Companies like Ferrari are in the enviable position of sprinkling performance dust on their already-great base cars, all just to make them a skosh better and grab us again by the loins for one more model year. Some perspective: in 2002, the legendary Enzo set its personal best around Ferrari's 1.9-mile track at Fiorano, pulling a 1:24.9. This 458 Speciale with four fewer cylinders and more weight beats it with a time of 1:23.5, and not once during my laps did I feel as though I might die if my slightest judgment behind the wheel was less than on the money.
Looking at the almost-all-aluminum 458 Speciale is the first step. Every added edge and flap is purposeful. The coefficient of drag is kept nicely at 0.35, while downforce front and rear has been increased, owing in great part to significant active aerodynamic touches that will be seen in larger form on the range-topping LaFerrari. Whereas on the 950-horsepower LaFerrari, these moving vanes will be there to help hold the supersonic sucker to the ground, here on the 597-hp 458 Speciale, they need to lower the drag and still provide enough downforce for super sports car frolics. To my eye, this 458 Speciale is closer than ever to looking like a large Lotus Evora S, which is never a bad thing.
An eager Ferrari representative asked me after my afternoon track session, "So, did you feel the active aerodynamics come into play out there?" He was confused a tad when my answer was a very positive no. If I had noticed the moving flaps in the middle of the chin spoiler or within the large rear diffuser doing their duties, I would have been disappointed. For the driver, though, there is no overt added spectacle to it at all. The Speciale just quietly goes about the business of making your life behind the wheel sensational through aerodynamic optimization. The consequent added speed you can carry into and through curves just wouldn't have been possible in an Enzo, nor even in a 430 Scuderia back in 2007.
It just quietly goes about the business of making your life behind the wheel sensational...
Every bit of tech on the 458 Italia that we've been familiar with since production launched in 2009 – the SCM magneto-rheological dampers, seven-speed F1 dual-clutch gearbox, F1-Trac traction control, E-diff electronically activated locking differential, CCM carbon ceramic braking – it's all been notched up to a new level of competence. The really new deal here – besides the addition of the adaptive aerodynamics front and rear – is the SSC, which stands for Side Slip Angle Control. This is essentially a very highly evolved software-based form of mixing torque vectoring with traction control that involves the entire chassis talking to itself at lightning speed while being pushed to their limits. The result is actually clear to me, however: I can now hold a sensible and controlled drift through tight corners without having to risk lifting my right foot from the throttle too much (only while in either Race or Traction Control Off mode of the Manettino dial on the steering wheel).
Helping the 458 Speciale get well below its stated 2.9-second acceleration time to 60 miles per hour is the lost baggage of nearly 200 pounds of curb weight versus the 458 Italia, for a quoted total of 3,075 lbs. This lightness is then propelled forward with Ferrari's latest iteration of its F136 engine, called FL. Power in the direct-injected V8 unit is up by 35 horses and the existing 398 pound-feet of torque gets spread more widely due to a 14:1 compression ratio (the 458 Italia is at 12.5:1). All of this makes not only for finer behavior at higher speeds through curves, but also for more urgency coming out onto the straights between those curves.
The sound is that of a hardcore racecar and not simply the delightful scream of the usual Ferrari V8.
The large twin exhausts coming straight out of the back end have given this Ferrari a much more serious tone of voice. The sound is that of a hardcore racecar and not simply the delightful scream of the usual Ferrari flat-crank V8. The feeling is so right, too, because this is indeed meant to be a harder-working car than the Italia or Spider.
The projection is that 15 percent of 458 Speciale customers will be regular track day aficionados. Some 70 percent of buyers will be Ferrari repeats, with 20 percent owning or having owned a 430 Scuderia and/or the previous 360 Challenge Stradale. Comparing my seat-of-pants take in those two earlier special editions to this 458 Speciale, the latter is simply on a whole new plane.
The uprated carbon ceramic brakes and crispier shifts from the F1 DCG transmission pretty much complete the total picture. The ceramic discs have a new infusion of silicon, so the disc diameter stays the same as before while stopping things eight-percent sooner and lasting two to three times longer than before. Even the calipers have been thoroughly drilled out for weight savings and better cooling. As for the F1 gearbox, upshifts are now typically 44-percent quicker in the most aggressive settings of the Manettino, while downshifts get 20-percent snappier. Meanwhile, steering response is rendered 11-percent quicker and requires 14-percent less effort while at speed and hunting curves. Even the Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires offer six-percent greater grip and allow several times more the number of hot laps on track days.
There are no carpets, no sat-nav system, and all cabin glass is lightweight plexi-style racing material.
The new carbon-fiber shell Sabelt bucket seats and four-point harnesses will be available to North American customers only for track use, but they will be available at least. These seats are utterly fantastic drive-all-day units that relieve typical discomforts. There are no carpets, no sat-nav system (though infotainment can be ordered), and all cabin glass is lightweight plexi-style racing material. The atmosphere in here while hammering it on the track [see video] is everything a confident driver is looking for.
This all sounds as though the car should be beating me up, too, especially out on the lumpy provincial roads in the hills of northern Italy. But the new SCM dampers – called technically Frs SCM-E – are so freshly precise and quick thinking that the roughness is a relative issue. I like the fact that the suspension softening button on the steering wheel puts the chassis in a mode that is labeled "Bumpy Road" on the left-side display of the instrument cluster. That's so much better to see than just Comfort.
If you want one of these $298,000 wonders when they start arriving in North America near the end of March 2014, the way to go is to grab this 458 Speciale and hold on to your Spider for less competitive outings. That last sentence sounded ridiculous even as I was writing it, but Ferrari wouldn't even be around to make excellent machines like the 458 Speciale if it weren't able to be said.