The 770bhp Ferrari F12 TDF is ferocious, aggressive and as unforgiving as a wronged mobster
Running hard uphill, I can see the corner in the distance. But there is still time, time for one more shift, one more opportunity to run that 6.3-litre V12 to 8900rpm, to hear and feel the 770bhp pouring from its block and heads, to listen while that sound sears through my brain.
The corner is tighter than it looks; we need the brakes and we need them now. But the Ferrari’s massive carbon discs have it covered. Hot, sticky Pirellis bite into the tarmac, shedding in an instant an unpublishable amount of speed and energy. The car angles into the turn on a trailing throttle, awaiting further instruction. My right boot needs no second invitation. I feel the power come flooding back to meet us, feel the rear tyres being taxed up to and then beyond their limit. The back eases out, but the steering is so quick that it’s rounded up before you can say ‘opposite lock’. The foot stays down, the V12 soundtrack never wavering as the F12 tdf and I rocket over the hill and far away.
That is the introduction I’d have liked to open this story. The rather less intrepid truth is as follows.
Slithering slowly uphill, I can see the corner though the mist. I’ve tried first, second and third gears and had all just dissolve in wheelspin. I’d like to run that 6.3-litre V12 to 8900rpm, to hear and feel the 770bhp pouring from its block and heads, but right now my greater concern is not binning someone else’s £339,000 Ferrari.
The corner is tighter than it looks and I’m pleased to remember that tyres unable to provide meaningful traction are unlikely to be brilliant at coping with the demands of the Ferrari’s massive carbon discs, either. Cold, hard Pirellis skip and lock across the soaking tarmac, taking an alarmingly long time to shed what few miles per hour we’ve managed to accrue. The car angles into the corner and, as soon as I’ve touched the throttle, slides. In fact, the back takes off like an artillery shell fired at right angles to the intended direction of travel. Usually I don’t like quick steering, but now I’m beyond grateful for it. Even so, it’s still over halfway through its opposite lock before the back can be harnessed and dragged back into line. My foot squeezes the throttle like it’s a perforated egg shell, the V12 soundtrack replaced by the sound of my breathing as the F12 tdf and I roll to halt in an adjacent layby to consider what might happen next.
It is possible I’ve driven a more challenging car on a wet and cold public road than the Ferrari F12 tdf, but if I have, my brain has buried the memory in one of its more remote regions. The original 993-series Porsche 911GT2, perhaps.
I thought I knew what to expect, having been warned by friends who’d driven it in the dry that the tdf was somewhat uncompromising, one being kind enough to ask me if I knew the Italian for ‘widowmaker’. Even the nice man from Ferrari had suggested the car might be somewhat sub-optimal in set-up for cold and wet conditions. But this was something else. And while I was afraid of it, so, too, did it fascinate me. How do you deal with such a proposition? Do you try to bend it to your will, or yours to its?
The F12 tdf is not like other Ferraris. And by that, I don’t just mean 488s, Californias and the like. I mean normal F12s and the LaFerrari too. For all its immense, 950bhp poke, the La Ferrari is a supremely friendly supercar, by some distance the most driver-flattering of the hypercar triumvirate. By contrast, the tdf is utterly intimidating. I know it’s hard to compare the wet roads of Wales with the frankly preferable warm and dry alternative usually on offer in Italy but, in my experience, adverse conditions tend merely to magnify traits already inherent in any car’s character.
The first thing you have to deal with is the tdf’s engine, which – and I can scarcely believe I’m about to write this – is at times in danger of being too good. The ferocity of its response at high revs in low gears is something new to me in the road car arena, its throttle mapping in its more ambitious manettino settings as sharp as an engine from a 1970s Formula 1 car. When it lights up the tyres, lit they tend to stay. The sound above 7500rpm is so hauntingly beautiful that you feel compelled to listen to it repeatedly, tempted beyond your petrolhead powers of endurance to press that pedal to the ground again and again. If you can find the traction, the acceleration feels like a concerted attempt to dislocate your shoulders.
