Ferrari’s Pista-powered F8 Tributo is here and ready to take on McLaren’s brilliant 720S. With the latest electronic wizardry on board, does it have the weapons to take on Britain’s finest?

here could be one reason why Ferrari has replaced the 488 GTB after just four years in production, and that reason could be the McLaren 720S, the GTB’s versatile, 529kW, British rival. It’s more likely, though, that there are a number of reasons. Maybe there’s a hybrid model on the way and the 530kW F8 Tributo is holding the fort until it arrives; it seems an unusual step for Ferrari to make a third car on the same platform, and this one has its roots in the 458 Italia that launched a decade ago.

Yet whether it’s knee-jerk or stopgap or was in the plan all along, there’s no question the F8 Tributo is a great looking car – the best off this platform for me. Better than that, the F8 takes the 488 Pista’s 530kW engine (well, most of it) but not its steely dynamic resolve, adding Ferrari’s latest electronics to make it more deployable and exploitable. Where better to experience this in action than Fiorano? Turns out the answer is actually, unexpectedly, the Tuscan hills. But the track is where we start our test drive.

‘‘We wanted to combine Pista performance with 488 GTB useability,’’ development driver Fabrizio Toschi says as we leave the pit area. To this end the F8 uses GTB springs and anti-roll bars, but has recalibrated adaptive damper control to deliver some of the Pista’s cornering crispness. And to help manage powerslides, there is version 6.1 of Ferrari’s Side Slip Control and a version of the Pista’s Ferrari Dynamic Enhancer, dubbed FDE+ in the F8 because it offers support in both Race and CT Off drive modes.

Toschi drives as good a lap as you’d expect of someone who’s spent a few months of his life honing the F8 Tributo’s dynamics around this track. It is fast and precise and controlled and (apparently) allows the car to show how the new electronics help customers deploy 530kW with fewer steering wheel inputs at the limit, keeping things calmer. Toschi makes it look calm, though the pace is dizzying, verging on uncomfortable if all you’ve done before dropping into the passenger seat is had a leisurely breakfast and wandered around the sun-dappled courtyard of this history-steeped test track with a coffee in your hand and a smile on your face. He works the front end hard to get the F8 right into the apex of the corners, extracting every last gritty ounce of grip from the front tyres, then on the exits the tail kicks out easily and I’m not sure whether it’s the systems holding the slides neatly or Toschi.

The standard tyre for the F8 Tributo is a regular Pirelli or Michelin, but for the track element of this launch the F8s are fitted with the Pista’s Michelin Cup 2s. I can’t help feeling that this muddies the waters if you want to show the differences between the Pista and the F8. Adding the Cup 2s brings the Fiorano lap times very close too; Ferrari quotes the 488 GTB at 1:23.0, the Pista on 1:21.5 and the F8 Tributo as 1:22.5 – unless you fit the Cups, which are good for ‘‘more than half a second a lap,’’ says Toschi. So you can get your F8 within half-a-second of the Pista…

My turn. I’ll elect to start in Race, go to CT Off and finish with ESC Off – which disables all assistance apart from anti-lock – so I can feel what the systems are containing. The car and its tyres are already hot and as I steer the F8 out onto the track, I’m struck by the meaty heft of the steering and, a few corners later, the voice of the V8.

It’s an obvious thing to say but, boy, this is a quick car. The 3.9-litre twin-turbo V8 is pretty much lag-free and despite the Cup 2s has enough torque to oversteer out of any corner at Fiorano (apart from the mild kink on the pit straight). In Race mode there are obvious electronic interventions trying to put the power down out of the small hairpin, but in most other places there’s enough leeway to have a good twist of opposite lock on without any obvious support.

CT Off mode unlocks a bit more slack and then it’s time for ESC Off. This proves that the fundamental handling balance of the F8 is as good as you’d hope, if not as focused as the Pista’s. In some corners mild understeer precedes oversteer (though the tail will swing nicely if you trail-brake) so that you know what you’re in for if you get hard on the power. I’m comfortable enough to get the tail out through the fastest corner, catch it, and give it some more, which is how I come to leave a Michelin slart on the pristine green, white and red outer rumble strip and clip the middle of three cones standing there. Track limits, eh? Given another lap or two I reckon I could bat the other cones into the grass.

Useful as it is to be able to stretch the engine until the final blue shift lights illuminate, and to get a feel for the F8’s dynamic poise, I come away from the track feeling we’ve not seen the new electronic support working as intended. My other takeaway is that the F8 is no Pista, which is a good thing and should please both owners of the bestriped super-series model and those who’ve got their name down for an F8.

