By: Jeff Littrell
So youre thinking about buying a new F355? Well, Ferrari has made your decision just a little bit tougher by offering you the option of playing Michael Schumacher with the gearbox in the new F1 model. Youve read all the reviews, most of them glowing, but are you really ready to forego that traditional gated shifter? Isnt stirring that polished gear shift knob half the fun of owning a Ferrari? Is there any satisfaction to be had from just pulling a little plastic paddle? You bet there is.
Im fortunate enough to be the new owner of a 1998 F355 F1 Berlinetta and I found it to be quite a soul-searching experience whether to buy the F1 or not. The problem, as with most new car buying, is that you dont really know how well youll like it until youve driven it for a while. Hopefully, this little article will provide insight into the good and the bad of the F1.
There really isnt much that needs to said about the F355 itself. It is one of the best performing vehicles on the planet. It looks great, the build quality is as good as Ferrari has ever had (which was not intended as slam), it sounds great, and just does everything well. But what about that computer-controlled F1 gearbox?
First off, it is the same exact 6-speed gearbox as the manual transmission cars so there is no worry about the box itself. In the F1 its just controlled via a complex series of solenoids and electro-hydraulic gizmos and some pretty fancy software. Ill have to admit to being a bit wary of first-year technology in something so complex but so far there has not been so much as a hiccup.
Ill also have to admit to not wanting the F1 after my first test drive. Heres how it went down:
The first thing you realize is that starting off from a dead stop, like out of the dealers tight lot, the F1 is kind of like driving an automatic you just squeeze the gas pedal and it just starts moving the car. Even though theres no power-wasting torque converter and the F1 magic is truly slipping a normal single-plate clutch disc just like you would do with your foot, without the tactile feel it is highly unsatisfying, weird even. The salesman took me out in the car and it seemed pretty smooth and interesting but the shifts werent nearly as fast as I thought they could be. Dont get me wrong, it is a total rush not lifting your foot and just tugging that little bat-ear but I guess Id been expecting the same engine note as The Ferrari F1 cars. You know, whahhhhh, whahhhh, whahhhhh, brake, click, click click thats up 3 gears and back down again. Total elapsed time, about as long as it takes you to say "bye, bye, Mika." The problem was, the F1 shifted more like whahhhh, power off, wait a bit, body comes forward off the seat, whahhhh, pushed back and off again. It certainly seemed to my egotistical mind that I could shift faster than that. I went home muttering about 0.20 second shift BS, told the wife it wasnt worth it, and started shopping for a used Berlinetta.
It wasnt until a second test drive with a younger and more aggressive salesman that I realized the err of my, and the previous salesmans, ways. During the first test drive, in deference to the equipment, we were both shifting at about 7,000 to 7,500 RPMs. This is an insanely high speed for 8 pistons, 40 valves, and a host of other expensive mechanical items to whirl about but its still at least 1,000 RPMs shy of what the F355 is capable of. And likes. More importantly, the software in the F1 is programmed such that if you take it to the 8,500 RPM redline it knows you mean business and it gets its business done in a hurry. But, shift it at 7,000 and its about as rough a shift as you can get out of the car because it tries to smooth things out but the engine and the car are moving so fast any hesitation feels strange. Shift at partial throttle and its smooth as silk, shift at full throttle at 8,500 RPMS and it will beat the best driver in the manual, but shift at 7,000 full throttle and it is less than satisfying.
Lucky for me I went back a second time. I mean, what better way to spend a day than at the Ferrari dealer, right? The second time was the charm. A more aggressive test drive with a younger and less gentle salesman made all the difference for me. The car chirps the tires in second and I experienced a smoky, fishtailing, 100-foot burn out that hopefully my car will never have to perform. I was sold. And I ended up walking away with a car that just stole my heart. A serious, no-frills Berlinetta in Titanium with black leather-covered carbon fiber racing seats that hold my skinny butt just perfectly and the optional black mesh rear grill from the Challenge cars that lets the heat escape a bit faster and looks great too.
After logging a couple months in the car, it is still a rush but now Ive spent enough time behind the wheel that I can tell you a couple things you havent read in the magazines.
