Two Italian thoroughbreds and one of Europe's most jaw-dropping roads
Welcome to Top Gear’s Speed Week 2018. The 14 best performance cars in the world will tackle 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 Italy…
There are several boxes in the corner of my attic containing more model cars than any 34-year old should admit to owning, consigned to their dusty fate long ago by a wife with a mean eye for interior design. Just one has slipped through the net and sits defiantly on my desk – a Rosso Corsa 355 Spider – a teenage crush from 20 years ago that’s proved impossible to shake. So you’ll understand why, as we pick our way through Maranello and pull up at the factory gates to collect the newest, fastest and stripiest standard-series mid-engined Ferrari ever, I’m regressing fast to my 14-year-old self. Such is my state of heightened excitement, I forget I’m driving the enemy – cue furrowed brows and firm instructions to park the Urus behind a bush.
Words: Jack Rix / Photography: Mark Riccioni
We’re led into a room and spared a drubbing but subjected to something far more intense – a lecture on the Pista’s engineering in such granular detail that Adrian Newey would struggle to keep up, let alone a journalist with only a loose grasp of long division, and who’s been awake since 4am. Thank you, industrial-strength Italian espresso… of which more will be required. Because rather than taking the safe, eight-hour straight shot from Maranello to Clermont-Ferrand to deliver two key cars to the Speed Week pitlane, we’re doubling that, splitting the trip into two seven-hour schleps and cramming a visit to the Verdon Gorge into the middle – a place, I’m told, with views to die for and roads to die on. My plan is to take a stint in the Ferrari first, then when my ears and body can take no more, I’ll slip into the Urus with a coffee and a podcast for the final push. What can I say? I’m a team player.
Rolling out of the factory gates, a bank of tourists get the shot they’ve been waiting for, but as we filter into the gridlock, it’s the Lambo that’s getting all the attention. Perhaps it’s because Ferraris are ten a penny around these parts; more likely it’s because the Urus is something new and altogether more challenging – a supercar company taking a brave pill and focusing on expansion curves, not cornering speeds. It’s an unfair comparison with the 488, of course, but if we want to know whether the Urus really has the soul of a supercar, driving one cheek to jowl with the Pista has to be an effective way of filtering the sensations, and focusing in on the ones that matter.
Already the sensations are coming thick and fast in the Ferrari. The interior is stripped of its carpets, glove box and door pockets, the seats are firm and deeply sculpted and the harnesses are a faff, but it’s far from sadistic. I’ve got a USB socket here for my phone (lucky, as the satnav has been deleted), a decent view out, somewhere to put my drink and, with the manettino in Sport and Bumpy Road mode engaged, we’re whipping along in relative comfort. Decades ago, I remember being shocked driving my first Ferrari, a well-used 360 Modena, at how it felt one click away from a race car – stiff, wide, low, noisy as hell and always on high alert. This still has that edge, but the formula has well and truly matured. Purists may prefer an engine that’s constantly wailing and suspension with a dislike for your spine, but right now it’s a welcome development.
As we skirt Genoa and start tracing the coast, we find tunnels – perfect for a little band practice. The Urus is a curious one: crackles and pops are the garnish but the meat is harder to define. At times, its 600bhp 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 is a chugging, vibrato replica of AMG’s finest, then, when really stretched, a slight rasp… all in all, nothing special. The Pista beats it for volume, but it’s still not a sound worthy of goosebumps – a guttural whooshy whump that does crescendo and harden, but by that point you’re more worried about keeping 710bhp of angry twin-turbo V8 pointing in the right direction, and wondering why your face is on the wrong way around. In both cars, accessible speed takes precedence over sound.
Slowly, the sky opens its eyelids, revealing what we’d beasted ourselves to come and witness
Three hours down, 300km driven. Time for a swap, because despite praising the Pista’s civility, my bottom has lost all sensation and my lower back is starting to scream. Climbing into the Urus’s more accommodating armchairs is a bit like slipping into bed – a thought I’m keen to banish, given there’s still three hours until our hotel for the night. I needn’t have worried, or purchased quite so much Red Bull, because the moment we turn off the coast towards Grasse, the roads are enough to keep us fully caffeinated.
We join the Route Napoleon around midnight with only our own headlights to follow, but it’s impossible not to throw our convoy around the constantly morphing topography – narrow and acute one minute, flowing and faster-than-you-think the next. And the Urus just soaks it up, stays resolutely stuck to the road and makes the Ferrari work twice as hard to keep up. And then we arrive, with no sense of the precipice we’ve just driven along, at Hôtel le Panoramique. It’s 1am. We park up and the Ferrari’s alarm goes off for no obvious reason, waking up the entire hotel. Utter diva.
We’re up before sunrise and position ourselves high on the Route des Crètes – a tourist loop that encircles the gorge, to catch it in full sunrise splendour. Slowly, the sky opens its eyelids, revealing what we’d beasted ourselves to come and witness. Yep, worth it: mountains wrapped in mist, a gorge plummeting down to the most perfect turquoise river below and two cars itching to be used properly after our monk-like restraint on the motorway. Shame, because this isn’t the place for any driving heroics. Sure, there are flatter, wider sections where we open them up, briefly, but it’s still a trailer for what’s to come – a gentle shakedown against nature’s most dramatic backdrop, before probing the limits properly on track.
On the slimmest, gnarliest sections, it’s a game of survival – staying far enough away from the rock face to keep the paintjob intact, but close enough to let other traffic steam past, oblivious to the fact that these two Italians are insured for a combined half a million quid. At one point, we tiptoe through a tunnel, only to meet a coach coming in the opposite direction. The driver points and bursts into uncontrollable laughter, then gets on the tannoy and encourages his passengers to do the same. Bit unfair, I think to myself, before reversing 250m blind, back through a dark tunnel. At which point I suggest that perhaps it’s time to start making a dent in our second seven-hour cannonball run to the Top Gear gîte.
This time, when the satnav tells us we’ve got 553km to cover, the sighs aren’t quite so audible. Because while neither is a mountain goat, we know even the Ferrari can do a passable impression of a GT. The Urus has crushed the delivery run as expected, but it’s the Ferrari that has surpassed its brief. Soon we’ll see their true colours…