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Why Ferrari’s v12 has remained the stuff of legends throughout its 70-year history

The Peak drives two V12-powered Ferraris to discover why the Prancing Horse has tenaciously stuck with this magical engine throughout its 70-year history.

The digital speedometer is flirting dangerously with 250kmh, and the colossal roar of the V12 engine is ricocheting through the tight cabin like an AK-47 on rapid-fire in a bank vault. On my fourth lap, I am shoving the Ferrari 812 Superfast wide into Sepang’s infamous number nine left-hander turn and, for a split second, I fear I’ve overcooked it.

But the unstoppable carbon ceramic brakes heroically slough off surplus speed and Ferrari’s party piece, the brilliant “virtual short wheelbase 2.0” rear-wheel steering system, pivots the car firmly into the apex. No fuss, no drama – with a solid prod of the go-faster pedal, and it is off we go again.

POWER MONGER
The specific output of 121.5bhp per litre is the highest for any front-engined production car.

Sweat is pooling under my helmet above my brows. My knuckles, fingers clenched on the steering wheel, have turned white. Not that I have the time to notice. There is something electric about being at the business end of a V12, a sweet engine configuration that is inherently balanced, delivers butter-smooth power nonpareil and – the best part – can be revved till kingdom come.

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THE NUMBERS

(812 Superfast)

ENGINE 6.5-litre, V12
POWER 789bhp at 8,500 rpm
TORQUE 718Nm at 7,000 rpm
0-100 KMH 2.9 sec
TOP SPEED In excess of 340kmh

This potent combo is something no other arrangement of cylinders can match. And that signature sound! – a snarling, sonorous symphony that only an orchestra of a dozen instruments can muster, tuned by the maestros at Maranello in a way that, even to the untrained ear, a Ferrari engine sounds like a Ferrari engine. Which is why, despite its great complexity – which comes at a great cost – the V12 remains the showcase engine for Ferrari.

  • Ferrari 812 Superfast
    STYLE ICON The 812 Superfast features a high tail design that harks back to the 365 GTB4 of 1969.

The tradition started when Enzo Ferrari built the first vehicle that bore his name, the Ferrari 125 S, in 1947. A race-car constructor through and through, Enzo Ferrari favoured the free- and high-revving manner of the V12 motor, due to its capacity being spread over smaller cylinders, allowing each to be lighter. Such engines are also naturally balanced, so the crankshaft can be made with minimal counterweight, reducing rotational inertia.

The “Colombo 125”, named after engineer Gioacchino Colombo with whom Enzo Ferrari worked closely in the early years of the company, measured a petite 1.5 litres, but had an advanced single overhead camshaft design with two values per cylinder. It produced 118bhp, an incredible amount of grunt at the time, which propelled the 125 S to the podium, winning the car six of its 14 races in its debut year alone. (Fun fact: the 125 S would have qualified for a Cat A COE today.)

POCKET ROCKET Ferrari’s V12 legacy started with its very first model, the lightweight 125 S racer.

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Technical specs considered, the V12 engines in today’s Ferraris have come a long way. The one in the 812 Superfast, which was announced at this year’s Geneva Motor Show – making this The Peak correspondent among the first Singaporeans to drive one – produces 789bhp at an astonishingly high 8,500 rpm. The lively 6.5-litre unit is the most powerful naturally aspirated production car engine ever made.

Apart from the track, the V12 is suited for a wide range of uses, like the 6.3-litre lump in the Ferrari GTC4Lusso. I took the luxury two-door, four-seat grand tourer for a quick spin around the CBD and on the highway, and found its road manners remarkable: patient in heavy traffic, but eager to unleash the full 681bhp once the horizon opened up. That the V12 relies not on force induction also leads to perfect linearity in power delivery, that essential ingredient in creating the illusion that car and driver are one.

The V12 is a rarity in the motoring world and the ongoing onslaught on carbon emissions (all things being equal, larger engines produce more) is only going to diminish its numbers further. This is in spite of logic: V12-powered cars are sold in such tiny numbers that they contribute a negligible amount to global emissions. So for those who can afford a V12-power Ferrari, it is a celebration of technical achievement and of Ferrari’s tenacity in persisting to do great things in the face of bureaucratic pressure.