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Welcome to the British skeleton crew

  1. Someone fetch me a grid girl. I am Jenson Button. Sat here in a BAC Mono, I’ve popped into a new world, where six-foot blondes hold umbrellas to stop your expensive face catching the sun. I flick a paddle behind the steering wheel, which is more of a squashed hexagon, and the sequential ‘box thunks into first. The gates to the Top Gear  track slide back, and the red light goes out. I squeeze through the gap in the still-retracting entrance - easy to judge from this central driving position - and emerge onto the tarmac. Throttle to the floor, and the Mono takes off like a furious mosquito.

    Pictures: James Lipman/Rowan Horncastle 

    This feature first appeared in the August 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. This is an F1 fan’s dream. The rim of the narrow cockpit is level with your ears. You don’t sit, you lie. The wing mirrors are out on stalks, perfectly symmetrical, like the rest of the car. The view forward is the one you see in onboard footage from a GP. But here’s the thing: if a regular human were to drive an F1 car, they would end up in a screeching mess. The Mono is the user-friendly version… the easy way into the racing fantasy. It accelerates almost as fast as a Veyron, but it never feels like too much of a challenge. Your body is energised with vibrations - the good, tingly sort - as the 2.3-litre naturally aspirated engine chomps through the revs.

  3. It changes direction like a spooked UFO. There’s an occasional whiff of oversteer, which can be turned into a long slide, or left alone as the car straightens itself out. You can be clumsy, and it won’t eat your ego. Or you could drive it to the edge of physical possibility, and it still won’t bite. It could even handle a bit more power, which is a big compliment for something that goes from 0 to 62mph in 2.8secs. Downshifts occur almost before you’ve pulled the paddle, and upshifts are similarly rapid, as a blaze of LEDs light up the crisp digital screen.

  4. This isn’t a raw racer - it’s a properly crafted product. And did I mention it’s fully road-legal? The Caterham SP/300.R is not. This is a slicks- ‘n’-wings track-day plaything, with a chassis and proper aero designed with Lola, a company that knows a thing or two about racing cars, having knocked up almost everything from Sixties formula cars to modern Le Mans winners. It’s designed to fill the hole above the ballistic R500 - already one of the quickest things around here - and full-blown racers. At 155mph, it almost doubles its weight, due to the downforce pushing the wedgy bodywork into the road. And around the short Brands Hatch Indy circuit, it’s about five seconds quicker than a touring car, and allegedly six seconds off F1 pace.

  5. The cabin is all bare metal and dangly wiring looms, with half-seats that come up to the base of your shoulder blades, the angle of which is roughly modelled on that of a sunlounger. The man from Caterham slots in a booster pad, so I can see through the slither of windscreen. I toggle the ignition switch, and the supercharged 2.0-litre engine fires into a frantic idle. Grasp the oblong steering wheel… grab first gear with the paddle… ease out the clutch… stall. Repeat until successful. Going slowly makes this thing grumpy. The slicks are cold and slippery and the aero doesn’t really work until 70mph. My first few laps are muddled. Someone goes past in a Suzuki. I weave a bit and squirt the throttle in straight lines.

  6. Then science takes over. My head goes at weird angles to my neck, and my arms quiver. Lines tighten, and it explodes out of turns, on its way to a 180mph max. Racing drivers talk about a car ‘hooking up’, which is what just happened. Probably. As I come out of Chicago onto the straight towards Hammerhead, I feel the aero take over from the tyres, a gentle bleed from mechanical to aerodynamic grip. The car flattens slightly as the phantom force pushes down. Reach a corner, flick down a gear on the sequential ‘box, get on the brakes - a firm press, not a hard stamp - and you can feel the exact pressure, as feelsome and controllable as an airbed foot pump. I am still Jenson Button.

  7. The Radical SR3 SL is a very different thing, chiefly because it’s also street-legal (that’s the ‘SL’ bit). And that requires a few modifications from the raw, bike-engined SR3 on which it’s based. You sit more upright so you can see obstacles and keep The Law happy. The steering is quicker, requiring less lock to get around roundabouts. It has a handbrake and indicators. It has proper wing mirrors borrowed from a Mini. But enough of the road - you can read about that on in the week. We have a track to play with.

  8. Like the Mono and SP, the SL also has a sequential ‘box. At £10k, it’s the most expensive part of the car, and the same thing you’ll find in a Formula Three racer. It feels special from the moment you select a gear with the wheel-mounted paddles, as the pneumatic actuators hiss and puff like a lorry’s air brakes. Get moving, and the sound effects continue, this time from the turbocharged 2.0-litre engine borrowed from the new Focus ST (see p106), which sucks and gargles and blows. From behind the sweep of plastic screen, it feels like you’re trapped in a giant scuba mask.

  9. At 725kg, it’s the heaviest of this foursome, but it also has the most torque. So while it might not have the rabid top-end of the others, it gives you the strongest shove. With big gulps of torque, there’s no real need to trouble the gearbox, but it’s worth giving it a proper workout, as the changes are so crisp and fast it becomes an essential part of the experience. It’s a bit of a handful, tugging and scurrying over the road, but, after a few laps, you realise it’s actually one step ahead of you. Relax your grip. Unclasp your buttocks. Let the suspension do the work.

  10. Returning to the Top Gear  hangar, my body clock spins wildly backwards. The Morgan 3Wheeler could’ve been parked in this fusty corner for 80 years; a nostalgic throwback complete with RAF roundels and decals from a Forties warbird. Wriggle into the cockpit, and your world is now observed through twin flyscreens. There’s no need to tap the aviation-style dials, but it feels right to do so. Flip the ignition toggle, which is actually a bomb-release cover from a Typhoon jet, and prod the starter button until the big V-twin splutters into life. Exposed and proud of the front axle, all it’s missing is a propeller.

  11. There’s none of your sequential nonsense here. The 3 borrows a five-speed manual from a Mazda MX-5, which drives the single rear wheel via a toothed carbon belt. It revs with the lazy grunt of a Harley and sounds like a distant Chinook. Power arrives in fat chunks, sweeping your hair back in waves until you reach 80mph and your teeth fall out. The amount of fuel remaining depends on whether you’re going up- or downhill, and I’ve no idea how it makes it around corners, but I can report that it’s very exciting. And not at all scary. And, if you point it at an apex, it generally hits it. The skinny front tyres are easy to place and provide a surprising amount of feedback through the wonky steering wheel. It even does lavish doughnuts, until you’re choking on smoke and your goggles steam up.

  12. I am Biggles. And through the medium of my bottom, located just above the central rear wheel, I can now tell you the texture of a dead squirrel. It’s like an old apple. But enough roadkill. I’m getting back into the Mono. And I may be gone for a while.

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