Ferrari may be making a complete mess of Formula 1 at the moment, but it’s at least a generation since it’s had a stronger lineup of road cars. I’m no fan of the 612 Scaglietti, but the F430 still feels sharp, modern and exciting even in the autumn of its life, while the California is a beautifully judged GT and convertible. The 599 GTB is Ferrari’s best flagship since the Daytona, which leaves to the Scuderia the simple honor of being one of the most impossibly thrilling devices it is possible to sit in.
Which is why it seemed right to pick one of them to defend Ferrari’s honor in the toughest test of all. This would not be some straightforward comparison against a Lambo or Porsche, but an infinitely harder contest – one that would come from within.
If you could show me someone who reckons the Ferrari F40 is not the most exciting supercar ever to grace the public road, there’s a good chance I could show you someone who’s not driven one. It’s an enormous claim when to make it means excluding the McLaren F1, Bugatti Veyron and other supercars all far faster than the F40, but among those few lucky people I know who’ve driven the majority of these cars, I believe a majority of them would still name the 20-year-old Ferrari as The One.
Through what better lens could there be to focus light on the current state of the Ferrari artway than the unrivaled challenge posed by the F40? Choosing which one was easy. Somewhat inexplicably, Ferrari maintains the 599 GTB is the true successor to the F40, but with its mid-mounted V8 engine, stripped interior, deafening exhausts and no-prisoners attitude to the open road, quite clearly it is the Scuderia that is the F40’s closest living relative.
They meet at Ferrari specialist Bob Houghton’s Cotswold base. If there is such a person as an F40 guru in the UK, it is Bob, who currently has nine in his care. The car we are borrowing is a lovely but well used 1989 example with around 20,000 miles. We’ve insured it for $425,000, but lower-mileage examples can fetch around $500k. We’re told it’s “a healthy one,” but standard apart from its brake pads.
Driving across the country in the early morning sunshine confirms the $278,000 Scuderia’s claim to be Ferrari’s most exciting production car. Most of the time you can’t even use most of its power, but on those few occasions when the revs head north towards 8500rpm and those gearshifts rifle-crack through in 60 milliseconds each, simply not laughing like an idiot is hard enough.
But whatever the engine can produce, the brakes and chassis can match. No normal Ferrari ever had better body control, more grip or brakes more suited to sucking the air from your lungs.
But of course the F40 was never a normal Ferrari. Its bloodline as an ultra-specialized, limited edition, no-compromise road racer was preceded by the beautiful but tricky 288 GTO of 1984, and succeeded by the ugly but delightful F50. What we were seeking to discover was whether the fact that the F40 was a custom design, rather than a hotted-up version of an existing product, was more than offset by the Scuderia’s age advantage.
On paper at least, it seems they are eerily closely matched. We recorded a frankly phenomenal 3.4sec run to 60mph for the Scuderia, while reliable data for the F40 puts its pace at 3.8sec. To 100mph the Scud took 7.4sec, the F40 7.8sec. All out the modern warrior is good for 198mph, the old soldier 201mph. The F40 has a higher top speed because it has less downforce, the Scuderia faster acceleration because it has sticky tires, launch control and near-instantaneous gearshifts. Honors even.
But there is a difference here, and it is considerable. We weighed the Scuderia at 3,097 lbs, while F40s weigh around 2425 lbs. And while the Scud’s 503hp may seem an advantage against the F40’s 478hp, in power to weight terms it’s not even close: 358hp per ton versus 435hp per ton. And that’s before you consider the F40’s even greater torque advantage.
You climb in over a carbon fiber sill, settle into a race seat, do up your harness, turn the key and press the little rubber button that fires a 2.9-liter twin-turbo V8 engine originally designed by Ferrari for a Lancia Group C racing car. Even at idle, the volume and menace of the noise is intimidating. The instruments are the plainest I know, the dash is covered in nothing better than felt and the doors are opened by a string. The six-slot exposed gearshift places a steel rod topped by a black ball at your finger tips, so you pull it towards you and back into the dog-leg first of its five forward gears. Ease off the excruciatingly heavy clutch and you’re driving an F40.
Don’t even think about nailing it in first gear. Better not in second, either, unless the road is straight, smooth and dry. Select third, build the revs to 3500rpm, plant your foot and wait. There is lag – a brief period of delicious anticipation before the whoop, howl and unfathomable thrust. Just one Ferrari road car has ever gone faster than this, and they called it Enzo.
But raw speed alone would never have given the F40 the ability to so captivate its driver; indeed, its real power comes not from the engine, but the way it steers and feels. It is this communication that draws you inexorably and helplessly into its grasp. Twenty years on, the F40 has lost none of its charms. It is nothing short of mesmerizing.
The Scuderia should suffer terribly by comparison, but some measure of its strengths can be taken from the fact that, even after prolonged exposure to the F40, its appeal remains undimmed. If anything, when you realize how close it runs the F40 in many areas, you may conclude that it is the greater achievement, not least because it costs less now than the F40 did then.
There is a world of difference between building a road-legal racing car and a series production model, and while the F40 is swathed in trick materials like Kevlar and carbon fiber, it’s underpinned by a very simple spaceframe chassis.
Compared with the Scuderia, it has a poor standard of build quality. Though F40s are incredibly tough (clutches, brakes and tires aside, their only real weakness was turbo seals, which have now been modified), they are extremely rough around the edges. By contrast, the Scuderia’s aluminum monocoque and bodywork are finished to the highest standards.
The Scud also behaves impeccably in the wet. As for how an F40 conducts itself in such conditions, I’ll say simply that the greatest save I’ve ever witnessed was from the passenger seat of an F40 being driven by a former F1 driver in the rain. By contrast, were the Scud not so noisy and expensive, and such a magnet for unwanted attention, you could use it every day.
Nor does it best the F40 on practical terms alone, because if the two were to lap a track, it is the heavier, slower Scuderia that would win. There is simply no denying the advances that have been made in braking, suspension and aerodynamic tech, or Ferrari’s mastery of these sciences. For all its extra weight, it is the Scuderia that corners harder and slows better.
Nothing shows the F40’s age to less flattering effect than its brakes, which are inadequate for the car’s potential and shamed by the Scuderia’s carbon-ceramic discs. The most common mod Houghton is asked to make to F40s is to fit 18in. wheels and the decent-sized discs they allow.
But for all its flaws, it is the memories of the F40 that live longer; it would be strange if it were any other way. The world has moved on in the past 20 years and a car like the F40 would be unacceptable to the modern market. We still like hard-driving machines, but so too do we like electronic safety systems, computer-designed crash structures and the little luxuries in life.
The Scud seen here may seemed stripped out by most standards, but it still has air conditioning, electric windows and mirrors, central locking, a CD player, navigation and airbags. The F40 has none of these things.
But while the flesh has changed much in two decades, the spirit that created the F40 appears alive and well. Given the constraints of modern life within which it must work, the Scuderia is an outstanding achievement and one that merits fully all the praise that has been lavished upon it. For me it’s not a true successor to the F40, because the design ethos behind it was so different, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of Ferrari’s finest road cars of any era.
And the F40? When I drove my first, it was the most spellbinding experience I’d ever had in a road car. Perhaps 15 years and a disgustingly fortunate number of supercars later, I have no reason to modify that view.
Words: Andrew Frankl/Autocar
Photos: Jamie Lipman/Autocar