But if the engine has a degree in naked aggression, the chassis has a doctorate in pure and applied intimidation. Those fat front tyres have a hyperactive child’s capacity to be distracted by everything that passes, tugging your hands left and right when all you want to do is go straight. Corners are far more interesting still.
One of Ferrari’s apparent aims with this car is that it should never, ever understeer, and I imagine it would need to be sideswiped by a wrecking ball before it did. The car is 20% stiffer all round than an F12 and, far more significant, has front tyres two sections wider, while those at the rear remain the same. With such a fundamental change to the car’s balance – and I don’t recall F12s exactly understeering like Tesco trolleys – you can safely assume that, come what may, the nose will find either the apex you want or, if the sheer speed and attack of the steering off-centre take you by surprise, another even earlier than that. Of course, you can leave the little manettino in its ‘wet’ setting and quell some (but not all) of the tdf’s more exhibitionist tendencies, but that’s like driving wearing oven gloves: you’ll never get a proper feel of what the car is really like.
So you turn everything off, install your heart firmly in your mouth and head off up the hill again to find out more. And you will find out how to drive this car, even in these conditions. It just takes a very long time. You learn that the top end of the rev range is simply out of bounds, the engine a siren call, luring you towards the rocks. If you’re stupid enough to insist on experiencing this car au naturel, the wheels spin up faster than your brain can react, and if you catch an edge, you’re going to need to be awfully good to catch it.
Trust the mid-range torque instead, try to relax, plan ahead and be conservative with entry speeds, positively miserly with throttle applications and quick but calm with the corrections that are an unavoidable component of driving this car this way in these conditions. Then, slowly, it comes to you. You sense acceptance from this growling, menacing monster, not even close to kinship but at least tolerance, albeit of a somewhat grudging kind. Then you can enjoy the liquid smoothness of the V12, the entirely instantaneous gearshifts, the iron-willed damping and, above all, that sense of achievement which comes not from conquering the beast, but at least reaching an accommodation with it.
To your surprise, you find yourself turning around for one last run over a mountain you’d have emigrated to avoid earlier in the day. It’s never easy and that frisson of danger is a dark and brooding presence in the cabin. Also, you must make peace with the strange conflict that comes from knowing that the best way to drive this Ferrari is with saintly restraint. Then, certain things happen. You become aware that you’re probably driving as well as you ever have on a public road and you notice that either the tdf is becoming less treacherous or you’re becoming wiser to its ways. It makes you think about each aspect of your driving, judging the likely consequence of every push, prod, nudge and press of every control. So many cars, even ultra-high-performance cars, do so much to make your life easy that it’s both alarming and intensely refreshing to find one that does not. At all. You bring your A game to the tdf or you’re better off not showing up at all.
But do you know when it’s at its absolute best? When you’ve got it home and parked it without a mark on its carbonfibre and aluminium bodywork. Then you can pour yourself a drink, sit back and replay your day in the freezing rain with a Ferrari F12 tdf. You will reflect that you achieved something and that you learned something, too: all cars need to be operated, some respond to being driven, but only the tdf leaves you with no option. Be the best that you can be or leave it in the shed.
So although I enjoyed driving the F12 tdf, that is as nothing to how much I am now enjoying having driven it. It maybe an odd way for a car to deliver on the promise of such spectacular looks and its stellar specification, but we can blame the weather for most of that. Fundamentally, I love the fact that while most Ferraris are getting easier to drive and enjoy, Ferrari still has the balls to do one that is hard. Truth is, I wanted this Ferrari to be demanding, to ask all the questions and offer all the rewards. And in all these regards, it exceeded every possible expectation.
Ferrari’s most challenging car in decades, terrifying and thrilling in equal measure
Engine: V12, 6262cc, petrol
Power: 770bhp at 8900rpm
Torque: 520lb ft at 6250rpm
Gearbox: 7-spd dual-clutch automatic
Kerb weight: 1415kg
Top speed: More than 211mph
Economy: 18.3mpg (combined)
CO2/tax band: 370g/km, 37%