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Top Gear Speed Week 2017: the final seven

The winner of Performance Car of the Year is crowned via an epic Scottish road trip

Published: 30 Nov 2017

Chris Harris picks Top Gear’s Speed Week final seven here

I turn left out of Knockhill because I need fuel. The GT3 is on fumes, range three miles, so I can’t even enjoy what must be one of the best turn-left-out-of-circuit roads anywhere in the world.

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No worries, a steady early afternoon pootle gives me time to get used to sitting on the left, which I definitely need to do before driving the Ford GT and that even rarer fish, the VW Up GTI. Currently one of only two in existence apparently, which means the insurance valuation outstrips that of the Ford GT. 

Words: Ollie Marriage

Images: John Wycherley/Mark Riccioni

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Fascinating fact: you can option your 911 GT3 with a long-range 90-litretank which, given how fuel-efficient 911s tend to be, means a 450-mile range. That’ll help where we’re going, a land of lochs, mountains and precious little else. Especially fuel stations. Bets have been placed about where the 14mpg Ford GTis going to conk out. Safe money is suggesting somewhere short of Durness. 

I took issue with this touring-spec GT3 on track. Comfort seats and PDK? Not the done thing. But this is why we do Speed Week on track and road. A circuit gives us the chance to unpick the dynamic limits, get speed out of the system, display oversteer hands in the pitlane. But the noise, the speed, the cars and
the confinement soon come to a rolling boil. It’s a pressure-cooker atmosphere. 

Road is the release valve. The tension, the niggling element of competition (“You only used third in the GT R at that corner? I was flat in fourth…”) disappears the moment we all leave Knockhill.

And breathe. Ahead lies scenery, a mission to drive as far northwest as possible in mainland Britain, breakfast in the UK’s remotest pub, a lost radio, rain, bogs, heather, much more rain, insects and (related to that) questionable footwear choices, ill-forgotten rain jackets and midge masks. A revelation, I tell you. 

Everyone’s been dispatched individually with instructions to rendezvous by the piste bashers at the Lecht ski centre in the heart of the Cairngorms. It’s more than 100 miles away, which gives people plenty of time to enjoy and engage with the car they’re in. Hopefully they’ll all choose the same route as me because it is utterly sensational – but then what up here isn’t?

Well, the A9, so I’m giving it a miss, hanging a right at Perth onto the A93, letting the 911 settle into a good gait. I worry the GT3 is going to get forgotten among the more shouty things, but right now it’s the perfect track-to-road choice. I don’t envy Tom Ford setting off in in the Ford GT, that’s for sure.

The route builds as traffic and habitation gradually fall away, and the GT3 rises to it in perfect harmony, an orchestral ebb and flow of gears, corners, revs, hills, steering and surface. The repetitious nature of a racetrack, seeing the same things every 1.5 miles, bores me after a while, but the challenge a new road poses never wears off. Too many variables, all that interaction, so much anticipation of what might lie ahead. 

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I apply slightly panicky steering lock, the car settles gracefully and carves an elegant line through

It’s why the GT3 is so masterful. There’s a section as you approach the Spittal of Glenshee (it’s a real place…) that catches me out. Having run fluidly alongside Black Water river, it suddenly starts ducking and diving, becoming a tight weave through the landscape. The GT3 is unfazed. I apply slightly panicky steering lock, the car settles gracefully and carves an elegant line through. It’s so unflustered, so smoothly taut, a car that gives you real satisfaction just from the way it moves.

There’s another terrifyingly difficult section just after, where the road seems to have been laid over a load of lumpen glacial moraine. Again, imperious tactility. What a car. Shame the brakes don’t feel too good and the seat bolsters are too doughy. But the engine, oh, that 493bhp, 9,000rpm flat-six! It bathes the ears, and brightens the other senses in turn, sharpening your focus and awareness, making you the best that you can be. Not bad for a collection of pistons.

