Driving Force

Although famous for its V12 engines, Ferrari’s most powerful cars of the 1980s and 2020s feature turbocharged V8s.

Photo: Driving Force 1
July 21, 2022

When it came to his cars, Enzo Ferrari was best known for two things. First, he preferred proven design solutions. This conservative outlook occasionally meant his Scuderia was behind the times, with innovations such as disc brakes (he reportedly said, “My cars are meant to go, not stop”) and the mid-engine layout (“The horse should pull the cart, not push it”) being adopted only belatedly and begrudgingly.

Second, Enzo loved innovative engines. After launching his company with a normally aspirated V12, he quickly supercharged it. Over the next decade, he developed a completely different V12, along with V8s, V6s, an inline four, and even a prototype inline-two. The company’s above-average productivity in the engine department has always been motivated by specific needs, and that’s clearly evident in the two cars seen here.

On the face of it, the SF90 Stradale looks like the antithesis of the F40. Where the older car gained its cult status thanks to its engineering simplicity and purity, the newer machine is fantastically overcomplicated. The F40 took on the Porsche 959 and McLaren F1 with nothing more than a five-speed manual transmission and no ABS; the SF90 aims to dominate its competitors with no fewer than four powerplants (one internal combustion, three electric), a dual-clutch eight-speed automatic gearbox without a reverse gear (the car moves backwards courtesy of its two front electric motors), all-wheel drive (again thanks to those electric motors), and the latest generation of the electronic Side Slip Control system to control the lot.

The two supercars do have two things in common, though, starting with their anniversary-themed names: one commemorates the 40th anniversary of Ferrari-the-company, the other the 90th anniversary of Enzo Ferrari’s Scuderia. More significant are their breakthrough twin-

turbocharged V8s. The F40 changed the supercar game forever by besting Maranello’s legendary normally aspirated V12s with a rather diminutive 2.9-liter displacement and a pair of Japanese turbochargers. The SF90 wants to do the same, to the tune of 1,000 horsepower, with the addition of pioneering plug-in hybrid technology.

IN BOTH CASES, Ferrari chose a compact V8 not because it wanted one but because it needed one. In 1984, that need was dictated by the newly formed Group B regulations, which mandated either a naturally aspirated 4-liter engine or a turbocharged one with a maximum capacity of 2.857 liters. The latter would guarantee a big performance advantage, and Nicola Materazzi, one of the company’s leading engineers, quickly decided on a V8 as the optimal configuration.

Photo: Driving Force 2

While Materazzi’s plan included beating Porsche at its own game—the Germans were then in the process of readying the 959—Ferrari’s management was less enthusiastic about the idea. While the required 288 GTO road cars were built and quickly snapped up, the racing side of the project was delayed up to the point when Group B was deemed too dangerous and came to an abrupt end, leaving Maranello’s development team with five nearly finished 288 Evoluzione prototypes. Enzo Ferrari thought it would be a shame not to use these very fast cars in some way, perhaps on the street, and the rest is F40 history.

The story of the SF90’s creation is more straightforward, and its roots can also be traced to many years before the premiere of the production model. Once again, it was all about the engine, although this time the regulations that pushed Ferrari back to turbocharging came not from racing but pollution. To meet new emissions requirements and still keep at the forefront of the ever-more-powerful supercar field, Maranello needed some sort of engineering miracle. That arrived in 2014, under the hood of the California T.

Ferrari hasn’t produced many V8s for its road cars. The first one debuted in 1973 in the 308 GT4, and it lived on in different forms and evolutions (including the F40’s famous F120A) all the way up to the 360 Modena. In 2001, this long-serving block was succeeded by the Tipo F136, which in 2013 was replaced by the Tipo F154. This V8 has been universally acclaimed as one of the best performance turbocharged engines in history; it has won a total of 14 awards in the International Engine of the Year competition.

For its role in the SF90, the F154 FA was given a major overhaul which included perfecting virtually every detail. Both intake and exhaust manifolds were completely redesigned and optimized, the turbos (still Japanese IHIs after all these years) were updated with electronically controlled wastegates to improve catalyzer heating, and, for the first time, a Ferrari V8 adopted a high-pressure 350-bar direct-injection system.

