In Ferrari’s carefully stratified universe, there are different classes of both cars and buyers.
At the top of the heap are the so-called ‘special’ cars – the limited editions that only the brand’s very best friends are allowed to own. And the only way you can prove you are such a loyal mate is through buying a substantial number of the company’s lesser models.
LaFerrari was one of these specials, with just 500 built for all global markets, and left-hand drive denying it (officially, at least) to even the brand’s best Australian friends. Now six years later, the 2020 Ferrari SF90 Stradale is arriving to take the top spot.
The brand’s first plug-in hybrid has more power than the LaFerrari did, a dizzying 735kW, and has proved itself to be (just) faster around the company’s famous Fiorano test track.
The crucial difference is that it’s not a special model, rather a series production car, and will be made with its steering wheel on both sides. So, barring the need to raise the thick end of a million bucks and get their name against a build slot, regular Australians will be able to buy one, too.
To call the SF90 a technical tour de force would be like calling the roof of the Sistine Chapel a good daub. Ferrari has created a hugely complex hybrid powertrain that features both a 574kW twin-turbo V8 – derived from the engine fitted to the F8 Tributo, but with some substantial modifications – and three electric motors.
Two of these are at the front, driving one wheel each and allowing for torque vectoring. The third is a state-of-the-art ‘axial flux’ motor, which is sandwiched between the engine and eight-speed twin-clutch gearbox.
The electric motors can add up to 162kW of power, and although the front ones disengage at speeds above 210km/h, the rear is then able to use the battery’s entire peak flow, keeping total output the same.
Like lesser plug-in hybrids, the SF90 can drive under pure electric power using the front pair of motors exclusively. This feels deeply incongruous when I experience it for the first time, driving near silently away from Ferrari’s Maranello factory – nearly as strange as the sight of Italians wearing anti-COVID face masks and attempting social distancing.
The 8kWh battery pack can give up to 25km of range, and it will work at speeds of up to 135km/h. It’s a neat trick, and one Ferrari reckons will be popular with owners trying to sneak out for an early blast without disturbing neighbours, but it’s hardly the point of the car.
It also means there’s no mechanical reverse gear, the SF90 always backing up under electric power.
In the blended Hybrid mode the SF90 defaults to when it is started up, faster progress will fire the V8 into raucous life, or this can be done by selecting either Performance or Qualify on the e-Manettino that controls powertrain modes.
And it immediately turns into a proper Ferrari with towering performance and a soundtrack to match, snarling and increasingly savage as the engine closes in on its 8000rpm redline.
Under hard use, there’s little evidence of the electric side of the powertrain. The assistance is added seamlessly and, for the most part, invisibly – but that doesn’t stop it from transforming the way the car drives.
Most obviously this is through the ability to send drive to the front wheels, allowing the SF90 to find huge traction and also to divert power forwards to help pull it out of hydrocarbon-induced slippage.
So while the 2.5-second 0–100km/h time is impressive, it’s the astonishing 6.7-second 0–200km/h figure that tells the fuller story of how otherworldly the car feels when unleashed.
The front motors allow torque vectoring, although there was only a very occasional, very slight sensation of power sharing the steered wheels on some of the twisty hill roads above Maranello. The motors also offer a form of advanced traction control, managing slip by quickly increasing the rate at which energy is being harvested rather than reining back the engine.
They also bring the potential for high levels of regenerative braking, with the need to combine this with retardation from the vast carbon discs leading to the use of a brake-by-wire system. This has a very short pedal stroke, which takes a little getting used to, but by the end of two hours I was fully acclimatised. The new eight-speed twin-clutch transmission is also pretty special – somehow quicker and more decisive than the already lightning fast seven-speeder in the F8.
Although it delivers its huge thrust with little drama, the SF90 quickly proved itself to be too fast to be exploited on any of Ferrari’s tight and twisty road route. Getting the accelerator pedal to the carpet is something that will only be done rarely, and for very brief periods. Even short-shifting and using little more than half throttle, the Stradale felt quicker than many bona-fide supercars.
Suspension compliance is excellent and the ride quality surprisingly plush, with the ability to soften dampers further with a ‘bumpy road’ setting.
Although around 120kg heavier than the F8, the SF90’s mass is kept under tight control, and there was no bottoming out on even sizeable dips and compressions. It’s relaxed at cruising speeds, too.
Ferrari has also upped its game with the new car’s cabin, which feels a couple of rungs up from the company’s lesser models in terms of both plushness and kit. Most controls are now done by touch-sensitive panels, with data relayed to the single 16.0-inch display screen ahead of the driver’s seat.
The HMI works pretty well, although with a strange ‘page turning’ noise played when flicking between functions.
I did have a couple of ergonomic niggles, though. The dashboard's top is moulded in a shape that throws nasty reflections on the inside of the windscreen in bright sunshine. Also, the ventilation fan is noisy and had to work surprisingly hard to keep the cabin at acceptable temperatures in low-30 ambient.
The car’s exterior design is also lacking some of the visual aggression that used to come as standard with senior Ferraris, especially at the front. In this, the SF90 has a solid excuse – the wind-tunnel-sculpted aerodynamics that allow it to combine impressively low drag with the ability to make up to 390kg of downforce.
The rear wing doesn’t rise, rather it falls, revealing a much more aggressive element when it does so. The rear lights do look like those of the current Chevrolet Camaro, though.
After a traditional lunch at the famous Ristorante Montana, sitting beneath faded race overalls once worn by Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello during their time as factory F1 drivers, there’s the chance to experience the SF90 on the nearby Fiorano test track. And immediately regret eating so much pasta for lunch.
COVID restrictions preclude a chaperone, so instead I’m sent on to the track with the near-impossible mission of sticking with factory test driver Fabrizio Toschi driving a prototype.
Most cars feel slower on a track, but the SF90 manages to feel faster thanks to the ability to experience the brutality of its full acceleration for more than a couple of seconds at a time.
The straights certainly seem far shorter than I remember them being on my last visit, but more impressive is the way the car turns into corners and hooks up enormous traction on the way out.
Accidentally turning the Manettino to TC off when I was looking for Race gave me the chance to experience some interesting yaw angles before I noticed the mistake. But even being driven over its limits, the SF90 is a remarkably friendly thing.
The standard SF90 doesn’t quite pip the LaFerrari on outright performance. It takes selection of the Assetto Fiorano handling pack, which brings motorsport-derived dampers, titanium springs and extra lightweighting, to allow the SF90 to go one second under its predecessor’s lap time at Fiorano.
But the standard car is only fractionally slower. And in those parts of the world that got the chance to buy both, the SF90 is less than half the price of a car that was once reckoned to be so definitive, it was awarded the definite article.
One thing is clear: when it comes to using electrification to add excitement to performance cars, rather than just piety, Ferrari is leading the race.
Engine: 3990cc, V8, twin-turbocharged with three electric motors
Transmission: Eight-speed twin-clutch, all-wheel drive through front e-axle
Power: 574kW at 7500rpm (plus 162kW electric)
Torque: 800Nm at 6000rpm
Top speed: 340km/h
Weight: 1600kg (dry) standard, Assetto Fiorano 1570kg
Fuel consumption: TBC