F40: The Definitive Analog Supercar
The tubular structure and massive rear wheels shine through in this cutaway of a relatively uncomplicated car.

F40: The Definitive Analog Supercar

Much has been written about the Ferrari F40, but its character isn’t often described in detail. It evoked feelings of rawness, focus, and simplicity, and placed an emphasis on unfettered communication with the driver. This made it the fastest, the wildest, and one of the most visceral cars of all time. Even still, seasoned drivers still speak of them with a tinge of fear in their voice. Made in the days before the nanny state made supercars a little more docile, the F40 is possibly Ferrari’s best example of an unadulterated pursuit of performance. It’s a car that decorated bedroom walls, inspired budding journalists to pick up a pencil, and caused experienced engineers to reconsider their own approaches.

Though the F40 helped redefine what a supercar is, it wouldn’t have existed without the foundation laid by its younger brother: the 288 GTO. Before the spectacular and exceedingly dangerous Group B series was cancelled, Ferrari designed the 288 GTO to do battle with the Porsche 959. The GTO road car was the homologation special – hence the “O” for omologata. At the time the category’s demise in 1986, the 288 GTO Evoluziones, five of which exist, were tweaked and tuned at Fiorano test track to eventually give birth to the F40. Hawk-eyed observers sent in photos to motoring magazines of these bewinged monsters strolling around Maranello, unaware that they were rolling test beds for what was to become the last car Enzo would personally sign off on.

A gentle, percussive popping dots the F40’s soundtrack. A big flame can be had with the right lift off the throttle, too. Photo credit: oppositelock.kinja.com

Having Il Padrone’s blessings had to have some effect on the aura that surrounds the F40, but its fame needs to be attributed first and foremost to its transparency. It’s not a machine that offers much in the way of coddling; it insists the driver remain attentive at all times. It offers no electronic protection, no assistance; just a communicative chassis which the driver should acquaint themselves with if they want to stay out of the ditches. This makes the driving experience simpler in some respects, but with a lightweight chassis mated to an engine that demands respect, the driver needs to be careful – especially when the turbochargers spool up.

A Duplicitous Powerplant

The 2.9-liter V8 builds boost quickly; making 424 lb/ft of torque at 4,500 rpm, but below the 4,000-rpm floor the engine feels somewhat sluggish. It’s the abrupt transition into boost and the urgency of it all that makes it quite tricky to manage in the lower gears. Twin, water-cooled, IHI RHB 53LW turbochargers feed a maximum of 1.1-bar boost pressure, and excess boost is dumped by the wastegate into the atmosphere via the distinctive central exhaust pipe. Though the factory optimized the turbochargers to deliver maximum boost in the meat of the powerband with the intent of it being somewhat progressive, it’s far from smooth and subtle by today’s standards.

However, the technology of the day means a Jekyll-and-Hyde character. It has two personalities, and when the motor is nearing redline, it can only be described as violent. Henry Catchpole, EVO contributor and F40 aficionado, refers to that surge into boost as when “all hell breaks loose.” When the torque is harnessed and used to push the car without vaporizing the tires, the F40 hits 60 in 3.8 seconds, snags 100 in 7.8 seconds, and manages 199 mph.

The lack of power steering, the stiff suspension, and the lack of low-end torque all make for a car that’s inclined to understeer in the slowest hairpins. Therefore, it’s necessary in tighter corners to grab the gear lever and pull it over and down to the dogleg first, ride out the push, and remain alert for when the boost arrives and inevitably lights up the rear tires.

While supercars tend to be associated with screaming, normally-aspirated engines, the F40 uses its forced induction to stand out. Turbocharging has the reputation of dulling the driving experience, yet here, the turbochargers and the savagery of their delivery actually contribute to the character of the F40. Considering the extravagance of the era in which the F40 was built, its excessive behavior and the record-setting speeds contributed to a larger-than-life personality. Truly, it was a product of its time.

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With those massive Behr intercoolers sitting on either side of the engine, it looks remarkably different from any contemporary Ferrari motor. 

It could be seen as a hot rod with a massive motor sitting astride the two hay bale-sized rear tires, but it’s a sophisticated car for the times. The F40 uses a steel tubular frame, with the oval main tubes complemented by square and rectangular tube sub-assemblies for additional rigidity. Mounted directly to the chassis with bright green “structural adhesive” are composite panels made from a Nomex, Kevlar, and carbon-fiber weave, which are covered in a thin, semi-transparent coat of paint—some say just 2 liters—to keep weight down to a paltry 2,450 pounds. Careful inspection of the paint reveals the visible carbon weave beneath.

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The tubular structure and massive rear wheels shine through in this cutaway of a relatively uncomplicated car. Photo credit: rightfootdown.com

The car’s carbon interior is appropriately spartan—with the green glue holding together the carbon panels, and the three-spoked Momo steering wheel cantered away like a school bus’, which only adds to the discomfort inside. The racing seats lack rake adjustment, too, so don’t expect a relaxing ride here—but that’s not really the point. Aside from the red cloth covering the Kevlar seats, the steering wheel’s yellow Ferrari insignia is the only speck of color among the stark, gray dash fabric and carpetless floors. Obviously, the cockpit is a place of business, though its uncommon level of focus adds to the drama of it all.

