Inside Line Feature: Time Stands Still at 200 mph


El Presidente
May 23, 2007
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Time Stands Still at 200 mph
By Chris Chilton
Date posted: 02-21-2008

The moors were not angry, the clouds not lead-gray and swollen with rain as they were when the Ferrari F40 and McLaren F1 first met for a story like this some 15 years ago. Instead, blemish-free blue skies (that very rarest of British commodities) and empty, mercifully dry roads greet our convoy as we spear across Salisbury Plain at two and a half times the speed limit.

We have enough to think about. Don't crash. Don't get nicked by the police (again). Concentrate.

There's enough electricity crackling inside our brain pan to power a Prius until the end of the decade.

In modern terms these are old cars, yet to our mind, the Ferrari F40 and McLaren F1 are the most important, most fascinating and most desirable cars we will ever have the fortune to drive.

Ferrari F40: The 1,311-Car Special Edition
Back in the day, we thought the Porsche 959 might be remembered as the most important car of the 1980s and the Ferrari F40 seemed in comparison like a cynical attempt to make money. Yet the Ferrari is remembered as the fastest car of the time, and its tombstone will read: "Ferrari F40: First Production Car To Top 200 mph."

To put it in context, you have to remember that when the F40 bowed in 1987, 120-mph capability was enough to make a hatch hot. Even a Porsche 911 Turbo was wheezing like an emphysema-riddled pensioner at 160 mph.

Though Ferrari claimed the F40 had been conceived purely to celebrate the company's 40 years in business, the pervading feeling had been that it was meant to reply to the 1986 Porsche 959, which itself had recently eclipsed the 1984 Ferrari 288 GTO.

The F40's twin-turbo V8 — based on the 288 GTO's engine — had been pumped up an extra 100cc to 2,936cc and the boost had been upped to 16.0 psi from 11.6 psi. Power climbed 20 percent to 478 horsepower at 7,000 rpm, while the torque climbed to 424 pound-feet at 5,000 rpm — staggering figures for the day. Engineers claimed that 700 hp was just a cam and turbo-swap away. Most of all, the F40 went 201 mph.

Although the production target had been only 400 cars, more and more customers showed up at the doors of the factory, so eventually 1,311 cars were built between 1987 and 1992, demonstrating to Ferrari (and everyone else) that there was real money to be made in supercars.

McLaren F1: F1 Tech in Street Clothes
In 1988, the thought of a car capable of humbling the F40 seemed unlikely. The thought of a car capable of humbling the F40 by the margin the McLaren F1 eventually did was simply inconceivable.

But McLaren's Gordon Murray had a plan. Who better to build the ultimate street racer than the man responsible for a string of innovative Formula 1 cars for the Brabham and McLaren teams, each one of which broke new ground in materials, packaging or aerodynamics? The McLaren F1 became the most expensive car ever built, and even with a price tag of $1.2 million, McLaren lost money on every car it sold. Honda had been Murray's first choice as the engine supplier, but then BMW designed and engineered a 6.0-liter V12 in record time.

Production began in 1993. Murray asked for 550 hp and received 627 hp at 7,400 rpm. Zero to 200 mph took less than half a minute, and the car eventually was clocked at 243 mph. Production officially concluded in 1998 and McLaren had to create a special racing version to get to the planned production target of 100 cars.

This is one of the hard-core GTR racing versions converted to street use for Nick Mason, the Pink Floyd drummer and well-known vintage car enthusiast.

At the Office
The F40 isn't a country club; it's a place of work, somewhere to experience the kick of those IHI turbos. Truth be told, there's not much kick at low revs, but persevere and by 3,000 rpm the whistling starts, followed by the backward tilt of your neck some 1,000 rpm later.

With 4,500 rpm on the tachometer, things are really happening. The noise suddenly seems a lot less friendly, the tires are snatching intermittently at the tarmac and the landscape is going very runny, smeared by the speed. The poor little needle in the boost-gauge mosh pit is frantically hurling itself left and right as you tug at the black-topped chrome wand of the shift lever, throwing gears at the engine in order to make every one of those 478 hp count.

