Meet our Brits abroad: Aston Martin Vantage, McLaren 600LT, Lotus Exige Cup 430 and Ford Fiesta ST
Welcome to Top Gear’s Speed Week. The 14 best performance cars in the world will descend upon a mildly terrifying Seventies-spec F1 circuit, for several days. There will be ‘enthusiastic driving’, there will be a well-stocked tyre truck close to hand and there will be industrial quantities of home-made sandwiches. But first we need to get there: this is the story of Team GB…
First stop: the white cliffs of… Saint-Jouin-Bruneval. No sign of an oiseau bleu, but here they are, just as impressively dramatic and imposing as those on the other side of the Channel. Stands to reason, when you think about it.
Let’s call this the trip of home comforts. White cliffs, followed by Le Mans, the latter a path trodden by some 100,000 British race-goers every year. Even some of the péages are set up for right-hookers. A southerly leapfrog that will put us at Circuit de Charade tomorrow evening.
Words: Ollie Marriage / Photography: John Wycherley
“You know the bruises you get from karting?” says Andy Franklin, tenderly unwinding himself from the Exige at the base of the cliffs, “I’ve got the same rib pain right now.” “I’m just glad we’re in France,” retorts Owen Norris, “on that last stretch of the M20 down to the Eurotunnel, the surface was so rough I could feel the contact lenses vibrating on my eyes. I’m not sure I want that much feedback.”
Monk-like in their approach to creature comforts, both the Lotus Exige Cup 430 and McLaren 600LT have self-flagellated the weight away. The McLaren has no aircon (saving 12.6kg) and ‘benefits’ from the Senna’s optional 8kg lightweight seats. The Lotus understands the concept of padding and cooling, but approaches it with a wariness borne of seven decades of kilo-shedding.
While my colleagues perform their dad-dancing stretch-and-lunge routines in a bid to stave off cramp, I surreptitiously congratulate myself on selecting the Aston Martin Vantage for the first 250 miles of this trip. I had plumply bolstered seats, vents capable of delivering an arctic gale, selectable tunes, some actual rear visibility that wasn’t just wires and the top of a supercharger, and Places To Put Things.
Now, plentiful stowage is hardly the platform on which Speed Week is constructed, but we do these drive downs for a reason. Each of these cars has numberplates, headlights and knows its way around the Euro VI emissions legislation. They are road cars. Even the hardest-cored trackaholic will be doing more road than track miles in their Exige. Same goes for the 488 Pista that Jack Rix is nosing through Maranello, and the 691bhp 911 GT2 RS Ollie Kew is sauntering over the Swiss Alps in. Road cars, one and all (yes, even the Dallara Stradale). And right now, they’re all doing road-car things. Doing them a bit faster in the case of Charlie Turner in the Bugatti Chiron, but that’s his speeding ticket.
Back to the north French coast. I’d taken pity on Owen about an hour before we swept down this remarkable road cut into the chalk cliffs, and switched myself into the 600LT. Driving it on a sunny autoroute boils (apt word) down to a choice between Björk and Gloria Gaynor. Windows up: It’s Oh So Quiet, or windows down: I Will Survive.
The Lotus’s big surprise is the bloody noise – beyond 4,500rpm this thing howls
The music references came to me because I had to make my own entertainment. The McLaren has USB slots, but none of them link phone to stereo. Nor, helpfully, do they insert much charge into your phone – at least not if you’ve got a navigation app running. Which you have to, because this LT isn’t equipped with that, either. Still, nice of McLaren to include sweat channels between the seat pads.
Dynamics-wise, the 600LT fares better. The taut dampers (this is a Sport Series car, so does without the cross-linked hydraulics and movable aero of the Super Series cars) don’t get too much of a workout from smooth French autoroutes, and, boy, does it move well. One slip road is all it takes to appreciate the steering, the immediacy, the control at work here.
As a counterpoint, I borrow the Exige for a couple of turns up and down this road. In the past, McLaren has mentioned wanting to ‘own’ steering feel, but Lotus ain’t ready to give it up just yet. The 600LT is the better filter, but it doesn’t bubble with feel or writhe in your hands like the Lotus. It doesn’t give you everything. The Lotus does. Kind of expected that, though, so the big surprise is the engine, not just the lag-free supercharger, but the bloody noise – beyond 4,500rpm this thing howls, a baleful, concentrated, penetrating sound that has two effects on my psyche: it makes me want to rag it senseless on track, but not want any part of it between here and there.
