Because the F12's 730bhp wasn't enough: Ferrari's limited-run F12tdf comes with more power, less weight and a radical rear-wheel steer system

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The Ferrari F12 has never struck anyone as being in need of more power. It really doesn’t feel like it needs more nor, at least without significant modification, should it be given it. But here we are: the Ferrari F12tdf, a special version of the F12, limited in production but unlimited in ambition.

It’s called F12tdf to reference the old Tour de France road race, which Ferraris won quite a few times, but only ‘F12tdf’ in name and not actually ‘F12 Tour de France’. The two-wheeled, pedal-powered Tour de France owns the Tour de France moniker, so only the Tour de France can actually say Tour de France. Follow?

No question, though, the Ferrari F12tdf incredibly impressive – and not just as a technology showcase

Anyway, the F12tdf it is, and it gets lots more power than an F12, and, thankfully, plenty of other modifications to go with it. Ferrari’s special 12-cylinder car programme has in the past provided us with the 599 GTO, of which 599 were made.

Ferrari suggests the 799 tdfs that will roll away from Maranello will be just as extreme, providing a front-engined Ferrari V12 with hitherto unmatched levels of agility. There are several ways you can make a car feel more agile, and Ferrari has done all of them.

One is adding more poke: so the F12tdf gets 770bhp instead of 730bhp, thanks mostly to an easier-breathing inlet on the 6.3-litre engine and race-derived mechanical rather than hydraulic tappets, which are noisier but lighter and allow a higher rev limit – some 8900rpm. We must hasten to add that the swansong for the F12 - the F12 M won't surpass the frankly ludicrous 770bhp mark, but be limited to a much more manageable 750bhp.

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Another method is to reduce weight, so the F12tdf is 110kg lighter than the F12, thanks to the removal of much of the interior (Alcantara and carbonfibre replaces leather and aluminium), and the replacement of much of the aluminium bits on the outside with carbonfibre, with Ferrari claim a sporty yet spartan feel.

But the easiest way to introduce agility to a car is simply to fit it with massive front tyres. At the start of the development process, Ferrari did just that - fitting 315-section F12 rear wheels to the front, and then even slick tyres to the front, to see what the result was like.

Hilarious but perilously unstable is the short of it, which meant Ferrari couldn’t just leave it like that. And here its marketing men rather like to use an aerospace analogy: in the same way that a modern fighter jet is designed to be inherently unstable so that it’s incredibly agile, so too was the F12tdf.

And where a modern fighter uses electronic control systems to make it flyable, Ferrari uses active rear steering to make the F12tdf driveable again. They call the system a ‘virtual short wheelbase’, or ‘passo corto virtuale’ to be precise, although it’s not strictly accurate in either language; it’s the wider front tyres, 285 section rather than 255s, that increase the agility and make the car feel like it’s shorter.

The ZF rear steer system, which weighs around 5kg, can add up to a degree of toe in or out thanks to electromechanical actuators acting on a toe link, and almost always turns in the same direction as the fronts (except at manoeuvring speeds), is used to put stability back in.

In effect, that lengthens rather than shortens the wheelbase again, but semantics aside, the aerospace analogy isn’t unfounded. Either way, Ferrari likes the system so much it’ll use it again in future. So significant are these things that beyond them the changes are mere details.

The aerodynamics are improved – the car’s a little longer as a result, while the rear track is wider because of the active toe changes. Gear ratios are 5-6 percent shorter, enough to reduce the 0-62mph time to 2.9sec, and spring rates are stiffer, by 20 percent – a difference you’ll feel ‘within a metre’.

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The price, if you’ve been invited to buy an F12tdf – and you’ll own at least five other Ferraris and be known by the company ‘very well’ if you have – £339,000.

The F12tdf is certainly intriguing. And if that isn’t the word as immediately positive as you’d expect about a car from a manufacturer that can do scarcely little wrong at the moment, we share your surprise. 

Ferrari admits that its special V12 models aren’t simple to jump into and drive quickly – they’re not like the standard mid-engined V8s – and the F12tdf takes some learning before you feel completely comfortable with it on a circuit.

Because on the road, of course, dynamic extremes aren’t such a bother. Yes, you do notice the firmness of the ride and the fact that if you flick the dampers to ‘bumpy road’ mode there’s seemingly less of a difference than in a standard Ferrari. It’s always firm: not crashy, but you know what’s beneath you. 

The F12tdf retains the F12’s two-turn lock-to-lock steering rack, but because of the wider front tyres and stiffer suspension, it feels more connected and responsive than a regular F12. So in many ways it’s easier to drive; out in the hillside roads around Maranello the F12tdf steers with ease and precision; it’s a big car but one that’s easy to place. 

And it has an utterly magnificent powertrain. Untroubled by turbochargers yet still developing 80 percent of the engine’s torque from 2000rpm, its response is fantastic, it makes a glorious noise like an F1 car of old and the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox has had a few tweaks to clean up and shorten the shift times. 

At the top end of the rev range the response is on occasion too sharp – even Ferrari’s test drivers think as much – but such is the significance of the 'tdf' name and the programme that the engineers and marketers want the F12tdf to feel like there’s some racing car in it. Quite a few racing drivers would be delighted to find their race cars had a powertrain as strong and responsive as this. It is phenomenal.

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It’s on a circuit, though, nearer the car’s limits, where the idiosyncrasies of the F12tdf’s handling, and the response of the engine, come further into consideration.

In most front-engined, rear-driven cars, you know what you’re going to get on a track. You have to settle the nose on approach to a bend, probably trail the brakes slightly to reduce understeer, which in turn can unsettle the rear, and then you drive through nicely under power, applying just the amount you want in order to adjust the attitude of the car. Aston Martin An Aston Martin V12 Vantage, for example, is as simple as they get.

The F12tdf isn’t quite like that. Partly that’s because there’s not really any understeer to drive around in the first place. The additional front tyre width makes it feel hyper-agile, so in faster corners it darts for the apex, but then, when you expect the rear to become unsettled because of the speed with which the nose has dived into a bend, the active rear steer intervenes and makes the back end more stable, keeping the rear trimmed to the same apex as the fronts at a speed a car without the system fitted just couldn’t match. 

Mind you, with any significant application of throttle – and more or less any throttle application is significant in a car with this power and response – it will still light up the rears, at which point the increased speed at which you’re travelling, the electric response of the engine and whatever the rear is up to conspire to make it feel not altogether natural. 

With more familiarity, you learn to anticipate the F12tdf’s characteristics, drive with lighter, more fingertippy touches and smaller inputs, and then it becomes a deeply rewarding thing. But it’s not a car – like the docile 488 GTB is – that you can just enjoy easily.

If any of that sounds down on the F12tdf, it’s not meant to; there is loads to love here. The cabin, the noise, the performance, the responses right up to the limit are all exceptional.

It’s just unusual at times, and, given that it’s meant to be challenging and that an owner will have at least five other Ferraris to choose from (let alone other cars), depth and unusualness are characteristics the F12tdf can easily afford to have. 

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Besides, thinking about it, we wonder: would we have an F12tdf over a Lamborghini Aventador SV, a car we like deeply?

Undoubtedly. Over a McLaren 675LT, which we thought was a five-star car? It’s a very close-run thing. Certainly I’d want many, many more goes in the F12tdf before I would say for sure. And let’s face it, that’s kind of the point of Ferraris like this.

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Ferrari F12tdf 2015-2017 First drives