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The green Ferrari

Can a supercar ever really be eco-friendly?

Paul Markillie | March/April 2012

First you turn the manettino, the adjustment dial on the steering wheel, from comfort to sport. Then you floor the accelerator. In barely a breath the needle on the large yellow dial that rules the dashboard approaches the red zone—8,000rpm. The speedometer, smaller and set to one side like an afterthought, springs into action, the car surges ahead and your stomach is left behind. Tug the paddle on the right of the steering wheel and the gearbox changes up. The rear exhausts make a sound like both barrels of a Beretta shotgun. The effect is enhanced, on this occasion, by the fuel—99 octane from Tesco in Basingstoke. Then, wham again as you move up through the gears, approaching warp speed. For anyone who has been lucky enough to drive one, this can be only one car: a Ferrari.

But an unusual Ferrari. Besides being a source of high-octane juice for petrolheads, Basingstoke also has its share of Friday-afternoon traffic jams. As you join the queue for a roundabout, the burble from the V8 engine suddenly stops. Lift your foot off the brake as the queue moves forward and the engine is running again in a fraction of a second (230 milliseconds, to be precise). But when you wait before pulling onto the roundabout, the engine doesn’t stop. Clever, this: the car’s computers can tell that the steering wheel is turned slightly, as it tends to be when you are waiting to turn at a junction, so they keep the engine running, ready to nip into a gap in the traffic.

Stop-start technology is not new, at least in economy-minded cars. But in a Ferrari? This one is a California, a convertible suited to sunny climes and wide open roads. Why anyone would want stop-start as an option in such a car mystified me. So it would, I determined, remain switched off. But then in the queue at red traffic lights I had a twinge of guilt, so it went back on. In town that can reduce fuel consumption by 15% and CO2 emissions by a similar amount. From a car averaging around 12 litres/100km (24mpg), that is hardly going to save the planet. But then, every little helps.

Supercars are sold in such small numbers and used so little (secondhand models are notorious for their low mileage) that their contribution to global warming is negligible. But exclusivity wins few favours from legislators imposing tougher fuel-economy and emissions regulations. So this is only a start for Ferrari. It has to make its cars more efficient and cleaner. But would a green Ferrari still be a Ferrari?

The answer to that can be found only in Maranello, a small town in northern Italy where, in 1943, Enzo Ferrari set up a factory to produce road cars to help pay for his motor-racing passion. Arriving here is like going on a pilgrimage. Few visitors are allowed inside, but still they come just to be photographed outside the factory entrance, adorned with a large cavallino rampante. The black, prancing stallion on a yellow shield is the Ferrari badge, found on its road cars, racing cars and the prodigious output of its global merchandising operation. In a nearby hotel, even the soap bears the image of a Ferrari.

At a local restaurant, with a Ferrari V12 engine in the entrance, hangs a large photo of Enzo Ferrari, wearing his customary sunglasses, with a young Niki Lauda in 1975, the year he won his first Formula 1 championship, and Luca di Montezemolo, then a racing manager. Ferrari struggled both on and off the track after Enzo’s death in 1988.

Montezemolo, who was appointed chairman in 1991, helped to restore Ferrari’s racing successes and transformed the carmaking business into a highly profitable operation producing 7,000 cars a year—a trifle next to the millions of models churned out by big producers like Fiat, Ferrari’s main shareholder. Greater China is already Ferrari’s second-biggest market after America.

With its low-rise buildings and tree-lined avenues, the factory is more reminiscent of a Silicon Valley campus than a car factory. It is bigger than I expected, and that’s because Ferrari still makes many of the bits it needs on site rather than being an assembly operation at the end of a giant supply chain. And its heritage is everywhere, not least because Ferrari has not got around to building a museum for its past models and parks its classics in corners of assembly and engineering halls. High tech is blended with craft skills, and no two cars coming down the production lines are exactly the same. These are bespoke products, made to order for enthusiastic but fussy customers, many of whom order several BMWs-worth of extras to get exactly the car they want.

It is not just speed that makes these cars special, explains Amedeo Felisa, the engineering brain behind modern Ferraris and now the firm’s chief executive. It is as much about what the car looks like, how it moves, the sound of the engine and the most intimate contact a driver has with their car: how it reacts when you turn the steering wheel. Which is why, says Felisa, “we must stay very close to that, or we satisfy the regulator but lose the customer.”

There will be hybrid Ferraris, Felisa confirms, and the first will help bring some thrift to the V12 engine, Ferrari’s thirstiest motor. But the technology is not yet ready enough to meet his demands, so such a car is a few years away. Electric motors can provide plenty of oomph, but Felisa worries about their weak point: a lack of noise. “One of the emotions of driving a Ferrari is the sound of the engine.” These are the things he is wrestling with in trying to maintain those Ferrari characteristics while incorporating things like electric motors, batteries and other technologies. One of them, borrowed from F1 cars, is likely to be a kinetic-energy recovery system which takes some of the braking force and uses it to boost acceleration.

But Felisa also needs to keep an eye on what is coming out of the pit lane (see below). Jaguar is already taking advance orders for the C-X75, a hybrid 322kph-plus (200mph) supercar which it is building with the Williams F1 racing team. Porsche is developing the 918 Spyder, which, if not chasing a fast Jag, is supposed to return the equivalent of three litres/100km (94mpg) from a combination of electric motors and a V8. At the Detroit car show in January, Honda unveiled the Acura NSX hybrid, a green replacement for the original NSX, which was launched in 1990 as Japan’s first answer to a Ferrari. And rumour has it that Ferrari’s arch-rival McLaren has a hybrid supercar in the works, too.

New technologies can prove disruptive in any industry, unseating champions and letting others grab the laurels. Maranello needs to ensure la passione is red-hot to take the lead in the eco-supercar game. 

Super-fast economy

Ferrari California
Easy-to-live-with supercar with modest fuel-saving features. From £152,000
Porsche 918 Spyder
Fast, electric, four-wheel-drive hybrid with a V8 engine. Due 2013, left-hand-drive only. From €645,000
Jaguar C-X75 Hybrid
Emissions as low as a Mini but 160kph (100mph) in under six seconds. From £700,000
Honda Acura NSX
A hybrid replacement for Japan’s first Ferrari rival. Mid-mounted V6 and twin electric motors. Price TBA

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