The Ferrari 458 Italia and California may have different personalities but both are true Ferraris. From Maranello to Milan, then through the mountains into Switzerland, we drive these most highly evolved of performance cars to the site of one of mankind’s greatest adventures – the Large Hadron Collider. First part: 458 Italia
For a company that trades in dreams, there sure is a lot of rationality within Ferrari these days. If you’d visited this famous citadel in Maranello say, 15 years ago, and were only now getting reacquainted, you simply wouldn’t recognise the place. With its gleaming modernist production line and canteen, one of Ferrari’s great achievements in 2010 is the effortlessness with which it harnesses heritage to high technology. And they like technology in Maranello. If you’re lucky enough to meet any of the engineers here – whether in the Gestione Sportiva or in the road car division – you’ll bear witness to a level of intelligence, dedication and, yes, passion that simply doesn’t exist anywhere else. The cliché is that these guys eat, sleep and breathe Ferrari, but why wouldn’t you? This is Ferrari after all.
The 458 Italia feels like a machine made for driving
The 458 Italia is the latest example of this passion made real. As an example of high performance automotive engineering, this isn’t just state-of-the heart, it’s where the art would like to be in about five years’ time. In terms of powertrain, chassis integrity, electronics, efficiency and interior ergonomics, it’s the new benchmark. Lest the laser-guided genius of the 458 Italia’s engineering detract from the more earthy appeal of a Ferrari, it’s also wrapped in one of the most gorgeously seductive bodies Pininfarina has ever conceived. Clearly, its beauty is more than skin deep. It also perfectly complements its California brother. If the 458 emphasises absolute driving dynamism, the convertible California is a contemporary update of the late-’50s 250 model whose name it borrows, an elegant gran turismo that still has some genuine Ferrari fire in its belly. These two models demonstrate the breadth of Ferrari’s capability in 2010: they co-exist perfectly, while appealing to a different sort of clientele.
Like all Ferraris, they also exist to be driven. But to where? You can read opposite how the California tackled one of Europe’s most breathtaking roads, before heading into Geneva. But in choosing a destination for the 458 Italia we wanted somewhere that matched the car’s cutting-edge character, yet also resonated properly with the ‘Technology’ theme of this, the 10th issue of The Official Ferrari Magazine. As difficult as it is to believe, there are actually more complex scientific enquiries than the ones which govern what goes on inside the 458’s amazing direct injection 4.5-litre V8. Indeed, as fast as this car can accelerate, there is a place where particles are accelerated even faster than a 458 can get to 100km/h: at 0.999999991 times the speed of light, in fact. That place is CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, the world’s leading laboratory for particle physics, and currently famous as the home of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). The LHC is the latest tool used by the world’s top physicists in order to figure out what the universe is made of and how it works.
Technology doesn’t come any higher than this. The 458 Italia is its own universe. Which is to say, that while it still has four wheels, a bodyshell and is powered by an internal combustion engine like millions of other cars before it, it’s the way that it optimises these constituent parts that makes it so amazing. In fact, sliding into its cabin for the first time is actually a little disorienting. Rather than a traditional centre console, the entertainment system and climate controls are grouped in pods either side of the steering wheel. The wheel itself draws inspiration from contemporary F1 cars, and to the manettino and ‘engine start’ button there’s now also a damper control, as well as indicator buttons and wiper and light controls. Gear-change paddles sit just behind the wheel, but there are no column stalks on a 458 Italia. The things that are dispersed on lesser cars are concentrated in the 458. It feels like a machine made for driving. But as we leave Maranello and make our way onto the autostrada towards Milan, it’s clear that this is a machine with a pulsing, thumping heart. It used to be said that when you bought a Ferrari