There are 488s more hardcore than the Pista, but you can only drive them on track. We sample Ferrari’s GT3 and Challenge racers

FERRARI 488 GT3

So you think a 488 Pista is hardcore? Then you really ought to meet the 488 GT3. Closely related to Ferrari’s World Endurance Championship contender, the 488 GTE, the GT3 is a purebred racer. One that shares fundamental DNA with its road-going sibling, but was designed and developed from the tyres up to compete in what has become the most successful, competitive and hotly contested era GT racing has ever seen.

Introduced at the start of the 2016 season, the 488 GT3 was an instant success, winning its first six races straight, including the 2016 12 Hours of Sebring. In its first two seasons it scored victories on four continents, winning the 2017 IMSA title in America, the Blancpain GT Series in Europe, the Asian Le Mans Series, Super Taikyu championship in Japan and the Bathurst 12 Hours in Australia. An exceptional record against fierce opposition.

Opportunities to test factory-supported Ferrari race cars are rare indeed, so it’s with great excitement we head for Mugello – the Ferrari-owned circuit in the heart of Tuscany – to sample the very 488 GT3 that claimed pole at last year’s Daytona 24 Hours. We’re actually gatecrashing the inaugural gathering of Club Competizioni GT (see panel), so whilst we are sharing the track with other cars, it’s not in the rough and tumble of a live race weekend or test session.

I’m grateful for this, because I’m entirely new to both the car and the track, the latter being one of the most challenging circuits in Europe and something of a hidden gem. If you’re a follower of MotoGP you’ll know it as the open-air cathedral at which Valentino Rossi’s army of fans congregate. Set in a valley between rolling Tuscan hills, it’s an extraordinary place, the track sprawling across the landscape to form a formidable 5.25km lap.

The day is relaxed, with no pressure other than that I put on myself, so after a quick briefing about the controls it’s time to pull on my box-fresh Club Competizioni GT overalls (red, naturally) and get strapped in. It sounds cheesy, but there’s definitely something extra special about driving a Ferrari race car. I’m not sure why, but I’m rather glad it’s the case as it shows I’m clearly not as cynical as I feel!

It’s certainly a fabulous-looking car – one clearly pumped up compared to the 488 road car, but still possessing a purity that some of the more outlandish GT3 contenders lack. The comprehensive aero package is matched by suspension and brakes that are optimised to within a micron of GT3’s regulations, which allow considerable deviation from the road car, but are strictly policed. For instance, the transmission is a bespoke six-speed racing unit, with pneumatic shifts and mounted transversely rather than longitudinally, which helps with aero and weight distribution so that the car is better balanced.

Once you’re in, the driving environment is simultaneously inspiring and intimidating. You’re very aware of the extent to which these latest GT3 cars are built to be safe. Nets stop your arms flailing, HANS wings on the seat supplement your own HANS device, and there’s even a removable panel in the roof, through which you can be extracted while still strapped to the seat in the event of a really Big One. It’s all pretty sobering to be honest but also reassuring. All the switchgear is chunky, well spaced and clearly labelled, so whilst you don’t actually need to do much fiddling once you’re driving, it’s all easy to see and operate while wearing a helmet and gloves.

Like pretty much every modern racing car, driving out of the pitlane and navigating your first few laps is laughably easy. The clutch – once a source of leg-trembling trepidation – isn’t too sharp or heavy, so you can pull away without having to light the thing up or stalling it 10 times in a row. Once moving you don’t go near the clutch again until you return to the pits, your left leg instead becoming a piston with which to apply as much pressure to the brake pedal as possible.

It’s an essential component of driving a GT3 car, for getting down to a decent lap time is mostly about nailing the braking zones. As I tend to race historics these days the notion of hammering the pedal as hard and late as you dare doesn’t sit right, but with big slicks, significant downforce and massive brakes modulated by a sophisticated and minutely adjustable ABS system, you quickly have to do just that.

The process of reprogramming yourself is a challenge that takes a good few laps, during which time you feel really rather lost as your first braking efforts are laughably timid. This has the effect of unsettling the car, as having lost too much speed you find yourself back on the accelerator just at the point the car’s nose should be under maximum load.

