40 years of turbo: a new era

25 February 2021

Ben Pulman

On the 40th anniversary of the race debut of Ferrari’s first turbocharged Formula 1 car, we uncover the cutting-edge turbo technology in the Prancing Horse’s latest road cars


Turbo technology has a worthy place in Ferrari’s engineering tradition, thanks to multiple Formula 1 titles and icons like the GTO and F40 in the 1980s – but a new generation of turbocharged Ferrari road cars have appeared over the past five years.

The change was driven by new worldwide emissions regulations, but Ferrari’s engineers approached the project with a new take on turbo technology that overcame traditional constraints, such as turbo lag, low rev limits and a less than thrilling sound. In doing so, Ferrari endowed a new family of turbocharged V8s – with distinct variants built for each GT and sports car – with the characteristics of the naturally aspirated engines that it had developed to a highpoint over the past two decades.

Maranello’s engineers created power units that combined classic Ferrari engine qualities, such as razor-sharp responsiveness, blistering performance, powerful acceleration at all revs and an exhilarating soundtrack, with the advantages turbo technology, such as reduced emissions and fuel consumption, a high specific power output and compact dimensions.

The benefits were immediately obvious: the 2014 California T delivered 70cv more power and a 49 percent increase in torque compared to its naturally aspirated predecessor, but CO2 emissions were reduced by 20 percent. A year later, the 488 GTB demonstrated the breadth of the new V8 family: with an enlarged 3.9-litre engine it unleashed 670cv at 8,000 rpm, and a response time to the accelerator of just 0.8 seconds at 2,000 rpm.

The two engines had different characteristics, but shared important principles that not only delivered headline figures, but also ultra-sharp throttle response and intense engine sound. Numerous sophisticated technologies were responsible, not least compact twin-scroll turbos that ensured more rapid spool up, reducing turbo-lag and minimising response times. The flat-plane crankshaft and an exhaust header with equal-length pipes boosted combustion harmonics and ensured the quality of the exhaust sound became ever more potent as engine speeds increased.

One of the most innovative features was Variable Boost Management. As the vehicle went up through the gears, the amount of torque delivered by the engine increased. The feeling was increasingly powerful pick-up – akin to a naturally aspirated engine – together with optimised fuel consumption.

Development of the Ferrari family of V8s has continued apace ever since the launch of the California T, and created powertrains like the incredible 720cv engine found in the 488 Pista. An extreme evolution, the Pista’s engine gained components from the 488 Challenge race car, including technologies such as turbos with integrated rev sensors, and lightweight components that reduced weight by 18kg. Over 50% of parts were new compared to the 488 GTB, resulting in response times that were instantaneous – and recognition at the International Engine of the Year Awards as the ‘Best of the Best’ from the past two decades.

Ferrari has also created engines to suit the specific requirements of the Portofino, F8 Tributo, Roma and Portofino M, and most recently ushered in a new 4.0-litre V8 for the SF90. The capacity was increased, the intake and exhaust system were completely redesigned, the turbos equipped with electronically-controlled wastegates, and a narrower cylinder head featured a central injector and the adoption of 350-bar GDI – another first for a Ferrari V8.

The result was a 780cv power output, equivalent to 195cv per litre, which once again raised the bar for the performance limits achievable by this type of architecture. Integrated with three electric motors, the power unit worked in synergy to unleash an incredible 1,000cv, meaning the SF90 sets a whole new benchmark in terms of its performance not just with regard to the Ferrari range, but also its competitors.

The rate of progress inside five years is, quite simply, mind blowing.