THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE
HOW LONG CAN the average human go without blinking? With the 488 Pista’s octagonal steering wheel ahead of me, its 710bhp V8 behind me and France passing beneath on fastforward, I’m about to find out. My eyes are stretched as wide as they’ll go, seeking vision further and further down the road, and the brain-like space behind them is doing its best to keep up with the stream of information coming in. Ben Barry is following in the 911 GT2 RS; I bet his eyelids aren’t moving much either.
So, these are the final two cars standing, the two we chose to drive for one more day to pick an ultimate winner. Both are the most extreme expressions of their respective species: the Porsche 911 and mid-engined Ferrari V8 berlinetta. Both have similar power outputs: 710bhp for the Ferrari, 690bhp for the Porsche, both unlocked by twin turbos and exotic engine internals, and accompanied by racecar downforce and chassis tech. Both need fewer than three seconds to reach 62mph, both can hit 211mph, and both are all but sold out, despite a £200k+ asking price.
We’re on hillside roads approaching Lac de Villefort, the kind of tarmac these cars were born for. Fast sweepers and stop-press hairpins carved into picturesque valleys, birds of prey lounging on the thermals above the warm tarmac, sunbeams refracted through the trees and hitting us with their full heat on exposed hillside sections – and barely another car in sight.
The Pista’s front-end grip is quite incredible, like a full-size slot car with its guide dug into the road. It’s aided by beautifully judged power steering; weighty, but not overly so, and so precise. The rack’s very fast, requiring barely any lock for even the tightest of turns, yet it’s anything but nervous. Ben notes the Ferrari’s steering has less self-centring effect than most cars. ‘It gives you support to lean on as you unwind the lock; it’s not trying to ping back to the middle,’ he says, approvingly unwinding an imaginary air-wheel in a measured manner.
Fast, but precise – the same can be said for the Pista’s astonishing throttle response. Half of the V8 has been revised over the engine in the base GTB, with eye-wateringly exotic titanium conrods and new inconel exhaust manifolds, plus a race-spec crank and flywheel for minimal inertia. The result is wondrous: a turbo all but devoid of turbo lag. You can pick up the throttle very early in a corner, as you would in a naturallyaspirated car, then feed it in further with absolute precision, like a superbike – with bike-like acceleration to match. Illuminating one of the five shift lights embedded in the top of the steering wheel feels fairly mind-blowing. Light all of them and you worry your brain might melt and pour from your ears.
Time for a breather and a car swap. Ben is almost as smitten by the Porsche’s powertrain as I am by the Ferrari’s: ‘Although the Pista’s engine feels more exotic and its responsiveness and speed is up a notch, I love the explosiveness of the Porsche. Yet it combines that with a completely linear throttle adjustability.’ He’s not wrong. The GT2 RS feels far smoother and more driveable than a near-700bhp monster surely has a right to. It employs a mutant evolution of the 911 Turbo’s 3.8-litre flat-six, one with bigger turbos, a charge-air watercooler, titanium exhaust and another 160bhp in the process, but somehow it retains much of the base car’s tractability. In terms of handling,
too, the GT2 RS has that enviable sense of precision, of just-soness that Porsche does so well. The steering’s a little lighter and less speedy than the Pista’s, but equally precise and measured in feel. Unlike the 488, the Porsche features rear-wheel steering, and it’s equal parts intuitive and unobtrusive. In high-speed corners it teams up with the aero kit to imbue the car with uncanny stability; manoeuvring at parking speeds, onlookers can see the giant rear wheels pivot to shorten the turning circle, and inside you hear it, too – so much sound-deadening material has been stripped out you notice the wheel motors whirring. Brush the brakes and you hear giant pads against ceramic discs like 60-grit sandpaper, get on (or off) the throttle and you hear gasping sounds from the intakes behind the seats, and belches and whooshes from the turbos. It sounds quite malevolent, a barrel-chested burr with a real resonance to it when the giant exhaust valves are snapped open, but it’s more monotone than the Ferrari, whose turbo bass is lifted by zingier overtones.