Compared to the version used in the F8 Tributo, the SF90’s V8 measures 0.1-liter larger, 50 bhp more powerful, and an impressive 55 pounds lighter. This 4-liter unit delivers an astonishing 769 bhp, and that’s before you factor in the hybrid assist.

THESE ARE EYE-OPENING NUMBERS in favorable conditions, let alone the ones I’m faced with today. Despite the calendar’s certainty it’s already summer, the temperature is literally very nearly freezing. Contrary to my hopes that the rain will fade away, it instead turns to snow. The conditions are hopelessly bad, but this is one of these now-or-never moments. Fingers crossed, I walk toward the F40, a car famous for its widow-making status.

Photo: Driving Force 3

This F40 is a 1990 model with 21,700 miles and a serial number starting with 8, as is the case of most F40s. It and the SF90 arrived at the track courtesy of La Squadra, a new gathering place for high-end car collectors and enthusiasts in Katowice, Poland. Along with showcasing an impressive collection of Ferraris, a team of market experts, and a fine Italian restaurant, La Squadra aims not only to amass some of the most valuable performance cars in the world but, as today’s appearance demonstrates, to use them as intended.

It took the F40 nothing more than its radical wedge-shaped silhouette to win pride of place on the bedroom walls of teenagers around the world in the 1980s. Today, some 34 years later, Leonardo Fioravanti’s design still looks beyond cool; the Ferrari’s rakish windshield and massive rear wing trigger some oohs and aahs from onlookers. It’s an iconic design, a true supercar archetype.

That said, I have to admit Gordon Murray, designer of the equally legendary McLaren F1, had a point when he described the F40 as “like a big go-kart with a plastic body on it.” I think of his words as I approach the car, and totally agree with him after opening the poorly fitted, fragile-feeling door and dropping into the cabin.

Here, the F40 presents much of the personality of a rough Group B prototype. Instead of an interior door handle, this Ferrari utilizes a simple string. There’s no leather upholstery, only a grey felt that’s bad for aesthetics but good for not reflecting light. Exotic composite structural members meet under the dashboard, but they don’t attract as much attention as the unevenly applied green glue that holds them together. Unusually, the Italians didn’t even try to make it all look good.

They did, however, spend plenty of effort on the bits that really matter for driving. The compact steering wheel feels like a gift from the racing gods just as much as the shape of the seat and the location of the shift lever. In this intimate face-to-face meeting, the F40 comes across as small, simple, and honest. It’s the highest form of motoring purity, with any trace of electronic aids being conspicuous by their absence.

There’s a price to be paid for this minimalism, most noticeably the absence of power assistance. Everything from the steering wheel to the pedals works with noticeable resistance, and the extra-heavy brakes are tricky to say the least.

Photo: Driving Force 4

Otherwise, there’s little to complain about mechanically. Without fluids the F40 weighs just 2,434 pounds, due to the use of exotic materials like magnesium (oil sump, cylinder head covers, intake manifold, transmission bellhousing), Kevlar (all 11 body panels), and Lexan (windows), as well as the lack of extraneous luxuries like power windows, airbags, carpets, or even a third liter of red paint to hide the exterior Kevlar’s weave pattern.

While the V8’s output appears modest in comparison to that of today’s Ferraris, it still demands respect, or even fear. Although officially rated at 478 bhp, it’s believed many of these cars left the factory gates with more than 500 bhp on board. Then there are the numbers related to torque: 426 lb-ft and 4,000 rpm.

In practice, those torque figures mean that hardly anything happens up to around 3,750 rpm, then the turbochargers gain their superpowers and suddenly everything happens. The rear wheels dance frantically to the beat dictated by the screaming engine (the owners deemed the stock exhaust note to be the weakest point of the car and swapped it for a louder aftermarket setup), and even shifting into third gear doesn’t change much. The rear wheels still spin, just faster.

