It started, as most of the best things in life do, in Modena. As the plucky Brits charged across desolate northern France, Scuderia Italia – comprising Motoring Editor Ollie Marriage, photographer Justin Leighton and me – were languidly draining our third coffee of the day and folding ourselves into an FF outside Ferrari’s Maranello factory.
Our journey would take us northwest, through the Italian lakes and
into the mountains for our Stelvio rendezvous. Our mission, unlike the Brits’
pathetic one-man-one-car marathon, was one with genuine consumer value: to
discover if the FF can really seat four – OK, three and a monstrous volume of
photographic equipment – while retaining Alp-pummelling performance. Finding
out, in other words, if the FF is truly a family supercar. (Best not to dwell
on what sort of hideous circumstances could create a family of three dads in
various states of disrepair, and a child made of tripods and lenses.)
The nauseous wave of terror experienced on driving a supercar away from
its home factory is akin, I’d imagine, to snatching a newborn baby from its
proud parents’ arms, then hacking off down an icy black ski-run with a pint in
your other hand. Like that, only the baby has 660bhp and the dimensions of a
small cruise ship. It’s a daftly named baby, too: ‘FF’ stands for ‘Ferrari
Four’ – as in four seats and four-wheel drive – which makes its full name the
Ferrari Ferrari Four. Boutros Boutros-Ghali would be proud.
But, squeezing between lumbering delivery trucks and hornet-like
scooters in the familiar pandemonium of an Italian town, the FF was barely more
intimidating than a Toyota Yaris: easy to place, good visibility, easy power
delivery. God bless unstallable double-clutch transmissions, too.
Urban chaos negotiated, we joined the autostrada: a chance to open the
taps, bank the anvil, put pedal to metal and...hit a solid wall of traffic.
This is Italy, after all – a country where three-hour jams are less an
occupational hazard and more a national sport. In any traditional Ferrari, the
combination of stationary traffic and 38°C heat would spell rapid overheating
issues and, most likely, the fusing together of engine components that should
definitely remain separate. But the FF, inching through the stultifying heat
for hour after hour, behaved impeccably: no glitches, no coughs, no smell of
burning flesh emanating from the vents. As Marriage, snoozing like a
Calpol-drugged toddler on a rear seat, will attest, it even rides respectably
on 20-inch rims. If you don’t mind your luggage being gently boiled by the
monster exhaust system lurking just under the boot floor, this could be the
ideal family car. If you’ve been weighing up the pros and cons of the Ford
Mondeo or VW Passat, why not consider the £230,000 Ferrari FF? Splitfold seats
and rear-seat telly screens as standard.
Some weeks later, the traffic cleared, and we veered off the autostrada
onto an arrow-straight, deserted dual carriageway. Well, after a morning of
frustration, what would you do? Under a cornflower sky, up through the gears,
and Italy fell away around us. And then a police van came screaming down on us,
blue lights flashing, horn honking. Bugger. Carabinieri cavity searches are
renowned as especially intrusive. I pulled into the middle lane as the van drew
alongside us, doing my best to adopt a face of apologetic innocence but
actually striking something rather closer to ‘Dachshund with trapped wind’.
Six armed policemen hung out the windows, whooping and waving their
arms like MDMAaddled cricket umpires. “Dai! Dai!” they yelled through the wind.
If you insist, officers. Three fat, satisfying clicks on the left-hand
paddle, and floor it. No wheel spin, no hesitation, the FF fired up the
motorway like a bolt from a crossbow, the police car honking and flashing in
celebration behind. Only in Italy. Faster and faster, and I didn’t stop
accelerating until we were at least two miles clear of the cops. What an
engine. The FF’s mighty 6.0-litre V12 is so sharp, so free-revving, so quick to
shed inertia that it makes anything short of an F1 car’s power plant feel a bit
lardy. You have to be mighty careful not to lift off suddenly – remove your
foot from the throttle in the midst of full-bore acceleration, and the revs
return towards zero with such enthusiasm that you’ll find your nose spread
across the inside of the FF’s windscreen.
We hit the cool, calm shores of Como, Italy’s third-largest lake and a
magnet for the world’s super-rich, where Justin decided we needed another car
to indulge in the shady photographic ritual of ‘tracking’, so we called Editor
Turner and asked him if we could hire a rental to use as a camera car, and he
said no, you have already spent the entire TopGear kitty on petrol. But, he
added, he knew a bloke called Christopher who lived nearby and might be able to
give us a hand.
A couple of hours later, a bloke called Christopher rolled up in – and
unless you’re reading this with your eyes closed, you’ll have guessed where
we’re going with this – a bright orange Zonda F. This is lucky, as it gives us
the chance to say a proper goodbye to the Zonda, production of which ends this
year as Pagani gears up to build the all-new Huayra. The Zonda deserves a
sturdy salute to send it on its way to automotive Valhalla. Over the years,
dozens, maybe hundreds of manufacturers have attempted to break into Ferrari
and Lamborghini’s supercar clique. But only Pagani has ever truly succeeded,
thanks to immaculate execution of some clinically insane ideas. The F’s cabin,
a mad riot of carbon-fibre sculptures and twisted metal, contravenes every
principle of rational ergonomics (and economics). But it’s all carried off with
such panache – and, just as importantly, such precision and quality – that the
Zonda gets away with it.
