Last Sunday on Top Gear, Jeremy Clarkson explained in detail just how difficult it has been to get McLaren and Ferrari to agree to having their latest hypercars taken for a lap around the Top Gear Test Track in the hands of the Stig. In comparison, Porsche agreed to the test from the get-go and are ready to supply a 918 at any time – showing just how confident they are with the car’s abilities. In Jeremy’s words, Ferrari might be warming to the idea of having LaFerrari power lapped, but there’s another side to this story that Jeremy wouldn’t dare mention – and is the true reason why I think we’ll never, ever have a clear answer as to which car is fastest.
A few years ago, automotive journalist Chris Harris wrote an exposé article about his past experiences dealing with Ferrari. When he was due to road test Ferrari’s new 599 GTB for Autocar magazine for example, Ferrari wanted to know which test track he’d be using for part of the test. He asked a fellow Autocar staffer “Why would they want to know that?”. The answer he received troubled him…
“Because, the factory now has to send a test team to the circuit we chose so that they can optimize the car to get the best performance from it.”
In his words, Ferrari promptly went to the track, tested the car for a day, crashed it, went back to the factory to repair the car, returned, tested some more and then invited him over to drive this “standard” 599. You’d be crazy to think the results would be anything but untruthful.
Exactly how bad is it though? Well, Chris also recalled the time when he was part of a test conducted by another english car magazine on the Ferrari 430 Scuderia. Part of that test involved a dyno session, where the car’s “standard” tyres promptly stuck themselves to the rollers. That’s some seriously sticky rubber.
Chris also recalls a time when he tested a 360 Modena press car that was two seconds faster to 100mph than a customer car he also tested. Sure you’d allow some leeway for a “factory fresh” car which may not be producing the same peak power as one that has “loosened up”, but in his words the press car was “ludicrously quick and sounded more like Schumacher’s weekend wheels than a street car”.
“Ferrari will never admit that its press cars are tuned, but has the gall to turn up at any of the big European magazines’ end-of-year-shindig-tests with two cars. One for straight line work, the other for handling exercises. Because that’s what happens when you buy a 458: they deliver two for just those eventualities. The whole thing stinks. In any other industry it wouldn’t be allowed to happen. It’s dishonest, but all the mags take it between the cheeks because they’re too scared of not being invited to drive the next new Ferrari.” – Chris Harris, 2011
Like any journalist with a brain, Chris was willing to cut Ferrari some slack because it is Ferrari we’re talking about here – the most famous fast car brand of all and the maker of cars that everyone wants to know about. By speaking out about Ferrari’s dodgy practices, his chances of testing any of their future vehicles was immediately in doubt. “The simple message from Ferrari is that unless you play exactly by the laws they lay down, you’re off the list.”
What are those laws? Apart from the laughable track test stuff, as a journalist you are expressly forbidden from driving any current Ferrari road car without permission from the factory. So if you want to drive a mate’s 458 tomorrow, you’d have to ask the factory. Will they allow you to drive the car? No, because it is of “unknown provenance”. Questions remain about what happens if said journalist purchased a Ferrari themselves, like James May has on at least two occasions. Do you think he phones Maranello every Sunday morning to ask if it’s okay to take his 458 down to the shops?
So with all that in mind, if we ever see LaFerrari sitting on the start line of the Top Gear test track with the Stig behind the wheel, imagine what rules Top Gear must have agreed to simply to make that happen? And if it laps faster than the McLaren P1 / Porsche 918 and goes straight to the top of the Top Gear Power Lap board, would you believe it?
The way I see it, the only way you could achieve a truthful result would be to test three customer cars (eg. supplied by “Bin Laden” from Dubai) without the manufacturer’s knowledge, to ensure none of them have been tampered with or otherwise set up specifically for the track. But this would piss Ferrari off to no end. In addition, Mr Bin Laden would most likely never be able to purchase any special edition Ferrari ever again and Top Gear’s relationship with Ferrari would be severely tarnished.
Or go the other way and let all three manufacturers bring their own support teams and set the cars up to be the very best they can be. But what would be the point of that?