Sorry, Owen, but I reckon Andy has had the tougher time of it so far. The Lotus is properly cramped, it’s largely impossible to coax anything bar static from the stereo, and while the LT’s seats deliver a painful thigh scrape every time you enter or exit, that’s better than the smacked skulls, bashed shins, contortion cramps and bruised coccyx the Lotus driver contends with. Entry and egress is particularly inelegant.
And every time you stumble out, there are people watching. Unless you’re driving the fourth member of our Brit pack. The Fiesta ST doesn’t really fit in. So tall did it look behind the Exige that at one point I wondered how a Kuga had snuck into our convoy. But it’s just so happy to be part of it all. That’s the thing with the Fiesta – it’s like a Weeble: you can knock it all you like, but it always pops back up.
It sees no disadvantage in only having a 1.5-litre three-cylinder motor; instead, it concentrates on making the most of it. Where the others get to use one gear after each roundabout, the Fiesta indulges three, each accompanied by this wonderfully parpy noise and punctuated by a hastily thrown gearchange. It’s just fun. The front diff of this £850 Performance Pack-equipped car is tenacious, and the seats hug almost too tight. It’s simply an exuberant car that has fun doing, well, everything. You can’t keep it down… can barely keep a lid on it, in fact. In comparison, the others seem to take themselves too seriously.
We come to this conclusion while sitting outside La Frite d’Or, tucking into cod so fresh there was no time to batter it and watching the orange sun sink over pebbly beach and blue sea. We might not have mountains on this route, but, right now, life for this gang of Brits is plain idyllic.
“How far is it to Le Mans?” I ask lazily as we sag back, bellies content.
“’Bout an hour I think,” comes the reply. “Hang on, let me check.”
The alarm that accompanied the realisation that if the sun has set, time has moved on, and that Le Mans is three times further south than anticipated and we won’t be there until past midnight accounts for what happens next. We dash for the cars. If I’m honest, it’s less Le Mans start than a panicky, paunchy, giggling tumble of middle-aged men. Somehow I end up leading/navigating in the Lotus, a role to which it is hopelessly ill-suited. Nowhere to wedge the phone, so at every roundabout it winds up in the footwell. Or under the seat. Or among the gear linkages.
It’s not just Le Mans – there’s something about driving this Aston through France. The badge, the sense of occasion
In turn, this means I fail to realise how dry the fuel tank is, so we end up persuading a chap jet-washing his garden furniture on the outskirts of Le Havre to reopen his pumps. My heart rate doesn’t settle until we reach the A28, where the Lotus adopts a self-enforced slow cruise – the headlights are rubbish.
Some sleep happens, and then there’s Le Mans: dawn at Indianapolis, coffee at the Auberge des Hunaudières. It’s evocative but busy. Only on the run through the woods from Mulsanne to Indianapolis do I get much sense of what it must be like to race here. It probably helps that I’m in the Aston. The Exige may be the most race-like of these four, but the Vantage is the one I can imagine piling through here in. It’s the sense of history, the bellowing twin-turbo V8, the view out over the long bonnet, images of DBR9s playing through my head.
It’s not just Le Mans – there’s something about driving this Aston through France. The badge, the sense of occasion, the knowledge you have a long way to go but the right tool for the job, the satisfaction of just knuckling down to it. I recline the seat, lay my elbows, engage cruise, rest fingertips on quartic steering wheel and just go. Tours, Bourges and Montluçon tick by metronomically, 250 miles swept aside in a classy dash. Road noise apart, it does the GT thing with a controlled, calm display. I find it restful.
The roads approaching Circuit de Charade are anything but, and the Vantage snaps to attention far faster than its driver. Turn the steering and you feel both front and rear axles engage with the corner immediately. The Vantage takes up an edge, carving crisply. The weight is well supported. Compared with the Lotus and 600LT you sit high and there’s little steering feel, so it’s not an immediately impressive car. But it gets under your skin – a precise, crisp-handling, well-balanced, athletic car.
It’s confident, the new Vantage, and it’s not alone in that. All four Brits have that same trait, all four go about their business with a certain swagger, a knowledge they’re good at what they do. Should stand them in good stead for what comes next.