The Dolomites is breathtaking in its stark beauty.
Snow-capped mountains are everywhere, mostly over 3,000m up above the seas. It’s a rugged landscape , interspersed with the occasional ski lodge; at some points the snow caps are just by the wayside.
Imposing and foreboding the Dolomites is, with local folklore telling of its unforgiving nature.
Whenever she acts up, those who oppose her must apparently perish or be punished with perdition.
The Alpine massif can certainly howl and scream, but for all we care, that was just background noise as we progress up the mountains in spankingly rip-roaring fashion - on a Prancing Horse that packs it on all fours.
Hello Ferrari and hold the tantrums, Mr Dolomites.
We’re driving the Ferrari FF, the first four-wheel drive car emerging from a marque whose history is steeped in rear wheel drive.
It’s a large car, about as broad as a Mercedes Benz S-class, longer than an E-class and unlike other big gran tourers that are more at home on highways and gentler roads. the FF is in fiery form on these narrow, twisty turns.
It hides its size and near 1.9 tonnes impressively, it’s light steering and razor sharp handling make short work of attacking the spaghetti of bends and hairpin corners which seem to have had a Fiat 500 in mind.
But when push comes to shove, the FF digs in harder, unloading its horses with more bite than any Ferrari before it - thanks to it’s four-pawed traction.
A little Italian drama. As we enter the first of a trio of tunnels on the road between Alto Adige and Bolzani, it is difficult to resist the cliche.
So down drop the windows, along with a couple of gears and up go the revs to a ridiculously high 8,200rpm red line.
There’s a glorious bellow from the 6.3-litre V12 .
It’s a meaty reverberation that begins rather mellowly from the lower registers of the midrange with the crescendo building all the way to a hysterical climax.
Just so driver and passenger don’t miss out on the avalanche inducing music (they’re quite nicely insulated in the cabin with double glazed windows), a little of the soundtrack is piped in via two plastic tubes from the engine bay.
With 651bhp - all naturally aspirated - and 683Nm, the FF is superlatively fast, rocketing you to 100kph in 3.7 seconds. The 200kph rush arrives in 11 seconds and it maxes out at 335kph.
Ferrari bills the FF as the fastest four seater in the world and if it’s shape is quite a departure from anything from Maranello to date, so are the directions for it.
The double F’s refer to the cars four seats as well as the four wheel drive system.
The new flagship Gran Tourer takes over from the 612 Scaglietti which has ceased production, although Ferrari emphasises that the FF is more.
Besides a patented new 4RM four wheel drive system aimed at making this a car for all seasons, the FF is a proper four seater, not a 2+2.
Along with that comes a broader spectrum of practical uses.
There’s hatchback versatility - with 450 litres of boot space (800 with the split folding rear seats down) ,the FF has space has space for four and their luggage. You can pack in 2 large golf bags or a fair bit of scuba gear for the weekend.
Inside the oppulent and roomy interior, the back seat will accommodate six footers, and while a touch snug, legroom and headroom are good for long distance jaunts.
Creature comforts are on par with better executive sedans and the options list includes front, rear and side view cameras, a TV receiver; DVD screens in the front headrests for back seat passengers and a height adjustable suspension to lift the car over curbs by 40mm.
The steering wheel is derived from Ferrari’s F1 cars, with a raft of racing technology.
Besides having your turn indicator and wiper controls here rather than on a stalk, it houses the all important mannetino which allows your choice of five driving modes – adjusting throttle response, steering, dampers, gearchanges, ABS and ESP to suit road conditions or your choice of driving progress.
Coupled to the 4RM system, the FF is the kind of Ferrari you would take to places never considered in a mid-engined berlinetta or a 599.
That includes loose gravel, in the rain and here on the Italian side of the Dolomites, to the ski resort in style with all you need for that extended weekend - perhaps with some friends along. It’s a more sociable kind of car. And apparently, it's what the Ferrari clientele have been asking for.
Raked for space
In the metal, the Pininfarina-styled FF is a strikingly handsome car that looks smaller than its 4.9m length would suggest- a little on the wild side perhaps - but with lots of head-turning potential.
There’s a touch of the cross eyed when viewed front dead centre but step slightly alongside, taking in those sparkling LED slits with the rest of the shooting brake profile and things make sense.
The long roof and steeply raked rear account for the generous interior.
The FF is shaped in the same wind tunnel as Ferrari’s Formula One cars. The front vents reduce a build-up of air pressure near the lower grille, and the rear vents do the same from the rear wheel arches.
