Is the Ferrari SF90 the future of the supercar?
22 September 2020 - autocar
Combining a V8 with three electric motors makes the SF90 Stradale a 986bhp beast you can tame. Will it prove a blueprint?
My first visit to Maranello came in 1993, to drive the then new 456GT for this very publication. It was in its own understated way a landmark car for Ferrari: all-new from end to end, the first with a six-speed manual gearbox and the first in far too long not to rely on the Fiat parts bin for the majority of its switchgear. It would shortly beget the 550 Maranello, so siring a line of front-engined V12 supercars that remains unbroken to this day.
I can remember every moment of that trip and thinking to myself that the day that spending one's time in such a way felt remotely normal would be the day I left this profession for good. Twenty-seven years and who knows how many trips later, that day seems as far off as ever.
Not least because the most recent trip felt so like the first: less a simple automotive appraisal, more a looking glass into the future of the company. Back in 1993, the 436bhp 456GT was the most powerful standard production road car that Ferrari had ever made, with only the limited-edition F40 beating it, thanks to 478bhp. Yet the car I'm driving today, the SF90 Stradale, makes 986bhp – more than double the power of even the F40, let alone the 456GT.
If it seems strange to compare a mid-engined two-seater from 2020 with a front-engined 2+2 from 1993, remember the 456GT and SF90 have in common far more than a badge. Like the 456GT, the SF90 is all-new. Like the 456GT, it has become Ferrari's priciest and therefore flagship model. And it too shines a light not only into Ferrari's future but also that of the supercar and hypercar genres.
The SF90 is also Ferrari's fastest car to date, both in a straight line and around the track, its traction, tyre and electronic technology overcoming the fact that its power-to-weight ratio is actually inferior to the 2013 LaFerrari's. Indeed, on street tyres, this mainstream production Ferrari road car can lap Fiorano at about the same pace as the track-honed, race-prepped FXX from 15 years ago did on slicks. Which, when you think about it, is staggering.
Ah, Fiorano. Actually, and on this occasion alone, I'd not wanted to go to Ferrari's fabled test track. We had ground to cover and many pages of images to fill, and I knew all the other magazines would use the standard Fiorano shots we've all seen so many times before. But in Ferrari's unique and curious way, I was told that my attendance was 'mandatory'. So that was that. And I was getting to drive a near-thousand-horsepower Ferrari on a purpose-built circuit, so you can dry your eyes now.
You get so little time. I think I had seven laps of what is quite a short circuit – seven laps in which to get up to, on to and then past the limit of one of the fastest and most powerful road cars yet built. Seven laps in which to reach meaningful conclusions on its behaviour in all its driving modes, as well as figure out the pros and cons of Ferrari's first-ever electrically driven front axle. And not crash. That bit is important and by no means a given around here. Seven laps at Fiorano speed equates to just over nine minutes of driving. It's one of the busier times a motoring journalist gets to spend driving a car.
I actually didn't bother with the SF90's Sport mode, because I'd find out about that on the road. Nor did I fiddle with the hybrid modes, other than to select Qualifying, because that's the only way you get all 986bhp. Well you would, wouldn't you? And I didn't spend any time warming up, getting into the groove or composing my features, because there wasn't any. I just selected Race mode and went for it. And I could see in an instant where that lap time came from. The car was so fast, yet so clean and precise. Who knew that a thousand horses could be so successfully harnessed? Not me, for sure. So I went one further around the little manettino dial and turned off the traction control.
At the exit of the first corner, the car went one way and the steering the other. Instant, heart-in-throat oversteer. I backed out instantly. A more progressive reapplication of power this time and still the back slid wide. But this time, once it reached a certain angle of slip, it just stayed there, in suspended animation as the combination of four driven wheels, 986bhp and one slightly befuddled driver, all overseen by simply dazzling electronic governance, contrived to make the SF90 slide until there was no opposite lock. It felt utterly secure.
Indeed, you'll appreciate just how hard the SF90 is still labouring to save you from yourself only when you finally switch off the stability control systems. And then, even if you're reasonable at this stuff and even if you've been doing it for a very long time, you're going to be very busy indeed. So busy indeed that when I got back to the pits and looked at my telephone, I discovered that I'd missed a call while I was out there. Despite the ringer turned up as loud as it would go, I simply hadn't heard it. Some part of my subconsciousness had intercepted the message incoming from ear to brain and simply turned it around at the border.
