HEART of DARKNESS

FERRARIí 812 SUPERFAST TAKES THE FUNDAMENTALS OF A SUPER GT, AND ADDS A LAYER OF PURE MALEVOLENCE

WORDS ALEX INWOOD PHOTOS NATHAN JACOBS

THE soft pre-dawn light has gone. The dew-ridden fields are a memory, darkness expanding as we plunge further into the forest. Now the strongest illumination comes from the shift lights; red, then a bluey purple as the V12 screams towards 8900rpm. It should be glorious, though it isnít. Wet patches lurk in the shadows, leaf litter causes the Pirellis to shudder, and there are broken branches, smashed from the overnight storm, that jut into our lane, ready to gouge the 812ís flanks. Telling myself to relax only sees me grip the carbon-clad wheel harder as I grapple with the decision: lift and coast to the bottom or press on, revel in the speed and performance, and try to forget that this matte-grey missile from Maranello costs $800,000. I sit straighter, draw a breath, and make the call.

TO THE uninitiated, tracing your finger along the 214km stretch that connects Thomson Dam to the derelict caravan park at the Lang Lang boat ramp is an exercise in confusion. The route itself has no purpose, no tourist-clogged destination, no real drawcard at either end. Itís the kind of path you seek only if you have a machine worth extending on the hairpins, darting turns and fast sweepers that lurk in between.

We have such a machine.

IT URGES YOU TO DELVE DEEPER INTO THE THROTTLE TO EXPERIENCE THE FURY THAT LIES IN WAIT

You obsess over the 812 Superfast long before you drive it. It gets beneath your skin as you consider the numbers: 588kW and 718Nm from a 6.5-litre V12, 0-100km/h in 2.9sec, 0-200km/h in 7.9sec, and a top-speed of 340km/h. It exists in an echelon of performance and price that delivers a measure of trepidation, yet can be driven by anyone with a wallet large enough.

I first see it the night before, its long, sinister shape slinking past in the dark as deputy editor Enright guides its nose into our hotel garage. Its appearance does nothing to quell my apprehension. Beautifully proportioned in the hallmark of Ferrari super GTs (anyone else see a hint of 456 in the rear three quarter?), the 812SF is striking to behold, yet thereís no elegance to it. Like the McLaren 720S, thereís something unsettling about its appearance; an underlying malevolence that goes beyond the overt aggression of its angular fins, rakes and vents.

Our day starts before sunrise, plumes of vapour streaming from the quad exhausts as we begin the transit stage to Thomson Dam. Iíd been hoping for an easy familiarisation phase; the kind to bring my sleepaddled, un-caffeinated brain up to speed, and to calm any lingering nerves.

I got the opposite. The drive through the wet forest to the dam wall is manic, edgy and important. It delivered the first hint that all is not what it seems with the 812. Given its GT form factor, Iíd been expecting ferocious speed, but also a layer of refinement and comfort suited to belting across continents. In those initial moments, though, it felt more focused than a 488. The ride is taut and busy, and all of the controls are hyper alert, telegraphing the notion that this is a car that doesnít quite gel with the whole Ďrelaxed cruiserí thing. Instead itís constantly egging you on; urging you to delve deeper into the throttle to experience the fury that lies in wait.

So, with the long sliver of road that stretches across the top of Thomson Dam enticingly empty, I do.

What follows is shocking in its ferocity. In second gear and with no turbos to spool, the 812 seems to explode, the revs racing from 4000rpm to 7000rpm in an instant before I grab third in reflex to quell the squirming of the cold rear Pirellis.

The normal human response to such a rapid change in velocity is to open your mouth and shout four letter words, yet for some reason my brain is stuck on one thought: thereís another 2000rpm to goÖ

DAM BIG

The Thomson Dam was designed on the notion it would droughtproof Melbourne. Located near Baw Baw National Park in West Gippsland, 130km east of Melbourne, it was built by more than a thousand construction workers, who were housed with their families in the purpose-built nearby town of Rawson. Opened in July 1984, Thomson Dam holds 1068 billion litres Ė twice Sydney harbour, or 628 MCGs full Ė and makes up 60 percent of Melbourneís total water storage.

