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The Top Gear team’s highlights of 2014

  1. Charlie Turner,Editor-in-Chief, Top Gear Magazine

    As ideas go, building a car in the office intially seemed a good one. To be honest, none of us ever thought the request would be taken seriously. But several weeks later, when a Caterham truck arrived at security with the many parts and many tools required to build a 160, the reality of our undertaking kicked in. And significantly cramped the working space at Top Gear HQ. After wading through countless boxes and hundreds of packets, and finally accepting, that a working office wasn’t exactly the optimum place to build something we actually wanted to drive, spannering started.

    To say that our 160 was quite possibly the worst-built Caterham in history when it left W12 would be an understatement. But fortunately Caterham still had an F1 team back then, and our botched car was dispatched to Leafield for the professionals to respanner into what would became known fondly as the “mighty” Caterham. Its presence at PCOTY and the image of the Stig manhandling it round the Parcmotor Castelloli will remain with all of us who had a hand in its creation for years to come.

    As contrasts go, standing at Fiorano with the tyre pressures being checked on a LaFerrari in advance of hot laps round the iconic proving ground in the 950bhp hypercar served as a wonderfully privileged counterpoint. And the pressure was definitely on: my track session had been split in half to allow me to fit an interview with Luca Di Montezemolo into his preposterously busy schedule. As I left the pitlane in this parameter-redefining car, I knew it was inevitable that LDM would ask me what I thought about his ultimate creation. I really didn’t want the answer to be “it’s excellent Luca, but sadly your mechanics are just scraping what’s left of it out of the gravel at turn 2”. Sometimes the responsibility can override the moment, but cars as staggeringly sublime as LaFerrari allow nothing to steal their limelight and the privilege of those hours at Maranello will remain etched in my memory until my dying day. 

    On the subject of mortality, standing under a £230,000, 2649kg Rolls Royce Wraith, staring at its underbelly, pulling a guide rope attached to its wheel and ushering it onto the top of a container 20 feet from the ground certainly gets your attention. That was for our Best Cars in the World Cover, which looked fabulous. But the back story was even more dramatic than the cover it produced.

    What the cover image didn’t show was the moment the Wraith was lowered onto the top of the container, missed its mark, and promptly buried itself into the container’s roof, trapping the lifting gear. With no other option than to lift an unbalanced Wraith back to the ground as swiftly as possible, I was left holding the rope confident that my hi-vis hard hat would make everything ok. Several agonising minutes later (time slows down the you’re flying a £230k, two and a half ton kite) the Wraith touched down and we could all breathe again. Ambitious, nearly spectacularly rubbish, the motto very much lives on.

    Other moments that stick in the mind from the last 12 months include the brilliant insanity of driving the new Mustang from Seattle to Ketchikan, Alaska, then from Alaska to Las Vegas. The road-trip of a lifetime, undertaken with one of my greatest friends in the world, who also happens to be our Associate Editor. Other highlights include our own Piers Ward doing 116mph on a lawnmower and claiming the Guinness World Record. The first proper drive in the utterly brilliant BMW i8. Or a recent trip to Bloodhound SSC where I was tasked with grinding the titanium panels of the top fuselage flat. By this time next year they’re aiming to break the 800mph mark, and there’s no doubt that my OCD grade sanding will be largely responsible for their achievements.

    But it’s hard to imagine a more fitting end to such a memorable year than the moment I arrived in a nondescript carpark at the bottom of an Italian B-Road. I was in a McLaren P1, had a Porsche 918 in my rearview mirror, and parked myself next to Associate Editor, Tom Ford, in a blood red LaFerrari. The sense of achievement of getting these three staggering creations together for the first time wasn’t lost on anyone. This ultimate hypercar test had taken months of negotiations and hundreds of phonecalls to turn from a dream to a reality. But as the three gathered in that carpark the realisation that we now had 48 hours in the company of these three ultimate expressions of speed began to dawn. As did the responsibility. Two days later, and with each car safely returned to their respective manufacturer, we had a winner. The results of those truly jaw dropping days can be enjoyed in the latest issue of the magazine, which you can download here… 

    As 2014 draws to an end, and I work my way through the back catalogue of memories from another amazing year in this amazing job, it’s hard to see how 2015 could better the last 12 months. But we live in incredible times. The pace of development, ingenuity and creativity in the automotive industry has never been greater, and as I begin to plan our coverage for the next twelve months it’s clear that pace shows no signs of diminishing. 2015 is going to be another extraordinary ride. Thank you for your continued support and I wish you all a very healthy and happy new year.