It was almost inevitable some of us would collapse into each other’s orbits.I collect Up-equipped Stephen Dobie, and we stop and swap by the chairlifts at Glenshee. I’m intrigued by the Up and want to find out if VW has really recreated the Lupo GTI’s magic.

For the last few miles, I’d been watching it in the mirrors and thinking, “I bet he’s having the time of his life in there, having to row that along to keep up,” while all I’m doing is oozing between the gears and turning the steering, barely taxing the 911 at all. 

But in hindsight it shows how well the GT3 does that. All that nuanced sensation, so carefully filtered and delivered to your hands and backside, when all you’re doing is easing it along. Because the Up doesn’t communicate in anything like the same way. Past Braemar, picking up the River Dee, I’m struggling to concentrate on the car. Apparently Disney has waved its magic wand. Everything’s so neat, all preened pines, clipped heather, scrubbed squirrels and polished rocks. It’s a bit weird. Ah, Balmoral. The Queen’s hangout.

It’s not that the Up is flat-footed, but it’s not as zingy and perky as I hoped. The three-cylinder turbo isn’t alert enough, the brakes are weak, there’s no genuine steering feel. It’s springy and endearing in its own way, pogoing off bumps, but this GTI is not as snappy and sporting as it ought to be.

You’ll want one because of its size, its image and its micro-aggression, because you get to rag it senseless without troubling speed limits or offending the noise police. No matter how fast you drive the Lambo Performante, the V10 arrives before you do, so everyone in the village knows precisely what you’ve been up to and has had time to prepare the hand gestures. You get none of that in the Up – it’s more attuned to society, and, yeah, I reckon it’ll be a real hoot to bop about town in.

But up here, I expected more from it. The youthful exuberance needs to be underpinned by more determined handling. I can’t remember who, but later someone points out that VW has put more effort into the way it looks than the way it drives. That’s spot-on. 

Stevie and I are first to arrive at Lecht. I know it’s not a race, but we’ve won. Only we haven’t. Everyone else was having such a good time that they saw the empty car park and just carried on towards Tomintoul. What a road, what a place. The final climb up to the ski centre, this huge, dizzying incline, is mesmeric, drawing your eye ever upwards, requiring every one of the Up’s 113bhp to maintain third gear. 

Despite arriving from the “wrong” direction having spent too much time on the A9, E63S-shod Ollie Kew is actually vibrating, he’s had such a good drive. We all nod sagely, suspecting the big 604bhp Merc might just be one of the surprises of this whole test. Meanwhile, Tom Ford rummages around in his bumbag for the right flavour e-fag to help settle him after the drive he’s had in the Ford. Apparently that’s Lemon Popcorn.

“It’s a bit lively on cambers and [inhale] bumps,” he reports, “it’s really full on, but a bit... [deep suck] much, maybe.” The only absentee is the Huracán Performante, Knockhill tyre wear requiring it to divert to Edinburgh for new rubber. We all know Tom Harrison will achieve a new Lambo record on his drive to Inverness (the best mpg you can extract from a 631bhp exotic)... 25.4mpg, it’ll later turn out.  

God’s fingers sweep the mountains, a couple of tartan metal punks (turns out that is a thing) stop by, and we all agree we should come back here tomorrow. The scenes are just too good. 

But we can’t, because I’ve booked us breakfast. You know that old mantra about an army marching on its stomach? Well, it holds true for the less-than-military-like precision of Team TG, too. This year, for the first time ever, we’ve taken steps. No handy service station means no handy service-station sandwiches.

Planning has occurred, and the Civic Type R is a mobile snack van, its pleasingly adjustable rear axle now aided by 50kg of water, apples, cereal bars and Monster Munch. Better still, 90 minutes from now we have a rendezvous with a platter of fried food. 