It takes only a couple of kilometres on the road to appreciate that Ferrari has moved the game on from the 488 GTB in a couple of significant areas. I’d noted the heavier steering heading out onto the track but not thought much about it after that. Road driving is considerably more nuanced, and while the steering is heavier than the 488 GTB’s (and the Pista’s too) it also has more feedback, so there’s a much better and more satisfying impression of connectedness, of being in touch with the road.

We’re now on Pirelli P Zeros rather than the Cup 2s, and while the feedback is not the last word in tactility, its character matches the ride, which over difficult urban tarmac faithfully describes the surface but at the same time rounds everything off, takes out the sting. A press of the Bumpy Road button frees up the body motion and adds a tangible plushness, though not at the expense of composure. It’s no 720S, the ride of which can make some bumps vanish, but some people prefer a more connected feel.

The other crucial shift is in engine noise. The GTB and the Pista sound bassy and interesting at idle, but this soon fades away leaving only the hisses and chuffs of large quantities of air being ingested, compressed and exhausted. For the F8, Ferrari has developed what it calls (no tittering at the back) the ‘hot tube’, a resonator that is plumbed into the exhaust system between the manifold and catalytic converter on both sides. There it picks up the pulsations and vibrations of the exhaust gases and relays them to the cockpit near the side window at each side. Ferrari is proud that it has found a way of amplifying an authentic sound rather than going down the usual path of electronically generating noise and feeding it into the cabin through the speakers.

It works, too; there’s an engaging and authentic flat-plane-crank V8 bark right through the rev range that naturally ebbs and flows with the engine load and delivers a high-rev crescendo. To a degree, necessity has been the mother of invention, because the F8 engine is Ferrari’s first with Gas Particulate Filters (GPFs). These are a kind of catalyst that – as the name describes – take out particulates for cleaner emissions. A side effect is that they also absorb a lot of engine noise, especially the interesting high tones, says engine development manager Marco Maresi, adding that the hot tube team spent many months tuning its output to give just the right tone.

The engine’s tubular (as opposed to cast) Inconel exhaust manifolds help with the sound too, though we know it’s a small contribution because the Pista has them and it sounds no better in its higher reaches than the GTB. Ferrari says that the F8 engine is 50 per cent new compared with the GTB engine, but that’s because it is pretty much the Pista unit.

It’s 18kg lighter than the GTB engine thanks to those manifolds and also titanium con rods and a lighter crank and flywheel that reduce inertia, but it’s not quite the same. Ferrari has worked hard to reduce back pressure that comes with the GPFs that help make it compliant with stricter Euro 6d and China 6b emissions standards. It has delegated some of the catalytic duty to the GPFs and reduced the size of the original catalysts, but higher back pressure remains and there are cylinder head modifications to compensate, so the engines are not identical. Their outputs are, though, so the F8 has 530kW, although at 7000rpm and not 8000, and 770Nm at a fractionally higher 3250rpm.

We’re paddling in the shallows of its potential for an hour or so, though our schlep along the autostrada shows that the F8 is a refined long-distance car. The engine noise drops away to a murmur, the ride is firmly controlled but rounded, the wind noise low and the seats plush. The whole interior has been redesigned too and is neater and more cohesive than the 488’s and also incorporates improved HMI and some revised, more tactile switchgear.

Indeed, so lulled are we by the F8’s comfort that when we take our exit and head up into the hills, the first time the blue lights blink photographer Dean Smith and I utter the same expletive in unison. Seven hundred horsepower is a lot on a track and feels like getting on for twice that on a two-lane tree-lined road.

There may have been some understeer at Fiorano but on real roads that twist and turn blindly, when you have to stay on your side of the white line, the nose of the F8 feels keyed in to the surface like the front of a Scalextric car. We’re in Race mode and the gearbox does a pretty good job of second-guessing the gears, the shifts just as slick and seamless as they were pootling in town, but I prefer to manually shift. By the time we’re at the top of the pass where the bikers gather for their espressos, I’m a big fan.

We park the F8 provocatively, slap bang in the middle, and sit back with our sandwiches. There are a few design details I’m not convinced by, the brake cooling intakes above the headlights in particular, but overall it works. Only the glasshouse and doors are carry-over from the 488. Ferrari describes its design as a ‘bridge to the future’, and by that it means a car that links the mid-engine V8 line to the recently revealed SF90 hybrid. But the Tributo name alludes to a degree of homage to previous V8s, the borrowing of details such as the four circular rear lights (288 GTO and F355) and the vented, Lexan engine cover from the F40 that distorts the rear view just as badly as it did on that car.

