We spend a sunrise in the third Ferrari to ever wear the legendary GTO badge. Is the 599 GTO one of the best modern Ferraris?
Even for the most "experienced" car enthusiast, there are times when you just can’t help feeling like a kid in a candy store. It can happen when you walk into a Ferrari dealership and see a new model in the metal for the first time, make a pilgrimage to the Ferrari Museum in Maranello, or walk into a collector’s garage.
That last possibility is especially appealing to me. In addition to marveling at the collection itself, nothing beats quizzing an owner and fellow enthusiast about the details of his or her treasure trove.
Why, when, and how did it all start? What are the cars like to drive? How much restoration did they require? What are their quirks? That brings me to this 599 GTO, the pinnacle of a Ferrari collection located on the lush and picturesque east coast of South Africa. With the launch of the 812 Superfast there has been revitalized interest in its Gran Turismo Omologato predecessor, and rightly so.
The 599 GTO was conceived as a thoroughbred road racer, developed with knowhow from the 599XX track car.
It is only the third Ferrari to boast the fabled GTO name; prior to the 599, the moniker had only been applied to the 250 GTO of 1962 and that bedroom pin-up from 1984, the 288 GTO.
Like its earlier namesakes, the 599 GTO stands out from its contemporaries. Compared to a standard 599 GTB Fiorano, the GTO received different side sills, a massive rear diffuser, and a small deck-lid spoiler. These changes endow it with a notably more hunkered down look, as well as doubling the amount of downforce (144 kg at 200 km/h). The flying buttresses remain the most striking design element, although the new or revised air inlets and outlets found on the hood, front fenders, behind the doors, and behind the rear wheels certainly catch the eye. They also confirm a lot of cooling is needed for both engine and brakes.
I open the hood just to marvel at the engine I will experience in action the next day. The 6.0L V12’s valve covers and inlet manifold wear the classic red-crinkle finish, and the car’s identity is neatly engraved on a plaque near the front of the engine bay. It’s striking to realize how far back the engine sits in the chassis; are the last two cylinders nestled under the dashboard? Eagle-eyed tifosi will spot that the Prancing Horse on the grille is silver, while the one on the rear of the car is black.
Driving the Ferrari 599 GTO
The next day, we are to meet the owner at a service station just before sunrise.
As we wait, the early morning air is suddenly pierced by a deep, sharp exhaust tone. After the necessary photography is done, I am handed the red key.
Lowering into the driver’s seat of any V12 Ferrari is a special occasion, but as I glance at the GTO lettering on the passenger’s side of the dashboard, I realise this car is in another league to most supercars, and suddenly feel slightly shaky.
There are other hints that the GTO is something out of the ordinary. The red line is set at 8 500rpm, 100 revs higher than in the GTB. There are no carpets, just metal plates on the floor, and carbon-fibre trim has been applied liberally. Manually adjustable sport seats, to name one change, contribute to a 100kg weight reduction.
The driver’s seat hugs me tightly from abdomen to shoulders, although its base is relatively soft and comfortable.
The four-point harness clicks into place with a standard seatbelt clip. I can’t imagine an occupant forgetting they are sitting in a Ferrari, but in case they do there are reminders everywhere: Prancing Horses rear up from the steering wheel, the air vents, the tachometer, the headrests, the harness pads, even that seatbelt clip.
The instrument cluster lights up when I turn the key. With my foot on the brake, I pull both paddles to select neutral and press the inviting Engine Start button on the left side of the steering wheel. The V12 immediately turns over and fires with an urgent, although less than rowdy, bark, then settles into a relatively soft yet still intense idle. I pull the right-hand paddle to select first gear and edge onto the road, pointing the Ferrari’s long nose toward the promise of flowing roads snaking through lush greenery.
The car was fully warmed up during our photography session. As a result, the Virtual Race Engineer display to the left of the rev counter indicates, by means of components illuminated in green inside an illustration of the car, the GTO’s engine, brakes, and tires are all at optimal operating temperature. I am further alerted to the fact that the car is ready to be driven at full tilt through the highlighting, also in green, of the word Go.
Even so, I short-shift through to fourth gear, impressed by the ease of driving the car at a sedate pace. Even with the manettino set to Race, and the magnetorheological dampers primed for performance, the ride quality is fairly pliant for such a focused road car. The six-speed F1-transmission, on the other hand, clearly isn’t in its element with such gentle treatment while in its sharpest setting; I feel it’s waiting anxiously for me to attack the redline and swap cogs, at which point it’s going to give me a proper kick in the back.