We leave the hotel at 6:30 on the button (“Don’t be the 6:36 guy” has been Charlie Turner’s bedtime warning every night), and I’m in the Civic. It moves so well it reminds me of the GT3 – same precision in its control weights, same athletic suspension, the sense that it’s not having to work that hard.

OK, it’s not as we head north on the A9, but at Alness we turn off onto the B9176 and I can get busier with the controls, and try to keep the barking supercars at bay. But I get stopped in my tracks. The view from Struie Hill down over Dornoch Firth is unexpected early morning magnificence. I pull the column to a halt in the layby. 

The front end defines the Type R experience. It’s one of the biggest discoveries and delights of the whole test

When we set off again, Charlie slots in directly behind me. He’s in the Up. This keenness on the part of both car and driver to prove themselves is rapidly becoming the Up’s hallmark. It’s a more intimate, human relationship than you get from the intimidators that lurk behind.

They drip out behind like a string of wet pearls, colours punching through the grey morning while two red hatches lead the way. This feels tremendous. I love watching the Up gamefully pinned through corners, heeling over while menaced by the McLaren. But the Civic? Well, positions reversed, I reckon it would be snapping at the McLaren’s heels. 

The front end defines the Type R experience. The way that steering works with differential works with power delivery is, for me, one of the biggest discoveries and delights of the whole test. The radio crackles. It’s Charlie: “Erm, the Up has encountered its bump stops. Several times. It’s quite bouncy”. The Civic? Of course not, just a steely-eyed stare and a relentless focus on getting down the road as effectively as a front-driver can. 

And then there’s the snick-snack gearbox (analogies come from interesting places when you’ve got Monster Munch rolling around the boot), even the seats themselves which – no word of a lie – might be the best fitted to any car here. Certainly the Ford GT’s aren’t up to much, nor the GT3’s. Saying the Performante has a good seat for a Lambo is correctly damning it with faint praise, while the E63’s is downright hard.

I’m getting ahead of myself. The E63 happens to me after bacon butties. These appear, trays of them, at the Crask Inn, together with pots of steaming coffee. Bless you, Scotland’s most isolated inn. Tucked up in the snug, we watch fat drops of rain explode on the GT’s bodywork and decide that right now bacon>supercars.

If the seat is a car’s handshake, the Merc’s is a crusher. It’s firm, knuckles your spine and crunches your love handles. It accurately communicates what to expect from the car itself. The V8 erupts, full of anger and intent. In an attempt to contain the beast within, I let everyone else go first and then snort along in their wake, gunning up to them and dropping back to give myself room.

The pace has fallen because the road north is a single-tracker, the Up the only car with room to manoeuvre. The Merc, densely packed with energy and determination, gives the impression the road could be optional. Why not have a charge across some moorland? There’s a sort of tank-like, bombproof implacability to its manners. 

To drive it is to be master and commander of the convoy. You don’t have to be leading, you just have to be able to show the rest of ’em who’s boss. So blasting up behind the Performante, practically branding the three-pointed star into the orange bumper, is right up its strasse.

You can almost sense the E63’s wolfish grin. But underpinning this charisma is real chassis talent. The body control is astonishing, the engine hits so hard and fast, the 4WD is so well set up and traction is so strong that exiting slow corners, it’ll pull out yards on every other car here, V8 trumpeting its dominance. 

You can sense the E63’s wolfish grin. But it's underpinned by real chassis talent

Bumps and fast direction changes are where it eventually comes unstuck, its higher centre of gravity and sheer mass proving that physics can’t be denied. But, my word, you’d have a sweat on trying to get away from it. In many ways, I find it the most addictive car here. Not the most rewarding, because there’s a hint of clumsiness to its behaviour, but the one that, perhaps along with the Performante, most tweaks the simple pleasure centres. 

It’s a relieved posse that swings west onto the A838 above Tongue. Finally, a chance for the supercars to give their carbon splitters and wincing drivers a rest, for here the road opens up. We have a quick round of musical chairs and I end up in the Ford GT.

