It was the best of times, it was the worst of…timing, I thought as I loosened the chinstrap of my helmet and unlatched the four-point safety harness of the Ferrari 488 Pista prototype I was brought to Ferrari’s Maranello, Italy, headquarters to drive.
At the time this occurred to me, I’d already attended an engineering deep-dive with the wizards that created the car, taken a factory and foundry tour to observe how Ferraris and their engines are brought to life, briefly looked at the pricey tchotchkes inside the Ferrari Store, and briefly driven the 488 Pista prototype on local roads. And, of course, I’d ingested copious amounts of life-changing pasta dishes and many, many espressos.
The climax of the program, however, was lap time in the Pista – which means “track,” incidentally – at “Fiorano,” Ferrari’s renowned racetrack and proving grounds built literally in Enzo Ferrari’s back yard. This sort of experience is what one becomes an automotive journalist hoping to have maybe once in his or her career, so for this first-time visitor to these hallowed grounds, this trip was more like a pilgrimage.
But no one told the winter storm greeting me upon arrival that we were two weeks into spring. Nor would it have cared if it knew.
At least it wasn’t snowing. That happened earlier that morning during our factory tour as gigantic wet snowflakes floated down from above, blanketing the area with several inches of the white stuff. Whether or not you like snow, it’s definitely not the sort of thing you want to see hours before hurling priceless prototype sports cars powered by Ferrari’s most powerful roadgoing V8 ever around a track.
Temps had reached a balmy 35 degrees Fahrenheit, the snow yielding to very cold rain, when I eventually arrived at Fiorano, waterlogging all 1.9 miles of the course. Ferrari replaced the test cars’ sticky performance tires with more versatile winter rubber – a mandate when temperatures drop below about 45 degrees, I was told, which meant that even had the track dried up (which it never fully did) the 488 Pista’s ultimate capabilities would remain untapped and the net effectiveness of Ferrari’s comprehensive engineering efforts to make the wickedly fast, mid-engined 488GTB even faster, stickier in corners, and more menacing overall would be impossible to discern unless my name was Lewis Hamilton or Sebastian Vittel. Which it is not.
The meteorological killjoy prompted my Ferrari hosts to apologize endlessly for the weather and the tire swap, and as they milled about the garage, glancing at video feeds from the track’s cameras, occasionally shaking their heads or cursing the sky, it was clear that they were – forgive me – pista off.
Like the 2004 360 “Challenge Stradale,” the 2008 F430 “Scuderia,” and 2015 458 “Speciale,” the 488 Pista is a leaner, meaner version of Ferrari’s signature sports car of the moment, introduced midway through its product cycle after engineers figured out ways to refine its aerodynamics, reduce weight, and extract more ponies from their formidable engines. Considering the high bar set by the standard 488 GTB’s 661-hp twin-turbocharged V8, already the winner of numerous high-profile engine awards, improving the engine would be particularly challenging this time, but engineers left no component un-scrutinized and replaced fully half of the V8’s parts.
And improve it they did, unlocking another 49 horsepower and 7 lb.-ft. of torque, raising output to 710 horsepower at 8,000 rpm and 568 lb.-ft. of torque at 3,000 rpm.
Furthermore, the engine breathes easier via optimized airflow channels, revised valvetrain operation, and quicker-actuating turbochargers boasting much less inertial mass and new speed sensors. Engine air now enters through rectangular apertures on the decklid just in front of the rear spoiler, leaving the intercoolers as the primary beneficiaries of the huge bodyside ducts by the rear wheels.
The 7-speed, paddle-shifted dual-clutch automatic transmission was beefed up to deliver even quicker shifts. The engine is lighter by 40 pounds, and the car is lightened by nearly 200 pounds overall.
Like the 488 GTB, the 488 Pista is a thing of beauty, though each of the cars I drove that day were covered with mind-bending camouflage tape that effectively masked the Pista’s unique parts, including the bumper, plunging “frunk,” side ducts, rear diffuser, and rear spoiler, all aero-honed in Ferrari’s Renzo Piano-designed wind tunnel located just a kilometer or two away. The only new components not covered by camo were the lightweight rear window and available one-piece carbon-fiber wheels.