But while the F40's engine is waiting for its wake-up call at 4,000 rpm, the McLaren has already gotten up, had breakfast, read the paper and left for work. It pulls from no revs and keeps on pulling until your ears can't take any more. There's precious little flywheel effect from the BMW V12 and consequently little opportunity to return your right hand to the steering wheel between shifts. Accelerator-clutch-accelerator-clutch-acclerator-clutch-accelerator. More accelerator. The clutch is heavy and the shift action is heavy but positive. The F1 sounds like nothing else on earth, a banshee wail of induction noise and straight-cut gears.

The hard data backs up the F1's crushing aural superiority. The F40's solid 12-second effort in the sprint to 125 mph is beaten hollow by the F1's shattering 9.4-second display, a simple matter of more muscle and thus a better power-to-weight ratio.

Beyond Sheer Speed
As frightening as you might imagine such performance to feel, the McLaren F1 is no more intimidating to drive than a Lotus Elise. Well, a nuclear-powered intergalactic Elise, at least. Maybe this lack of intimidation is the reason why the F1 was crashed so frequently in its first years, most notably by McLaren's Ron Dennis himself during a display at an F1 race.

It rides incredibly well for a car that looks like it's probably so stiffly set up, it might snap a wheel off trying to negotiate a pothole. It steers like an Elise; the big steering wheel writhing gently in your hands at low speed as the steering geometry reads the pavement, then the steering effort weighting up substantially once you dial in 45 degrees of lock.

We'd expected the McLaren to be too stiff on these roads to use the performance, but we're wrong. The body control is simply sensational, as the F1's ability to shrug off odd cambers, crests and hollows in the pavement is stupefying. You feel confident enough to overcome the traction of the wide rear tires to the tune of a quarter turn of lock without the risk of never being offered car insurance ever again.

This F40's turbo-style power delivery and an unfortunately sticky throttle mean we're not going to be as brave (or foolish) enough to try the same thing in this car. Not on these narrow roads, anyway. The heavy pedal effort of the unassisted brakes doesn't win us over either. The Ferrari's body control also is inferior on these roads, and its suspension control too poor to make use of its power, while the limit of grip offered by the front Michelin tires is too easily breached.

But my, that steering. For pure unadulterated steering feel, no current supercar can touch the Ferrari F40. Unburdened by hydraulic power assistance, it never feels anything less than purely mechanical. The F40 telegraphs messages from its chassis like a racecar, and when the front lets go you're left in no doubt about what's going on. This direct steering communication is the single most enjoyable aspect of this truly intoxicating car.

Looking Back
By the time the first McLaren F1 road car arrived in 1994, the Ferrari F40 was out of production. Both are now long gone, but they continue to be talked about in hushed tones by enthusiasts who know there was more to this pair than the ability to shrink distance like no production cars had done before.

With the always comforting benefit of hindsight, it's easy to see why we were confused by the Ferrari F40. Conceived as a racecar (and indeed a few versions did compete in sports car racing), it remained predominantly a road car. Yet its nature as a piece of competition hardware compromised its utility as a street machine, so the Porsche 959 before it and the McLaren F1 after it (and the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren and Bugatti Veyron to follow) seem far superior.

But now we can see that the Ferrari F40 paved the way for racing cars adapted for street use like the Ferrari Enzo and Porsche Carrera GT. We welcome them for the way they enrich the motoring landscape, yet they are simply beautifully engineered toys.

In the final reckoning, the McLaren F1 has the Ferrari F40 beaten. Almost everything about it is better. The engine is sublime, the performance staggering and the body control even more so, and the passenger packaging is a marvel. The McLaren is a real automobile, far beyond a simple toy.

Yet strangely it is the Ferrari to which we're drawn. We want another chance to master that gearchange, another opportunity to make sure that the steering really is quite so extraordinarily good. And the chance to roll down the window, squeeze the right pedal and listen as the turbos spool up, then grip the wheel a little tighter as the fat Michelins momentarily exceed the limits of traction.

We ache to own an F40. Will we be able to say the same about the Bugatti Veyron some 20 years from now? We suspect not.

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