Anyone would think I might have planned this. Now, I’ve been listening to everyone talk about our super trio. People are cooing about the 720S, as astounded by the ride quality and cabin ambience as much as the speed and steering. No one has exited the Lambo and talked about anything other than the engine.

OK, everyone also mentions the TFT screen interference that happens when you talk on the radio, but it’s the V10 that has people in raptures. The GT is our intimidator. It completes the supercar shift from road to track.

It’s not a road car, not really. The cabin’s a carbon echo chamber, the V6 blares noise with little sense of harmonics and, as I’m finding out now, the Michelin Cup 2 tyres don’t do standing water. Nevertheless, for 12.2 miles, as we sweep over the Tongue causeway, up Moine Ho and then snake back down to flank Loch Eriboll, I’m in raptures. The feel of the steering, the way the car moves, the feedback are all revelatory. 

Transmittive? Is that a word? It is now because it accurately describes the GT experience. Yes, you get masses of tactility, but you also get engine vibration, suspension noise, chassis chatter, road roar. No information is filtered, no sensation damped or signal muted, because this is a racing car. And while the A838 soars and sweeps, that’s fine, you’re entirely immersed in the driving. But 12.2 miles later, we’re bumping around on a cart track again. Seriously, this is the main road across the north of Scotland?

At least the creep and crawl of this tarmac means the GT actually makes it to the tank replenishment point in Durness. Major discovery: the Spar sells midge helmets. We buy the entire stock – the speed with which the wee timorous beasties rise when the rain stops falling is best viewed from the other side of a fine mesh. 

Balnakeil beach is, unless you have an amphibious vehicle, the most northwesterly point you can drive to on the British mainland. We open the gate and drive as far as we dare, Merc shoving Up out onto the sand. Cape Wrath is across the bay – daresay the E63 would get there on willpower alone.

Now comes the good bit. Well, these things being relative, an even better bit. Durness to Ullapool – quite possibly the greatest 70 miles of driving road on the planet. Keen for supercar contrast, I’m in the 720S in pursuit of the GT, the brutalist architecture of the low, flat, wide, hard Ford set against the McLaren’s swoops and curves. Function follows form: the 720S doesn’t bully the road surface but flows with it. From the way the wing smacks up and down to the straight-talking dynamics, there’s not much elegance to the GT’s movements. Dexterity and purity, but not elegance. The 720S is easier to make peace with.

Mostly. Like the P1, it has a delicate, light front end mated to a rear of considerable violence. GT-defeating violence. It explodes through the mid range, challenging you to keep it pinned as it piles more coals on the fire. The twin-turbo V8 bunches the chassis up and leaves you breathless. The Lotus-like chassis and hammer-blow engine might seem ill-matched, but then you exit a corner, feel the smooth handover from chassis to engine and marvel at the thing.

One corner defines the McLaren for me, a slight uphill sweeper that I enter a hint too fast. The nose just pushes wide and I feel it instantly, that fractional understeer, firstly because you sit more in the nose of the McLaren than in the other two, and secondly because the communication is uncanny. The McLaren’s filtering process is sublime, so you get the important stuff, but aren’t distracted by background interference. It operates so sweetly, looking after you in a way neither of the other mid-engined motors manages.

But that interference isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it heightens the sense of occasion, emphasises the GT’s rawness and drama. I also believe that, sat more equally within the wheelbase, you’re better placed to judge and manage what’s happening at both ends. And you focus more on the handling in the GT because the engine is less dominant. 

I have my best drive over these miles, spearing down to Laxford Bridge where the rhythm of the road is just too magic not to be repeated. Back up I head in the Perfor-rampante, the only car here that makes more noise than the towering scenery can handle. I mean, the 720S has almost zero turbo lag and perfectly attuned throttle response, but here’s a pedal so sharp it bites back. The 5.2-litre is already stellar in noise, fury and excitement at 3,000rpm, and I’ve got how much further to go? Another 5,000rpm to indulge? Wa-hey! Even now, sat at a desk, I can feel my skin prickle at the memory.