Underbody panels with vertical fins improve the “ground effects” at high speeds, and the discreet bulge across the rear hatch acts as a spoiler for extra downforce above 200kph. The body has an aluminium spaceframe construction.
What, no driveshafts?
The all new 65-degree V12, 6262cc dry-sumped engine is Ferrari’s first V12 with direct gasoline injection. It operates at up to 200 bar of pressure and Ferrari says it has the highest compression ratio in its segment (12.3:1).
The torque is also blistering: 683 Nm at 6, 000 rpm, with 500 Nm available from 1,000 rpm up to 8,000 rpm.
The mid-front-mounted engine puts its power to the ground via a unique drive system that has two transmissions.
Most of the time, the FF is a regular rear-wheel-drive Ferrari, with the power directed to the rear wheels through a seven-speed, dual clutch transaxle gearbox - mounted between the rear wheels and attached to the electronically controlled differential.
Only when the driver needs more torque than the rear wheels can deliver is power sent to the front wheels.
Front drive sees power taken directly from the engine via a Power Transfer Unit (PTU) - a smaller second gearbox located over the front axle.
The system works without driveshafts - the front gearbox getting its power and torque directly from the crankshaft through a system of gearbox ratios.
The two independent carbon-fibre oil-bath wet multi-plate clutch packs then vector the torque to a half shaft connected to the front wheels.
There is no mechanical connection between rear and front axles as they are linked to two completely independent traction systems.
This set up means the FF can be purely rear-wheel drive when it wants to - which, on dry roads, is most of the time.
It also means that what you experience is a traditional rear-drive feeling - a crucial part of the Ferrari DNA.
Those multi-disc clutches also deal with the different speeds at which the front and rear wheels rotate and the front axle, playing the role of centre and front differentials in a traditional 4WD system.
Since the front clutches are completely independent, they also allow different amounts of torque to be sent to the left and right wheels.
Should the occasion require as in some slippery situations, the FF can drive using one or both of it’s front wheels only. Beyond 200kph, the front wheels are not driven.
The advantages of the 4RM system include weight savings (the system weighs just 45 kilos) - about half a traditional four-wheel drive system.
Besides allowing a lower centre of gravity, it is also a compact system that doesn’t eat into interior space. The split gearbox distribution also allows this front mid-engined car to have a very optimal 47:53 front-to-rear weight balance.
The invisible hand
In practice, the four wheel drive system works quietly and imperceptibly for the most part. It’s only when you hammer it, trying to get the tail to break on slower corners that you feel it’s unseen hand, turning an expected slide into forward momentum.
You can actually feel the front wheels pulling you out during such moments, keeping the car on a clean line.
A tad disconcerting the first time but you soon get to grips with how much more power you can then plant to the ground and how much sooner you can use it out of corners.
With only 2.2 turns, expect the steering to be very direct and it is.
The lightly weighted wheel is razor sharp and there is a dialogue with the front wheels that results from millimetre movements.
The car seems doggedly neutral, going wherever you point it without the slightest hesitation and with only a hint of bodyroll.
Gear changes from the 7- speed F1 DCT gearbox are heard rather than felt. The quoted shift time is now under 50 milliseconds.
Stopping power comes from Brembo’s latest third generation carbon ceramic brakes.
They respond very quickly indeed and bring you from 100kph to nought in 35 metres.
A new brake pad material which is part of the package will see this car never having to change the pads for 100,000km under normal use.
We all expect Ferraris to be fast and furious but set the mannetino to comfort mode and the ride betters some German sedans, thanks in part to the magnetically controlled suspension which uses three body control sensors to assist the damper reaction.
Handling in comfort mode is still pretty taut although the throttle and gear responses are smoothened out and the FF makes progress reverentially like a good cruiser should.
The FF may be a Gran Tourer but when it comes to the twisty stuff, it can put many seriously fast sports car in the shades.
It packs all the emotion, intuition and communication that you have come to expect from Maranello.
But for all its blinding speed and 651 horses, the FF is a comfortable, unintimidating car to drive that is easy to live with.
The price in Britain is about £230,000 (RM1.1mil) and the entire first year production of 800 Ferrari FF units has been booked out.
Naza Italia, the local Ferrari representatives, expect the first samples to be here in the later part of the year.
> Photos courtesy of FERRARI Spa and by ANDREW FERNANDEZ