Ferrari have taken the fundamentals of a super GT, and added a dose of something extra
THE soft pre-dawn light has gone. The dew-ridden fields are a memory, darkness expanding as we plunge further into the forest. Now the strongest illumination comes from the shift lights; red, then a bluey purple as the V12 screams towards 8900rpm. It should be glorious, though it isn’t. Wet patches lurk in the shadows, leaf litter causes the Pirellis to shudder, and there are broken branches, smashed from the overnight storm, that jut into our lane, ready to gouge the 812’s flanks. Telling myself to relax only sees me grip the carbon-clad wheel harder as I grapple with the decision: lift and coast to the bottom or press on, revel in the speed and performance, and try to forget that this matte-grey missile from Maranello costs $800,000. I sit straighter, draw a breath, and make the call.
TO THE uninitiated, tracing your finger along the 214km stretch that connects Thomson Dam to the derelict caravan park at the Lang Lang boat ramp is an exercise in confusion. The route itself has no purpose, no tourist-clogged destination, no real drawcard at either end. It’s the kind of path you seek only if you have a machine worth extending on the hairpins, darting turns and fast sweepers that lurk in between.
We have such a machine.
You obsess over the 812 Superfast long before you drive it. It gets beneath your skin as you consider the numbers: 588kW and 718Nm from a 6.5-litre V12, 0-100km/h in 2.9sec, 0-200km/h in 7.9sec, and a top-speed of 340km/h. It exists in an echelon of performance and price that delivers a measure of trepidation, yet can be driven by anyone with a wallet large enough.
I first see it the night before, its long, sinister shape slinking past in the dark as deputy editor Enright guides its nose into our hotel garage. Its appearance does nothing to quell my apprehension. Beautifully proportioned in the hallmark of Ferrari super GTs (anyone else see a hint of 456 in the rear three quarter?), the 812SF is striking to behold, yet there’s no elegance to it. Like the McLaren 720S, there’s something unsettling about its appearance; an underlying malevolence that goes beyond the overt aggression of its angular fins, rakes and vents.
Our day starts before sunrise, plumes of vapour streaming from the quad exhausts as we begin the transit stage to Thomson Dam. I’d been hoping for an easy familiarisation phase; the kind to bring my sleep-addled, un-caffeinated brain up to speed, and to calm any lingering nerves.
I got the opposite. The drive through the wet forest to the dam wall is manic, edgy and important. It delivered the first hint that all is not what it seems with the 812. Given its GT form factor, I’d been expecting ferocious speed, but also a layer of refinement and comfort suited to belting across continents. In those initial moments, though, it felt more focused than a 488. The ride is taut and busy, and all of the controls are hyper alert, telegraphing the notion that this is a car that doesn’t quite gel with the whole ‘relaxed cruiser’ thing. Instead it’s constantly egging you on; urging you to delve deeper into the throttle to experience the fury that lies in wait.
So, with the long sliver of road that stretches across the top of Thomson Dam enticingly empty, I do.
What follows is shocking in its ferocity. In second gear and with no turbos to spool, the 812 seems to explode, the revs racing from 4000rpm to 7000rpm in an instant before I grab third in reflex to quell the squirming of the cold rear Pirellis.
The normal human response to such a rapid change in velocity is to open your mouth and shout four letter words, yet for some reason my brain is stuck on one thought: there’s another 2000rpm to go…
With the car parked up so photographer Jacobs can make use of the dawn light, I take stock of our surroundings. As locations go, Thompson Dam is a doozy. Desolate and monochrome, with a Soviet style watchtower that rises from concrete-coloured water, there’s a sense we’re the only humans for miles. That we’ve travelled to a destination where no one goes, despite the brilliant driving road to get here.
The 812 gives pause for thought, too. It’s not what I expected, this Ferrari. It’s complex and intriguing, with a highly strung personality seemingly at odds with its GT positioning.
Racing back up the hill towards the small settlement of Rawson only muddies the waters further. With some appreciation of the performance on tap, I flick the manettino from Race to CT Off. It’s a move akin to loosening Dr Lector’s mask. On the damp, apex-rich run to the top, CT Off mode allows small slides on corner exit, which feel nicely controllable thanks to the deftly calibrated electronic systems, though driving quickly on a greasy surface verges on sensory overload.
So sharp is the steering (2.0 turns lock-to-lock, though it feels quicker), and so immediate are the brake and throttle, that it’s easy to be clumsy with your inputs. And because everything happens so quickly, it’s equally easy to feel a step behind the car. Combine that with the V12’s ability to fry your nerve endings every time you dare to venture into its throttle travel, and the overriding experience is one of simply clinging on. It’s intoxicating in much the same way I imagine playing Russian Roulette must be, with only slightly less dire consequences should it all go wrong.
Mercifully the stretch from Rawson to Trafalgar offers the chance to calm things down. Hairpins give way to open sweepers, the road surface remains shiny and slick, though improved sight lines and a tempered speed free up some headspace to better consider the 812’s touring ability.
