MIND BEND Lighter, harder, faster – Ferrari’s latest mid-engined road-racer is one of the most impressive Ferraris we’ve driven. Could it also be one of the greatest?
Challenge stradale. Scuderia. Speciale. Pista. For once, the linguistic translation doesn’t fall in the Italians’ favour with the 488 ‘Track’, ‘Pista’ not dancing gracefully off the tongue in the same way, but the intent is obvious. It’s been five years since the 458 Speciale exploded into life with its banshee 9000rpm rev limit, and now, with little in the way of surprise, but no less feverish expectation, arrives the track-honed version of the twin-turbocharged 488 GTB. As with this line’s 360 Modena-based original, the 488 Pista is a ‘Challenge Stradale’; in effect a road-going Challenge car, without the rear wing, racing wheels and rubber and motorsport safety equipment of Ferrari’s one-make racer.
‘YOU REALISE IT WILL MAKE THE 488 GTB FEEL ALMOST REDUNDANT’
Right: Pista’s rear diffuser is hard to miss; rear wing is fixed. Top right: cabin is purposeful and well finished. Left: Pista’s potential can be difficult to fully exploit on the road. Right: ‘S-duct’ sucks air up and over the bonnet. Top: 710bhp twin-turbocharged V8 is formidable, but disappoints aurally. Right: levels of grip on turn-in are huge.
Nestled in the old factory courtyard in Fiorano is a Rosso Corsa 488 Pista with evo’s name on it, but despite the leg-crossing anticipation, it’s only right to run through some fundamentals first. Let’s start with the V8. This ‘CD’ version of the F154 engine builds on what is already a phenomenally potent package. With 182bhp per litre (up from 170) the key figures are now 710bhp and 568lb ft of torque, but perhaps just as impressive is a loss of 18kg from the engine alone. Although it keeps the same bore and stroke measurements as the regular 488 unit, some 50 per cent of the components are new, from a reduced volume intake plenum to new cams, valves and valve springs. The cylinder heads have been reinforced along with the pistons, while new titanium connecting rods are nearly half the weight of the standard ones.
‘THE 488 PISTA IS, IN EFFECT, A ROAD – GOING CHALLENGE CAR’
The beautiful Inconel exhaust manifold is a work of art in itself, and accounts for a 9.7kg weight saving, and the twin-scroll turbochargers now have integral speed sensors that allow a more precise, balanced control between the two of them. The aim has been not just to increase power, but also to improve throttle response – even despite running more boost – and, of course, to save weight. The car’s kerb weight, incidentally, is 1385kg (or 1280kg ‘dry’), thanks to carbonfibre body panels and other weight savings throughout.
The same strategy applies to the cooling system, which now features radiators that lie down backwards in either corner of the nose for better weight distribution and reduced drag. The hot air now exits through the floor, creating an aerodynamic fairing around the front wheels and keeping its distance from the side intake as it flows along the flank. Those large holes that puncture the 488’s sides are no longer air intakes – those are now on the rear deck in front of the enlarged rear wing – but rather purely for the larger intercoolers that can sit higher, and hence work more efficiently.
The aero package is as comprehensive and finely tuned as you might expect. Most obvious is the completely different nose, with its F1-inspired ‘S-duct’ that forces the passage of air through a narrow opening before spitting it out over the steeply rising bodywork. There’s plenty of invisible underbody trickery, too, and a pronounced rear diffuser, but the Pista’s aerodynamicist, Matteo Biancalana, says a moveable rear wing was not deemed necessary, nor the expense and additional weight of adjustable ride-height for Track mode. The Pista runs about twice as high as a 488 GTE racer, but a little lower than a 488 GTB.
There’s so much more to the Pista, but we need to get going. The 488’s door is pulled shut with a tug of the fabric pull and the V8 awakened with the familiar prod of the bright red button on the steering wheel. Whumph, BURRRRRRR. It’s a deep, granite-edged tenor that reverberates around the interior – a cabin that combines aluminium-plate flooring, swathes of Alcantara and, on this particular car, drippings of presumably hideously expensive carbon trim. The 360 CS was spartan but focused inside too, but also felt like it had been hastily glued together as an afterthought once the chassis had been signed off; not so with modern Ferrari. The reclining bucket seat is hard but supportive, and the driving position OK, if a little high, lacking the prone, race car feel of a McLaren 720S – and indeed, its panoramic view out.
