The world's first drive of a priceless concept. Dicey, concrete-walled track. Rear-wheel drive, 320bhp, insanely short wheelbase. No traction control. Head of Renault concept design in the passenger seat. Driver of limited talent behind the wheel.
Exclusive video: Renault TwinRun on track
Renault hands TG the keys to its insane TwinRun concept, we oblige by giving it an exclusive blat…
All these are fine reasons why, as a driver of limited talent behind the wheel of Renault's TwinRun concept, I should be taking things very easy. But, as we dive into Charade's first corner, a tricksy, 100mph left-hander with an angry wall lurking a couple of feet beyond the racing line, I discover with some surprise that I am not taking things very easy. I am, I notice, going inadvisably fast. Partly this is because Axel Breun, said head of Renault concept design, is goading me on, and partly because this is no normal design study.
See, most company's concepts, if they run at all, will manage a creaking few miles an hour under the power of a) gravity or b) a stout bloke pushing. But Renault doesn't do concepts like most others do. Under its show-stand exterior, the TwinRun is a top-grade race car: bespoke tubular spaceframe adapted from Dacia's 850bhp Pikes Peak Duster, race-spec Nissan V6 where the rear seats should be, straight-cut sequential 'box. Track-spec rubber and brakes. One hundred per cent not road-legal. Le vrai McCoy.
It's also, I remember as another of Charade's vertical concrete ‘run-off zones' skims past, the only one in the world and entirely irreplaceable. But provided you never lose sight of the fact you're driving something wider than it is long, something that'll switch ends then murder you if you show the merest hint of disrespect, the TwinRun makes every car on Top Gear's Speed Week - Cayman, SLS Black, etc - feel as woolly and distant as a tumble-dried sheep.
That's what race cars do: pare back the motions of track driving to their barest, most glorious core. The TwinRun's steering is glorious: entirely unassisted and fizzing with information from the front tyres. If I ran over a credit card right now, I could tell you the 16-digit code on the front.
And, jeez, it's loud. With a flimsy Perspex screen separating the cockpit from the engine behind, the noise is cortex-shattering, the gearbox screeching a glass-edged, milk-curdling scream as you wind the engine towards 7,000rpm. Thankfully, the fumes of the 100-and-something-octane race fuel wafting from the engine serve to dull your senses to this racket after a few corners.
So the TwinRun: deafening, smelly, brilliant. But, I ask Breun, assuming the third-gen production Twingo won't get a tubular spaceframe and dog-box, what does this fine concept have to do with the price of poisson? "Partly we just wanted to have fun," he replies. "But the silhouette shows how the next Twingo will look. We exaggerated it a little, but we're very close to the production car."
Shear the TwinRun of its wildest race-concept touches - those filigree wing mirrors, the fat rear wing, arches and rally-inspired lightpods - and you're looking at the shape of the next Twingo. A tidy shape, it must be said, albeit one with more than a hint of Fiat 500 and Vauxhall Adam about it.
But in at least one regard, the production Twingo will be closer to the Porsche 911 than the little Fiat or Vauxhall. Because the next Twingo will be rear-engined, its motor tucked behind the rear seats and driving the rear wheels. This configuration, says Breun, has allowed the Renault designers to give the Twingo a far neater nose than any existing supermini: the TwinRun's almost total absence of any front overhang will carry to the production car.
As will a whole load of the TwinRun's stripes and decals, at least if you tick the necessary options boxes. Doubtless having taken heed of Mini and Fiat's bulging order books, Renault is moving the Twingo upmarket. "The TwinRun shows the car's scope for personalisation," Breun explains.
Top Gear winces a little at the P-word. The original Twingo wasn't about personalisation. It was a back-to-basics monobox and all the better for it. "But we didn't have Dacia then," says Breun. "We need to differentiate the brands."
Dacia now mops up the budget end of Renault's market, so the Twingo must shift into premium territory. But, I say, you know what would really separate Renault from Dacia? A V6, mid-engined Twingo, with, ooh, around 320bhp and rear-drive. After all, Renault has previous in the department of Hot Hatches with Engines in the Wrong Place, with the Renault 5 Turbo and the later Clio V6. So how about it? A production TwinRun? Breun grins and nods.
"Sure. A concept car that nothing comes out of is a bit negative. There has to be something out of this." A road-going something? It wouldn't be easy. Both the 5 Turbo and Clio V6 enjoyed a reputation for dishing out a lesson to anyone who took liberties. Could you really put a mid-engined V6 mini-hatch into production nowadays?
Breun again: "The big advantage we have today is all the electronic help. They are there to help you if you're not so confident... but, of course, you can always turn them off."
That's why you have to love Renault. A company that doesn't just see building a road-going, mid-engined V6 super-hatch as a feasible idea, but insists it'd need switch-offable traction control. It's a petrolhead philosophy, says Breun, that extends to the very top.
"With Carlos Tavares [Renault's COO and the man who lapped the TwinRun around the Monaco F1 circuit on Grand Prix weekend], we have someone really open-minded with a passion for race cars," Breuen yells over the din as we clatter down the pit-straight in the TwinRun, pursued by a fearsome maelstrom of noise and hallucinatory hydrocarbons. "Will this go into production? Who knows? But I hope so..."