The cabin roof is covered in simple white plastic, and the rest of the floor, door liners, footwells, sills, sillbox, bulkhead, dashboard, and floorpan and seatbacks are all left in raw carbon. Additional circular tubing is used on the rear bulkhead, which is visible from the inside of the cabin. Made in response to accusations of their cars being too plush, Ferrari’s Giovanni Perfetti described the car as “for the most enthusiastic of our owners who want nothing but sheer performance.”

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With that steering wheel cantered away like a school bus’, it doesn’t offer an ergonomic driving position.

Some of the endurance racing history carried over into the road car, which sports a set of fuel tanks with fillers on either side, linked by a balance pipe connecting the two. American cars use aluminum tanks, but European cars use racing-style rubber fuel cells encased in sponge, which increases the servicing costs: replacing the fuel cells costs somewhere in the vicinity of $17,000 every ten years. While this gives the car a sizable allotment of 31.7 gallons, it’s not frugal with fuel, and should never wander too far from the watering hole.

The clutch, gearbox, and final drive are the same as those found in the 288 GTO, but a racier version was offered as well. For drivers who wanted an even harder car, a ‘sports’ gearbox with dog ring gears and a transmission oil cooler, which mounted in the right hand-side of the rear valence panel, was available for a hefty price.

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With the flexible rear clamshell opened and supported by only a flimsy prop, the minimalist ethos of the car is obvious. Photo credit: Flickr

The five-speed gearbox sends power to the five-spoke, Speedline wheels in the rear, which are center-locked and shod in 335-section tires. Racing-style ducting is used to keep the Brembo four-piston brakes cool, and for better feel, they are not servo-assisted. While the braking strength might be a bit weak by today’s standards, the weight of the car, the width of the tires, and the size of the brakes are enough to bring the car to a stop without much effort.

Strutting its Stuff

The sheer thrust and svelte shape whetted some enthusiasts’ appetites, and with some provocation from privateers, Ferrari authorized Michelotto to build a handful of track-only F40s to compete in the IMSA GTO category. These were dubbed the F40 LM; shorthand for Le Mans.

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Spitting flames are all just part of the LM’s drama.

The LM variant was lighter, faster, and better suited for the stresses of long-distance racing. Twin IHI turbos spit 36 pounds of boost into the motor, which was fitted with more aggressive camshafts, bigger Behr intercoolers, and 8.0:1 compression. To complement the increased boost, Michelotto a new Weber Marelli fuel-injection system which controlled two injectors per cylinder. Without the IMSA-mandated intake restrictors in place, the engine could push out a healthy 800 horsepower, but to keep things competitive, that figure was closer to 720 in race trim.

The bodywork was altered with larger wings to add downforce, and Michelotto added a beefier gearbox which could withstand the abuse of motorsport. OZ Rally alloys measuring 17″, specialized Koni dampers, and fixed headlights contributed to the upgrade list, and further weight reduction helped trim what little fat there was to begin with. The F40 LM tipped the scales at just 2,314 pounds, which, with the power available, meant a top speed of 229 mph and a 0-60 time of 3.1 seconds. Such remarkable levels of performance helped a young Jean Alesi secure third at the car’s first race at Laguna Seca, where he beat a number of spaceframe cars and finished just behind the all-dominant Audi 90s of Hans Stuck and Hurley Haywood.

The LM’s dash was replaced with a digital tachometer and the interior was pared to the bone.

The flagship racer attracted other star drivers such as Jean-Pierre Jaboullie and Jacques Laffitte, and achieved several podiums, though it was never a race-winner in its IMSA GTO campaign from 1989-1990.

Despite a winless introduction to motorsport, the F40’s racing career would not end until nearly a decade after its inception. With constant updates made to fit the car into different categories, eventually three more variants were made: the GT, GTE, and Evoluzione. Two examples of the GTE were campaigned in the BPR series by Ferrari Club Italia in 1995 and those two, along with a third example, were run the following year by the Innea-Igol team. Additionally, one F40 LM was repurposed into a GTE by a French outfit for 1996. Despite the relatively small number of cars contested in major racing series, it’s remarkable that nine years after its inception, the F40 was still a competitive force.

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F40 GTE in action. Photo credit: carbuzz.com

A Product of an Excessive Time

The F40 was wild and aggressive. It was not forgiving, nor was it the easiest car to drive. Uncomfortable, loud, and tiring, it could never be confused with a grand tourer—which some be ascribed to some of the other supercars of that decade. However, it shocked the supercar game dramatically in the late eighties, made great use of composites—which hadn’t been used in road cars until then, startled a number of passengers, and kept journalists and racing drivers grinning and clenching at the challenge.

Though some turbocharged engines detract from the driving experience, it’s a plus with the F40; it helps define the frightening experience. The ferocity of the boost building, the way the boost continues to ramp up halfway on-throttle, the lack of driver aids, and the lightweight frame meant a driver always had to be on their toes. With the track-oriented performance this car offered, it’s surprising that Ferrari sold a car so demanding to the general public.

There won’t likely be another like it in today’s age of safety regulations, and with technology moving forward at the pace it is, it might seem like a relic in decades to come. But, what the F40 offers—in immeasurable quantities—are honesty and directness, and thanks to its fearsome performance, it remained competitive in racing well after it should’ve been gone. Regardless of the pedigree, and in praise of some of its shortcomings, the Ferrari F40 and its unadulterated aggression still makes anyone with a drop of racing fuel in their veins salivate thirty years on.

Photo credit: Ferrari S.p.A.

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