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Welcome to Top Gear’s Speed Week 2014

  1. The TopGear magazine Speed Week 2014 begins with a gate. It’s a substantial metal gate, currently blocking the narrow entrance bridge to the pit area of the Castellolí circuit. A neatly ironed security guard checks our identities before thumbing a button and allowing 10 feet of corrugated steel to slide slowly and inexorably right, and reveal the path to what promises to be God’s own track battle. The most exciting performance cars of the past 12 months, two-and-a-half days, and a tricky, fast and flowing circuit threaded through the undulations of a pretty little valley just outside Barcelona. The sun is shining. The scent of warm tarmac hangs in the air undercut with a faint hint of super-unleaded, and there are empty meanders of tempting racetrack coiled under the bridge. This is going to be utterly magnificent.

    Photos: Rowan Horncastle, John Wycherley and Mark Fagelson

  2. Except it isn’t, because once we arrive at the baked area behind the pit straight, there are no cars. Just one lonely cargo truck and a Repsol tanker lorry containing enough fuel for TG to intensify localised global warming by at least a degree-and-a-half. Which is nice, but a bit redundant when the only thing to hot lap is an ageing Iveco. We stumble about and make phone calls, worry and wonder what it takes to register a truly heroic pole in a Seat Alhambra diesel. But only for a few laps, because the Repsol truck only has a bellyful of Super.

  3. We needn’t have bothered. Up by the entrance, we hear a screech, a hiss of airbrakes, and the Bond-villain gate slides back to reveal a huge car transporter. The driver is clothed in a white race suit, impassive mirrored visor reflecting the afternoon sun - and its pretty obvious he’s loaded with proper toys. The Stig swings the wagon around to the back of the pit garages in one smooth movement, reverses expertly - without looking in his mirrors - steps out and points to the eight performance cars canted on the back. He waits a beat, and then points to the track. To be fair, you don’t have to be an expert in sign language.

  4. Before we can even loosen any straps, the gate swishes open once again, and another small truck appears trailed by a quartet of variously sized car transporters. One wears the Honda Yuasa Touring car logo, the other more Seat livery. Yet another bears the Porsche legend, and the last is strangely blank. This is getting interesting. But that’s the thing about TG Speed Week, it’s like Forrest Gump’s legendary box of chocolates: you never really know what you’re going to get.

  5. Which means we need to take stock. As various cars fire up and are pulled, grumbling and thrumming into the pit garages, it becomes clear that this is quite an eclectic collection. First up is a little grey hatch. But this is a Leon Cupra 280, expensive at nearly £27,000 and packing 276bhp of nicely understated firepower from a 2.0-litre turbo engine. It is the Nürburgring front-wheel-drive lap-recordholder, and it sits low and purposeful on big 19-inch wheels. A fine start. Next, a £25k Audi S1 quietly draws into the pit, brand new and shockingly yellow, opting for 227bhp of turbo power from a four-ringed version of a very similar turbo 2.0-litre, slapped to the road through quattro four-wheel drive. A punchy combination for such a small car. The retina-searing S1 is followed closely by an almost comically understated VW Golf in dark blue. But look closer, and it’s obvious that this is the £31,305 R variant, and it means speedy business. Big wheels only partially hide bigger brakes, there are a quartet of purposeful exhausts out back; the relatively sober exterior disguises 296bhp of 4Motion-equipped über-Golf from yet another version of that blown 2.0-litre four-cylinder. Popular engine, that.

  6. Keeping with the real-world theme, and again, almost comically undersubscribed in the looks department, an accountancy-blue BMW M235i whirrs alongside the Golf. A roadcar in rude health, this mini-M car packs a not-insubstantial 322bhp and 332lb ft from a single-turbo 3.0-litre straight-six stuffed under its modest bonnet. More than that, it’s rear-wheel drive. For £34,260, it’s more like an old M3 than the current version. But, as ever, there’s more to come. And the horsepower figures are rising…

  7. There’s a flat, industrial noise from the back of the Porsche truck, and a silver Cayman GTS backs out onto the tarmac. Perennial plaudit-accumulator in any performance test, this GTS is apparently faster, better resolved and quicker than any before it. With a mid-mounted 3.4-litre flat-six pushing out 335bhp and costing just over £57k, this is a seriously fast and well-balanced sports car - and probably one to watch. It’s also bloody noisy with the optional sports exhaust - a rough boxer tenor. A tune that’s rudely undercut in the next couple of heartbeats by the rasp of a very odd-sounding engine. For 1,400 quid more than the Cayman, a BMW M4 hoves into view, resplendent in a burning metallic yellow paint that makes it look as if it’s been cast from liquid gold. Now this is an interesting car - the response to the one-size-fits-all fast roadcar equation, a two-door, four-seat, semi-practical Answer To Everything. Controversially, there’s a similar-capacity turbocharged 3.0-litre engine under the bonnet vaguely related to the one in the M235i, but this time it uses a pair of turbos to produce 425bhp and 405lb ft. It’s fast, too. But despite looking fabulous as it approaches, it makes a most uninspiring thrumble.

