1997 Ferrari F50 Alters the Perception of Performance

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From the October 1995 issue of Car and Driver.

Amid the wails, howls, and whoops from engine and gearbox—yes, and a few from the driver—it comes as a surprise to find Ferrari’s 513-hp F50 a benign and even friendly car. And it’s clear after two laps around Ferrari’s Fiorano test track that there’s enough of a racing flavor in the roadgoing Grand Prix car to make the driver feel like a hero.

The F50’s 60-valve 4.7-liter V-12 shrieks to its 8500-rpm redline in first, second, and third gears. The snap change to fourth, just before the apex of Fiorano’s famous long left-hand sweeper, comes at 105 mph, and the revs drop just 1600 rpm. Initial understeer, exaggerated by the need to dial in a quarter-turn of the wheel, has abruptly vanished. Finally, there’s agility through the steering.

Despite the car’s size and power, it’s outrageously easy to balance the Ferrari’s attitude on the accelerator, loading up the outside rear wheel and aware that lifting off instantly alters the drift angle. It’s not enough to require premeditated opposite lock—more a tiny, almost imperceptible reduction in steering input. Squeeze on the accelerator and that’s offset by the immediate application of power to the 355/30ZR-18 Goodyear Eagle GS Fiorano rubber (developed by Goodyear’s racing department in Akron for the F50 and named after this track). Incredibly, the F50 feels utterly chuckable.

If I can tighten the line at will, place the F50 to the nearest inch in avoiding the ripple strips, and not ever be fearful of an abrupt snap into oversteer, then Dario Benuzzi, Ferrari’s chief test driver, has done his job well. The terrific thing is that such safe handling is totally unexpected from a car this exuberant.

Ferrari says the F50 is a road version of the 641 Formula 1 car. Ferrari’s first carbon-fiber chassis in a production car utilizes a V-12 engine adapted from the racing program as an integral, load-bearing unit. With 513 hp and 347 pound-feet of torque, the F50 has a power-to-weight ratio beaten only by McLaren’s roadgoing F1—at twice the price.

The F50’s performance envelope is accessible and its handling is adjustable. At least here, that is, on the racetrack where it was developed. The irony: Ferrari has built the F50 as an Fl car for the road, but we are driving it for the first time on the track. Road time comes later.

This is not a beautiful car, but there’s no denying it has enor­mous presence. The shape was sculpted in the wind tunnel to produce downforce (680 pounds at 186 mph, distributed in nearly the same proportions as the car’s 42/58-percent weight distribution). The shape was also designed to help cooling and aid stability.

Everything about the exterior has a purpose. The massive scoops in the hood, where air pressure is low, suck hot air through the radiators and contribute some downforce. The front bumper is profiled to discourage airflow separation before the air meets the flat underbody that runs from the nose to the rear axle line, where two diffuser tunnels help produce negative lift. The rear wing is perched almost as high as the top of the wind­shield and is designed to work whether the car is closed or open. That’s one reason the drag coefficient is a relatively poor 0.37 and Ferrari’s top-speed claim is “only” 202 mph. In this car, grip is more important than outright speed.

From the side, the F50’s proportions look awkward. The open cockpit is set far forward, and much of the nose hangs well ahead of the front wheels. The longitudinally mounted engine is set back between the seats and the rear axle line, forcing an extended wheelbase. It’s the format of an Fl racer.

The driving position comes as a sur­prise. Surely Prost and Mansell didn’t sit this high in the 641? The fixed, airbagless wheel is directly in front of the driver, mounted higher and more vertical than usual for a Ferrari. The pedals, which are adjustable for reach yet slightly offset to the right, never present a problem. But a tall driver may find them so close that his right shin hits the dash.

Proof of the F50’s carbon-fiber con­struction is everywhere in this stark cabin. If you forget the electronic LCD instru­ments—easy to do, because they are almost impossible to read in sunlight—the interior defines simplicity. A/C is a neces­sity, and it is standard equipment.

Recessed in the carbon-fiber dash are two circles: one for a key, the other a black rubber button labeled “Start Engine.” You turn the key and the black instrument cluster lights up. With the gearbox in neu­tral and foot off the accelerator, you push the button. The whir is followed by a hollow sucking, then all 12 cylinders fire together and immediately settle to a quick 2000-rpm idle. A tap on the throttle slows this to 800 to 900 rpm. At this point, the sound doesn’t resemble that of a racing engine, due to the exhaust system and engine calibrations set for public roads.