It’s the best Lamborghini I’ve ever driven, not quite as momentous as the Murciélago SV maybe, but way more talented, night-and-day different to the standard Huracán in its focus, precision and intensity. You’re never in any doubt that you’re using a control – you make a small input, the car almost falls over itself in its bid to comply. Brakes, steering, gearchange, suspension – they’re all as sharp as the throttle. Now on one level this is lovely – the Performante feels ultra-bright, hyper-alert, but after a while it niggles. Like looking at an over-sharpened photograph, you become more aware of the edges, of the transition between something and nothing. 

Don’t get me wrong – I could put up with the steering’s diving keenness, the brakes’ instant bite, even the suspension’s vertical pop (Sport is the Goldilocks setting: Strada is too bouncy; Corsa too choppy), but after the GT’s ruthlessness, the 720S’s accuracy, there’s a hint of caricature to the Lambo’s performance. But maybe that emphasis on having a Good Time is a Good Thing. When I stop chin-scratching and just drive, I can’t deny I’m having a bloody good time. 

And let’s face it, that’s what this roadtrip is all about. We park up, we admire Mark Riccioni’s formidable collection of midge bites, we have nose-lift races between McLaren and Ford (the 720S moves slower than erosion, the GT hops up like a lowrider), we send the GT3 and Performante up the road just so we can hear them bellow and shriek past at 8,000rpm, from under hoods and behind midge masks we gawp from every viewpoint. And at the end of the day, we all grab a car and drive non-stop the final 30 miles to Ullapool. 

I’m leading in the GT. Behind they string out over the remarkable sweep of Kylesku Bridge: Up, GT3, Performante, Civic, E63, 720S; all happy to follow each other because it’s not about speed, but shared experience. The skies are darkening, and rain, that great leveller, is falling in plump drops. Jack’s commitment to maintaining speed in the Up is something to behold.

Occasionally, I gas it, watch as rooster tails of spray blur the convoy, sometimesI slow using the phenomenal brakes (perhaps the best road-car stoppers I’veever used) and appreciate the uncanny ride, the surprising tolerance of cambers, but mostly I just enjoy the situation: this car, this place and a bunch I’m proud to call mates. Well, up to a point. Less piss-taking about my knitted bobble hat would be good. I’m bald, it’s cosy, OK? 

Tomorrow we’ll disperse, some to drive home, others to mop up at Knockhill. We’ll all have yet more drives to remember. But right now we’re at the Seaforth Inn, and once we’ve got over our admiration of Tom Harrison’s clean lines in the 911 GT3, the Civic’s impressive 32mpg economy and started to devour fish pie and a pint, chat turns to the cars. 

Primarily what an astonishingly talented group we’ve gathered. All are brilliant; some are transcendental. Is there an order? Not really – read into this what you will. The Up didn’t have the terrier-like character we hoped it would in this company. Everyone agreed that a manual gearbox and proper seats would have been the making of the GT3.

The Performante? Stephen Dobie declared it his absolute favourite (until he drove the GT3 back to Knockhill the following day), but the rest of us erred toward the supercar flankers. Our wheeled howitzer, the E63S, was a formidable device, but still, at the end of the day, a tank. The Civic captivated everyone from the driver’s seats – and then we got out and had to look at it again… 

But two cars dominated the conversation that night – the McLaren 720S and the Ford GT. Factions formed around the table, arguments gusted through, people said things they didn’t really mean, hurtful things. Then common ground was found around the McLaren’s mighty engine, steering, its sharp yet supple manners; the Ford’s immersive drama, chassis and sense of occasion. Democracy won through: we put the result to a secret ballot and by the merest sliver, the McLaren 720S is our Performance Car of the Year. But really, both are a driving addiction.

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