Guest contributor: Óscar Martínez on driving the Ferrari F355 Spider (part 1 of 2)
Óscar Martínez and Juan Muñoz of 8000vueltas.com got one of those ‘pinch-me-am-I-dreaming’ opportunities of which most of us can only, well, dream: test drive a Porsche and a Ferrari back-to-back, then declare the winner of this personal contest. Here, Óscar recounts his time with the Ferrari, an F355 Spider.
At the end of the 1990s, the war of electronic nanny systems and intrusive driver’s aides began. But before that, Ferrari produced the ultimate evolution of its range of V8s from a time when they were still mounted in a steel monocoque: the F355. At the same time, Porsche, too, extracted the last ounce of performance from its final aircooled 911, the 993. It was a fascinating milestone in a very intense war before both manufacturers shifted to what might best be described as a ‘techno-war’.
Sometimes you pick up on a snippet of a conversation and can automatically fill in the rest of the blanks, even deciding as to whether or not to keep listening. If you ever hear the words “Ferrari F355 Spider”, for instance, you can be sure the words that follow are ones that are worth listening to carefully. But in this day and age, casual conversations about the automotive industry tend not to be all that interesting (to wit: the last one I had was about hybrids and electric vehicles).
Nowadays, for instance, it seems that the number of cupholders or the availability of i[Pod/Phone/Pad] connectivity are more important than slightly loftier matters, such as aesthetics or driving dynamics. There was a time, though, when we spoke of no such trivial things, simply because they were the last things on our minds upon seeing a car like the aforementioned F355.
After all, who cared! With that car, an era came to an end for Ferrari— starting with the design, which was still reminiscent of the long gone 1980s Testarrossa. Those massive air intakes behind the doors made Ferraris stand out from absolutely everything else you could find on the road. It didn’t matter if it was a Testarrossa, a 456, a 348, or even our tester 355— you simply knew. What a time that was! And what a design trend, of which the F355 was probably the high-water mark. And now I would get to drive one.
As one might expect, I was tingling with excitement over the opportunity. I had already test driven a 911 (993) Targa (which we will get to later) and now it was time for the red Italian. The Porsche sounded great, but driving alongside the Ferrari and hearing it from the outside, the sound was simply in another league. Now I wanted to experience the sensation of listening to it from the cabin with the top down.
Looking for the door handle, I stepped into a different era. Sitting in the cabin you appreciate how nice the current Ferrari interiors are. Not only with regard to design, but also to ergonomics and overall fit and finish (hardly the F355’s strengths). But at that moment, I could hardly care less. After all, here was a mint example that had just gone through some considerable maintenance. So there I was, already seated and no one – and I mean no one – could have pried me from the driver’s seat. After craving this moment for so long, I was finally going to drive an F355.
Without turning the key, I feel the controls, the pedals, and the gear lever. I get a lot of important sensory input and suspect it won’t be easy piloting this beast at the beginning. I start the engine, shift to first gear, and slowly start to engage the clutch. I am on an incline and fear an imminent stall. I release the brake pedal and the car starts moving smoothly. This is a nice surprise. In the first few minutes of driving I come to learn that under everyday circumstances, it is actually a very easy car to drive. It seems that the F355 was a very civilized car even for its time.
In fact, it’s even comfortable, thanks mainly to the comfy seats, which are far from the ubiquitous form-hugging buckets you expect to find in modern Ferraris. The steering wheel is large and the gear linkage requires long throws of the shifter to engage gears. It is far from the beast I was expecting, but that doesn’t diminishes its charm in the slightest.
Taking the car closer to its 8000 RPM redline, any doubts I initially had immediately dissolve: this Ferrari was made for driver enjoyment. Clearly, the 3.5L V8 breathes freer and happier closer to its rev limit. Actually, it is easier to exceed the redline than it is to stay under 6000, where the car feels out of its rhythm. While it is possible to drive at a very brisk pace under those revs, it is above that where the engine becomes frantic right up to its 8250 RPM, the point at which it achieves its maximum horsepower rating. The moment where you engage the next gear, release the clutch, and put the accelerator to the floor – unleashing a tidal wave of symphonic Italian V8 noises – is simply beyond my capacity to describe.
So far so easy, as we are driving in a straight line. But trying to hit the engine’s sweet spot (on the north side of 6000 RPM) while in the corners is not for the faint of heart. This is because no matter what gear you are in, getting to 8000 means you are going fast. Now, it may simply be a case of my needing more time to acclimatize to the car, but the classic ‘H’-pattern gated shifter can present a challenge to those not accustomed to driving Ferraris (which would be most people). You need positive but at the same time delicate movements to get the gear lever in place, accompanied by perfect timing to prevent jerky shifts. And sure enough, the more I drove it, the better I got at it.
What I did find odd, though, was the shifter: unwilling, spongy, and imprecise around town, it didn’t exactly spring to life and become the complete opposite once it was driven at speed. Every time I started increasing my level of speed the gearbox felt like an unwilling partner, the only thing stopping me from fully enjoying the experience. Again, maybe it’s a matter of my needing more practice, more time. And surely more expert hands could extract a much better feel from the shifter than yours truly’s.
But corner after corner, the car failed to inspire confidence. There was a disturbing lack of feedback from the steering, at times leaving me wondering if both axles were working together or against each other (although to be fair, at no point did the car give me a scare— in fact it was quite docile and grippy throughout the test drive). Was I driving too conservatively? Almost certainly. But rightfully so, as this is a car that easily intimidates in the beginning.
The brakes were another component that failed to live up to expectations. The feel was reminiscent to those of early ceramic discs: the initial application felt firm, but then the bite you expected to follow was nowhere to be found. They were good enough to do a decent job of scrubbing off speed, but felt far from otherworldly while doing it.
After awhile, I think I figured out what the car was about. Needless to say, pitch-perfect execution of advanced driving technique is essential: matching every heel-and-toe downshift, nailing every redline upshift accompanied by perfectly-timed gear lever movements, and setting up the car correctly for corner entry and exit. Now I could start listening to the car and feel absolutely everything working together in harmony. Now I could listen to every single mechanical part as if I, the driver, were but a mere cog in this wondrous machine. There is no electronic intervention cutting in and preventing you from enjoying the action. Yes, driver errors are placed under a giant magnifying glass, errors that could have been ironed out if only your driving guardian angel – the one that goes by the name ESP – were there. But then driving a 380hp mid-engined sports car at its limit wouldn’t be as thrilling.
The excitement of really nailing it – driving it with perfect timing and perfect rhythm – generates a swell of emotions you’re not likely to ever forget. But that delicacy at the wheel of the Ferrari only made me think of the relative brutality of its German rival even more. I may be hated for saying this, but I think I preferred the 911.
Next week, Juan Muñoz discusses his experience driving the 911 (993) Targa (edit: part two is now live here).
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Motoring Con Brio.