‘THE WAY IN WHICH YOU CAN TAKE APART A GOOD ROAD IN THE PISTA IS SENSATIONAL’
The perception of the Pista is that this is the hardcore, madcap relation to the already lunatically fast 488 GTB. Yet it takes barely a mile out of Maranello’s urban roads to realise that the Pista is going to make the GTB feel almost redundant on many levels, and not always how you might expect. Swap the bucket seat for a more generously cushioned pew and introduce some fitted carpeting and there’s nothing to stop a Pista being utterly sane everyday transport. The engine noise inside may be 8 dB louder, but you get used to it, and in spite of a higher spring rate the electronically monitored damping is so polished, so sophisticated, it never approaches being uncomfortable. Ferrari is coy about changes to the chassis, but it’s clear they’re relatively minor; even the anti-roll bars are unchanged. Already the signs are there of combustive carnage over our shoulders. The hollow-timbre bark rises sharply with the merest suggestion of provocation, overlaid by a reserved but sinister hiss from the turbochargers, the effect being the numbers on the digital speed readout increasing intelligibly rapidly.
We’re heading with more than a little haste to a road we know well, deep in the Modenese countryside. Already two things about the Pista are abundantly clear. Firstly, that it possesses a level of total performance way beyond what can ever be approached on the public road. One snapshot comes quickly to mind, a sequence of S-bends that we ‘trundle’ through, deep in conversation about our photographic destination, only to realise halfway along that the Pista is generating enough lateral force to squeeze the side of our chests and catch the vehicle in front at an alarming rate. Oh, and secondly? That even the Pista is no match for an enthusiastically driven hearing-aid-beige Fiat Panda, but then we are in Italy, and that’s another story…
You want to know what the Pista is like when it really wakes up, though, and so do I. The answer comes on a road we used for our ‘McLaren 720S in Italy’ feature, an occasion when we chanced upon a Pista out testing on the same road. It’s ludicrously tight for a 700bhp supercar in places, but its crumbly surface, constant turns and uphill straights are a stern test for any car, regardless of the badge on the nose. In the Pista there’s almost a tangible sigh of relief from behind the bulkhead as, at last, it is allowed to use more than 25 per cent of its abilities. The effect is almost overwhelming.
Ferrari has clearly met its targets when it comes to even better throttle response for its turbocharged V8, and while it can never be as immediate as the old naturally aspirated Speciale motor, it does a more than passable impression. The initial jolt, this snap forward, is just the opening jab; the haymaker follows as the revs rise, because the engine just doesn’t give up, power and torque building in a natural but no less formidable fashion. The power curve actually peaks at 6750rpm, but then holds constant to 8000rpm, so you can hang on to a gear, aping its forebear in some respects. But I’m not exaggerating when I say that using that top third of the rev range is genuinely a challenge, a test of courage – not only due to how quickly you’ll be travelling, but also how endangered your licence will be.
The resulting effect on the rear tyres is quite something, too. Note, these are a new Michelin Cup 2 tyre specifically developed for the Pista. Their outer third of tread looks more like a slick, and I’ve no doubt they’re stickier than a piece of gum that refuses to be rapidly discarded before an important business meeting, but subjected to the Pista’s propulsive force they are soon being smeared in great globby arcs onto hot Italian asphalt. It’s the colossal torque that does it: second gear, third, maybe even fourth, tap into the throttle on a corner and it’s often enough to break the rears free, not in a clumsy, overwhelmed sort of way, but with grace. That is, of course, if you’ve been working the manettino switch on the steering wheel.
‘ALLOWED TO RUN WILD, THE PISTA IS BEYOND ASTONISHING’
Sport is the ‘normal’ setting, Race the one that gives you the full-fat mechanical experience, but CT Off is where things get really interesting. In this mode there’s still support from the ESC system (removing that is one more twist and hold of the dial) but it’s where Ferrari’s new trick acronym really gets to work – the dubiously named Ferrari Dynamic Enhancer. It’s essentially a very subtle and no doubt heinously complicated way of making the Pista driver look a lot better than they are. As long as you don’t provoke the system into action early on in a slide – by too much throttle or ragged steering inputs – it will let you power-oversteer the car to the point of lighting up the rears for yards on end, while all the time loitering in the background, ready to step in if the situation does get out of control.