It’d be wrong to call it stiff, especially when you deploy the suspension’s ‘bumpy road’ setting, yet on these gnarled rural backroads the 812’s underlying sense of urgency is never totally silenced. Small amplitude bumps niggle their way into the cabin and on choppier sections, you can be jostled in your seat. But what a cabin. Slathered in waxy leather with highlights of aluminium and carbon, it’s a feast for the eyes. Practical, too. Vision is excellent over a low dash cowl, the seats are comfortable and nicely bolstered, and there are plenty of places to put things, which is a fundamental that many exotics fail at spectacularly.
Spend more time in the cabin, however, and a few ergo glitches raise their heads. The functionality of the split screens either side of the tacho requires some acclimatisation, the rotary dials that control the screens feel plasticky and wobbly, and while this car’s yellow leather accents look great, the two that strake across the top of the instrument cluster reflect terribly on the windscreen and impede your vision.
Pointing the 812’s nose onto the freeway on the other side of Moe sees it settle easily into a cruise, though it doesn’t take long for a sense of impatience to surface. Tyre noise is a constant companion and it seems a waste to lope along at 110km/h in a machine such as this. It wants to be let loose, to rip through its rev range, not turn over mindlessly at 2500rpm.
With the sun finally burning away the remnants of last night’s rain we turn left towards Thorpdale and I make the conscious decision to try and understand the electronic wizardy infused into the 812’s chassis. There’s a lot to take in. Along with Ferrari’s clever Side Slip Control system, the on-board brain is constantly juggling the electronically variable differential, traction control and stability systems. The biggest compliment I can pay them is that on the road, and with Sport and Race modes engaged, you barely notice their intervention, so seamless is their calibration.
Less natural is the four-wheel steering. First seen on the F12tdf, Ferrari says it’s been recalibrated for a less-nervous feel, though I can’t help but think that says more about the edgy tdf than it does the 812.
Coupled with the ultra-quick steering, hard cornering is an exercise in restraint, recalibration and trust.
So eager is the nose to turn and so unwavering the grip from the front axle that you don’t pilot an 812 with flamboyant inputs. You guide it with your wrists. Understeer is a non-issue, even at vaguely ridiculous speeds, yet there’s a moment in the initial turn-in phase that can feel alien as the 4WS pivots behind your shoulder and the weight settles on the outside rear. It’s over in a microsecond, but it’s a sensation that contributes to an overarching sense of distrust. I realise I’ve been second guessing the 812’s motives and worse still, waiting for it to bite. Perhaps greater confidence is what’s needed.
If any stretch of road is going to unlock the 812’s magic, it’s the run from Loch to Kongwak. It’s a Wheels favourite: a plunging and busy 32km stretch that, crucially, has little traffic bar the odd farm ute and hustling milk truck. Time to swallow my fear, drown out the consequences, and go for it.
Rarely have speed and assertiveness so profoundly transformed an experience. Make the mental leap, wind back the electronic nannies, and the 812 coalesces in a light bulb moment. Suddenly the cadence of the controls, the freakish traction and agility of the chassis make sense as you whip through turns one after the other, your wrists gently rocking from side to side, your brain scrambling to process the sensory overload bursting through the windscreen.
It’s a rush, an endorphin high made all the more exciting by the sheer brutality and ferocity of it all as you learn to trust the grip and plunge into turns faster and faster. If it’s mighty here I can’t imagine what an 812 would be like on the open, snaking hill climbs of Oman or Jordan, or any place you can see six corners ahead. It’s the straights, however, that are most intoxicating. It’s no surprise that the V12 is a masterpiece; it’s an art Ferrari has been perfecting for 70 years. What’s difficult to convey is just how savage this 6.5-litre unit is. The changes compared with F12 are dramatic (see sidebar) and combined with shorter gearing and even quicker shifts from the seven-speed dual-clutch, winding the big unit out through second, third and fourth feels totally gratuitous.
It’s exhilarating. Mind-altering. And confusing.
With the mayhem wound back and our final destination at Lang Lang in sight, I grapple with the puzzling notion that the 812 might be too fast for the road. That its magic lies in a drawer so out of reach in normal, everyday driving, that you have to take unthinkable risks to enjoy it. It’s a preoccupying conundrum well suited to our end point. The boat ramp at Lang Land is a murky, wind-tortured place peppered with forlorn caravans. Like Thomson Dam it feels deserted; as though all the colour has been sucked from the world as I sit inside the 812 and ponder its complexity. I don’t love it as much as I thought I would. Instead I’m left wanting more. Where other very fast cars are instantly gratifying and easier to understand, I feel I’ve barely begun to fathom the 812’s allure. It’s a challenge. A front-engined, naturally aspirated rocket ship that will only get better the further, and harder, you drive it. Providing you’re willing to take the risk.
By Alex Inwood | Photos: Nathan Jacobs, 02 Jan 2019Features