Supercars are faster and more capable than ever. We don’t even blink when we see power figures starting with a number ‘7’, and sub-three-second 0-62mph stopped being noteworthy ages ago. Previously unthinkable lap times at the world’s most famous race tracks (particularly the Nurburgring) are now par for the course, and in a lot of cases, a competent amateur can get surprisingly close to replicating them.
By almost every measure, the current crop of supercars is the best ever. I say almost, as there’s one crucial way in which they aren’t - fun.
At the launch of the new Ferrari F8 Tributo a few years ago, I remember feeling awfully lucky to be given an empty Fiorano circuit to try the car out - it remains one of the greatest drives I’ve ever had. Using the 710bhp twin-turbo V8 I could power sideways out of the corners, with the latest version of Slip Slide Control ensuring I looked like a hero without my sub-par drifting skills resulting in a swift trip to the nearest gravel trap.
Out on the road, though, all of the V8’s potency felt wasted. Frustratingly, after driving it for about two hours, I reckon I was at wide-open throttle maybe twice, each time for little more than a second or two. Yes, I’m sure many F8 owners will take their car on track, but this is still supposed to be a road car. It’ll be spending most of its time on the public highway, destined to only stretch its legs at the briefest of moments. What a tease.
At those times, you’re treated to a less than thrilling soundtrack. Yes, the particulate filters don’t help, but the 488, which has an earlier version of the same engine, still sounded pretty meh without them. This kind of noise is to be expected with a turbocharged, flat-plane V8 - McLaren‘s eight-bangers are much the same.
It makes you wonder what the F8 might have been like if Ferrari had done everything in its power to keep its mid-engined supercar naturally-aspirated, much in the way Porsche has fought to keep turbochargers away from its 992 911 GT3. You don’t need to wonder, though, as an atmostpheric F8 does sort of exist. It’s called the 458 Italia.
The 458 evolved into the 488, which then became F8. To call the latter a ‘facelift of a facelift’ is a gross simplification given what Ferrari changed for each car, but the statement isn’t a million miles off the mark. Getting behind the wheel of a soon-to-be-auctioned 2010 458 Italia a few weeks back, it instantly felt familiar from my time in an F8.
The infotainment system and a few other bits aside, it’s the same cabin. It’s the same platform too, featuring an identical wheelbase and a similar double-wishbone front, multilink rear suspension setup. It even feels similar to drive with that same super-fast steering and oh-so willing front end. There’s a crucial difference, of course - the thing living just behind the rear firewall.
Instead of a 3.9-litre twin-turbo V8, we have a 4.5-litre naturally-aspirated unit of the same cylinder count. The ‘F136 FB’ produces 562bhp and 398lb ft of torque, lagging behind the F8’s 488 Pista-derived F154 by a whopping 148bhp and 170 lb ft. However, that’s still an incredible amount of power for a road car to have up its carbon fibre sleeves. Put your foot down, and the 458 Italia feels plenty dramatic and incredibly thrilling.
I couldn’t care less that the 458’s 0-62mph time is half a second slower than the F8’s at 3.4sec, because a lack of turbochargers makes the delivery so much more emotionally involving. The way it shrieks up to the lofty peak power point of 9000rpm (1000rpm higher than the F8) before the dual-clutch gearbox rams another cog home is an experience matched by few cars. You do need to rev it to get the best out of it, too - peak twist in the F8 arrives at a mere 3250rpm, but in the 458, you’re waiting until 6000.
While still a little too powerful for its own good, particularly for the mixed conditions of our drive, the output is lower by enough compared to the F8 to make it far less infuriating away from a track. And when you are on a circuit, it doesn’t need to be a massive one to make the most of the package, nor will the car feel underpowered somewhere big and wide like Silverstone.
It’s the ideal supercar, and one I’d have over any of the current crop given the means. As an added bonus, going older and used would save the fictional ‘Rich Matt’ who sadly doesn’t exist a whole heap of cash - the 458 I sampled eventually sold via Historics for £115,000. For what you’re getting, that’s a bloody bargain.
It’s here, I think, that supercars peaked. Not just with the 458, but other cars around at the time too. 10 or so years ago Lamborghini was still making the flawed but mighty Murcielago, which allowed you to match a gated manual gearbox with one of the greatest V12s ever made. The Porsche Carrera GT had only just gone off sale, and on the subject of V10s, Lexus had started building the incredible LFA.
The optionally gated manual-gearbox equipped the first-generation R8 was still available in both V8 and V10 flavours, and although its status as a supercar is up for debate, Aston Martin was busying making the 740bhp N/A V12 One-77. Legends, every single one of them.
It isn’t the powerplants alone that make this the period supercars peaked, though. It’s that these engines were combined with brilliant chassis. From that point on, the gains are more marginal, but drive something a little earlier, and you might be disappointed that the dynamics don’t quite live up to the internally combusted theatrics.
The aforementioned 992 proves that it could have been possible for some of these manufacturers to keep their less powerful but ultimately more exciting N/A power plants going for much longer. The problem is, they’re bound not only by emissions rules but also by the expectations of buyers. For a lot of them, big, impressive numbers are important, and it’s easier to achieve them with forced induction.
As we head towards the dawn of electrification, the supercars of 2010 might come into play once more. We’ve already seen reinventing older stuff, particularly 964 911s, becoming a huge business for the likes of Singer. Modernising newer things like 10-15-year-old supercars might eventually become as commonplace, potentially with some OEM involvement.
It makes perfect sense - from this era, we have cars with highly emotive powerplants, but paired to chassis that are already good enough to only need some slight tweaks to bring them closer to modern standards. Retrim the interior, fit a modern infotainment system, and away you go.
And if this prediction doesn’t come to pass, it won’t really matter - these cars are brilliant enough already despite and because of their age. Progress is overrated.