A Beast on Paper, a Revolution on the Road
It wasn't a scream, or even a stifled shout. To be honest, it wasn't much more than a yelp from the passenger seat, but it was all I needed to assure myself that it wasn't just me. Despite all that's been written about the 2013 Ferrari F12 Berlinetta since it was unveiled at the Geneva auto show in March, I wasn't the only one to be reduced to involuntary oral emissions on experiencing its full force for the first time.
The F12 isn't just an extraordinary device compared to normal cars; it's on another level even by the standards of Ferrari's very fastest street machines. It's much more than just numbers, but is still worth noting some of its more prominent specifications.
It has a 6.3-liter V12 motor producing 730 horsepower, nearly 120 hp more than the Ferrari 599 GTB it replaces. Then consider that it's also 129 pounds lighter. Forget the 3.1-second 0-62-mph time; it's a meaningless, traction-limited statistic. Focus instead on the 0-124 mph time of 8.5 seconds, which is quicker than a McLaren F1. No wonder my passenger yelped.
Putting the Power Down
To me the question in greatest need of an answer was just how do you put 730 hp through the rear wheels of a car and still end up with something that will actually work as a practical, effective, everyday car? It's important, as Ferrari estimates that one in five customers will use their F12s as daily drivers.
You won't find the answer on the spec sheet. Naturally Ferrari has aimed all its technological firepower at this car, from its carbon-ceramic brake discs and double-clutch gearbox to its electronically controlled differential and electronic dampers. But other Ferraris get those, too. With the F12, the devil is in the details.
Consider this: Despite the engine being in the nose, the F12's weight distribution is actually rear-biased to the tune of 54 percent. But Ferrari also has a completely new design for the rear suspension compared to the 599 and has just completed an exhaustive tire development program with Michelin, Pirelli and Bridgestone. The result, says test and development driver Raffaele di Simone, is a car that's "much faster than the 599, but easier, too." We shall see.
Getting Slowly Underway
Rolling south out of Maranello in heavy traffic, I'm heading for hills once used by Enzo himself to test his cars and plied by generations of Ferrari test-drivers for decades since.
For now though, the 2013 Ferrari F12 Berlinetta is a model citizen. You wouldn't call the ride good, but it's good enough: firm but sufficiently well damped to soak up the worst of these poorly surfaced streets. The car is quiet, too, even on the autostrada at speeds I'd never own up to in public. So long as you hold the throttle steady, the F12 is commendably, surprisingly civilized. How Ferrari has persuaded a 730-hp motor to shut up like that is not known, but it's an admirable achievement.
The route into the hills spears off the main arterial road so we go from traffic jam to automotive heaven on earth in a few seconds. The time for full experience immersion has arrived.
At first the F12 seems shockingly, violently fast, almost uncontainable on these narrow lanes. That's when and why my co-pilot yelped. The engine is inexorable, building performance in layers but with gear ratios close enough that, if you so choose, you need never sink below 6,000 rpm. That's the point at which the thrust moves to the outer edges of what conventional road cars can do. For a moment I question the wisdom again: Can this really make sense? Can you really deploy 730 hp through the rear wheels of a car designed for everyday use?
Getting Used to 730 Horsepower
In fact you can. Formula 1 drivers will tell you that when they return to their racecar after the winter break, the machine feels so fast they wonder how it can be managed. And then, within a one-hour session, they'll be telling their race engineers the car is so slow it can barely get out of its own way. In a similar way, we acclimatize to the F12's speed.
The car helps out considerably in that regard. It's a much more stable platform than a 599 GTB so it feels even smaller relative to its predecessor than it actually is. And you can leave the little manettino controller in Sport or Race and be reassured it will never deploy more power that those hard-pressed rear tires can cope with. The traction is something to behold, as it gets out of corners almost as fast as the expletives get out of your mouth.
Yet there's a problem here. Ferrari makes much of the fact that the F12 has not only a shorter wheelbase than the 599, it's also got much faster steering. I don't remember ever driving a 599 and thinking its steering was in any way sluggish, but I'll now always wish the F12's helm wasn't quite so aggressive.
The car moves too much for any given steering input, making it seem darty and nervous. You have to concentrate on being absolutely precise with it, and should the car start to oversteer, which it will obviously do rather easily with the electronics off, you need to be very accurate with your correction. Slowing the steering would widen that window of retrieval and make the car more, not less, fun to drive.
Again, you get used to it but I found that the best way to drive it was without the electronics, but as cleanly as I could. Then you realize the feel from the chassis itself is sublime, and that the car can be balanced in wonderful neutrality, right on or slightly beyond the technical limit of adhesion without a corrective input worthy of a mention.
Less Remarkable Inside
Compared to its performance, the cabin of the 2013 Ferrari F12 Berlinetta is much less revolutionary. Quite the reverse. In fact, its dashboard architecture and execution is very similar to that of a Ferrari 458, which is, of course, a far cheaper car. There's nothing here to say this car is different, even from any other Ferrari. A certain sense of occasion is undoubtedly lacking.
That said, it's perfectly comfortable in here. The F12 is actually a smaller car than the 599 in all three dimensions, but Ferrari insists that passenger space has not changed. I don't like the steering wheel bristling with buttons any more in the F12 than I did in the 458, but at least the TFT instrument graphics are similarly clear and easy to read.
And while there's not much space in the cabin for the everyday accoutrements of life, the trunk is surprisingly big. Remove the dividing shelf and use the space behind the rear seats and it's downright practical. This, in the most powerful Ferrari ever.
A Landmark Ferrari?
Ferrari describes the F12 Berlinetta as a breakthrough car and, in the context of its previous front-engined, V12 two-seat sports cars, it's a fair contention. Even if you extend your search past the 599 GTB and other mainstream Ferrari product to esoterica such as the 599 GTO and even the Enzo, you'll find nothing this powerful, nor so fast from one point to the next.
All of which is highly impressive, but not actually this car's greatest achievement. It's the F12's ability to offer extreme performance while at the same time possessing greater grand touring credentials than many GTs that makes it so incredible.
It's not Ferrari's most exciting car — for me that remains the F40 by a distance — but surely its most capable yet. In short, the 2013 Ferrari F12 Berlinetta is one hell of an achievement.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.