Also incorporated in the design of the F8 are all of the aerodynamic tricks developed for the Pista to enable its engine to make well over 500kW. So the F8 has its engine air intakes relocated to just ahead of the rear spoiler rather than sharing the side intakes with the intercoolers, and the water radiators in the nose are canted back to send hot air low down the flanks so that intercooler air isn’t compromised. There’s also the S-duct at the front, channelling air through the nose to help increase downforce for no increase in drag.

Down the other side of the pass the roads are wider and more open, and Dean has a couple of corners in mind for action shots. The first turns out to be a rather dusty hairpin that I reckon will work for me; I’m still keen to discover what the systems do for the F8 and the grip its shown on the way up suggest it’ll be hard to unstick on hot, dry asphalt.

It’s a bit inconclusive. In both Race and CT Off, the modes when SSC 6.1 and FDE+ do their stuff, the F8 won’t slip. So it’s everything off again, revealing that the surface has a low, inconsistent level of grip. The pics look dramatic, though. We also discover that the F8 has one of the best rev limiters of any production car – a tight, fast ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba! The V8 doesn’t clatter into its limiter like some engines do because its turbos have built-in speed sensors so that they are always running at the same speed and don’t overspeed.

Dean’s second proposal even he is unsure about. It’s an uphill, third-gear corner that tightens a little at the end. We went through it during a little recce and with the F8’s level of grip and power it felt very quick. I decide to give it a go, not knowing that this is the corner that will deliver the revelation. It’ll probably look quick anyhow, I think.

In Race mode, first run through, the sweeping entry settles the car and locks the nose on. Back on the power early loads the rear with potential and at the late apex the rear steps out. I instinctively apply a stab of opposite lock and the F8 slips and recovers… with uncanny poise. Wow! It felt like it was all me, but further runs demonstrate that the car enhances the manoeuvre; you always get just the right amount of opposite lock and it always comes back neatly with no overshoot in either direction. It’s amazing, reducing the steering workload, just as billed. You still have to respond correctly, apply and remove the steering lock, but the car will make sure the edges are neat and tidy without there being any sensation of intervention.

Why doesn’t it work in tighter turns, like the dusty hairpin? I reckon that with so much ready torque and so little traction, things can escalate too quickly, so the system quite rightly errs on the side of caution. At Fiorano, meanwhile, you have too much space to play and so can ride slides out, with less requirement to be precise.

The rest of the afternoon is a real buzz. If you have the confidence to press the car, it will make you look good without revealing your secret, helping you be neat without the grabbing of individual wheels that betrays the interventions of regular stability control systems.

It’s the cherry on top of what is a very attractive cake. Compared to the 488 GTB, the F8 is faster and lighter, but more pertinently has better steering and sounds better, which ramps up its appeal massively. It perhaps rides slightly more firmly, but it takes a terrible surface to reveal any harshness. I reckon it’s better looking too, and although the price has gone up about nearly $15K to $484,888, that’s still $160K less than the Pista. Australian deliveries start in early in 2020.

Pista owners might feel somewhat aggrieved to be sharing their engine and performance with a series-production model. The Pista remains a unique experience though, a V8 with everything on high alert, from shift strategy to handling balance, all enhanced by the lower weight that comes from carbonfibre body panels and a carbon-lined interior shorn of options such as a sound system. The Pista’s kerb weight is 1385kg, while the lightest F8, with all the weight-saving options, including carbon wheels (-10kg), is 1435kg. That’s some 40kg less than the 488 GTB.

So, McLaren 720S ($489,900) or F8 Tributo? There’s a large degree of personal taste involved in that decision. I’d go F8 Tributo because I like the connectedness of its steering and ride, and its engine noise, which I reckon help make it Ferrari’s best series-production V8 ever. It’s going to make a cracking twin test.

Words: John Barker
Photography: Dean Smith

Ferrari F8 Tributo
Engine V8, 3902cc, twin-turbo
Power 529kW @ 7000rpm
Torque 770Nm @ 3250rpm
Weight 1435kg (with lightweight options)
Power-to-weight 369kW/tonne
0-100km/h 2.9sec
Top speed 340km/h
Basic price $484,888

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