Shaken or Stirred?

By: Jeff Littrell

So you?re thinking about buying a new F355? Well, Ferrari has made your decision just a little bit tougher by offering you the option of playing Michael Schumacher with the gearbox in the new F1 model. You?ve read all the reviews, most of them glowing, but are you really ready to forego that traditional gated shifter? Isn?t stirring that polished gear shift knob half the fun of owning a Ferrari? Is there any satisfaction to be had from just pulling a little plastic paddle? You bet there is.

I?m fortunate enough to be the new owner of a 1998 F355 F1 Berlinetta and I found it to be quite a soul-searching experience whether to buy the F1 or not. The problem, as with most new car buying, is that you don?t really know how well you?ll like it until you?ve driven it for a while. Hopefully, this little article will provide insight into the good and the bad of the F1.

There really isn?t much that needs to said about the F355 itself. It is one of the best performing vehicles on the planet. It looks great, the build quality is as good as Ferrari has ever had (which was not intended as slam), it sounds great, and just does everything well. But what about that computer-controlled F1 gearbox?

First off, it is the same exact 6-speed gearbox as the manual transmission cars so there is no worry about the box itself. In the F1 it?s just controlled via a complex series of solenoids and electro-hydraulic gizmos and some pretty fancy software. I?ll have to admit to being a bit wary of first-year technology in something so complex but so far there has not been so much as a hiccup.

I?ll also have to admit to not wanting the F1 after my first test drive. Here?s how it went down:

The first thing you realize is that starting off from a dead stop, like out of the dealer?s tight lot, the F1 is kind of like driving an automatic ? you just squeeze the gas pedal and it just starts moving the car. Even though there?s no power-wasting torque converter and the F1 magic is truly slipping a normal single-plate clutch disc just like you would do with your foot, without the tactile feel it is highly unsatisfying, weird even. The salesman took me out in the car and it seemed pretty smooth and interesting but the shifts weren?t nearly as fast as I thought they could be. Don?t get me wrong, it is a total rush not lifting your foot and just tugging that little bat-ear but I guess I?d been expecting the same engine note as The Ferrari F1 cars. You know, whahhhhh, whahhhh, whahhhhh, brake, click, click click ? that?s up 3 gears and back down again. Total elapsed time, about as long as it takes you to say "bye, bye, Mika." The problem was, the F1 shifted more like whahhhh, power off, wait a bit, body comes forward off the seat, whahhhh, pushed back and off again. It certainly seemed to my egotistical mind that I could shift faster than that. I went home muttering about 0.20 second shift BS, told the wife it wasn?t worth it, and started shopping for a used Berlinetta.

It wasn?t until a second test drive with a younger and more aggressive salesman that I realized the err of my, and the previous salesman?s, ways. During the first test drive, in deference to the equipment, we were both shifting at about 7,000 to 7,500 RPMs. This is an insanely high speed for 8 pistons, 40 valves, and a host of other expensive mechanical items to whirl about but it?s still at least 1,000 RPMs shy of what the F355 is capable of. And likes. More importantly, the software in the F1 is programmed such that if you take it to the 8,500 RPM redline it knows you mean business and it gets its business done in a hurry. But, shift it at 7,000 and its about as rough a shift as you can get out of the car because it tries to smooth things out but the engine and the car are moving so fast any he