It’s a stark contrast to the naturally-aspirated 4.0-litre in the cheaper (but just as tricky to obtain) Porsche 911 GT3 RS, which shares much of the same chassis and body upgrades as the GT2 RS. The GT3 packs one of the most spine-tingling soundtracks on sale, and the more muffled-sounding GT2 can’t quite match it. The chassis feels very similar to the GT3, though, which shouldn’t come as a surprise – they share the same rose-jointed suspension and adaptive dampers, with slightly different spring rates at the rear, to account for the weight of the intercooling and plumbing ancillaries.
Perhaps it’s the extra weight and the slight shift in its distribution, perhaps the different engine, but the GT2 RS doesn’t feel quite as special as the GT3 RS. Memory is a fickle thing, but I’m convinced the naturally-aspirated car feels sharper, more alert, has some extra magic running through it that the GT2 almost – but doesn’t quite – summon. But if this is a car that’s 95 per cent as good to drive as a GT3 RS, that still makes it one of the very best driver’s cars in the world right now. Crucially, its huge hit of extra power also propels it straight into the supercar league, and lets it go toe to toe with the Pista.
In fact, of the two I’d say it’s the 911 that demands more of its driver, because if the Pista was like playing an arcade game on easy mode – limitless grip, the ability to brake impossibly late and afterburner straightline speed – the GT2 RS is like cranking things up to medium difficulty. Your hands are busier with the wheel, working with weight transfer that’s more pronounced than in the 488, your braking distances longer in deference to ABS that’s triggered earlier and more easily. You’re working harder, but in return you get the feeling you’re making more of a difference.
While it’s more challenging than the Pista, it’s arguably
more involving too, with a finer degree of feedback. Where the Ferrari has front-end grip like Araldite, the Porsche has a mild infusion of understeer, a typical rear-engined trait. Ben, who speaks 911 more fluently than I do, doesn’t experience that understeer on track. ‘Being deep on the brakes brings the rear round, then it lets you stamp on the power and ride it all out with mild oversteer,’ he says. ‘Leaving a margin on the road, you feel that less, and it’s more about managing light understeer while feeling all that torque tear at the rear tyres.’
Like the Ferrari, those rear tyres are soft-compound Michelin Cup 2s, but so fully do the 911’s fill its rear arches that I can’t fit my fingers between the bodywork and the rubber. And yet, impossibly, the 911 rides smoothly. Some sections of road here are like a patchwork quilt but both cars absorb them without fuss, particularly the 488, with its dampers switched to fondo sconnesso (‘uneven ground’) mode. Both cars’ docility and lowspeed ease of use is quite astounding.
The Porsche’s race-derived suspension is fully adjustable for track use, and our car’s optional Weissach pack includes carbon anti-roll bars, magnesium wheels and a titanium rollcage. The 488 Pista features the same rear diffuser design as its GTE Le Mans cousin, and the underbody, brake servo and many engine components from the 488 Challenge racecar.
Both rock a stripped-out-racer vibe inside, too, the 488’s glovebox binned for nets, and the doors’ armrests replaced by a vestigial escarpment of carbonfibre you can just about get the edge of your elbow onto. More storage space than the Alpine, though, and surprisingly reasonable luggage space under the nose too. The Porsche is the more practical, its seats a great example of one-size-fits-all buckets, and if you get creative with squashy bags you’ll fit them through the rollcage like a ship in a bottle. Getting them out again might be altogether more challenging. So, a winner? Both are astounding achievements. The GT2 RS is more accessible than you’d ever expect a 690bhp rear-drive 911 could be, and just as exciting. But in every measurable respect the Pista is the finer car. It has the better brakes, the better gearbox, better damping, a broader dynamic envelope and feels faster in a straight line (remarkably so, in fact). And for more intangible, emotional reasons too it simply has to win this test – to drive a 488 Pista is to redefine your understanding of what a road car can be capable of, to experience physics bent and shaped in ways that shouldn’t be possible. A supercar with super-powers, it’s the unanimous winner of this Sports Car Giant Test.
With thanks to Michelin, Eurotunnel and Sir Jackie Stewart, who
was talking on behalf of Race Against Dementia
IN EVERY MEASURABLE RESPECT THE FERRARI 488 PISTA IS THE FINER CAR
700bhp apiece, epic on track, at home on road
Pista steering: the bane of driving instructors everywhere
Tarmac here as fractured as it is tortuous. Top two ace it
Lac de Villefort: good. The D901: better
This year, nothing does it better than the Ferrari 488 Pista