  8. Not so the next. A blood-red Corvette C7 rumbles ominously past - not sure where that came from - angular features bracketed by the black accents that denote the UK Z51 spec - bigger wheels, stickier tyres, better cooling, better aero, a trickier electronic differential, brilliant magnetic ride control suspension. It looks even better than I remember. And it has 460bhp and 465lb ft of 6.2-litre V8 under that long bonnet. For £61,495 in the UK, there’s not a thing to compare it to. Unless, that is, you spend 85 grand and buy a Jaguar F-Type Coupe R like the bronze-orange version that crackles into life just behind it. Noisy, this. And utterly gorgeous. Slick and pert, pretty and proportioned, it’s got to be one of the best-looking Jags ever. Mean, too: a 5.0-litre supercharged V8 drops 542bhp through the back wheels. It pulls up way too close to the Vette. I swear there’s trouble brewing between those two already.

  9. Then it starts getting silly. A Porsche 911 Turbo S creeps in, subtle but vicious-looking, offering even the most ham-fisted of driver 0-62mph in 3.1 seconds from a bi-turbo 3.8-litre flat-six hung out the back. That’s what £141k and 553bhp through sophisticated Porsche AWD will do for you. Then another four-wheel-drive car looms, and the sun is momentarily blocked by the gargantuan bulk of a bright-red Bentley Continental GT Speed. It seems faintly ridiculous here, that this wood-panelled behemoth could be considered as a performance car, but this is the newest and fastest Conti: £156,700, 626bhp, 605lb ft and rest to 62mph in just over four seconds. It does over 200mph. It has a 6.0-litre bi-turbo W12. It is glorious.

  10. The next is smaller, but a more acceptable expression of the fast-car lexicon. At first it appears that the newcomer might be the fabled McLaren P1, but it resolves into an orange McLaren 650S Spider wearing most of a P1’s face. Successor to the brilliant-but-flawed 12C, the Woking missile boasts proper supercar figures. For £215k, you get a 3.8-litre bi-turbo V8, 641bhp, 500lb ft and heart-attack performance. If 0-62mph in 3.0secs and 204mph isn’t enough, then you need to start thinking about becoming a jet pilot. That’s it. A shiny selection of the most explosive cars of the year. There can’t possibly be more. And yet there is.

  11. The last two contenders glide out into the sunlight silently, like sharks sliding out from the abyss into shallower hunting waters. The only noise they make is a faint whine, and the hiss of tyres on tarmac. And yet these two are possessed of a total of 1,778bhp. They are both hybrids. Everything else suddenly looks a bit tame.

    The Porsche 918 wears a somewhat over-the-top, flamed livery, but has the go to match the show. A car so dense with technology that it should fall straight through the planet, the £700k nine-eighteen is a plug-in hybrid that produces a total of 875bhp and 943lb ft, delivered through both axles. It hammers to 62mph in 2.5 seconds. The race-derived 4.6-litre V8 stowed in the back is naturally aspirated - when it fires up, it makes you think of the best bits of Le Mans. And fear.

  12. The strange thing is, that’s not even the most intimidating of the two. McLaren’s P1 pulls into position like an alien craft settling into the pitlane. Some 866 thousand quid. The same 3.8 V8 as the 650S, but re-engineered and supplemented by an electric motor to produce 903bhp and 664lb ft, all driven exclusively through the rear wheels. Again, it’s a properly feral plug-in hybrid. It’s here. And facing the 918. The tension is palpable. Like sitting on a low-voltage electric fence.

  13. You’d think that would be enough. It probably is enough. But just as we’ve arrayed our delicious selection of the finest performance cars of the past year, there’s a farty, fluttering sound from one of the garages, a rattle and a “Frrrrp, tish” of what sounds like a turbocharged 50cc scooter. The cream Caterham appears. Now, I’m not one to decry life’s simple pleasures, but this particular 160 has but 80bhp and 79lb ft from a Suzuki-derived 660cc turbo three-cylinder engine. It has a top speed of just 100mph and tyres skinnier than my feet. It’s here because it provides a kind of lightning rod for complexity, reminding us of what’s really important. But, more likely, because it’s the one we built in our office, and our editor- in-chief Charlie Turner has an unhealthy obsession with it. Even though he knows exactly how haphazardly it was built.

  14. A message comes over the radio. The track is open. And as 14 of the best cars of 2014 fire up and rumble to the pit exit, The Stig lifts his head like he’s scented blood, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention. Welcome to TopGear magazine’s Speed Week 2014.

    Prepare to fry some tyres. It’s going to be incredible.

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