With 600bhp, a race-grade manual transmission and a seating position
some way below sea level, the Zonda F should be a nightmare to thread through
the ribbon-wide streets of Menaggio. But it isn’t. The big, naturally aspirated
Merc V12 is unstressed and tractable; the steering, easy. That’s the real magic
of the Zonda: despite its awesome power, it remains an approachable, accessible
thing. It helps that, driving one in Italy, everyone veers out your way and
So here we are, with 24 cylinders, 1,300bhp and over a million pounds
of prime-cut supercar lounging on the front of a ferry heading across Como to
Bellagio, Europe’s poshest town. Is there a lovelier part of the world than the
Italian lakes? Black-green mountains rising from shimmering lakes, waterfronts
fringed with sun-beaten terracotta terraces and white-marble villas, the chewy
scent of eucalyptus on the breeze... pity a few thousand millionaires clocked
the appeal of this place before TG could stake a claim on it. George Clooney
has a villa in Bellagio. Richard Branson recently purchased a $30m property on
the edge of town. Neither returned our calls.
Off the ferry and, flagrantly disregarding road signs and shouty men in
uniform, we plonk our beautiful brace in the middle of Bellagio’s waterfront
square, park ourselves in a nearby cafe with a plentiful supply of unctuous
espressi, slip on the sunglasses and sit back to witness the madness unfolding.
In Italy, parking up a pair of supercars in a town square isn’t considered an
ostentatious display of wealth but an act of public service. Potbellied men
bellow appreciatively, grandmothers demand to stroke the Zonda’s carbon-fibre
bits. Fifty boys, 13 or thereabouts, stream round the corner. Honestly, if we’d
lined up a dozen Playboy bunnies dressed in nothing but nipple tassels, we
couldn’t have hoped to elicit such a frenzied reaction. Italians have a curious
hand-wiggling gesture – not seen anywhere else in the world – that mimes either
touching a scalding hotplate or shaking one’s hands dry after a visit to the
gents. Our gaggle of schoolboys turn it into a synchronised dance. “Quanti
cavalli?” they chorus, hands gyrating furiously. “Quanto costa’?”
Such is the draw of the Zonda that it renders the FF almost anonymous.
Christopher – who, incidentally, is both Horacio Pagani’s son and one of the
nicest, most unassuming guys you could ever have the pleasure to meet, the
swine – says there are only five Zondas in Italy. Spotting a Pagani in even a
resort as exclusive as Bellagio is like stumbling on a Siberian tiger in
We’re onto our fourth coffee (at least 18 times one’s recommended daily
caffeine limit) when I receive a text from Art Director Norris, driving the
Atom Mugen in the Team Britain convoy. “700 miles down, 600 to go,” it reads.
“Sunburnt. Knackered. Bees in my eyes.” “Tough here too,” I text back, sipping
an espresso as a gorgeous 20-year-old Italian girl – wearing a near-transparent
summer dress – pleads with me for a quick sit in the passenger seat of the
Zonda. “Photography’s taking ages. We might be late...”
But as afternoon melts into to early evening, we must leave beautiful
Bellagio. Scuderia Italia must convene with Gruppe Deutschland and Team Britain
at the base of the Stelvio. We head north, into the Alps, onto some of our very
favourite roads. The previous day, the papers reported Italy could be the next
Eurozone country to require a bailout. If you’re strapped for cash, guys, we’ll
buy your mountain roads. How does £20.50 and a lifetime supply of Stig bubble
The weather is fine, and the mountain passes are clear. Forget Flüela –
this is petrol heaven. Ollie in the Zonda, me in the FF, high up in the hills,
diving from hairpin to hairpin, V12 duet recoiling off the cliffs. Credit to
the FF: it isn’t left in the dust by the Zonda, a former Nürburgring record
holder. Though the Ferrari’s extra half-tonne of mass means it can’t quite
match the Z for outright acceleration, its four-wheel-drive means you can
attack even the most gravelly bends with the full 660bhp while the Zonda
searches for grip. The FF is far more lithe than its SUV footprint and kerb
weight suggest, with a taut chassis and bemusing agility for a big four-seater.
It’s only when you really pummel on the brakes at the end of a long straight
that you notice its sheer mass, those carbon-ceramic discs working hard to haul
the Ferrari’s 1,800kg under control.
It is late in the day, and the mountaintops shimmer coral-pink as we
plunge into a mile-long tunnel: arrow-straight, four lanes wide, deliciously
deserted. We line up our two masterpieces of Italian V12 engineering for a
rolling start. Ease down to 30mph, three-two-one. Ollie boots the Zonda. I do
the same in the Ferrari, and as one the two Italians surge forward beneath the
mountain, and the tunnel is filled with glorious, incandescent white noise. For
a moment it is impossible to tell if we are launching forward or the whole
world is surging backwards behind us. See you on the other side...
The article 'Cruising around northern Italy' was published in partnership with Top Gear Magazine.