DRIVING THE 599 GTB
by bill orth
Early this month Ferrari held a dealer introduction session for the 599 GTB at Phoenix’s Firebird raceway. There were two cars on hand, a red one and one in the popular new charcoal grey color called Grigio Silverstone. Since these were the only two 599s in the Western hemisphere and there were no spare pieces for them, we were admonished to keep ‘em rubber-side down and between the fences. There were about twenty attendees and we were divided into two groups so that while one was on the track the other group was undergoing technical training about the cars’ new technologies.
Fortunately, I was in the first group to go on the track. It was a balmy 101-degree day and the later sessions promised to be less desirable. Actually, since we were rotating, everyone got to soak up the heat eventually anyway. The instructors that FNA hired did a great job of putting together a set of exercises that readily demonstrated the new car’s revolutionary traction and handling technologies, followed in later sessions by employing these features in high-speed lapping sessions. Mr. Pirelli must love these events. Primarily, these new technologies center around a suspension concept developed by Delphi that employs suspension units filled with magnetic-sensitive fluid, a new development of the F-1 shifting system and an all-new differential that actually anticipates how much power can be applied in an acceleration situation!
Delphi’s MagneRide system has already been employed on some other autos, most commonly the new Corvette. The concept has actually been around since the late 1940s, when some smart guy thought it up, but although employed in numerous mundane applications, has been late being applied to high performance automobiles. Essentially, the shock absorber units are filled with a fluid in which is suspended tiny platelets (similar to the particles in metallic paints) that are ferrous, and which react predictably based on varying amounts of electrical current that is regulated by the car’s settings. The orifices within the shock body, through which the fluid is forced during suspension movement, are consistent—they do not change in size as some other active systems employ. Instead, when in a low-charge state, these platelets arrange themselves in a vertical “on edge” orientation so they pass through the orifice easily—resulting in a softer ride. However, when the current is increased—by switching to “sport” or ”race” modes—they move to an increasingly horizontal attitude which provides resistance to flowing through the orifice, resulting in greater damping effect and a firmer ride gradient.
The system is beautiful in its simplicity, has no moving parts and is virtually maintenance-free. And because everything is controlled by voltage, instead of mechanical parts, a reprogramming of the software can allow revised chassis tuning if necessary. Beyond the driver’s ability to preset the car’s suspension with the steering wheel-mounted mannitino switch, the entire system is sensitive to input from numerous movement sensors throughout the car’s chassis, and if—through driver error or unexpected road conditions—an unsafe attitude is detected, the units will automatically compensate for body roll. This detection takes place at a phenomenal rate—far faster than any other active suspension system—of 1000 times per second! This equates to every inch of the road surface that the car passes over at 60 mph (and every three inches at 200 mph)! The net result is that the car’s stability is much less affected by body roll and weight transfer during aggressive driving, allowing greater adhesion and faster speeds in such conditions when desired.
The new traction system employs technology taken directly from the F-1 cars. In essence, it digests input from all the car’s telemetry that allows it to predict—from throttle position, steering angle, suspension movements and side loads—how much throttle can be applied. In practice, when you have the car positioned in a corner, as soon as you pass the apex, you can put the throttle to the floor and the car will deliver however much power as available traction can handle!
Another significant change is an important step in the development of Ferrari’s F-1 shifting system. This now also anticipates what the driver is going to do; if the revs are high, the accelerator down and an upshift appears eminent, the car is already beginning to select the next higher gear before the paddle is triggered! This lowers the gear change time to within 50 milliseconds of that of the actual Formula One cars and 50 milliseconds faster than the F430—which itself was 100 ms quicker than the last milestone, which was the 575M’s 250 millisecond pace.
These dramatic active technologies certainly enhance the car’s track performance, but contrary to popular thought, it’s the non-track driving clientele that Ferrari is focusing these enhancements on. The same devices and aids that make it possible to lap a track more quickly are also very valuable in assisting a “normal” driver who has overcooked it into an unfamiliar corner or run into unexpected slippery conditions. They consider it a form of corporate responsibility, since when you offer a 620-horsepower automobile to the general public, it must be one that will do everything technologically possible to keep the client out of an accident.
So, how does all this actually work? Fantastic! But I can’t tell you what the car is like to actually “drive” on the street—we didn’t do that; I know all about how it operates at full throttle and under heavy braking in a track situation. The faster shifting was truly eye-opening. Under hard acceleration down a straight, just touching the upshift paddle produced an immediate chirp from the rear tires and virtually no lost forward motion as gear changes normally do. By employing the “race” mode on the mannitino, it was possible to get enough relief from the normal traction intervention to place the car in a drift in corners. The transition into such a drift was gradual and very controllable with a little opposite steering. (While the steering wheel is turned off-center, the throttle is electronically prevented from engaging full power to help prevent oversteer, but as soon as the corner opens up enough to allow straightening the wheel, full power flows on seamlessly) As mentioned above, once positioned in the corner, drifting past the apex, you simply slam the accelerator to the floor and let the traction computer deliver as much thrust as the all the telemetry messages allows. It takes a little while to get accustomed to the car doing for you what experienced drivers have always done with their right foot, but there’s no arguing with the end result. Very few mortals could lap a 599 faster (or as fast) with all the aids switched off than they can with the electronic assistance engaged. Racing truly does improve the breed!
- - Bill Orth - -