Dream machine

Ears lock on to the tortured howl long before eyes locate its origins. The staccato bursts of concentrated evil drift down the main straight at Ferrari’s Fiorano test track, the sound of 12 angry pistons and an expensive box of screaming straight-cut gears.

Then – finally – the blood-red missile spears into view. A cool £1 million-worth of F50 GT replete with a full six foot of rear wing rolls up at the workshop next to the latest iteration of the front-engined 575 we are here to drive. The door opens to reveal the legendary test driver Dario Benuzzi.

Just 20 yards away stands last year’s F1 car, a riot of bulges, swoops and creases that no amount of television coverage can do justice to; beyond us lies the giant silver slug that is Ferrari’s F1 base.

With so much going on, clearly just breathing the air at Fiorano is a magical experience, not least due to the clumps of mint sprouting through the grass at our feet, battling to make their presence felt in air that is heavy with the scent of clutch and brake abuse following Benuzzi’s balletic dance around the three-decade-old circuit.

But we’re here to partake, not merely spectate, and with the F50 wrapped up in cotton wool once more, the track is ours. We nose the 575 out onto the Tarmac. Two years ago those words would likely have been the prelude to an enormous disappointment, because someone, somewhere, got their sums wrong.

Evolving the 550M, arguably one of the best-handling front-engined cars on earth, should have presented Ferrari with an open goal. Yet, against all odds, it managed to punt over the bar from six yards.

Prone to thunking its nose at the merest hint of an undulation and with a back end so soft that I almost swallowed the leather off the seat base when I turned into my first fast right-hander at Goodwood two years ago, it suffered the ignominy of taking second-to-last place at our Best Handling Cars contest that year. This proved beyond doubt that heritage is no guarantee of excellence.

The subsequent suspension tweaks of the later Fiorano pack – a £2215 option for UK cars – did much to assuage our initial criticism, but with track days becoming yet more popular, Ferrari felt it was time to turn up the wick one more time.

Ferrari 575M With Handling GTC Pack ranks as one of the least sexy monikers ever attached to a car wearing the Prancing Horse, but it signals a 575 that goes, stops and steers like no other, bar the fully bewinged 575 GTC racers.

At £16,450 on top of the price of a standard 575 (£154,350) you’re looking at roughly eight times the price of the Fiorano kit, but bear in mind that half of that figure is accounted for by colossal carbon-ceramic brakes which we’ve seen bolted to Enzo and Challenge Stradale hubs before but are here on a front-engined Ferrari for the first time. 

Boosted to 398mm compared with 330mm for the standard cast iron equivalents, the front discs are clasped by six-pot callipers. The rears grow 50mm to 360mm. All the usual claims are made: big reductions in noise, thermal deformation, fade and wear rate – reckon on 300 hot laps of Fiorano – making them ideal for the sort of track-day and heavy road work the GTC is designed for.

Other mooted benefits include better performance in wet weather and a 10kg per corner drop in unsprung weight. They may look dirty compared with conventional rotors, and they lack the glorious sparkle of a freshly honed iron disc, but the visual impact of filling the wheel centres to absolute bursting point is hard to deny. Those five-spoke split rims are new, too.

At 19 inches they are one size up from the standard issue, and they are wrapped in bespoke and very sticky Pirelli P Zero Corsa rubber – 255/35 at the sharp end and 305/30 out back. Visually, though, that’s pretty much your lot.

New and lighter exhaust silencers unleash a few more dB – if no more power – from what has always been a surprisingly ordinary-sounding engine; careful attention to software mapping has optimised the shift pattern of the optional F1 transmission.

With the console-mounted Sport button selected, shifts are now somewhere between those of a Stradale and a Scaglietti. Otherwise it’s the same 65-degree V12 delivering 508bhp at 7250 and 434lb ft of churn at 5250rpm from 5748cc.