Fortunately, the F40’s rear subframe is so stiff that the frantic movements of the driven axle are easier to control than you might imagine. But even so, what a beast of a car it is. Mighty. Precise. Insolent. This Ferrari doesn’t even try to hide its turbocharged nature and make the driver’s life easier. Just the opposite; it’s proud of what it stands for, and, in these conditions in particular, the driver takes his life in his hands.

That’s my impression, at least, coming from someone for whom driving an F40 is a novel and extraordinary experience. But Jakub Pietrzak, owner of La Squadra, has been driving this car for the last few years and offers a different take.

“If you keep the revs in the right range, the F40 is a predictable, straightforward car,” he tells me. “The turbo lag needs some time to get used to—in the beginning, one can even think there’s something wrong with the engine—but eventually you get to grips with it.

Photo: Driving Force 5

“We participated in 2020’s Mille Miglia in this car,” Pietrzak continues. “Due to the coronavirus, the rally took place not in May but in October. For most of the event, the weather conditions were just like here today: temperature barely above zero, heavy rains, sometimes interrupted by some snow. We covered 1,000 miles from start to finish without much fuss. The worst thing that happened to us was a foggy windshield.”

I’M TOO YOUNG to have witnessed the emotions the F40 evoked when launched, but I would guess they were similar to the ones that accompanied the arrival of the SF90 Stradale. In 2022, it’s not so easy to impress solely with performance numbers, but seriously: 986 bhp? 664 lb-ft? 6.7 seconds to 124 mph? And 15 miles purely on electric power?

This progress is obvious just from the looks of the F40’s distant relative. As always with Flavio Manzoni’s in-house styling efforts, the Stradale’s design combines the worlds of art and science. Just like the F40, the SF90 isn’t beautiful in the traditional understanding of the word—but it looks like a Ferrari and it’s tremendously purposeful. Every design detail makes an aerodynamic difference, and the effect grows as the car goes faster. At 186 mph, these seemingly small features combine to deliver 860 pounds of downforce.

There’s more here than just striking exterior design. Peeking through the glass engine cover, it’s hard to believe the engineers managed to locate the V8 so low in the chassis. The cabin is pure sci-fi, with a dashboard covered in screens (instead of the F40’s analog gauge cluster, the SF90 features a curved 16-inch-wide display) and a steering wheel overflowing with capacitive touch panels.

While I’m more irritated than impressed with the latter, I’ll admit the capacitive solution may eventually grow on me just as much as the retro-style gear selector. Looking at photos, I had thought it was just a pale imitation of the classic gated shifter. But with the two cars lined up side-by-side, details like these help connect Ferrari’s past to its present, building the aura of the moment and hinting these machines have much more in common than I’d expected.

The key commonality is performance, of course. With the SF90, Ferrari took its horsepower game to a whole new level thanks to the addition of a complex hybrid system. Two electric motors are mounted within the front wheels, while a third sits between the engine and gearbox. The engineers also had to find a spot for an 8-kWh battery, and the densely packaged setup weighs a hefty 595 pounds. It also returns an impressive 217 bhp, so I’d call it a fair deal. In total, the SF90 weighs 3,461 pounds, which means each horsepower has to propel 3.51 pounds. In the F40, the ratio was 5.78 pounds per pony.

Photo: Driving Force 6

It’s easy to suspect that the electric portion of the powertrain plays a subordinate role, as it did in the earlier LaFerrari, but that’s not the case. Since that supercar’s launch in 2013, Ferrari’s hybrid systems have advanced to a point where the internal combustion engine and electric motors play equally important roles. It’s all precisely managed by a computer brain that not only shuffles power between the four wheels but knows some extremely clever tricks, like reducing wheelspin by recapturing energy from the errant corner. It’s a new way of thinking about a hybrid powertrain.

The result is once again a stunningly fast Ferrari that, unfortunately, can’t deliver the aural drama of a traditional V12. The SF90 can still make the hair stand up on the back of the driver’s neck, though, as it moves silently through the paddock only to awaken the rumbling V8 at the least expected moment. This is not a hybrid in a Toyota Prius kind of way; it’s more like the Toyota TS050 prototype that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times.

