Whoop, holler, don’t forget the fizz. Welcome to the winner’s enclosure
Ferrari 1965, Ford 1966, Porsche 1982, Audi 2010. None of them did it as well as us. The formation finish. Yes, the Renault’s lagging slightly, but give us a break, we were dead on our feet. And, if we’re honest, slightly surprised with our top three. Twenty-four hours earlier, only the Megane had been on our radar as likely to make it through to the winner’s circle.
Road-test radar also suggested the Porsche Cayman GT4 and McLaren 720S Spider would be up among the leaders, but neither excited us as much as they should – the McLaren because we’ve basically seen it all before (Tom Harrison’s point about built-in obsolescence is a very good one), the Cayman because we all had the sense that the first GT4 was that bit more raw and appealing.
Words: Ollie Marriage
Photography: Richard Pardon
Both were shaded by the AMG GT R Pro. Yes, it’s only a tweak up from the standard GT R that failed to beat the 720S coupe back in 2017, but we’re dealing with fine margins here, plus there’s also the sense – highlighted by the presence of the Tesla Model 3 – that time is beginning to tick for the rowdy, raw V8, and we should celebrate it while we can. I’ve never been a massive fan of the long-bonneted AMG, but I can’t deny it’s ripening with age. Can’t think of a faster, friendlier or more playful front-engined motor. It’s dynamite. That Tesla? It’s OK, but a one-trick pony that fails to tug on the heartstrings. The A45 is overly complex; the Focus ST in many ways the more complete and engaging hot hatch, simply because it behaves more naturally.
The Megane couldn’t be denied. It had the single greatest component fitted to any car here bar the racers: its brakes. They were unbelievable, near enough as potent as the 935’s, and a chassis of typically dizzying talent. A front-driver that’s more entertaining and rewarding on track than a Cayman GT4? Yep. Can hardly believe I’ve just typed that.
Then we had the cars that some loved and others didn’t. Namely the Jaguar Project 8. A big, meaty thing that some found engaging, but to me felt weighty, leaning too heavily into corners. I’ve driven it previously on road and still think it’s better in that environment. See also Aston Martin DBS Volante, although you knew that just by looking at it. What a gorgeous thing and, in its natural environment, so fulfilling to drive. The Toyota Supra works better on road, too. ‘Woolly’ defined its Portimão performance, lacking the accuracy all of us wanted.
Getting consensus is difficult. Often things descend into squabbling. But the rule of thumb is that the more experienced drivers (read: less imaginative) tend to like harder, sharper cars than those who can see exactly what shape dent they’ll put in the barriers if they get it wrong at Galp. That’s why I hadn’t expected the Ariel Atom 4 to shine. Too hairy-scarey, I thought. Only no. Everyone came back in, shiny-eyed and exhilarated, raving about it. So well set up, so controllable up to and beyond the limit.
Getting consensus is difficult. Often things descend into squabbling
Venturing beyond the Atom, of course we had to leave the racing cars out of the final reckoning. In an act of extreme self-denial and through powdered teeth, I had to give up any idea of the Hyundai i20 WRC being crowned our winner. Likewise the VW ID.R and Porsche 935. They’re either unobtainable or such outliers as to be irrelevant. Having them here, being able to share them with you, is a massive privilege. My campaign for a Racecar of the Year award starts here. And will soon be followed by a phone call to Mercedes F1.
A winner, then. For the past few years, there’s been a hero – a car that set new standards. Put simply, nothing stood out as much as last year’s Alpine A110, and, beyond that, there’s a feeling the class of 2019 hasn’t shone quite as brightly. Maybe it’s that some cars haven’t had us bouncing off the walls the way we expected, or that the racers have spoiled us (driving a WRC car has certainly royally skewed my perspective). But that shouldn’t diminish the achievement of our winner. I’ll let you in on a secret. We had the track after 3pm, and that evening we went driving. And the car that still surprised people, that was supremely interactive and rewarding, and gets to stand on the top step of the podium, was the Megane Trophy R.