Drift battle: Conti vs e-tron GT vs M5 CS vs Mustang vs Giulia GTAm
Ladies and gentlemen, it’s the smoky one: who’s the biggest tyre shredder of them all? To Hammerhead we go
There’s no science here, although there could be. We could put cones out to measure the longest skid. Could have got the M3 over, as that’s got a drift analyser that tells you how many seconds and yards you’ve been sliding for, then seen if anything could beat it. But we don’t need to do that, because it’s immediately clear that if this is just a question of what does the best skids, for how long, at the daftest angles, while creating the most smoke, there’s one runaway winner. The BMW M5 CS. How has BMW made so much Pirelli last so little time? “It can’t,” as one of the team puts it, “even get out of a parking space without lighting up the rears.”
This particular group of cars has been dispatched to Hammerhead to provide the visual metaphor for “Hey Siri, show me a crash in progress”. But there’s more to it than that. And not just the fact that Hammerhead, being the furthest corner away from everything, is least likely to cause people to think that somewhere nearby a large portion of Dunsfold is on fire. Some are referring to this group as the clowns of our wheeled circus, but that’s unkind – they’re a combination of powerlifters and acrobatic tumblers: two conventional rear-drivers, two 4WD and one switchable, all relatively big and heavy (good for stability and momentum), one motivated by e-juice.
Hammerhead is an interesting corner. While Chicago is a constant radius second-gear bend, Hammerhead is the very definition of slow in, fast out. The head of the hammer could be taken in first, but by the eventual exit, some cars are demanding fourth. That means gearshifts are involved, which is a whole other level of complexity if the steering wheel’s upside down and you’re trying to remember which paddle to pull.
Photography: Mark Riccioni
The Ford Mustang Mach 1 adds extra complication by being a manual. You can have this newly upgraded Pony car with a 10-speed auto, but one run through Hammerhead would cause RSI. It’s a mainly cosmetic upgrade, but with retuned suspension, an extra 10bhp and 25 per cent more downforce. But 25 per cent more than nothing is still nothing.
It also has stability control where off doesn’t actually mean off, but instead “you know that side-slip control that Ferrari and McLaren bang on about, well, we’ve had a look and you know what, it’s bloody difficult, so we’ve just persuaded the traction control to sort of hiccup through the corner”. This is a shame as the rear-drive only Mach 1 should have been built to slide. Manual means you can dip the clutch on the way in, blip the throttle to raise the revs, then dump the clutch, the rears break loose and you’re away. This is clutch kicking and as techniques go it’s an oldie, but a goldie.
But the Mustang won’t play. And going round corners straight in the Mustang is dull. It’s heavy and slow-witted compared with the others here, and yes, for reasons that will become clear, that includes the Bentley and Audi that weigh probably half a tonne more. The Alfa should be the Ford’s polar opposite: light, flighty and exuberant. And sometimes it is. But many times it isn’t. Here’s a car that should be more up fer it than Liam Gallagher, but again the stability control sticks its nose in even when it’s been told to butt out.
But not consistently. We knew this from the first time we drove the car, and the team that came back reported this peculiar trait. For road driving it doesn’t detract at all – this hot-hearted motor is the new cold-eyed M3’s polar opposite – but on track, it’s limiting. So we did some ‘extra research’. This involved Stig and Chris Harris. And we think we worked it out. If you charge into Hammerhead on the brakes, but press the throttle before fully releasing the brakes, the stability control appears to work out there’s a madman at the helm and it would be best to let them get on with it. Which means left-foot braking is the only way to outfox the system. But then we tried another technique that appeared to work. The ‘just give it a great big bung in third’ also got results.
Fair play Audi, it might be a bit clumsy but you’ve built a car that can dance
Quite why Alfa has chosen to set its most extreme road car up with such a convoluted ESP system is bizarre. Surely this £158k Giulia GTAm sporting roll cage and harnesses should be the car where off means off? But no.
BMW knows how to straighten out these kinks. Put every possible warning in place, give the driver every excuse to back out, and if they choose not to... well, they asked for it. And yes, if you input the correct button presses, wheelspin will accompany departure from a parking space. Trepidation beckons like a skeletal finger as you maximise every dynamic control in order to be allowed to disengage the front driveshafts. Then all 553lb ft of torque, available at any point between 1,800rpm and 5,950rpm, cuts loose. The rear wheels become castors and you have to call on your best Tesco trolley taming techniques to keep the damn thing pointing where you want it.
But it’s turbocharged, so there’s a delay, however brief, before power arrives. Step forward Audi’s RS e-tron GT and its 612lb ft. No switchable 4WD system here, but as we’ve written before, forcing Audi to use Porsche’s sloppy seconds was clearly some sort of motivation, because on the limit the e-tron GT is a better balanced car than the Taycan. Hit the throttle at Hammerhead’s early apex and the power instantly overwhelms the rear tyres. Now you have to start juggling, because if you throw too much lock at it as the power shuffles forward the RS GT will pull itself straight. So put on less oppo than you think, don’t back out of the power too much as that seems to upset an algorithm, and now you’re enjoying e-skids.
It’s weird, because the tyre screech has no accompaniment from the engine. Together they’re a harmonious pair, but take roaring engine away and it’s bloody hard to figure out what’s going on and what you ought to be doing with the pedals and steering. But yeah, fair play Audi, it might be a bit clumsy but you’ve built a car that can dance.
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But Bentley’s built a better one. You notice its balance at the exit of every corner. It’s deliciously neutral, the GT Speed seems to effortlessly second-guess where the power needs to be sent. It’s super satisfying on the road, but on the track reveals another side entirely. It can be provoked into utter hooliganism. But it feels so good doing it, so natural and intuitive. And yet it’s permanently 4WD. Big shout out to the engineers who developed this, because it might just be the most impressive 4WD system this side of a WRC car. And like a rally car it makes the job of delivering angle, traction and forward progress seem easy. It’s bizarre and beguiling and gives the Conti moves it’s never had before.
It’s almost enough – almost – to land the Conti a spot in our final five, and is chalked up as one of the biggest surprises of the whole of Speed Week. The M5 may provide more choices of angle, but it’s the sight of the Apple Green Bentley ripping around that has everyone in stitches. And that is a far better measure of performance in this group than science can provide.