  2. Sam Philip, Senior Writer, Top Gear Magazine

    There’s no way to write this without sounding like the jammiest git in the northern hemisphere, so I’m not even going to try.

    So. I didn’t think there was much that could ever top a week of blasting the Ferrari F12, Lambo Aventador Roadster and Aston Vanquish around empty, glorious northern Scotland - a trio of naturally aspirated, deliriously powerful supercars on the very best roads in Britain, perhaps the world. And TG’s own hunting lodge. And haggis burgers.

    But then I drove a Veyron GSV the length of Route 66. 2,400 miles from Chicago to LA: the fastest car in history tackling arguably the most iconic road trip route on the planet. A trip that ranks somewhere beyond ‘bucket list’ territory, deep into the ‘yep, that’s me done, just shoot me now’ zone. And yes, it was every bit as extraordinary and reconfiguring as you might expect.

    The Veyron epic was, I should point out, not all lightness and joy. I got sunburnt to a beetroot crisp in Texas, and gave myself an mild aneurism (successfully) attempting not to alert the attentions of the US’s impressively diligent traffic cops. A 1200bhp, 260mph hypercar and hilariously low speed limits does not a happy equation make. Honestly, I think I deserve some sympathy for undertaking such hardship. No?

  3. Paul Horrell, Consultant Editor, Top Gear Magazine

    As sometimes happens in this job, I performed a bit of grand theft auto. Though in mitigation, as ever I gave it back. An Audi S1 was waiting for photographer Barry Hayden and me by a frozen lake in Sweden. It was its first day out of captivity. Audi’s idea of impressing us with the car was to have us drive it in small circles round the lake, maybe head down a snowy road for a brief while, then retire to a posh restaurant and share reindeer steak with them. But we had eight pages of Top Gear magazine to fill, and an insatiable desire to see if this little firecracker really was as good as its spec indicated. So we promised them we’d be back in a short while, and promptly fled west over the Norwegian border. After hundreds of kilometres and innumerable inexplicably missed calls from +49 numbers, we’d found clear tarmac, curvy roads, and a view over brooding Atlantic fjords. And, yes, an absolute firecracker of a little hatchback. Audi don’t seem to have struck me from their guest list.

    But my absolute best drive was a relay in the world’s three best mid-engined cars, pasting the daylights out of them across high mountain passes, autobahn and the Black Forest. A Cayman S, a 458 Speciale, and a 918. Really, there’s nothing more I need say about that.

    It was also a year when I finally got to taste some fascinating cars I’d followed through concepts, secret briefings, talks with designers and engineers, and motor show debuts. My first day in a real production BMW i8 was a truly special one. And the AMG GT, and three joyous three-cylinder cars: Mini Cooper, C4 Cactus and Twingo. None are quite perfect, but all warmed my heart.

    There’s some fascinating engineering going on right now. No longer do you get powertrain people and body people and aero people and structure people all working in silos. Instead they find ways to make their best work get extra returns by integrating with colleagues’ ideas. Which is why the i8 was such a success, but also why I was so fascinated to get inside the Renault Eolab project. Such integration was also the reason the Mercedes AMG F1 W05 was so dominant in Grands Prix. The team’s technical chief Paddy Lowe was one of the most interesting men I met all year.

    On the subject of interesting men, I’ve just had dinner with Andy Green, land speed record holder these past 17 years and now Bloodhound SSC driver. Getting a car through 1000mph is a pretty fascinating subject of course. Normally in this job, every question I ask of car-company high flyers is met with a definite, polished answer, or an equally polished refusal to answer. Green often said “We simply don’t know.” The team is on a true voyage of discovery. But I’ll bet in the coming two years they’ll find their answers.

  4. Jason Barlow, Editor at Large, Top Gear Magazine

    Hybrids and EVs came of age in 2014. Car of the year by a country mile was the BMW i8, a triumph of integrated engineering and thinking and a ballsy billion pound business move, but also an endlessly fascinating car. Fascinating to look at - nothing I’ve ever driven turns so many heads - and fascinating to drive. Finally, here was the sort of car I thought we’d be knocking about in come 2014, back when I was glued to The A-Team every Saturday night.