In many ways, the SF90 was even more impressive on the road than on the track. In fact, it seems implausible, if not actually ridiculous, that a car with this much potential should prove so easy to drive. It's quiet, really comfortable, simple to operate and a lovely place to be.
So isn't this all great news, both for Ferrari, whose car appears to have bullseyed every target set for it, and for the future of the supercar if it's to set off on the same blazing trail?
Well yes, but only to a point. You see, such capability has been achieved at a price of a different kind to that which Ferrari charges for the SF90. To hit all of its marks, Ferrari has had to come up with a car with a twin-turbocharged 4.0-litre V8 engine, no fewer than three electric motors and all the batteries, inverters and other componentry required to make them all work together. And that's quite a lot of mass. Ferrari says the SF90 weighs 1570kg, but that's a dry weight using all the lightest, optional equipment. Ferrari says the extras save around 100kg, and you can usually add another 100kg to take a car from its dry to the far more widely recognised kerb weight. Which means a standard SF90 probably weighs nearer 1770kg at the kerb. Which is a lot. The Ferrari F8 Tributo has a kerb weight of 1435kg, which means that while the SF90 is almost 300bhp stronger than the F8 Tributo, their power-to-weight ratios aren't so different at all: 495bhp per tonne for the F8 Tributo, 557bhp per tonne (on a presumed 1770kg kerb weight) for the SF90.
So what's this actually buying you? Sufficient traction to be able to deploy 986bhp without further delay and thereby pop 2.5sec 0-62mph runs. But as anyone who is honest and has actually accelerated that fast will tell you, there's precisely nothing to recommend the experience unless you particularly get off on scaring your passengers witless or feeling rather sick. In terms of g-force, it's almost exactly the same as doing a panic emergency stop in a car with really good brakes, just in reverse. And I can think we can all agree that there's not much fun in that.
There are other problems associated with the mass, too, not least the rather artificial feel of the steering. Most notably, the SF90's electrically driven front axle may bequeath all that traction and otherworldly behaviour on the limit (although you may ask yourself whether it's you or the car that's actually driving), but it also takes away almost all your luggage space. The SF90's boot is a quarter the size of that belonging to the Ferrari 812 Superfast, which means anything more than day trips for two people is going to at best require a lot of planning, at worst be simply impossible.
But there is a benefit here. It's big and my guess is that it was the single most persuasive reason for Ferrari green-lighting the SF90. According to WLTP data, this car emits just 154g/km of CO2, the conventionally powered F8 Tributo 294g/km. So yes, on paper, this near-thousand-horsepower, 1700kg-plus hypercar not only produces little more than half the CO2 of the far less potent and much lighter F8 Tributo, it actually emits less than the flyweight 1.8-litre Alpine A110. Which just goes to show how ridiculous and misleading even the new WLTP test protocols – designed to be far more realistic than the old NEDC regime – have already become. But they will be a huge help in Ferrari's quest to meet its emissions commitments.
So on balance, is this the right way for Ferrari in particular and the supercar world in general to proceed? My unequivocal answer is yes and no. The emissions legislation isn't going anywhere and will, in fact, only become more stringent, and until someone actually figures out how to make an electric car fun to drive – don't hold your breath – hybridisation isn't just advisable but unavoidable. Which is why Aston Martin, McLaren and Porsche have been developing such powertrains for their sports cars too, although none yet is in use.
But you can pursue it too far. However much I enjoyed and admired the SF90, nor could I help thinking how much better even than that it would be if it were simpler, lighter and more usable. Lose the two front motors and not only do you lose a load of weight but get your boot back, too. And although this sounds prosaic, out there among people who buy cars like this (which is in series production so therefore won't be bought by collectors), such stuff really matters. Yes, you'll drop a couple of hundred horsepower and a few tenths off the 0-62mph time, but you'll still be able to accelerate so fast that you might forget to breathe, which is enough for most.