With the car parked up so photographer Jacobs can make use of the dawn light, I take stock of our surroundings. As locations go, Thompson Dam is a doozy. Desolate and monochrome, with a Soviet style watchtower that rises from concrete-coloured water, thereís a sense weíre the only humans for miles. That weíve travelled to a destination where no one goes, despite the brilliant driving road to get here.

The 812 gives pause for thought, too. Itís not what I expected, this Ferrari. Itís complex and intriguing, with a highly strung personality seemingly at odds with its GT positioning.

Racing back up the hill towards the small settlement of Rawson only muddies the waters further. With some appreciation of the performance on tap, I flick the manettino from Race to CT Off. Itís a move akin to loosening Dr Lectorís mask. On the damp, apex-rich run to the top, CT Off mode allows small slides on corner exit, which feel nicely controllable thanks to the deftly calibrated electronic systems, though driving quickly on a greasy surface verges on sensory overload.

So sharp is the steering (2.0 turns lock-to-lock, though it feels quicker), and so immediate are the brake and throttle, that itís easy to be clumsy with your inputs. And because everything happens so quickly, itís equally easy to feel a step behind the car. Combine that with the V12ís ability to fry your nerve endings every time you dare to venture into its throttle travel, and the overriding experience is one of simply clinging on. Itís intoxicating in much the same way I imagine playing Russian Roulette must be, with only slightly less dire consequences should it all go wrong.

Mercifully the stretch from Rawson to Trafalgar offers the chance to calm things down. Hairpins give way to open sweepers, the road surface remains shiny and slick, though improved sight lines and a tempered speed free up some headspace to better consider the 812ís touring ability.

Itíd be wrong to call it stiff, especially when you deploy the suspensionís Ďbumpy roadí setting, yet on these gnarled rural backroads the 812ís underlying sense of urgency is never totally silenced. Small amplitude bumps niggle their way into the cabin and on choppier sections, you can be jostled in your seat.

But what a cabin. Slathered in waxy leather with highlights of aluminium and carbon, itís a feast for the eyes. Practical, too. Vision is excellent over a low dash cowl, the seats are comfortable and nicely bolstered, and there are plenty of places to put things, which is a fundamental that many exotics fail at spectacularly.

Spend more time in the cabin, however, and a few ergo glitches raise their heads. The functionality of the split screens either side of the tacho requires some acclimatisation, the rotary dials that control the screens feel plasticky and wobbly, and while this carís yellow leather accents look great, the two that strake across the top of the instrument cluster reflect terribly on the windscreen and impede your vision.

Pointing the 812ís nose onto the freeway on the other side of Moe sees it settle easily into a cruise, though it doesnít take long for a sense of impatience to surface. Tyre noise is a constant companion and it seems a waste to lope along at 110km/h in a machine such as this. It wants to be let loose, to rip through its rev range, not turn over mindlessly at 2500rpm.

With the sun finally burning away the remnants of last nightís rain we turn left towards Thorpdale and I make the conscious decision to try and understand the electronic wizardy infused into the 812ís chassis. Thereís a lot to take in. Along with Ferrariís clever Side Slip Control system, the on-board brain is constantly juggling the electronically variable differential, traction control and stability systems. The biggest compliment I can pay them is that on the road, and with Sport and Race modes engaged, you barely notice their intervention, so seamless is their calibration.