    Perhaps less predictably, I also loved the Porsche Panamera e-hybrid, a flawed but compelling anti-diesel limo, whose ability to waft in and out of London on electric power only never failed to make me smile, not least for its single-digit salute to the congestion charge. A shout out to the Renault Zoe, too, whose Apple-y form summons up lots of feel-good if you give it a chance and swallow a few prejudices.

    Oddly, while embracing the future, 2014 also turned out to be defiantly old-school. Off the back of the LaFerrari’s arrival, I managed to persuade a brilliant man called Karim Said to let TG loose in all four of its predecessors, the 288 GTO, F40, F50 and Enzo, around Dunsfold. This was fantasy-land stuff, as was former Le Mans-winner Vern Schuppan’s willingness to let me drive his sublime ex-Steve McQueen 275 GTB back in the summer. Two months later it sold for £8m at RM Auction’s Pebble Beach sale. My God, are all old Fezzas things of wonder. Happily, the 458 Speciale proves that Ferrari hasn’t lot its touch. Let’s hope turbos don’t screw it up.

    Another major box got ticked in May when I finally drove the Mille Miglia, in a Jaguar XK140. It’s hard to persuade anyone who hasn’t had the enormous privilege of taking part that it really is as brilliant as everyone says it is… but it is as brilliant as everyone says it is. Better, in fact. How can following Martin Brundle and Bruno Senna in a D-type for two hours through Italy be anything other than pure magic?

    Other cool cars included the mighty Corvette ZO6, the new Audi TT, whose same-again styling hides a seriously alluring chassis, the new Merc C-class, and the SLS Black Series, which I drove to Brixworth to meet Merc AMG F1 powertrain genius Andy Cowell. Those Black Series Mercs are every bit as mind-blowing as 2014’s all-conquering WO5 F1 machine.

    Next up? After Olympic levels of dithering, I’m looking forward to watching Fernando and JB battle in the new McLaren-Honda, and hoping that the Civic Type-R and NSX do the business on the road. Now there are two organisations with a shed-load to prove in 2015. Hats off to Andy Green, Richard Noble and the rest of the Bloodhound gang - we’ve been big supporters since day one, but the momentum’s building for the 1000mph bid. I’m also wondering how Ken Block can top that Gymkhana 7 Mustang viral film, and whether BJ Baldwin’s Baja monster truck short was actually more of an internet-slayer than Kim Kardashian’s admittedly impressive back-side.

  5. Ollie Marriage, Motoring Editor, Top Gear Magazine

    I literally don’t know where to start. I’ve never had another year like 2014 - it’s been, for want of a better word, epic. In America alone I’ve driven a Ford Mustang through many states, a Subaru WRX up Mt Washington, and a Dodge Challenger Hellcat around the unbelievable Maryhill Loops road. In an ordinary year any of those would qualify as stand out highlights.

    I’ve driven racing cars - a full-house DTM BMW M4, the outrageous Nissan Zeod Le Mans car, and a BTCC Honda Civic (the most memorable thing about that was having to wear Matt Neal’s overalls - he’s about a foot taller than me). I’ve even spent a week in Florida racing the next generation of likely F1 talent. And yes, Max Verstappen is faster than me.

    My scariest moment was doing 35mph in a Peel P50, my most gigglesome, drifting my long term RS6 with roofbox and bike rack attached, the most head-scratching, building a Caterham Seven 160. In the office. Between the desks. Most surreal was having our performance car of the year convoy halted by an avalanche in Andorra, most breath-taking was seeing the naked aluminium bodywork of the Eagle E-Type Low Drag emerge into daylight. It drove just as beautifully, too. Most hostile was standing on top of Mt Washington at -50 celsius in 70mph winds. Sunset and sunrise were the best I’ve ever seen, though.

    The most pinch-yourself moment was arriving at a small layby in northern Italy in a Porsche 918, following a McLaren P1, and seeing a bright red La Ferrari parked up there. We were the first people in the world to get the three hypercars together, and boy did that feel amazing. I spent an afternoon razzing one, then another, then the other up and down a mountain road in the name of photography, trying to drink the whole experience in.

    But even that wasn’t my highlight of the year. Because this year I’ve been rallying. You might already know that we took a standard Hyundai i20 and turned it into a rally car - we’ve shouted loudly enough about it here - but the fact we took it all the way to Wales Rally GB, and then won our bloody class was, frankly, nothing less than magical. We crashed on day one, recovered on day two and battled to the finish on day three. Co-driver Jack Morton and I were exhausted, but this was mixed with total elation. Driving over the ceremonial finish and getting a pot was my highlight of the year.