All eyes now fall upon the replacement for the F8 Tributo, which is probably due a year or two from now. Will it be a hybrid? Will it have an electrically driven front axle? And will it be not just cheaper than the SF90 but also lighter and even better to drive? My guesses are yes, no, yes, yes and yes.
Electric propulsion will change everything - Matt Saunders
The next 10 years might be something of a waiting game for the supercar as batteries and electric motors become better, lighter and cheaper. Ferrari may already be able to get away with almost doubling the price of one of its mid-engined V8 models in the process of making it a plug-in hybrid, but Ferrari is Ferrari. And so it might not be until the end of the 2020s that we see electric supercars with the potential of those such as the Lotus Evija falling to a price that enables a meaningful number of people to appreciate what electric propulsion can really do. It won't come without compromise, but when it does come, instantly responsive, all-corner-asymmetrical, torque-vectored handling will justify its existence.
It may happen sooner, but I have no doubt that, with the wind of public opinion blowing the way it is, transformative electrification will come to the supercar. Interesting though they are, the likes of the BMW i8 and Honda NSX hardly hint at how cars with thousands of pounds-feet of instant torque, with motors ready to manipulate the course and attitude of a chassis in ways we've never known, will be to drive. The only question in my mind is whether tyre technology is ready. I have a friend whose access to exotic metal is particularly good. He loves his rowdy V8s and limited-slip differentials, but I've seldom seen him so blown away as when telling me what a Rimac was like to drive. I desperately want to find out.
Four decades later, there's still no future - Colin Goodwin
What's the future of the supercar? This is an interesting philosophical question that we've been asking for decades. In the 1970s, in the middle of the oil crisis, the widely held view was that the supercar didn't have a future at all. Little more than a decade later, we had the golden era of the Ferrari F40, Jaguar XJ220, Lamborghini Diablo and McLaren F1.
The future clearly involves electrification. Regulations, if not the market, will demand it. But what about the market? There will always be a desire for extreme cars, the need to show off one's taste and success.
Many enthusiasts, particularly this one, some time ago realised the pointlessness of 700bhp supercars in the modern world and instead either backtracked to classics (or at least modern classics) or fell in love with new cars that have usable performance, such as the Alpine A110.
I suspect that we will lose a few players over the next few years. I can't see McLaren making it through and I have severe doubts about Aston Martin. Even if the DBX is a sales success, I can't imagine that there's enough profit in the SUV to fund the development of electrified supercars.
It's also quite possible that there will be the double-whammy of the Greta Thunberg effect and the economic fallout from this pandemic. How will extravagant flaunting of wealth go down among populations struggling to house and feed themselves? Will thrashing a Lambo past Harrods in first gear trigger not admiration but hatred? Will the supercar die? I don't think so.
The supercar should become more usable - Steve Cropley
If defining the supercar of the future, my plan would be to combine the views of Ferrari doyen Luca di Montezemolo and McLaren F1 designer Gordon Murray. When di Montezemolo took the reins of Ferrari in the early 1990s, he made it clear that the people who bought such cars needed to be able to get in and out of them easily, to see out of them and to use them day to day. He changed Ferraris so that they afforded better access, driving positions and visibility. When the rest of the Ferrari recipe was added, they made wonderful cars.
Murray adds the vital threads of compactness, a perfect driving position and extreme lightness. He also believes his owners will know and care enough about cars' internals to understand the smallest nuances of his cars' design and engineering. Not every supercar owner is like this, but a high proportion of them are.
The big debate – which isn't really a debate at all – is about the powertrain. We know that we're ultimately going electric. Personally, I want more supercars in the BMW i8 mould, with a small but exotic engine assisting the latest and best in electric motors. We punters must learn to understand the internal workings better and better so that we can know, in effect, which electric motor is the notional V16 and which is the pushrod four-pot. The same goes for batteries. Given that any supercar's reputation has always depended on how well it's understood, we have some learning to do.
No more engines means no more supercars - Matt Prior
The next decade of the supercar will be mixed. There will be old-school V12s making the most of the opportunity and there will be an influx of electric cars offering 0-60mph in 2.0sec, until we're bored by them.
