Ask a seven year old to design his dream car and chances are the F40 would emerge from the pointy end of the crayon. It is angular, aggressive, has a huge rear wing, enormous tires, and two neck snapping turbos. The F40 has plenty of air scoops, angles, curves, and sits just a few inches off the ground. All the elements every little boy dreams of in a car. Sit in one at age forty, and you are instantly seven again. The F40 is cool in a way that every car enthusiasts inherently understands. You don’t need to drive it to know it is going to be very fast.
The F50 is the last raw Ferrari supercar. It is completely devoid of electronic drivers aids and as such represent the end of an era. Where the F40 instantly draws you towards it, the F50 is outright intimidating. Go to a car show with both and people will be lining up to get a chance to sit in the F40 and stick their heads in the engine bay. On the F50, they tend to stand respectfully a few feet away, pointing out details quietly to each other with subtle hand gestures. Despite being only 4 ½ inches longer and half an inch wider, the F50 appears to be a larger, more imposing automobile. If the F40 is every kids dream, the F50 is a serious car for adults. While F40’s are standard fare at every Ferrari Owners Club Concours, the F50 is rarer than an Enzo and few are ever seen in public. This lack of exposure today, coupled with Ferrari’s indifference to the press at the F50 launch, has resulted in the F50 being a poorly understood and frequently maligned Ferrari. Perhaps this situation is best summed up by Jeremy Clarkson’s comment that he preferred the F355 to the F50. Reason why, Clarkson did not think he was a good enough driver for the F50. The F50’s burden is that no one ever remembers the rationale.
Dropping down into the driver’s seat of an F40 is an exercise in agility. You need to navigate the wide sill, low roof, refrain from leaning on the thin carbon fiber door, while dropping your butt smoothly into the narrow racing seats. Miscalculate and you can either impale yourself on the handbrake or dent your cranium of the door frame. Once facing forward, you have a smallish Momo wheel mounted almost vertically, and small cluster of instruments right in front of your line of sight. The dashboard is covered in cheap industrial locker room carpeting, the carbon fiber panels are held together by what appears to be green toothpaste, and a tall black balled topped gearshift rises majestically from the center tunnel. It is utterly fantastic. There is not an ounce of luxury to be found anywhere in the cabin. The only compromise made to the purity of the design which added weight is air-conditioning.
Turn the ignition key, jab the starter button and the 2.9 liter V8 instantly barks to life. Even as it warms up at idle, the engine conveys a sense of urgency. Engage the heavy clutch, give it a bit of gas, and the F40 begins to roll smoothly forward. Stay under 3500 rpms and the car is docile. With a little bit of speed the steering lightens up considerably and the F40 seems to carve down the road with precision. With minimal sound proofing, it seems like the seat is mounted directly to the front of the engine. The sounds of very bump and pebble comes crashing through the carbon panels. All five senses are busy processing the waves of information. Hit the open road and plant your foot and the experiences changes dramatically. Puttering around town, the F40 is tame and controllable. It feels like anyone with a strong left leg could handle it.
Push the rpm needle past 4000 rpm and your outlook on life changes. After a moment of hesitation, all hell seems to start breaking loose directly behind you. For the F40 rookie, everything gets blurry, and the future comes rushing towards you. The huge surge of power will push the massive rear tires to the edge of breaking free and you can feel them fighting hard for grip. Events in the rear are communicated directly through your lower back and you seem to be able to feel every slight change of direction. Initially the front end will lighten slightly while you build speed. At speed the aerodynamics force the nose back down smartly. Lift off briefly to change gears and another minor explosion takes place in the engine bay as the turbos release pressure. Slotting the next gear requires both a firm hand and conviction. The gear box is stiff and changes require practice to be done smoothly. Hitting the brakes will provide the next surprise as retardation does not occur at the same rate as acceleration. Mashing the accelerator when the front wheels are not pointed straight ahead is only for the very brave. The huge surge of torque as the turbos kick in will break the rear tires free suddenly and violently. Breakaway can be caught if you are good and quick enough. Otherwise the result will be spectacular and expensive.
Everything about driving an F40 is intense and leaves you feeling completely alive. The warp speed acceleration when the turbos kick in is simply an experience no other car delivers. The pressure release on the turbos coupled with the explosion when unburnt fuel gets dumped into the exhaust is the stuff of kid’s dreams. As fantastic as it is, it does have flaws. Driving it really fast on a track is hard. The margin for error is small. Slow in fast out is a rule not to be trifled with. The brakes fade quickly when pushed hard and never provide the assurance expected in a 200+ mph Ferrari. Overall though, the F40 is an amazing piece of focused raw uncompromised engineering.
Standing next to both cars, you would expect the F50 to be the more refined, civilized model. There are no signs of green toothpaste holding the panels together, it has interior door handles, the seats are trimmed in leather, and it even has 3 small storage compartments. The carbon fiber in the cockpit has even been polished to a glossy finish. Swing open the small door, step over the wide high sill, drop yourself into the drivers seat, and the first thing you feel is that the seat actually even has padding. Sitting behind the wheel, you feel like you are in a very high end luxury sports car. Perceptions can be very misleading, the first hint of which comes when you turn the key, wait for the OK sign on the digital dashboard, and then punch the starter button. The noise that erupts from behind your head is unlike that produced by any other engine fitted into a road car. As the engine is mounted directly to the bulkhead, the whole car fills with vibration.
After giving the F50 a good few minutes to warm up, slotting it into gear for the first time is remarkably easy after the experience with the F40. The clutch is much lighter while maintaining the same feeling of precision. Grip the carbonfiber ball on top of the gear shift and it moves easily through the metal gate. The throttle is as sensitive as the F40’s but the F50 is more difficult to pilot at very slow speed as the huge engine pushes you forward even at very low rpm. Set up as a Barchetta, the F50 proves intense exposure to everything happening around you.
Building speed, the noise coming form the F1 derived V12 builds dramatically. At 5000 rpm it is screaming, at 8500 rpm it is near deafening. Push the accelerator and it leaps forward immediately, regardless of where the rev counter is sitting on the tachometer. Other than the engine noise, speed builds without any drama. One minute you are trundling along sedately, the next second everything is fading into your past. It is turbo type acceleration without the turbos, lag, or drama. In the F40, you have an idea of how fast you are going by the drama associated with it. In the F50, you just don’t. The F50 is so stable, competent, and completely lacking in any sort of body roll or flexing which provide the normal clues as to speed. Hustle it around a track or up a mountain, and the speed it can take corners at is shocking at first. If the ride on the F40 is hard, on the F50 it is a rock. Every minor imperfection in the road surface is transmitted directly to the driver. Where in the F40, the limitations of the brakes serve as a check for the prudent; the F50’s brakes inspire significantly more confidence and risk taking. Because the power delivery is linear, you can be consistently more aggressive driving the F50. When the rear tires do start to break free, it is more progressive and easier to catch. Ironically though, because of the engine vibrations, the F50 is more fatiguing to drive over very long distances.
After spending a considerable amount of time driving both the F40 and F50, they are both fantastic but very different cars. The F50 is a race car that Ferrari somehow got homologated for the road. While it appears to be more polished than the F40, under the skin no compromises have been made to performance and handling. The F40 is the opposite; it is a road car that comes as close to being a race car as is possible while remaining road legal. The F40 has a few flaws which in the end add to the experience of driving one with skill. Both are amazing machines, both infinitely desirable, and both unlike anything else on the road.