ITíS INTOXICATING IN MUCH THE SAME WAY PLAYING RUSSIAN ROUTLETTE MUST BE

Model Ferrari 812 Superfast

Engine 6496cc V12 (65į), dohc, 48v

Max power 588kW @ 8500rpm

Max torque 718Nm @ 7000rpm

Transmission 7-speed dual-clutch

L/W/H/WB 4657/1971/1276/2720mm

Kerb weight 1630kg

0-100km/h 2.9sec (claimed)

Economy 14.9L/100km

Price $609,888 ($795,183 as tested)

On sale Now

Less natural is the four-wheel steering. First seen on the F12tdf, Ferrari says itís been recalibrated for a lessnervous feel, though I canít help but think that says more about the edgy tdf than it does the 812.

Coupled with the ultra-quick steering, hard cornering is an exercise in restraint, recalibration and trust.

So eager is the nose to turn and so unwavering the grip from the front axle that you donít pilot an 812 with flamboyant inputs. You guide it with your wrists. Understeer is a non-issue, even at vaguely ridiculous speeds, yet thereís a moment in the initial turn-in phase that can feel alien as the 4WS pivots behind your shoulder and the weight settles on the outside rear. Itís over in a microsecond, but itís a sensation that contributes to an overarching sense of distrust. I realise Iíve been second guessing the 812ís motives and worse still, waiting for it to bite. Perhaps greater confidence is whatís needed.

If any stretch of road is going to unlock the 812ís magic, itís the run from Loch to Kongwak. Itís a Wheels favourite: a plunging and busy 32km stretch that, crucially, has little traffic bar the odd farm ute and hustling milk truck. Time to swallow my fear, drown out the consequences, and go for it.

Rarely have speed and assertiveness so profoundly transformed an experience. Make the mental leap, wind back the electronic nannies, and the 812 coalesces in a light bulb moment. Suddenly the cadence of the controls, the freakish traction and agility of the chassis make sense as you whip through turns one after the other, your wrists gently rocking from side to side, your brain scrambling to process the sensory overload bursting through the windscreen.

12 STRONG

Ferrari says 75 percent of the 6.5-litre V12ís parts are new compared with the F12. Fundamental change includes a 22mm-longer stroke, which provides the capacity increase from 6.3 litres; bore is unchanged. Nearly all of the externals are new, including the exhaust ducts, and the use of continuously variable inlet ducts like those on old F1 engines. The 12-pack adopts the highest-pressure injection system yet deployed on a production petrol (at 350 bar). The result is the worldís most powerful naturally aspirated production engine.

Itís a rush, an endorphin high made all the more exciting by the sheer brutality and ferocity of it all as you learn to trust the grip and plunge into turns faster and faster. If itís mighty here I canít imagine what an 812 would be like on the open, snaking hill climbs of Oman or Jordan, or any place you can see six corners ahead. Itís the straights, however, that are most intoxicating. Itís no surprise that the V12 is a masterpiece; itís an art Ferrari has been perfecting for 70 years. Whatís difficult to convey is just how savage this 6.5-litre unit is. The changes compared with F12 are dramatic (see sidebar) and combined with shorter gearing and even quicker shifts from the seven-speed dual-clutch, winding the big unit out through second, third and fourth feels totally gratuitous.

Itís exhilarating. Mind-altering. And confusing.

With the mayhem wound back and our final destination at Lang Lang in sight, I grapple with the puzzling notion that the 812 might be too fast for the road. That its magic lies in a drawer so out of reach in normal, everyday driving, that you have to take unthinkable risks to enjoy it. Itís a preoccupying conundrum well suited to our end point. The boat ramp at Lang Land is a murky, wind-tortured place peppered with forlorn caravans. Like Thomson Dam it feels deserted; as though all the colour has been sucked from the world as I sit inside the 812 and ponder its complexity. I donít love it as much as I thought I would. Instead Iím left wanting more. Where other very fast cars are instantly gratifying and easier to understand, I feel Iíve barely begun to fathom the 812ís allure. Itís a challenge. A front-engined, naturally aspirated rocket ship that will only get better the further, and harder, you drive it. Providing youíre willing to take the risk.