Despite its name, the SF90 Stradale (“Street” in Italian) feels more at home on the racetrack. When I switch the eManettino from Hybrid mode to Quali, memories of the F40 instantly flood back; it’s the same sensation of fierce acceleration, direct reactions, and pure, brutish power.

What sets the SF90 apart from the F40, as well as most other supercars, is how blisteringly effective its powertrain is. The F40 required me to work pretty hard to stay in the usable rev range, from 4,000-7,000 rpm. In the SF90, on the other hand, I can just floor the fast pedal at any moment, at any rpm, and the car’s speed instantly reaches absurd levels. Even a wide and fast racetrack suddenly feels narrow and compact, its long straights surprisingly short.

If this sort of speed doesn’t seem so outlandish in an era of Tesla S Plaids and other wonder-EVs, know that, when combined with the grip and direct steering of the current Ferrari lineup, this level of power produces an epoch-defining supercar. The SF90 needs a driver of great experience and courage—or serious inexperience and shortsightedness—to lose grip on the front wheels and provoke understeer. For most of us, what this car is capable of is just beyond imagination.

Even more impressive is the SF90’s driver engagement. The chance of achieving such a result with a plug-in powertrain, where each movement of the throttle is filtered through a committee of ECUs and traction control systems then sent to four wheels, was surely scarce, but Ferrari pulled it off with yet another level of sophisticated electronics.

Photo: Driving Force 7

The current generation of Side Slip Control feels so intuitive and natural that it doesn’t stand in the way of automotive fulfillment; on the contrary, it makes it almost childishly easy to reach motoring nirvana. Yes, there’s some feeling of fiction in the SF90’s behavior, but it’s a bit like watching a magician’s trick. You know you shouldn’t believe what you see, but you’re still having fun.

If this makes the SF90 sound like a less dramatic, needlessly digital, easier-to-tame machine than the F40, Pietrzak assures me that’s not the case. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“It’s the SF90 Stradale that I’m more scared of,” he says. “I am genuinely scared of this car. It’s crazily fast, but then again it also has considerable mass, which is perfectly concealed so the driver never feels the true physics of the car up to a moment when things get really dirty.”

Indeed, when Pietrzak allows a small drift that throws the car off the racing line, we then have to brake for a few extra seconds, much longer than I had expected. Then I realize that’s only because the Ferrari’s speed had been far higher than I had realized.

Even if it’s easy to climb out of the SF90 Stradale on weak knees after one track session, it’s not so easy to detect the titanic struggle between the car and the laws of physics. Let alone understand how the Ferrari’s electronics allow it to win this fight.

“From behind the SF90’s steering wheel, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking you know this car and how to handle it,” warns Pietrzak. “But turn the manettino to ESC-Off and you learn the hard way that you know nothing at all! The SF90 Stradale is a Ferrari of a new era, but it’s already the best car of this new era. It’s the pinnacle of the digital hypercar segment.”

When FORZA revisits the histories of the F40 and SF90 in another 100 or 200 issues, there will be one more element to contemplate. Back in the 1980s, the Italians expected to sell some 400 F40s at most. In the end, they received more than 3,000 orders, so extended the production run several times until 1,311 examples had been completed. The F40 proved to be not only the fastest but also the most profitable car in Ferrari’s history.

Due to this high number, and the resulting massive price fluctuations, Ferrari strictly limited production of its (V12-powered) successors: the F50, Enzo, and LaFerrari. With the SF90, the company changed its strategy once again, this time offering its fastest car at a lower price and limiting production based only on time, not the number built. There’s a fair chance total production will be far greater than that of the F40—and to my mind, that’s a good thing.

The F40 was the ultimate supercar of its time, and now the same thing can be said of the SF90. The current machine isn’t a typical car for this brand, and the older one wasn’t, either. Both, though, embody the qualities that have elevated Ferrari to the top of the performance car world.

Also from Issue 200

  • 812 GTS
  • Changing face of Ferrari
  • Our favorite Ferrari stories
  • Rarities: Sergio
  • Tifosi: No-Sale Blues
  • 25 Years of Ferrari F1
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