What will be more interesting is the 10 or 20 years after that: will the ultimate driver's car redefine itself as something that offers maximum involvement? Will there be limited-production exemptions, alternative or synthetic fuels or other ways to circumvent the outlawing of engines? Because if we know anything about the definition of supercar, it's that an engine is the nub of it. Either we will need new engines or we will need a new definition of 'supercar'.
Carbonfibre tubs and hybridised V6s - Andrew Frankel
The supercar of the future has to be hybrid and it has to be light, but these aims are opposed. Therefore it must be carbonfibre-based, at least so far as the tub goes. If Alfa Romeo can make an economically viable carbon tub for the 4C and BMW for the i3, Ferrari surely can for the F8 Tributo's replacement. I also believe the medium-to-large capacity twin-turbo V8 has had its day. Expect a typical 4.0-litre V8 to become a 3.0-litre V6 with no less power, fewer emissions and a nicer noise than a flat-plane V8. Those with cross-plane cranks, such as Aston Martin and Mercedes, have more to lose aurally, especially if the latter really is going down to four cylinders. But Aston and McLaren are committed to the hybrid V6, and if the sound of the test cars at Fiorano is any guide, Ferrari is going that way too. I can't see a case for the electric front axle, because what it adds you don't want or can't use and what it removes is critical to your enjoyment.
The sports car that should have initiated mass electrification
By far the bravest and most innovative attempt to define the future of low-slung sporting coupés is a car that history will record as a failure. To succeed, you have to not only get your product right but your timing right, too. And if ever there was a case of the right car at the wrong time, the BMW i8 is it. This carbonfibre-tubbed, aluminium-bodied plug-in hybrid was just too far ahead of the curve. The world just wasn't ready for a supercar with only three cylinders, least of all when they came from a Mini. But it delivered in sound and strong performance. The fact that the i8 was good, rather than great, to drive was due to the fact it was set up more as a grand tourer than a sports car, as its four seats suggest. It was fast, it was a fine thing to view and an even finer one with which to live. One day, the i8 will get the acclaim it has always deserved. For now, though, buy one while prices start at £40,000. They won't forever.
How Ferrari's rivals are harnessing hybrids
Ferrari isn't the only supercar firm dabbling in hybrid technology with a twist. Just up the road from Maranello, in Sant'Agata, Lamborghini has built its electrification plans around the supercapacitor – a device that can store only small amounts of energy but dispatch it and charge much faster than a battery. The limited-run 808bhp Sián FKP 37 supplements its 6.5-litre V12 with a supercapacitor-powered 48V 34bhp motor, and Lamborghini is working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a more powerful next-generation system. In the meantime, it is likely to launch a more conventional plug-in hybrid Urus SUV and, in the longer term, is working on full electrification.
Here in Britain, McLaren has already used hybrid powertrains in the P1 and Speedtail. Pre-pandemic, it had planned to launch its first series-production hybrid as part of its Sports Series this year, and it's plotting a 'son of P1' hypercar for 2024 with either a hybrid or fully electric set-up.
The green generation: SF90's contemporaries
Lotus Evija: The Norfolk firm is aiming to showcase its revival under Geely ownership with an electric hypercar, promising an eye-popping output of more than 2000bhp and an equally eye-popping price tag of £2.04 million. Only 130 will be built and the first-year production run is already sold out.
Mercedes-AMG One: Mercedes-AMG's hypercar is finally inching closer to production, after delays understood to be linked to the complexity of making its Formula 1-derived 1.6-litre V6 hybrid powertrain work for a road car. More than 1000 horsepower and a top speed in excess of 200mph are promised.
Aston Martin Valkyrie: Another delayed project, Aston's future flagship is as much a showcase of the aerodynamic design genius of Adrian Newey as the latest powertrain tech. But under its ultra-honed body is a 1160bhp powertrain mating a 6.5-litre Cosworth V12 to an electric motor developed by Rimac and Integral.
Gordon Murray Automotive T50: Murray's spiritual successor to the McLaren F1 is deliberately analogue but still innovative. It's powered by a 3.9-litre V12 that's tuned for around 650bhp and is capable of doing a record-setting 12,400rpm. It also has an electric fan at the rear that extracts air from underneath to boost grip.