When I’m not learning to drive, marshalling on rallies, or helping my dad plan our project to get my grandad’s old Skoda out on the stages (yes, really), I often imagine what it would be like to find myself driving the world’s greatest cars. However, there’s one that stands out as the greatest of them all – the Ferrari 458 Speciale.
It wasn’t a case of love at first sight. The Speciale loses some of the pure, unspoilt lines of the original 458 Italia, not to mention one of the three exhaust pipes protruding from the rear of that car which helped make its design so distinctive. But the Speciale’s aggressive face, pared back interior and extra slats and fins are all subtle hints at what awaits anyone sat behind the wheel. Get over the looks – personality is what counts.
So many cars are defined by their engines and the Speciale is no exception. Combine a naturally aspirated V8 wailing to 9000rpm with a rapid-fire double-clutch gearbox and you have an intoxicating blend of passion, drama and excitement – a heady brew that somehow only the Italians know how to concoct. With “only” 597bhp and 398lb ft, it may not be as powerful or torque-rich as the latest turbocharged monsters to emerge from the likes of McLaren, but that just gives you even more of an excuse to indulge in its ear-splitting vocal ability.
Taking the 458 Speciale to its red line requires a fast, flowing road with spectacular scenery to match the Ferrari’s spectacular performance. I can’t think of a stretch of tarmac better suited to this brief than the legendary Route Napoléon. Numerous trips to France have seen my attempts to incorporate this road into my family’s holiday plans thwarted, so it would be with heightened anticipation that the Speciale and I would tackle the 300 km long section from Grenoble to Grasse. The historical significance of the road may give it a certain tourist appeal (it follows the route taken by Napoléon I on his return from exile in Elba), but the Ferrari’s razor-sharp throttle response no doubt means any traffic would be quickly dispatched!
Even when the drive becomes twisty and technical, the 458 Speciale would still have the ability to excel on the more challenging sections of the Route Napoléon. So fast, so precise and yet so controllable, it’s like there’s a telepathic connection between car and driver, as though it’s wired into the nervous system of its wealthy (or very lucky) occupant. This supreme control arises from the innovative systems developed by the brilliant minds of the men and women at the factory in Maranello. For someone who loves oversteer, the most exciting of these is Side Slip Angle Control (SSC). Taking liberties is not usually advised when driving hardcore, track-biased speed machines, but thanks to SSC, even the most ham-fisted driver can enjoy exploring the Ferrari’s limit of grip without crashing their £208,000 Italian thoroughbred. Nevertheless, such is the confidence that is inspired by the Speciale’s ability to make its driver feel like Sebastian Vettel, a quick turn of the “manettino” dial to back off the traction and stability control could surely do no harm on my dream drive…
The 458 Speciale is the last naturally aspirated V8 Ferrari. There, I said it. Indeed, with the advance of more efficient and higher performing turbocharged and hybrid engines, the naturally aspirated performance car may soon be a rare sight on roads, even ones as mesmerising as the Route Napoléon. While it may be the end of an era for Ferrari, it’s one I feel privileged to have been able to watch draw to a close. And what better way for the marque to commemorate a time that may come to be seen as a “golden age” than with the 458 Speciale. For me, it truly is the distilled essence of what a performance car should be, making it the perfect choice for a road which is nothing less than my own petrolhead paradise.