Vintage Modernism

Despite its retro cues, the F12tdf is Ferrari’s highest-tech front-engine road car yet.

Photo: Vintage Modernism 1
January 28, 2016

Of the many innovative machines to come out of Maranello in recent years, from the turbocharged 488 to the hybrid LaFerrari, the brand-new F12tdf makes a good case for being the most fascinating of all. A beguiling confection of new and old, of classic V12 power unfettered by turbos or complicated electrical-assistance systems, and of iconic styling cues that nod to the marque’s storied past, it is crowned by some technical solutions never before seen on a Ferrari.

And there’s that name. It’s hard to suppress your excitement when the car in question is named after one of Ferrari’s most famous V12s, the 250 GT Tour de France. Officially called the 250 GT Berlinetta but dubbed Tour de France after dominating the legendary European road race, the 1950’s 250 TdF paved the way for some seminal front-engine Ferrari racing sports cars, including the legendary SWB and GTO.

The original TdF’s combination of track ability and street civility is the exact same philosophy that underpins its F12 namesake. That said, Ferrari never refers to the new car as the Tour de France; apparently, the organizers behind the annual bicycle race of the same name weren’t keen on Maranello using a moniker they own the legal rights to, so “tdf” it is.

Photo: Vintage Modernism 2

If your first view of the $490,000 tdf is from the front, the almost-wraparound front bumper, with two small horizontal delta wings that both generate downforce and manage cooling, and twin vents in place of a single central cutout in the hood are clear giveaways that this is no ordinary $320,000 F12berlinetta. But if you meet the tdf in profile, there’s a good chance your eyes will first pick up the Aero Bridge insert in the front fender. As before, it covers the channel passing air from the hood onto the door coving, but it’s longer now, and black (well, bare carbon fiber) rather than body colored.

Your gaze then switches to the familiar 288 GTO triple vents atop the rear fender before quickly being distracted by something rather more interesting. Compare the side window shape of the regular F12 and the tdf, and you’ll see they’re completely different. The tdf still features glass aft of the door, but its much smaller pane makes for a thicker C-pillar—a clear visual nod to the 250s and 275s of the 1950s and ’60s.

But the changes go further. The rear window is more upright, which creates a flat area at its base on the deck lid, just ahead of the enlarged rear spoiler. It’s another hat tip to Ferrari’s classic GTs, and when you throw in the unfortunately ugly, oversized, plasticky-looking Monza-style fuel filler, you can’t help but be reminded of the stunning 275 GTB/C.

Photo: Vintage Modernism 3

These historic design references are interesting, as Ferrari rarely dips a toe so overtly into retro territory (the 2008-on California’s hood scoop being the most obvious relatively recent exception). But, as with almost anything Ferrari does, there’s science behind the styling. The new rear deck shape, combined with active flaps in the rear diffuser, the winglets at the ends of the front bumper, and the extended Aero Bridge components, creates a total of 507 pounds of downforce at 124 mph, a massive 236-lb. increase over the regular F12 at the same speed.

While the weight of the air bearing down on the car has increased, the Ferrari’s curb weight has gone the other way. Although the body structure and new rear panels are still fashioned from aluminum, the front and rear bumpers are carbon fiber, as are the center tunnel, the interior door panels, exterior door sills, and the aerodynamic underbody panels. The manually adjustable racing buckets are molded in composite, too, and upholstered in Alcantara rather than leather to save a few more ounces. The upshot is a dry weight of 3,120 pounds, some 220 lbs. less than the Berlinetta.

Cleave the weight of an NFL quarterback from a two-seat coupe, even one that’s just over 15 feet long, and you’re likely going to feel that difference when you tentatively push the right pedal into the carpet-free footwell for the first time. But what you feel in the tdf isn’t just the results of a diet; it’s also the efforts of a powertrain that somehow makes even the Berlinetta’s mighty 740-hp V12 seem almost meek by comparison.

Photo: Vintage Modernism 4

It’s fundamentally the same 6.3-liter V12, but with some key differences. There’s a new air-filter box and a bigger throttle valve, the length of the inlet ducts is continuously variable to maximize torque at all engine speeds, and the valves are now operated by racing-style solid lifters instead of quieter, maintentance-free hydraulic ones. These changes are enough to lift peak power to 780 horsepower at a screaming 8,500 rpm, with a further 400 revs left to go before redline. Torque? The headline stat is 520 lb-ft at 6,750 rpm, an increase of 11 lb-ft, and 80 percent of the total is available from just 2,500 rpm. Ferrari shortened the gear ratios by 6 percent to amplify the gains, and cut shift speeds by 30 (up) and 40 (down) percent, respectively, so it’s no wonder the tdf feels so effortlessly fast, the way a great GT car should.

EFFORTLESS IS ALSO THE BEST WAY to describe Raffaele de Simone behind the wheel. We’re out on track at Fiorano, me riding shotgun and Ferrari’s test driver making casual, almost imperceptible nudges at the wheel. He’s frustratingly smooth, irritatingly fast, and a better wheelman than I’d be with a hundred years of practice. And, just to rub it in, he’s chatting away blithely as he puts in a 95-percent pace lap.

But even “Raffa” stops talking as we exit the right-hander following the bridge. That’s when he opens the stable door, flinging us toward the rapidly approaching hairpin and turning my stomach inside out. I’m pretty used to high-horsepower cars, but still let out an involuntary whoop of delight mixed with terror, something that’s only happened in three other cars: the LaFerrari, the McLaren P1, and the Bugatti Veyron. The tdf really does feel that fast, even if the numbers say it isn’t. Ferrari quotes 0-62 mph in 2.9 seconds and 124 mph in 7.9, impressive improvements on the Berlinetta’s 3.1 and 8.5 seconds, respectively, but still trumped by the sub-3 and 7-second efforts of LaFerrari.