First, starting the car is not for uninitiated. It requires a seemingly synchronized series of actions performed in just the right order or you find yourself denied with nothing at all from the turn of the key. Kind of like some mystical incantation in deference to Enzo. You have to disable the factory-installed ignition kill switch with the key-fob and put on the seat belt before you turn on the key or it will greet you with a buzzer that is decidedly non-Ferrari in its annoying shrill beep. Now turn the key to On and wait for the diagnostics to stop their own silly sequence of flashing lights and jumbled LEDs. Finally, you get to pull both paddles to get neutral. But wait! You forgot to press the brake pedal so nothing is happening. Press the brake, pull the paddles, turn the key and finally it roars to life. It really isnt that complex but I find it annoying compared to just pressing with the left foot and turning the key of a stick-shift car. Of course, it worked to my wifes advantage with the valet at the Hotel Bel Air who hadnt seen one before and therefore let her park her own car. Im sure that wont last much longer.
Starting the car isnt the only low-speed idiosyncrasy. You probably dont realize how often you back up, put the clutch in, and drop the car into first gear without touching the brake or coming to a complete stop. I know I didnt. But I do now because the F1 wont let you grab first gear until youve come to a complete and total stop with your foot still on the brake. Not a big deal but it still bugs me. Who let computers control my life anyway?
Speaking of computers, the F1 has "fuzzy logic" which just means that it doesnt always behave in the same, exact, predictable way. Instead, it tries to adapt to your driving style. This actually works out just fine but once in a while youll find yourself nailing it out of that onramp and the car wont shift quite as aggressively as youd like because youd just spent a few hours in stop and go traffic and the car figures youre a wimp for not whomping on it sooner. Fortunately, a couple good whacks of the right foot fixes that pretty quickly. I cant wait to see what its like after a day at the track!
Downshifting is another area where Id like to second-guess the computer. I always heel-toe downshift and Ive gotten pretty darn good at it. The F1 will only match revs if youre driving possessed, coming in hot, nailing the brakes and grabbing gears so that you stay in the power band. Anything less than that and it downshifts like my wife. Which isnt to say that its bad my wife is actually a great driver but it isnt downshifting the way I would. If you dont downshift manually, the F1 will do it for you as slow to a stop but the clunk into first gear is a bit unrefined.
The final thing I havent figured out is how to launch the car rapidly from a dead stop. I know it can be done because the magazines record zero to sixty times of 4.4 seconds, but I just havent got it right yet. Maybe it is the mechanical-preservation instinct that I possess but automotive journalists had to give up as part of their initiation to the "press car club." Anything less than full throttle right off the line results in a clutch take-up that is smooth but not all that aggressive. Stomp on it and it realizes youre serious. The result is P-Zero smoke, something Im not all that anxious to see. Im told that the magazine guys put the car in neutral, rev it up to 7,000 and pull it into first gear. I havent tried that, nor am I likely to anytime soon.
By now youre ready to stir the old gate and wondering what the heck I was thinking that day at the dealership when I plunked down a load of cash for yet another computer in my life, right? Well, I figured youd already read all the good stuff and these are the day-to-day things that you cant find anywhere else. I cant leave you like that though so Ill give you a little good stuff also.
The car is a rocket and a total blast to drive once you get rolling. All those low speed annoyances are quickly forgotten after a few right-foot-to-the-floor flips of the right wrist. Your hands never leave the wheel, the car shifts like a Ferrari test-driver every time, and it sounds so good its amazing. I downshift and nail it in every tunnel or underpass I can find. Also, Autoweek was full or crap when they said the shifts were rough. At partial throttle the car shifts as smoothly as youre ever likely to do, and probably a lot better.
Your friends will be astounded and awed by it. And you can let them drive it without worrying too much about them doing anything damaging. The clutch will last a lot longer too, letting the computer do the work. The only problem the salesman mentioned isnt a problem at all. The car is so easy to drive and shifting is so effortless that you arent slowed down by the cumbersome process of shifting, therefore you drive much faster. This may be a problem on test drives but it isnt a problem for me.
And, theres no way that Ill pull a bonehead maneuver like my friend did the other day, accidentally grabbing 2nd when we wanted 4th in his M3. No rods through my block, thank you very much.
In my opinion the F1 is no fad. It is the future. Im hearing that maybe all of the F130 F355-replacement models may be F1s. Like all software Im certain that version 2 will be even better but I think Ferrari did an awesome job right out of the gate, so to speak. Fortunately, Im lucky enough to have two Ferrari so I can still shift when I feel my left leg atrophying or when I just want a little nostalgia in my life