From outside, the F50 is quieter than an F355, with just a little vibration tingling through the entire car. Once inside, you find the clutch travel springy yet progres­sive, the gearchange precise and light. Even so, it’s a shame Ferrari wasn’t able to adapt the electrohydraulic gearshift from the 641, which worked by paddles under the steering wheel. This is a sensitive issue at Maranello, one obvious area where the F50 radically departs from the Fl car. The problem is that non-synchro racing gear­boxes are rebuilt after 300 miles, and Ferrari prefers to avoid this expensive procedure—particularly under warranty.

As you ease out the clutch at 2000 rpm, the F50 crawls forward docilely. The steering feels lighter than expected, but low-geared with 3.4 turns and a massive 41.3-foot circle. Power steering was deemed out of step with the F50 concept, as it would have added 33 pounds.

The engine proves truly tractable, able to accept 1000 rpm in sixth gear. But not much happens until 3500 rpm, when sound level increases dramatically. You expect an equal jump in acceleration, but it doesn’t happen until 4500 rpm, when the engine note rises with ever-mounting intensity to a shrill crescendo.

From 4500 rpm, the tach needle hurls up the dial to 8000 rpm (at the very top of the display) and beyond. For flat-out driving, you keep the engine in the shat­teringly fast 5000-to-8500-rpm range.

The F50 has astonishing acceleration, yet it doesn’t have the awesome, even scary, power and performance of the McLaren F1’s 6.1-liter BMW V-12. Not that it’s slow: Ferrari’s telemetry, plugged in through the onboard computer, has the F50 capable of pulling 0.47 g under max­imum acceleration. The microchips mea­sure a 0-to-60-mph time of 3.7 seconds.

A 65-degree V-12 is inherently well balanced, but when the engine and gearbox are bolted to the carbon-fiber monocoque to form a single, load-bearing structure for the rear suspension, you feel a mild vibra­tion through the seat and floor over 7000 rpm. The sound is something else. Remember Steve McQueen’s Le Mans?

The first corner at Fiorano is a tight hairpin, normally taken in either first or second gear. At low speed, the F50 feels clumsy here. With the hammer down and the F50 working the way it was intended, everything changes. The absence of bush­ings—and compliance—in the double-­control-arm suspension means turn-in is now fast, the steering meaty and positive without loading up excessively. With its horizontally mounted spring/damper units and the latest version of Ferrari’s brilliant adaptive dampers working hard, the roll angles are so low as to be imperceptible and the body motion control is extraordi­nary, as it needs to be in a 200-mph car.

To use the aerodynamics and chassis, you must exploit the power and take advantage of the F50’s fabulous control, balance, and responsiveness. Get this right and you can forget about under- and oversteer in a conventional sense and just revel in the adjustability of the car’s poise (and approach the claimed lateral acceleration of 1.20 g). With a power-to-weight ratio close to that of the F40, the F50 can lap Fiorano a staggering 3.5 seconds quicker.

Part of that difference is due to the phe­nomenal non-servo, non-ABS brakes. Fer­rari rejected race-style carbon discs because they cost ten times as much as the massive four-pot, cross-drilled steel Brembos.

One remaining problem: heat soak and the flow of hot air from the engine and radiators. This is in spite of small deflec­tors on the quarter vent windows to redi­rect hot air away from the cockpit. Again, air conditioning is essential.

The F50’s connection to F1 racing is partly a marketing angle. But one drive is enough to prove there’s a close enough relationship in the sound, the responses, and the feel of the brakes and the trans­mission—even the steering—for the con­cept and technical integrity of the F50 to make real sense. At least on the track.



1997 Ferrari F50
Vehicle Type: mid-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 2-passenger, 2-door convertible


Base: $519,245

DOHC 48-valve V-12, iron block and aluminum heads, port fuel injection
Displacement: 287 in3, 4698 cm3
Power: 513 hp @ 8500 rpm
Torque: 347 lb-ft @ 6500 rpm 

6-speed manual


Suspension, F/R: control arms/control arms
Brakes, F/R: 14.0-in vented, cross-drilled disc/13.2-in vented, cross-drilled disc
Tires: Goodyear Eagle GS Fiorano
F: 245/35ZR-18
R: 355/30ZR-18


Wheelbase: 101.6 in
Length: 176.4 in
Width: 78.2 in
Height: 44.1 in
Curb Weight: 2950 lb


60 mph: 3.7 sec
Top Speed : 202 mph 

Source: Reviews -


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