Ferrari kept the cars under wraps – literally – while its final engineering tweaks were being made in advance of the first deliveries later this year, though the Pista had officially debuted several weeks earlier at the Geneva Motor Show.
Knowing how good the Pista looked underneath the camo, I longed for Ferrari to strip it off and let the Rosso Corsa – ie: “Ferrari Red” – paint add some colorful contrast to this overwhelmingly gray day. That said, during my street drive around Maranello, the wrap did garner a fair bit of attention from fellow pilgrims, many of whom had come there with the precise hope of seeing camo-wrapped Ferraris prototypes prancing around town.
What the excited Ferraristi couldn’t see as I roared past them on the street was the Pista’s cabin, all awash in black microsuede and glove soft leather, with red accents and contrast stitching and the intense vibe of the cockpit of an F-35 fighter jet.
It is comfortable and exceedingly well built, but make no mistake, this is no Bentley. The deep sport seats held me in place so firmly I wondered if I really needed the aforementioned safety belts, and the flat-bottom steering wheel is nearly flat on the upper arc as well, where an embedded band of LEDs illuminates when the engine revs close to redline. Manual upshifts and downshifts are summoned via metal paddles the size of small bananas anchored to the right- or left-side of the steering column, respectively.
Ergonomics are no less wonky in the Pista as in any recent Ferrari, with the company finding unconventional locations for things like turn signals and windshield wiper controls. And as if to underscore the car’s mission as a purpose-built performance car, you won’t find a big screen infotainment center to fiddle with nor a glove box; all controls requiring a visible interface are handled by two multi-configurable high-res screens flanking the Pista’s yellow-faced tachometer.
Your lap handles storage duties.
Given the area’s soggy roads and generally low speed limits, I went easy on the go-pedal on my street drive, using my wheel time on public roads to suss out the Pista’s character when driven more like a Ford Mustang than a Formula 1 car.
Considering its pure performance proclivities, it proved remarkably comfortable even when traversing pavement as gnarly as a pothole-strewn Long Island Expressway, thanks to its latest-generation magnetic shocks, a technology that never ceases to amaze me. Neither the steering nor the brakes felt as jumpy or jerky as one might expect. In most respects, it was downright docile.
Well, except for the sound. Exhaust note fans will rejoice in hearing that Ferrari cranked up the amount of engine sound allowed inside the cabin “in all gears and at all engine speeds” up to eight decibels compared to the GTB. And what a glorious symphony it is, the intensity building the further you bury your right foot. I’m not sure I’d choose it for a New York to L.A. road trip, but I never grew tired of hearing it all afternoon, in town, on the circuit, or just idling in the pits.
It was still sprinkling when I slipped behind the wheel for my first laps of Fiorano, so I took my time learning each corner’s entry and apex points, adding power and speed slowly and methodically. I quickly realized that even with its compromised tires and slippery pavement, the Pista could handle much more than I was asking of it.
Every few laps, I would pit and reflect and maybe down an espresso to fend off the jetlag, then get back out again. Expectedly, my last set of laps was easily my fastest. Only then had I mustered the nerve to shift gears at redline and dive into corners with aplomb.
Most of my time was spent in “CT Off” mode, where traction control was disabled but Ferrari’s save-your-ass Side Slip Control system remained on, thus allowing generous and prolonged drifts should I have decided to attempt such shenanigans with numerous go-Pros and probably the ghost of Enzo Ferrari documenting every flick of the wheel.
In fact, I’m not sure I ever completely floored the throttle, not on a saturated track and with so much power being delivered to just two wheels. A bit too much power exiting a corner would send the rear end scooting outward into a pleasant, easily controlled – and easily catchable – drift, and that was about as far as I’d push it. After all, in production form, the Pista will cost roughly $315,000 before options, but these running prototypes have value beyond anything financial to Ferrari, and if I hoped to be invited back to Fiorano ever, keeping the shiny side up had to be my main priority.
And so I was satisfied finishing the day without stuffing the Pista into a wall or careening out onto Enzo’s lawn. And while I regrettably couldn’t glean more nuanced dynamic impressions than I’ve reported heretofore, it’s not like I didn’t have fun. Indeed, it was the best of times. It was the worst of timing.
But as I removed my helmet and exited the car for the last time, I had a smile plastered across my face, and my aching temples told me I’d been wearing that smile for a while.
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