the fastest ferraris

Words John Barker
Photography Enzo/andy morgan



the double ton...

Thirty-two years after the Ferrari claimed the F40 to be the first production car able to crack 200mph, it’s still a big number. For the record, the claim was 201mph. Also for the record, Guinness didn’t recognise it.

This was not because Italian magazine Quattroruote was the only publication claiming to have got an F40 to 200mph (several others tried and failed), but because its speed was eclipsed by RUF’s 911-based CTR (211mph) and Porsche’s 959 S (213mph). However, they both stretch the notion of ‘production’ somewhat; only 29 of each were made while Ferrari went on to sell 1315 F40s. 

Of all performance statistics, top speed is the least relevant. Yet it has always fascinated, and always will, because it’s such a simple concept. I bet every car enthusiast can remember the first time they hit 100mph (1982, A45 Ryton bypass, Jaguar XJ12, if you’re asking), and the fastest they’ve ever driven (200mph, A9 autobahn, RUF Turbo R, 2003). There’s fame in being the fastest, too.

The Italians were hard at it in the 1960s, first with the Iso Grifo (161mph, disappointing given the claim of 185mph in my Observer’s Book of Automobiles), before Lamborghini and Ferrari started slugging it out, trading the record out over the next two decades: Miura P400 at 171mph, 365 GTB/4 Daytona at 174mph, Countach LP400S and LP500S  at 179mph and 182mph, and a return to Ferrari with the 288 GTO at 188mph. 

The GTO is where we start this Ferrari special, because without it there wouldn’t have been an F40. After that car, Ferrari left others to vie for the accolade of fastest production car. The F50 raised the Ferrari bar just a fraction to 202mph, while the Enzo claimed an enigmatic ‘217mph-plus’. Just over a decade later, the 950bhp LaFerrari claimed the same. And why not, when 200 is plenty? So this is Ferrari’s 200mph adventure, as told by its greatest supercars.

This trio, nose to tail, is like an automotive version of the ascent of man, the evolution from ape to homo sapiens. There’s a visual gulf between the bookends, the curvy 288 GTO having the ground clearance of an off-roader compared with the sharp-edged, road-hugging F40. It looks like they’re separated by a decade when in fact it’s just a couple of years. And sitting between them is the missing link, the 288 GTO Evoluzione.

I still can’t get over how the demands of competition produced a car as beautiful as the 288 GTO, and it drives as beautifully as it looks. It’s as accomplished an everyday road car as the Porsche 959 that was expected to be its competition rival. Both were designed to meet the Group B regulations introduced by motorsport’s governing body, FISA, in 1982.

It was probably Ferrari’s and Porsche’s reluctance to compromise on general habitability, driveability and build quality that contributed to their both missing the Group B boat. For homologation, 200 identical models had to be built for sale to the public, and the rally fraternity got there much more quickly. The first fully formed, mid-engined, 4WD Group B special, Peugeot’s 205 T16, was ready for the opening stages of the 1985 World Rally Championship. A year later, several terrible accidents saw Group B abandoned. 

Ferrari showed the 288 GTO at Geneva in early ’84 and launched the Testarossa at Paris in October. Two more different big-horsepower Ferraris you cannot conceive. The flat-12 Testarossa was an evolution of the 512BB, the GTO came from the racing department. Harvey Postlethwaite took the 308 GTB, turned its V8 through 90 degrees and gave it a pair of turbos. The end-on gearbox lengthened the wheelbase and wider tracks demanded a restyle.

Pininfarina had proposed some aerodynamic improvements for the 308 in 1977 with its ‘Millechiodi’ concept. Millechiodi translates as ‘one thousand nails’ – the many rivets that secured the various addenda. Some of them were adopted in a mild form by the 308 QV, but the GTO went the whole way with the shovel-like front spoiler, the kicked-up tail and the distended arches.

Chief engineer Nicola Materazzi was in charge of the turbocharging. He lobbied for Japanese IHI turbos rather than the products of Ferrari’s incumbent supplier, KKK, successfully demonstrating that the IHI units were better matched to the engine. The flat-plane-crank V8 had a slightly reduced bore, dropping its capacity from 2927cc to 2855cc which, when multiplied by the FISA’s turbocharged equivalency factor of 1.4, brought the V8 in just below the 4000cc limit. Strictly speaking the engine was a 2.9, but ‘298 GTO’ just didn’t have the same ring to it.