it was the engine you were really paying for, and everything else was a bonus. That’s never been less true than now, but even so the 458’s powerplant is surely one of Maranello’s all-time greats. Check out the onpaper stats: 570bhp at 9000rpm, 398lb ft of torque at 6000rpm, a specific power output of 127bhp per litre, CO2 emissions of 307g/km… Then there’s the tech that underpins the numbers: two-stage direct injection technology that sees fuel ingested into the combustion chamber on both the induction and compression stroke, an F1-derived oil scavenge pump and other refinements that reduce frictional losses and promote amazing efficiencies…the list of innovations is long and impressive. Suffice to say that when an empty stretch of tarmac opens up before you, and you drop a few gears then squeeze the throttle pedal, well, at this point the idea of machinery, no matter how perfectly conceived and engineered, transmutes into something altogether more human. A 458 at full tilt is both musical and muscular, putting you in the centre of a chemical chain reaction that is about as emotional as a car can ever get. Thanks to its magnetorheological dampers, it’s also incredibly compliant over rough surfaces and settles into the sort of relaxed lope on the autostrada that you normally associate with much softer, far more luxuryoriented cars. And if you leave its ultra fast-shifting dual-clutch gearbox in auto mode, progress is seamless. This might be one of the most exciting Ferraris in years, but it’s also one of the most rounded. We’re on our way to the Mont Blanc tunnel, but before that divert to the Fiat group’s picturesque test track at Balocco, between Milan and Turin. Time for another personality transformation: in the hands of the excellent Ferrari test driver Roberto Ricchi – whose youthful appearance belies the fact that he has worked on every Ferrari road car since 1981 – the 458’s incredible athleticism is clear to see. This is a car that anyone can drive quickly and satisfyingly, so fast-acting and intuitive is its armoury of chassis electronics – F1-trac, E-Diff3, brake distribution and high performance carbon ceramic brakes. But you can still disable all this stuff if you want maximum entertainment and have the skill to access it, as Ricchi does (he helped configure the 458, after all, so he knows it better than anyone). Driving a mid-engined car in extremis is tricky unless the car is perfectly balanced. Needless to say, the 458 Italia is. Ricchi throttle-steers it round one of Balocco’s hairpins with millimetric precision, neither car nor driver using any excess energy. It steering is a lightning-fast two turns lock-to-lock, which takes a little getting used to. But once you’ve dialled into the 458, you drive it almost intuitively. This is a car with its own complex nervous system, and Ferrari have various algorithms to measure steering input against yaw angle and body movement. My advice is not to over-drive it, to steer it using your wrists rather than your arms or upper body.
A new Ferrari is a guaranteed crowd-stopper
Another road testing cliché is to describe a car as an extension of the driver. But that’s exactly what this is. It’s vocal, too, if you want it to be. The route to Mont Blanc is studded with tunnels, and the noisericochets off the surfaces, an irresistible symphony of exhaust induction roar and pure-bred mechanical noise. Ferraris must always sound glorious, and this one does. In fact, the soundtrack at 9000rpm is almost spectral. As we exit the tunnel, a group of gendarmerie gather. Initially we fret that it might be a documents problem, but all they want is a closer look at the car. A new Ferrari is a guaranteed crowd-stopper. In Chamonix, we rendezvous with the California, whose crew of journalist Matt Master and photographer Joe Windsor-Williams have spent the afternoon on the epic Gran San Bernardo Pass. They elect to head back into the mountains in search of the dwindling light, while we stop off in Cluses before plotting our route to Geneva. The 458 Italia has been equal parts stimulating and accessible, a colossally fast performance car capable of fading astutely into the middle-distance when you ask it to. It really is an astonishingly wellrounded car. Against some very stiff competition, perhaps even the best Ferrari road car of all. Don’t ask me to come to any conclusions about what’s going on at CERN, other than to say I wish I’d paid more attention in physics lessons at school.