Gradually you run deeper into the braking zones and hit the pedal with more force, and slowly the car begins to work beneath you, finding more grip and almost guiding you into the apex. It’s as this process begins to feel more natural that your confidence begins to rise and things make much more sense. For the first time you actually feel like you’re driving the car, at which point your mood instantly switches from frustration to elation.

To really attack a lap in the GT3 is to taste true commitment. Your eyes strain to spot the braking points, which always seem suicidally short, even into the tight right at the end of Mugello’s monster main straight. You’re always trying to tread a fine line between probing for the limit and overstepping it, and while that limit is defined by intervention from the ABS or TC systems rather than a massive lock-up or gyration into the gravel, the punishment is knowing you’ve squandered speed and lap time.

In terms of straight-line performance the 488 GT3 isn’t mind-blowing. At least not if you’ve driven a modern supercar in road trim. That seems crazy, but the success of GT3 is in its ability to achieve performance parity between cars as divergent as the 488 and a Bentley Conti GT3. In the case of the 488, achieving this Balance of Performance means power is pegged back to somewhere between 400 and 450kW.

Where the 488 really shines is through the corners, especially those that are high speed, but not quite flat out. There are numerous memorable sections of the lap at Mugello, but the standout parts for me are the run through turns six, seven, eight and nine, where the track tumbles steeply downhill through the right at Casanova, then left for Savelli, before looping back up the other side of the valley with a super-quick and apparently endless pair of left-handers called Arrabbiata 1 and 2, the latter tightening just after disappearing over a blind crest.

You really have to swallow hard through here if you’re to get anywhere near the 488’s capabilities, but even if you carry a bit too much speed through the downhill element, or find yourself running wide over the blind crest, there’s enough stability in the car to be able to ease out of the throttle and apply a little more steering lock. I didn’t expect such a level of forgiveness, and while there are some corners where I’d prefer a less nose-led balance, the 488 certainly feels as though it looks after you.

Given the nature of GT3 racing, where cars are often funded by wealthy amateurs who share the driving with professionals, Ferrari’s priority to make the 488 stable and forgiving to drive is canny. This puts more pressure on the professionals to wring the absolute maximum from the car, but that’s their job. So, while they often spend entire stints trading hundredths of seconds against pros in rival cars, if their Bronze-rated amateur co-driver can then get in and lap consistently close to their own personal limit instead of fighting with an edgy car that can only be tamed by the very best, then they stand a much better chance of success. I only wish I was wealthy enough to join them.

FERRARI 488 CHALLENGE

It’s a paradox of modern GT racing that the more highly evolved the car the more likely it is to have artificial performance restrictions applied in order to maintain a level playing field.

Never is that more apparent than in GT3 racing, where rigorous manipulation sees Aston Vantages and Audi R8s battling with Bentley Conti GTs, BMW M6s, Ferrari 488s, Honda NSXs, Lambo Huracans, Lexus RC Fs, McLaren 720Ss, Merc AMG GT3s and Porsche 911 GT3 Rs.

In the case of the Ferrari 488 GT3 and Challenge cars, this means that the full-on GT3 racer is strangled back to an output of 400-450kW, while the Challenge car has the 488 GTB’s full 493kW. Consider the more powerful Challenge car also has far less downforce and has road-based suspension and brakes and you can appreciate that although it’s the junior of Ferrari’s family of 488 racers it offers man-sized performance of a surprisingly old-school nature. Namely way more grunt than grip.

The most obvious changes centre on the aerodynamics. The front radiator layout is reworked, inverting the rake so that they are now inclined towards the rear for improved air flow over them in racing conditions whilst, at the same time, reducing drag. It’s a modification also applied to the Pista. The front bumper itself has been completely redesigned with a more pronounced splitter and flicks to increase downforce and balance the rear load. The front bonnet is all-new with triple vents and integrated flaps to direct the hot air flow from the radiators rearwards.

The 488 Challenge’s rear wing features a profile similar to that used on the 2016 FIA World Endurance Championship-winning 488 GTE. Intakes on the rear flanks take cooling air to the rear brakes, while the engine air intakes are now under the rear spoiler, taking advantage of the high pressure generated in this area.