For years, the GTO has been my dream car, my poster car, my lottery-win car. It would need to be a solid EuroMillions win today but when I first drove one 15 years ago it cost less than my house. I was terrified that I would be disappointed after all those years of fantasising, but I needn’t have worried. It exceeded all my expectations, and more.
So it’s wonderful to get behind the wheel again but, first, let’s deal with what’s wrong. You sit a bit high. Too bad. And now, the rest…

In the mid-80s, the world hadn’t yet become obsessed with low-profile tyres and the stiff suspension needed to exploit them, so the GTO has a well-controlled, supple ride that allows it to roll into corners. But what really gives a sense of what the car is doing is the non-assisted steering. The GTO is proof that, even with fat 225/55 ZR16 front tyres, you can have completely manageable, accurate and wonderfully tactile steering without power assistance. The GTO has such an effortless gait, parrying bumps and hollows, that you can unleash more of its performance more of the time.

Given the outputs Materazzi coaxed from this engine for the Evoluzione, the GTO’s 394bhp sounds quite tame. It doesn’t feel it. Up to about 3000rpm there’s the sound of a gathering storm, the low rumble of the engine gradually joined by the sound of ever-increasing amounts of air being ingested. Then the turbos kick in, the GTO squats a little and you’re off, riding a wave of boost right up to 7000rpm. With the rear tyres secure on warm, dry asphalt, the power is addictively exploitable. We had an Enzo along when I first drove the GTO, and on a bumpy, fast Welsh B-road the Enzo had to drop back because its underside kept hitting the road. For me, that cemented the 288’s hero status. It’s so good that it’s hard to believe this was simply the car Ferrari had to make so it could homologate the Evoluzione, our next car here.

When Group B got canned, work on the Evoluzione halted. At that point there were three examples, two built from scratch and one converted from a 288 GTO. Sub-contractor Michelotto later built three more for favoured clients, and our example here is the first of those.
It seems extraordinary, but Ferrari had plans to rally the GTO. Materazzi was developing a 550bhp engine that gave maximum torque at 3800rpm for rallying, and a peakier 650bhp version for racing. The minimum weight for cars in Group B’s 4000cc class was 1100kg, which would have allowed Ferrari to place a lot of ballast strategically because the Evoluzione had a dry weight of just 960kg. That’s a massive 200kg less than the regular GTO, itself quite a lightweight thanks to the use of composite materials.

You can see where some of the savings are. Windscreen apart, the windows are all plastic, with holes in. You can feel it, too: you have so little mass to work against when you swing the door open that you feel as clumsy as the Incredible

Hulk. All the composite bodywork is thinned down, the rear clamshell is peppered with vents to let the heat out and the other panels wear scoops and NACA ducts to get the air in. And then it strikes you that all of the vents and ducts on the Evoluzione are in exactly the same place on the F40 sitting alongside. Even the height of the rear spoiler and the slightly shovel-snout front are copied across. No question, the Evoluzione has more in common with the F40 than the 288 GTO that spawned it.

Wedged and belted into the snug, deep-sided bucket seat, I see more similarities such as the felt-covered facia and the carbonfibre box-sections leading into the footwells. The mismatched collection of dials ahead shows the important stuff – revs, boost and oil pressure – while hanging off the bottom edge of the facia in its own binnacle is the speedo. I’m as apprehensive as I am excited about the prospect of 650 turbocharged horsepower in less than 1000kg of Ferrari.

The noise that erupts from behind when the squidgy black start-button is pressed doesn’t help. A thrummy, rumbling, gnashing cacophony fills the bare cockpit, but that’s nothing. Get going, and the maniacal whine of straight-cut gears slices though you like some experimental Cold War weapon designed to liquidise your soft tissues as it deafens you.

Sadly, there won’t be a chance to open up the Evoluzione fully as we’re restricted to the narrow roads of the estate where we’re photographing the cars. There are tantalising glimpses, though, moments when the revs rise and the boost starts to build with an urgent hissing before an explosion of torque fires the Evoluzione up the road like a steam catapult. The overrun noise is a grin-making chatter of chuffs as excess boost is blown off.

Driving this car some years ago, accomplished racer Tony Dron reckoned the challenge was to exploit all of the immense performance available. ‘It’s the sudden rush of power that demands you take the Evo seriously,’ he said. ‘Put your foot down hard a moment too early, and all hell could be let loose…’

I might not have felt its full force on this occasion, but by the end of the day I’ll have tried something rather similar…