The facility sprawls across a substantial part of the Franco-Swiss border, but there are no major buildings or architectural landmarks (though the sustainably grown visitor’s centre is striking). No, the real energy of this enterprise is inside the heads of the thousands of physicists who work on site here and remotely around the world (6700 scientists from 85 countries are involved). And, of course, in the Large Hadron Collider itself, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator, which is housed in a circular tunnel 27km long, 100m underground. According to The European Strategy For Particle Physics document, ‘The LHC is a machine of superlatives. It is the world’s largest superconducting installation. Its interior is colder than outer space. It contains a vacuum more perfect than anywhere between the Earth and the Moon. It will produce billions of proton-proton collisions per second.’
The LHC exists to explore what lies beyond what physicists call the Standard Model, ie: the current thinking on fundamental particles and forces, and the rules governing their behaviour in relation to all the physical phenomena in the universe. Specifically, the fact that if only four per cent of the universe is composed of matter, what does the other 96 per cent consist of? Dark matter or anti-matter, it’s suggested, but then again no-one actually knows what that is… Very broadly speaking, the LHC should help illuminate this quandary. Accelerating particles together close to the speed of light at a very high energy converts them into the sort of heavier particles that were around when the universe was in its infancy. ‘The Standard Model… provides the mathematical instrument with which to calculate the behaviour of matter one tenth of a billionth of a second after the Big Bang, when the energy density of the universe matched the energies achievable in today’s experiments, and to extrapolate the universe’s subsequent evolution. ‘Newton taught us that weight is proportional to mass. Einstein demonstrated the equivalence of mass and energy. [But] neither explained the origin of mass itself, or why some particles are very heavy and others have no mass at all…’ The LHC – a decade and several billion euros in the making – therefore sets out to answer just about the biggest question of them all: it should determine the origins of mass, by mimicking conditions just after the Big Bang. The Holy Grail within this extraordinary adventure is known as the Higgs Boson – the particle that physicists believe should explain ‘matter’, and why one particle feeds the mass of another. Inside the LHC’s control room, Mirko Pojer talks us through CERN’s accelerator complex, a succession of machines with progressively higher energies. The LHC is the last part of the chain; the current record velocity the particle beam has been accelerated to is 7 TeV (seven trillion electron volts, or the equivalent kinetic energy generated the moment a 747 lands). At full tilt, this will increase to 14 TeV. (This got the British tabloid newspapers rather worried, and led to speculation that the LHC could actually create a Black Hole that would swallow our entire planet.) ‘The experiments are multi-layered, like an onion,’
Pojer explains. ‘When the protons collide, fragments of matter are ejected from the colliding point. Within every layer of the onion, we can detect how the particle fragments away from the collision. It creates up to 600 million events per second, which causes electrical signals we can trace and examine. Obviously we have to filter them, so we choose the most energetic which we’ll analyse further. These generate what are called “muons”. You can just imagine the amount of data that we have to analyse, which is why we have such incredible computing firepower. There was an experiment conducted back in 2001 which is still being analysed today…’ We’re later allowed to bring the 458 Italia into the hangar where the LHC’s giant magnets are tested, a humbling experience in itself. These superconducting magnets are at the heart of the LHC, and operate at –271 degrees C, 1.9 degrees above absolute zero, and the coolest place on the planet. The LHC uses 1,232 dipole magnets to guide the beam, along with thousands of other smaller ones to tune its orbit around the tunnel. Each section is 15m long and weighs 32 tonnes. The magnetic field produced here is 160,000 times that of the Earth’s magnetic field. Truly, a visit to CERN is enough to blow your mind. Put it this way: it’s something of a footnote that it was while proposing a way to marshal the information generated here that Tim Berners-Lee first devised the World Wide Web in 1989. Arguably one of the single most transformative technologies of the 20th century, it’ll be nothing compared to the revelations that await us if the LHC delivers the goods. We point the Ferrari 458 Italia towards Geneva, spool seamlessly through the gearbox, and marvel at what we’ve just seen. This is the world’s most highly evolved car.
But there’s a beam back there thinner than a human hair travelling at the speed of light that might unlock the secrets of the universe. Mankind is many things, not all of them good, but it still has the power to astound.
Published on The Official Ferrari Magazine, issue 10, September 2010