As you’d expect, changes to the engine and transmission are relatively minimal, with a race-specific engine map and shorter gear ratios amongst the main differences, together with new torque management and shift strategies for optimal acceleration.
Perhaps most interestingly, there are now three manettinos – one to adjust the ABS and two to regulate different phases of traction control. The right-hand manettino (TC1) governs ‘when’, in other words the point of intervention under acceleration. The left-hand one (TC2) governs ‘how’, controlling the degree of intensity of torque reduction as it senses the rear wheels spin. Clever stuff.

The first few laps of Brands Hatch confirm that the Challenge car is a blast, especially when the opportunity comes to hold the throttle wide open through the gears. My internal G-force sensors are telling me it might as well have a fuse dangling from its tail, because compared to the GT3 car it has rocket-like acceleration, something confirmed by a peak speed of somewhere near 230km/h before braking into Paddock Hill Bend.

The Brands Hatch Indy circuit doesn’t provide a majestic Mugello-style lap, but the smaller of its two configurations packs more into its 1.9km than many circuits twice its size. It’s the perfect place to get a feel for the 488 Challenge, because you’re always busy making inputs, but the intensity of the lap means you have to learn fast.

Once you get beyond the fact you’re trussed up in Nomex from head to toe and strapped into a cockpit peppered with race car switches, the Challenge feels surprisingly friendly and familiar, at least if you’ve had previous experience of the Pista road car.
Initially, this means the steering feels a little light and the suspension surprisingly compliant, but once you get some heat in the Pirelli slicks and settle into guiding the car around it’s very much an extension of the road car in the way it behaves.
That’s both good and bad, for although you quickly feel at home and start to enjoy the added grip and traction provided by those sticky treadless tyres, when you really start to lean on it you quickly realise you’re in a road car that’s been prepared for racing, as opposed to the GT3 car which is very much the purpose-built competition car.

You can adjust ABS and traction control settings – usually in unison, so if you’re running ABS on setting two then the same goes for the TC – and you really do feel the difference in threshold. It’s fun to feel the systems working, and to be able to lean on them consistently, corner after corner, lap after lap in a way you simply don’t have the opportunity to do on the road.

Although I’m running in a dedicated media session so as not to get tangled up with the Challenge UK competitors present for their pre-season prologue test, my car is running with a transponder so I can monitor my lap times. This can be a dangerous game when you’re new to a car, but it’s extremely useful – and motivating – to see first seconds cut from my best lap time, and then start chipping away at the tenths until it settles at a competitive pace.

I know the Challenge car has me hooked (and that perhaps I’ve forgotten why I’ve been invited) when I catch myself asking the Ferrari PR man if he’d consider replacing the worn tyres and stick a fresh set of boots on the car ‘‘so I can go for a time’’. Needless to say he doesn’t, but a wry smile betrays the fact he knows that the racer in me has been fully engaged.

What comes as a surprise is just how much the Challenge car moves around under power, and how far from being costly against the clock, you actually need to drive it on the throttle to get the best from the car. Not excessively, but enough to require corrective lock and a balanced throttle out of Graham Hill Bend and Clearways. Keeping the car just inside the intervention threshold of the TC is the key, and I think you’d probably run without it for a qualifying lap. A few weeks after this prologue test Jason Baker’s pole time was 46.79sec, which puts the 488 more than a second inside the current BTCC qualifying lap record and on par with the Porsche Carrera Cup cars.

It’s huge fun and a very relatable driving challenge, because it’s centred around time-honoured facets of car control rather than the somewhat oppressive level of discipline and precision you need to embrace in the GT3 car. What blows my mind is how much punishment this close-to-road-spec racer is able to soak up, the engine, transmission and brakes simply refusing to wilt under sustained pressure.

Of course, those with the ability to balance commitment with precision and smoothness will likely prevail in a racing situation, but the fact that the Challenge car can be over-driven at key moments and will doubtless be moving around towards the end of each race as the tyres degrade is something drivers and spectators should all enjoy.

By Richard Meaden | Photography by Gus Gregory