  6. Stephen Dobie, Senior Writer, TopGear.com

    Every second I’ve spent with the utterly sublime Ferrari 458 Speciale.

    That might sound like an easy shout, that picking some scintillating drives in a sunshine yellow Fezza is the lazy option when I’ve had some truly joyous drives in far more relevant - i.e. actually affordable - metal. 

But in truth it’s the first Ferrari I’ve truly connected with. Allow me to explain…

    Driving a £250,000 car you don’t own is an oddly conflicting experience. On the one hand, you feel duty-bound to make the most of your privileged position by enjoying every last ounce of performance you dare squeeze out of it.

    The devil on your shoulder, though, reminds you that you’re just a millimetre of haphazard throttle application away from a loud smash and some horrifying phone calls. And an awful lot of grovelling.

    Other Ferraris I’ve driven have felt a bit too knife-edge to be taken by the scruffs of their necks if you’re not a regular supercar helmsman. The Speciale, though, is friendly. Approachable. You can get in and within a mile or two, be flicking its Mannetino toggle up a few notches and treating it like the entry-level Cayman its balance so sweetly echoes.

    But that’s not to say it’s not exciting. It’s heart-thumpingly so. Its supremely clever stability control serves to showcase your expressiveness, not neuter your thrills.

    As a last hurrah for the screaming nat-asp Ferrari V8, it is perfect. In the six years I’ve done this job I’ve been asked “what’s your favourite car, then?!” in all too many pubs by all too many acquaintances. In 2014, I finally found my answer.

  7. Pat Devereux, Contributing Editor, Top Gear Magazine

    While the Germans were busy redefining complicated and luxury with the i8 and the S Class Coupe, in 2014 the US carmakers concentrated on keeping it fast. Very fast.

    First up, it was gratifying to see the C7 Corvette destroy much more expensive machinery at the TG Performance Car of the Year. We knew it was good in isolation, but that really showed we all now need to take the new ‘Vette, other than it’s inexplicably poor graphics, seriously. Porsche has said it’s the only car they consider a worthy competitor to the 911. One drive on a mixture of roads is all it takes to see why.

    It’s so much better than the C6 ‘Vette, we really didn’t expect GM to go to too much trouble with the Z06 version. But they did and the results are mind melting. The engineers had initially tried to fit it with a version of the 7.0-litre V8 in the Z28 Camaro - a track handling highpoint of the year itself. But when they couldn’t get the power they wanted out of that, they turned to a 6.2-litre unit plus a new, faster spinning supercharger and, bingo, they had their magic 650bhp/650lb ft.

    It’s not just the speed of the Z06 that impresses, but also the sheer sophistication. From the latest gen magnetic dampers, to the carbon ceramic brakes, the performance data recorder, the slick rev-matching manual gearbox and the all-round refinement, it’s not just a bit better than the standard C7, it’s a world ahead of it. Just wait till you hear one on the road or track for the first time. It’s properly evil.

    But maybe still not as evil as the original racer for the road, the Viper TA. After trashing the Jaguar XK RS-GT at the track earlier this year, we then spent three days driving one across Texas and Nevada and were left speechless again at its ability to unleash shock and awe on any piece of tarmac stupid enough to get in its way.

    It’s not the quietest or the most refined - although the new cabin is a massive improvement over the previous hire car spec - but it’s right up there with, or possibly in front of, the Z06. That’s a test we can’t wait to do in 2015.

    As if those weren’t enough to stir the soul this year, we also said hello to the most absurd and wonderful Hellcat-powered Dodge Challenger and Charger, the latter now being the fastest saloon car in the world. We all knew it was going to blow away the Shelby Mustang’s 662bhp, but not by almost 50bhp - or more.

    We drove both on the track and they were entertaining. We also laid elevens down a few drag strips, which they could have done all day. But it was doing a burnout that made the road catch fire that will stay with me as the abiding memory. That and the Challenger’s ability to accelerate from 130mph to 180mph like it’s in a vacuum.

    Saying goodbye to the current Cadillac CTS-V at Circuit of the America’s was another highpoint. The sense of loss was lightened by the arrival of the ATS-V - and its GT3-spec sibling - plus the news that the new CTS-V will debut next month at the Detroit show. Having driven the new CTS - one of the most accomplished yet under rated cars in the US - expect the new daddy V to rub M5s and AMGs into the weeds. Not just on power but handling, too.