So encouraged, the way in which you can take apart a good road in the Pista is sensational. If the steering lacks the last degree of authenticity possessed by a McLaren’s hydraulically assisted rack then we’re really splitting hairs. The Pista’s turn-in is typically fast, its steering light but not overly so, and its unerring precision just occasionally undermined by a very slightly artificial response on self-centring. It’s that precision that helps unlock the Pista’s front end, which seems to have a never-ending supply of grip on turn-in. If the rear of the car can always be unsettled by a bootful of throttle, then the front is exactly the opposite. Even on a downhill hairpin, when a clumsy application of power finally causes the front to push wide slightly, a lift of the throttle rotates the car back to where you want it. That’s the amazing thing about the Pista: all violence one moment, deft precision the next.
One of the few things it isn’t is tuneful. Whether from inside the car or out, at low revs or up near the red line, the V8 is strangely anodyne, the effects of turbocharging having removed a large slice of its charisma, in spite of Ferrari’s best efforts. At one point I drop the windows, wondering if there’s more going on outside, as with a 720S and its weird UFO-esque turbocharger noises, but there isn’t. Only when we reach Fiorano, and the famous test track, does something really click with the Pista. When you can let it have its head and not worry about the consequences, there’s a dizzying sense of exhilaration about watching the shift lights illuminate on the steering wheel, the ludicrous speed of the gearchange, and feeling the carbon-ceramic brakes bite so resiliently time after time. Ferrari worked hard on the pedal feel, looking again to ape the Challenge car’s for response.
On track, all the electronics systems combine once again to flatter the driver. Yes, you can switch them all off, but leaving FDE on enables oversteer even in high-speed corners if you so choose, but still with that safety net. Our car on track has the $14,000 carbonfibre wheels option, with a 40 per cent weight saving over the alloy ones, but while the unsprung mass saving is more than worthwhile, I’d need to drive it on the road to tell you the differences.
It’s a short track session, but the Pista once again combines two divergent characteristics: a surprisingly friendly demeanour, almost avuncular, while also being so manically fast and powerful that I step unsteadily from the car with my eyes freakishly wide and my breathing short.
After a long, hot day with the Pista, I look back at it from the shady confines of the famous Fiorano pit ‘garage’ and try to distil some noteworthy thoughts. One thing seems clear to me, from the heart, not the head: I haven’t fallen in love with it. I am bursting with admiration, with excitement, and more than a little trepidation for it, but a deep-seated adoration, no. Not like after a recent on-road reacquaintance with a 360 Challenge Stradale, and its raw, more accessible experience. Not, either, like the Speciale, and that sense of dumbstruck awe that a road-going V8 could possibly be so pure and rev-happy as that engine is. With the Pista the experience crystallises around what it can do, and slightly less about how it makes you feel. To really drive the Pista hard is to wonder just how Ferrari can be so much on top of its game, and to push your own abilities to the limit in a car that can cajole, frighten and protect in equal measure.
Allowed to run wild, the Pista is beyond astonishing, and Ferrari should be congratulated, but that’s on a circuit, not on the road, where it’s a prisoner much of the time. That’s not Ferrari’s fault per se: the market demands every new car is faster and more powerful than the last, and this is where we’ve subsequently ended up. Where we go from here I’m not sure, but in the meantime I can tell you there’s probably never been a better Ferrari than the amazing 488 Pista.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 2019 Ferrari 488 Pista
Engine V8, 3902cc, twin-turbo
Max Power 710bhp @ 8000rpm
Max Torque 568lb ft @ 3000rpm
Transmission Seven-speed F1 dual-clutch, rear-wheel drive, E-Diff
Front suspension Double wishbone, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Rear suspension Multi-link, coil springs, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar
Brakes Carbon-ceramic discs, 398mm front, 360mm rear
Wheels 9 x 20in front, 11 x 20in rear
Tyres 245/35 ZR20 front, 305/30 ZR20 rear
Top speed 211mph+
Basic price CAN $253,715
Drive-My rating 5.0