Time to find out. I pull the left paddle twice, and the exhaust barks as the engine revs snap higher. Then, with second gear selected, I plant my right foot on the metal throttle pedal. The tachometer needle immediately shoots skyward and the GTO leaps forward. The first rev light indicator blinks on the steering wheel at 6 000rpm, and the rest of the row of LEDs light up sequentially as the needle swings merrily past 8 000rpm.
I pull the right paddle, wait for all the LEDs to light up, and pull it again. The transmission thumps me at every full-bore upshift, the engine wails away madly, the intense, relentless acceleration blurs the scenery…and it all adds up to one of the most viscerally thrilling driving experiences I’ve ever had. In an age when turbocharging has become, with few exceptions, integral to the supercar, the GTO’s instant communication between throttle and engine is a real joy, especially if you enjoy the finer nuances of driving. Put simply, it’s something only a normally-aspirated engine can offer. This behaviour is also apparent when I lift off the accelerator. I’ve never driven a Ferrari with so much engine braking; it’s as if the GTO responds to my inputs as quickly as I think them. The result is an intricate, precise connection between man and machine.
As the road ebbs and flows though the countryside, I’m able to look beyond the astonishing engine and explore more of the car’s dynamic behaviour. Steering weight is neither too heavy nor too light, and feedback through the wheel is spot on. The rack is quick, too, and the Ferrari’s nose swings quickly in my chosen direction. The large carbon-ceramic brakes also go about their business with ease and grace.
Scrubbing serious speed is as easy as pressing firmly on the left pedal, which communicates exactly as it should. After a while, I realize the Ferrari doesn’t feel as big from inside as I had expected. Outward visibility is excellent, although, since the bodywork dives down ahead of the engine, I can only see part of the hood from the driver’s seat. Compared with something like the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG, with its elongated hood and blunt front end, the GTO seems compact front-to-back, but make no mistake: It is both larger and more substantial on the road than Maranello’s mid-engined V8 cars.
Before my time with the Ferrari comes to an end, I run through the gears a few more times and marvel at the speed with which this V12 spins through its rev range. Based on the looks the Ferrari garners, it seems the engine and exhaust notes can be enjoyed by those who see the car drive past as much as those seated inside.
The 599 GTO may be a decade old, yet in almost every way it feels as if it might have been released just a couple of years ago. There was not a single moment I felt the car lacked in some specific area, but if I had to criticize an aspect it would be the transmission. Despite shifting speeds as quick as 60 milliseconds, the single-clutch F1 gearbox can’t compare to today’s faster-shifting, smoother dual-clutch units. From behind the wheel, however, the transmission blends seamlessly into the experience.
While doing some research on the car following my drive, I read an interview with then Ferrari chairman Luca di Montezemolo, who admitted the GTO was quicker around the Mugello circuit (and Fiorano, for that case) than an Enzo. In other words, at the time of its introduction, this version of the 599 was Ferrari’s fastest car, as well as its most powerful. Although the pace of supercar development is relentless, the GTO remains devastatingly quick, even today.
It’s also suitably rare and desirable. When new, the entire GTO production run of 599 units were sold out (to approved clients) before the car had even been officially presented to the public. This despite a roughly $450 000 list price at the time in the USA, a hefty premium over the 2006 GTB’s cool quarter million-dollar price tag. It turns out those lucky GTO buyers even made a good investment: today the price of these cars, of which only 599 were produced, vary between R8,5 and R13 million.
Despite these values, the owner of this particular GTO hasn’t tucked it out of the way in the corner of the garage. Instead, he’s undertaken a number of long-distance trips, including a 1 000km run to Johannesburg and back. He does admit he makes sure each drive in the GTO is a special occasion – and in his shoes I would do exactly the same thing.
Ferrari 599 GTO
Engine: 5 999 cm3, 65° V12, 48 valves
Power: 493kW @ 8 250rpm
Torque: 620Nm @ 6 500rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive
Suspension: (f+r): independent with Magnetorheological Supension Control
Wheels and tyres: (f) 9.5x20-inch, 285/30ZR-20 front; (r) 11.5x20-inch, 315/35ZR-20
Kerb weight: 1 605kg
Acceleration 0-100kph: 3.35 seconds
Top speed: 335kph