    Elsewhere, driving the car-like aluminium-bodied F-150 pickup and discovering that there is definitely going to be a suitably head-banging replacement for my beloved Raptor was a highlight. As was discovering that Tesla has a sense of humour by naming one of the drive mode options for its new all-wheel drive P85D ‘Insane’. No, really.

    But getting the first Mustang GT around all 50 states - well, 49 - was probably the most memorable stack of moments. We’ll get that 50th state, along with another collection of vintage experiences for sure next year. Can’t wait.

  8. Rowan Horncastle, Online Content Producer, Top Gear

    The day I spent with the elusive yet illustrious entities behind the TaxTheRich YouTube channel was a properly good one.

    With plans, locations and ideas constantly changing, initially I doubted if it’d ever happen. But one late evening an email with a GPS location arrived in my inbox - I was to meet them early the next day. To do what, I didn’t know.

    With nothing more than a mysterious phone number and a meeting point, I hobbled my car down a rutted, muddy and broken track for two miles to nervously arrive at our rendezvous - an abandoned farm.

    No one was there, there was no phone signal to call and I was so far away from society no one could hear me scream. Was this going to turn into one of those horrible setup missions from GTA V? 

    But after 30 minutes of twiddling my thumbs, the silence was interpreted by a raucous race car engine. Arriving in a cloud of dust and pig muck, a Ferrari F40 GT entered stage left, sideways. Then, after a few welcoming donuts, out bounded two wide-eyed and incredibly friendly fellows. With introductions out the way, the chaps got to work finishing one of their upcoming videos.

    Witnessing their craft live was quite an experience – being involved with it was something else. Riding shotgun as the anonymous helmsman clutch-kicked his way around the abandoned farm with pinpoint precision would’ve been seriously, seriously impressive in a beaten up old Nova. But the fact it was an incredibly expensive, monumentally rare racecar was utterly applaud worthy.

    However the fact they were both top, level-headed blokes who loved what they were doing made the day even better. It’s just a shame you’ll never find out who they are.

  9. Vijay Pattni, Deputy Editor, TopGear.com

    There’s no way of writing something like this without sounding like a complete and utter… well, you know what. But it’s been a phenomenal year capped off by the most astonishing motoring experience I’m ever likely to have. More on that at the end.

    But briefly, it’s: meeting - and gently hugging - Gary Oldman. Taking an Aston V12 Vantage S down to France for TG.com’s epic Le Mans coverage. Spending an hour in the company of John Surtees. Meeting double MotoGP world champion Marc Marquez. Beating fellow TG man Sam Philip on an economy run in a Mercedes C-Class Estate. Finally driving the monumentally desirable BMW i8. Winning an award for TG.com’s digital content.

    That astonishing experience? Only the triple test of the century: LaFerrari vs 918 vs P1. Spending two days driving three of the world’s fastest, most powerful and most exclusive hypercars was something that will stay with me forever. Plus, here’s a massive bonus: our hotel was a family run joint, and had, quite literally, one of the cutest dogs ever. And a sweet old man with a very weird sense of humour.

  10. Duncan Gray, Commercial Director, Top Gear

    The Top Gear Live tour has travelled all over the world, but 2014 was the first time we took the show to Barbados. Yes, Barbados. The Bushy Park circuit was being redeveloped and they asked us to drop by and put on a bit of show, creating a Top Gear Festival weekend. How could we possibly refuse?

    So in May we headed out, bringing two-time F1 World Champion Lewis Hamilton with us. And he very kindly brought his race car with him. Lucky for us the Bushy Park organisers also invited the Global Rally Cross series to hold a round there, which included a certain old friend of Top Gear’s Mr Ken(ny from the) Block. Lewis and Ken got on great, had a few laughs, jumped in their respective motors and had a race, the footage of which went viral around the world.

    If that wasn’t enough, Lewis then strapped himself into a majestic yellow Reliant Robin and proceeded (along with teammates The Stig and Tiff Needell) to crush the opposition (messrs Clarkson, Hammond and May) in a game of car football. Anyone who was lucky enough to be there knows what an entertaining weekend it was - great destination, perfect weather and some superb on-track action. One day we might just have to go again.

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