Photo: Vintage Modernism 5

When I switch to the driver’s seat the car feels no less outrageous, only now I’ve got all manner of other sensations to deal with. The throttle, for instance, is outrageously sharp. The noise and thrust a press unleashes are instant reminders that, as fine a job as Ferrari did with its turbo-charged engines, they’re lacking when compared to the company’s legendary V12. The new V8 is all about managing expectations—it sounds better than you feared it might, there’s less turbo lag than in rival cars and it revs higher than most of them, too—but it’s not perfect. This normally aspirated V12, with its sonorous yowl, linear and uninterrupted power delivery, lofty redline, and jaw-slackening punch, just might be.

Impressive as all this is, it’s actually so far, so familiar. Ferrari’s formula for a track-focused special is well-known: more power, more aero, more performance, less weight. If this was the complete catalog of changes, the tdf would feel like an enhanced version of the standard machine—thrilling, but not necessarily surprising. There’s another piece to the puzzle, however, one that marks the tdf as something different and imbues it with its particular character. It’s also something no one was likely expecting: four-wheel steering.

This isn’t a new technology; few in this game truly are. Cast your mind back to the 1980s and the Japanese companies were all over it. First Honda, with the Prelude, and later others, including Nissan and the R32 Skyline GTR. Among current cars, Porsche’s 911 Turbo and GT3 both use four-wheel steering to tame their tricky rear-engine handling.

Photo: Vintage Modernism 6

The theory is that turning the rear wheels in the opposite direction as the fronts at low speed improves agility, and turning all four wheels in the same direction at high speed promotes stability. However, anyone who’s driven an F12 Berlinetta, a car with a 54-percent rear weight bias (unchanged in the tdf) and beautifully balanced handling, may well question why Ferrari felt the need to add the technology at all. The answer is it was the only way to get the desired, and frankly outrageous, front-end response while keeping the car remotely manageable for mere mortals.

The tdf’s development program started with a simple test: Mounting the 315-mm wide rear tires on the front axle to see what would happen. The result was a car with incredible turn-in and zero understeer; it was also difficult to drive and had terrible high-speed stability. By slimming the front rubber to 275 mm (up from the stock 255 mm) and adding the electrically operated rear-steering system, which is capable of varying the rear wheels’ toe by up to 1 degree in either direction, Ferrari’s engineering team gave away little in front-end bite and clawed back the driveability. Ferrari calls the setup Passo Corto Virtuale, which translates as virtual short wheelbase, although the rear-wheel steering system is mostly mimicking the characteristics of a longer wheelbase.

Whatever the name, you notice the changes at the sharp end long before you feel those at the rear. The tdf’s steering is weightier than the Berlinetta’s, more communicative, and pin-sharp. The amount of front grip is so incredible I regularly find myself unwinding lock at corner exit to let the car run out to the edge of the track, and making a mental note to push harder next time.

Photo: Vintage Modernism 7

Instead of the slightly oversteery character of the standard F12, the tdf offers real stability at the rear. It’ll still slide if really pushed, but I don’t notice it in Race mode, which flatters your driving by smoothing away any clumsiness at the limits through a combination of torque vectoring by the active differential and prominent stability control intervention. For most drivers this would be the fastest setting for lapping Fiorano—which, incidentally, de Simone has done in 1 minute 21 seconds, 2 seconds faster than in the Berlinetta.

When I turn the manettino a step further to disengage the traction control, or hold it against the spring and wait for three little beeps signifying the stability control has also stepped aside, things get more complicated. For the first couple of laps I clumsily overcorrect every little slide, almost fighting against the rear-wheel steering’s efforts to straighten up the car. This is where the tdf feels most obviously different from its more prosaic sibling. For the first time I can remember on a Ferrari launch, I return to the pit box as confused as I am enthralled.

After another few laps, however, things start to gel. This is a car that requires smoother, smaller inputs to perform, and it takes time to acclimatize. Remember when you needed skill and not just money to drive a supercar well? The F12tdf brings it all back.

Photo: Vintage Modernism 8

You won’t encounter such challenges on the street, though. Mixing it up with the tractors, trucks, and battered minivans on the hills south of Maranello, it’s almost impossible to breach the limits of the front tires. Likewise, I’m never really aware of the trickery going on behind me, only that the Ferrari feels astonishingly agile on the way into tighter turns, and absolutely planted on the way out and right through the faster ones. Even when stringing together a sequence of left-rights, forcing the rear steering to go through its full range of motion, the experience is entirely natural. 

The tdf’s ride is surprisingly firm compared to the compliance of every other modern Ferrari, including the LaFerrari, and pushing the familiar “bumpy road” button on the steering wheel to soften the magnetorheological dampers never brings about the step-change I’m expecting. Nonetheless, this is an eminently useable road car, one with a generous trunk and a soundtrack that shrieks like an XX Programme machine when I’m hoving in on the rev limiter but then settles down to an unobtrusive, refined hum on the freeway.

Still, the tdf’s true home is the track, where its Passo Corto Virtuale, much like the 458 Speciale’s Side Slip Control, can be fully experienced. It takes time and miles to adapt to Ferrari’s take on rear-wheel steering—in truth, more time and more miles than I had available. Wouldn’t you love to be in the fortunate position to put in those miles and learn it for yourself, to really get under the car’s skin? I know I would.

Photo: Vintage Modernism 9

Also from Issue 148

  • 160,000-mile 308 QV GTS
  • 750 Monza
  • Direct Fuel Injection basics
  • Eugenio Castellotti remembered
  • Inside the Ferrari Challenge
  • 2015 F1 season ends
  • 360 Challenge Buyer's Guide
Connect with Forza:   Facebook icon Twitter icon Instagram icon