long straights tailor-made for mega-horsepower machines.

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The F12 is precisely such a machine. Its 6.3-liter V12 engine produces a staggering 740 horsepower at 8,250 rpm and 509 lb-ft of torque at 6,000 rpm. This copious output is sent to the rear wheels via a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox, an electronic differential and F1-derived predictive traction control, resulting in a 0-62 mph time of 3.1 seconds and a 0-124 mph time of just 8.5 seconds. The Ferrari’s terminal velocity is 211 mph, and if that seems “slow” know that the car could have been much faster if the design brief hadn’t prioritized useful acceleration and downforce rather than an academic top speed.

There’s more here than straight-line pace, however. According to Ferrari, the F12 is quicker around the Fiorano test track than every other road car in its history, save for the forthcoming LaFerrari. (That’s right: With a lap time of 1.23:0, the 3,600-pound F12 is still a half-second up on the track-focused 458 Speciale.) Beyond the massive power, credit for this feat goes to a combination of the aforementioned traction control, a sophisticated stability control setup, magnetorheo-logical suspension and giant carbon-ceramic brakes.

These numbers and all that technology aside, I’m not convinced that the big F12 will be a particularly wieldy track car, especially when compared to the mid-engine 458 Italia. (Technically, the F12 is a mid-engine design, since its mighty V12 sits behind the front axle, but no one who’s driven a front-mid-engine car is likely to mistake its handling for that of a rear-mid-engine car.) Thus, my goal at COTA is to wring out Ferrari’s big, powerful and luxurious GT and see if it can deliver the goods. Happily, I’m first able to familiarize myself with the tricky circuit in the less powerful and more nimble 458—the workhorse of the FDE program—which proves to be as spectacular as you’d imagine. Then, with the two-day course concluded, I’m let loose on the track in the F12.

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EXITING PIT LANE and blasting past the mandatory 45-mph speed limit therein, there’s barely time to upshift from second to third before the ominous left-hander appears at the end of a climb that rivals the famous Eau Rouge sequence at Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium. Approaching Turn 1 is easy, with the F12 tearing up the hill as if it wasn’t there, but a delicate touch is needed in the corner, as the racing line dictates that the car be eased out to the right on corner exit—not too much, though, because the subsequent sequence of turns is fast and physically demanding.

Turn 2 is a high-speed right-hander that leads directly into the very tricky esses: first a left, then a right, then another left, then another right. Here, for sure, the 458 Italia is the preferred choice; it transitions from one corner to the next more sharply and is more forgiving if the wrong approach is taken.

With the F12’s effortless speed, it’s easy to go in hot—but this approach never pays off, as once the car’s rear end steps out in one turn, it effectively makes the next turn a much bigger deal than it needs to be. Flashy-looking flicks throughout this section would be fun—the Ferrari would certainly be a willing accomplice, since it produces tail-happy slides with the eagerness of a pickup truck on gravel—but I’m trying to set good lap times, not paint black lines with the rear tires.

Photo: Big Time 5

More patience and more precision are needed in the esses in the F12 compared to the 458, and this also proves true in the following section, Turns 6-9. The corners come quickly, one after another, once again giving the advantage to the more nimble Italia.

Starting with Turn 10, though, the F12 began to make up ground—fast. This quick, downhill corner has a blind entry, so it places the emphasis on driver precision and car composure. Aiding the latter is the engine’s tremendous reserve of torque, which keeps me from having to shift gears and risk upsetting the car’s balance. Egged on by its melodious V12, the Ferrari rockets through the turn, setting up a very tough braking assignment for the critical Turn 11, which leads onto the back straight.

Turn 11 is similar to Turn 1 in that both feature very wide entries yet are very tight corners—hairpins, really. Both were also clearly designed to encourage creativity in line selection and to entice passing under braking. The F12 proves very amenable to trail braking right to the apex; in addition, the steering provides plenty of feedback and it’s easy to swing the back end around to get a good launch off the turn.

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IT SHOULD COME as little surprise that this Ferrari launches very well. FDE Chief Instructor and professional racer Nick Longhi refers to the F12’s profound acceleration as “an unstoppable force”—this from a guy who’s piloted a modern Ferrari F1 car around Monza—and he’s right.

Where other seriously fast cars start to run out of steam somewhere around 140 mph, the F12 is still accelerating hard, as if its top speed simply didn’t exist. It’s truly incredible, to the point where it forces me to re-evaluate every other road car I’ve driven. There are countless cars out there that can produce visceral thrills up to 60 mph, far fewer that can carry the feeling forward to 100 mph and not many at all that can replicate those emotions well into the triple digits. This Ferrari does so easily: It’s thrilling no matter what the speedometer reads, but it really outperforms the competition when speeds climb into the stratosphere.