Adequate then, you’d think, even with the same 1730kg of metal to hulk around as the standard car.Ferrari’s figures put the F1 version slightly ahead in a straight line, but the difference (4.2sec to 62mph compared with 4.25sec for the stick car) is so small as to be inconsequential.

Certainly it’s not shy on the pony count – but while it sounds satisfyingly meatier at idle, issuing a deeper, edgier tone than standard, and just manages to stay the right side of boomy on the overrun, with our ears ringing with the shrill metallic tune of the various 360s floating around Modena, my neck coiffurry remained resolutely unmoved.

It’s quality not quantity that’s needed, an aural signal that the redline is approaching, because this engine loves to rev, and a keen eye is needed if the needle on the large rev counter in the centre isn’t to keep butting up against the 7600rpm limiter.

This is my first crack at Fiorano, and hopefully not my last, but it doesn’t take long to drop into a rhythm. The new springs (one third stiffer than standard up front, 15 per cent at the rear), revised dampers and the rear anti-roll bar (a massive 75 per cent stiffer) keep the 575’s roll to an absolute minimum, particularly through the circuit’s transitions. And with those bespoke Pirellis taking on the consistency of fly paper in the 28degC heat, it’s entirely possible to drive up to and over the limit without ever feeling overstretched.

According to official data, the tweaks are worth 1.5sec over a standard car, but while track prowess was undoubtedly firmly in the mind of the engineers behind the project, we need to escape the glassy surface if we’re to make sure things won’t fall apart back in Britain.

Leaving Fiorano, though, I’m troubled. First by a kamikaze pensioner in a Yaris who pulls right across our path a handful of yards from the track – forcing me and a car worth more than my flat into a potential head-on collision with a Volvo coming the other way. Second, by the rather unyielding ride on my first taste of lumpen asphalt. Truth be told it’s far from unbearable, and before long I’m too busy concentrating on perfecting my low-speed gearshifts to pay it much mind.

Like the similar system fitted to the Maserati Coupé, or even the humble Smart, the 575’s F1 transmission requires learning and commitment but can be rewarding, if ultimately not as satisfying as a proper clack-clack manual. Waiting for the oil to warm in the morning, perfecting that roll onto a blipped throttle on the way down the ’box or just savouring that interaction of tried-and-trusted mechanicals; all these are fundamental to the Ferrari experience in my book, but it seems those of you with the funds to buy these cars disagree.

Eighty per cent of UK 575s are F1-equipped; for the Scaglietti, the figure is nearer 90 per cent and rising. In a quiet moment, one very senior engineer suggests he’d drop the manual option tomorrow if only the marketing department would allow it.

The chrome stick may still have a couple of years left, but future Ferraris will ditch conventional cast-iron brakes for carbon-ceramics, and judging by our experience with this car, they’re unlikely to be missed. Forget what you heard about poor progression and pedal feel on other carbon-ceramic applications: here they’re strong and full of feel right to the point where the anti-lock intervenes.

There’s better news to come, though, because as we pick up the pace climbing higher into the hills, the initially stiff-legged suspension settles, and bar the odd mid-corner bump that can set the tail skipping, it takes on a far more compliant air.

But it’s the asphyxiating control over body movements that most impresses, quickly shrinking this big, heavy car to MX-5 proportions. The steering is mostly perfectly weighted, and it effervesces rather than writhes 911-style, dispatching all but the tightest of bends with the merest flick of the wrist.

With fingers rarely out of range of the slim column-mounted gear-shift paddles and a serpentine ribbon of Tarmac snaking ahead, right now there isn’t anywhere I’d rather be.

Entertainment is one thing, but value is another altogether – particularly when all of that work is largely hidden beneath an all but identical vista.

Still, few would baulk at the thought of paying 10 per cent over the odds for a BMW M3 that had received the same sort of attention. With the Scaglietti so ably staking its claim on the GT end of the market, the 575 has never made more sense.

Chris Chilton

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