Twenty years ago, I made my first pilgrimage to Maranello. We were there to film a British television show, and Andrea Bertolini – then chief test driver Dario Benuzzi’s apprentice, but a man who would go on to take championship honours in the WEC – was beside me as I exited Fiorano’s tightest hairpin on full opposite lock. It was easily done in the F355 I was driving, but Bertolini, a racer even then, didn’t like wasting energy going sideways. Or the prospect of falling off the circuit.
Two decades later, Ferrari has reached v6.0 of its amazing ‘Side Slip Control’ software. So cunning are its algorithms that pretty much anyone can drift the car the systems are installed in, the new 488 Pista, with heroic looking results. To put at it another way, the Pista can lap Fiorano in 1m 21.5 secs, just 1.8secs slower than the LaFerrari hypercar. Watching the erosion of those famous lap times has given long-term Ferrari fans plenty to ponder (the F40’s is 1min 29 secs!) and it’s sobering to remember that the 488 GTB sits in the company’s portfolio where the F355 did two decades ago. Never mind that the 710bhp Pista is a thumping 335bhp more powerful, the 1990s car didn’t even feature traction control…
In Italian, Pista means ‘track’, and the 488 Pista follows the 360 Challenge Stradale, 430 Scuderia and 458 Speciale. All these cars represented technology peaks of one sort or another for Ferrari in period, and harnessed competition-derived learning to deliver supreme dynamic behaviour, on road and track. No wonder, then, that they command a hefty premium over the ‘regular’ cars on the collector’s market. Everyone knows there’s an extra helping of Maranello magic at work here.
Perhaps never more so than in this new car. In truth, Formula One remains a rather remote technology laboratory, but Ferrari’s Challenge championship, now firmly established as one of the world’s top one-make race series in numerous global markets, is highly relevant. The Pista proves that beyond doubt. While it’s based on the 488 GTB, it’s not merely re-engineered, it pulses with a new energy, like some sort of genetically enhanced super being.
The Pista’s bonnet, bumpers, intake plenum and rear spoiler are all made of carbon fibre, and the aero story is dominated by the S-duct in the nose and a bigger ‘dolphin-tail’ spoiler at the rear. That and other mods help increase downforce compared to the stock 488 GTB – itself no slouch – by 20 per cent. (Ferrari claims 240kg at 124mph.) The design department, guided by the genial genius that is Flavio Manzoni, has done a magnificent job of absorbing the changes without spoiling the 488’s shape. In fact, this is the best-looking iteration of the current mid-engined V8 idiom.
Nor has the award-winning 3.9-litre, twin-turbo V8 ever looked or sounded better. Modifications include shorter intake, reworked exhaust (it’s made of Inconel), cooling alterations, reinforced cylinder heads and pistons, titanium con-rods, a lightweight valve-train, and lots of other stuff Ferrari’s boffins happily illustrate with graphs. (These guys even measure fun empirically.) Reducing the weight of the rotating masses cuts inertia by 17 per cent. The underbody features new vortex generators. Doesn’t the Millennium Falcon have some of those?
A big nod here, too, to Michelin, whose Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyre has also been re-engineered. Already the best performance rubber on the market, it’s now able to handles loads we could only dream of 20 years ago. You also have the option of fitting the Pista with carbon fibre wheels to reduce weight even further (in the UK, they cost £14,208, so you may want to brush up on your parking skills).
I was able to lift one with a single digit…
The Pista is 8dB louder than the 488 GTB. It’s noticeably more aggressive even when it’s just idling, with an added edge and beefier bass frequencies. The bigger paddles for the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox are borrowed from the Challenge race car, so they’re easier to reach whatever the amount of steering lock. The gearshift itself is now phenomenally fast, actively defying the huge energy that courses through the drivetrain.
None of the Ferraris fitted with the 3.9-litre forced induction engine suffer from lag, but in the 488 Pista you simply wouldn’t know there were turbos fitted. It warps forward with such cosmic velocity, and has such instant throttle response, that only the most dogged purist could cling to the normally aspirated dream. Sure, the 12-cylinder 812 Superfast and GTC4lusso still have the edge when it comes to character, but then V12 Ferraris have always enjoyed that advantage.
Despite its track-focused mien, the 488 Pista is amazingly civilised at urban speeds, rides perfectly well (the suspension is barely changed), and smothers the dreadful road surfaces in the roads that connect the hills close to Maranello (Ferrari’s test drivers spend much of their time finessing suspension settings hereabouts). Open it up, though, and the 488 Pista proves so monumentally capable, and so contemptuous of physics, that the biggest challenge is one of self-control. It will behave itself, but the promise of sheer mechanical violence is ever-present. Frankly, even some race circuits I know would struggle to contain it.
It’s not perfect, though. The instrument layout and interior ergonomics are as frustrating as ever. Good luck as you try to move from one radio station to another. There’s Alcantara on the dash and exposed carbon fibre, and LED upshift lights on the wheel, just like you’ll find on Ferrari’s F1 racing cars. You can order a four-point race harness instead of regular seat belts; good for track days, a pain in normal use. Although the interior is as much of a quantum leap on from the F355 of yore as the rest of the car – especially in terms of quality and execution – there’s certainly scope for progress as the 488’s replacement shapes up.
Back at Fiorano, I find myself beside current chief test driver, Raffaele di Simone. He knows every millimetre of this place, but even by his sky-high standards he’s extracting everything from the 488 Pista. I don’t recall ever braking this late into the corners, and we are fully sideways out of one turn and still sideways as we approach another… at 120mph. It’s a bravura performance from a driver at the top of his game piloting a car that might just be the most technically accomplished Ferrari road car yet.
‘This really is a big step forwards,’ he tells me. ‘This isn’t just a car, this is a machine of war…’