Indeed, the F12 is so fast that there are very few points around the track at which I dare peek at the speedometer. Once on the front straight, which is some 10-20 mph slower than the back, I watched the readout crest 150 mph and continue to climb rapidly.

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Speeds in excess of 150 mph on the back straight lead directly to seriously heavy braking for Turn 12—and the F12 simply shrugs it off. The carbon-ceramic brakes are utterly powerful and completely consistent lap after lap. At no point do I feel as though I might get into trouble by relying on the F12 in the braking zones; I suspect that the brakes have more resolve built into them than I do. In fact, the brakes register so little in my consciousness that I have to think back to the way they respond long after I leave the track. Have I experienced more powerful braking before? Sure—in an F1 car.

Turn 12 leads directly into a technical section, which includes Turns 13 and 14, and then a short burst towards an extremely tight left-hander, Turn 15. In this sequence, the F12 again places second best to the 458 Italia, but the balance is restored in the triple-apex right-hander that follows.

Modeled after the quadruple-apex Turn 8 at Istanbul Park, the Texan version also places an emphasis on balance and momentum. Speed builds as the corners fall away, and the Ferrari proves its ability to manage g forces with great aplomb. This sequence would be even more entertaining if the exit to Turn 18 didn’t need to be sacrificed in order to get back to the right side of the track for the high-speed, 90° Turn 19.

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Just like Turn 10, Turn 19 is challenging because it suckers you into carrying too much speed. As per usual at COTA, there’s plenty of run-off area on the outside, but using it is not the fast way around the track. Here, as on other parts of the track, I never quite figured out the limits of grip in the Ferrari, but they are unquestionably very, very high.

The final corner, Turn 20, resembles the last blast at Laguna Seca in terms of angle and approach. It also sets up the run down the front straight and across the start/finish line. Here, the track is bordered by a retaining wall on one side and large grandstands on the other, so the Ferrari sounds like a true race car as it blasts towards the climb leading back to Turn 1. However, out in the wild, without the benefit of man-made structures to magnify the impact of the exhaust note, the F12 is more muted and somewhat refined compared to the other Ferraris on hand.

In the final analysis, did the F12 measure up as a track car? In terms of feel, not really. The 458 Italia still easily trumps it in that regard, and proves a more comfortable companion in tight turns and quick transitions.

That said, whatever my F12 expectations were beforehand, they were far, far exceeded by my experience at COTA. The engine is the superstar here, for sure, and the way its power progresses is impressive in a way that I haven’t seen from a production car—ever.

In some ways, the F12 is even too fast for COTA. This fantastic Ferrari deserves a venue with more high-speed curves, a place like Monza or Spa, where it might well prove to be a legitimate track car. It certainly has the inherent balance and the consummate predictability needed for drifting through corners at triple-digit speeds.

More than anything, what my track time revealed is that the Ferrari F12 is massively desirable for the way in which it blends the highest levels of cachet, luxury and performance. I can’t wait to drive one on the street—particularly on Highway 130.

Sidebar: FDE @ COTA

THE FINE PEOPLE at Ferrari understand their product well, and know that appropriate venues for experiencing all that their cars have to offer are few and far between. As a result, there are only three officially sanctioned locations in the world for the Ferrari Driving Experience, the company’s in-house driving school.

The first, naturally, was established in Italy right next to Ferrari HQ in Maranello. In 2006, a second school came to Le Circuit Mont-Tremblant, the former Grand Prix track situated 90 miles north of Montreal. [We reported on the Mont-Tremblant FDE in issue #113’s “Are You Experienced?”—Ed.] Late last year, Circuit of the Americas in Austin was added to the short list.

With prices starting at over $10,000, the Ferrari Driving Experience programs are significantly more expensive than courses offered by other manufacturers, such as Porsche, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. But there are two critical differences: First, the quality of the driving instructors is unparalleled and, second, the ratio of instructors to students is close to 1:1, something that is completely unheard of in the industry.

Actually, there’s a third, rather obvious but assuredly unique, difference: All the cars used are current-model Ferraris. We drifted the California 30 around a diabolical traction circle on both days, while the group of instructors used the F12 for many of the on-track lead-and-follow sessions. Most of our track time, which nicely took up the majority of the two days, was reserved for the 458 Italia. (This was no hardship on the 15 students gathered in Austin, I can assure you.) In it, we ran braking and slalom exercises and learned the proper line around the track, at higher and higher speeds as the program progressed.

Currently, only the basic FDE course, which primarily targets owners new to the marque, is offered at COTA. For a more advanced driving course, you’ll need to head to Canada or Italy. Finally, Ferrari’s very advanced racing courses are available only at the factory.

Also from Issue 133

  • FORZA Tifosi Challenge: COTA
  • 328 Buyer's Guide
  • Origins of the Ferrari Club of America
  • 2014 24 Hours of Daytona
  • 2014 Cavallino Classic
  • Market Update: The boom continues
  • F1: Introducing the F14 T
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