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Richard Hammond on: DSGs
It’s no secret that, during the long journey from local radio star to short bloke on Top Gear, I enjoyed a brief foray into the other side of the journalistic divide and worked at a car company. After 18 months as a press officer, it became obvious that a) I missed working as a journalist and b) I was rubbish at being a press officer.
These two factors, allied to an incident in which I discovered the famous “Papa, Nicole” polka-dot minidress in a store cupboard and may have run up and down head office brandishing it like the Golden Fleece and hooting “Papa, Nicole” in a selection of heavily accented falsetto and basso profundo voices, led to my departure from the heady world of flipcharts and meetings with biscuits in them, and a return to the familiar routine of freelance radio and small-time TV. But, before my exit, there featured a memorable event that came back to me last week while enjoying a brief encounter with the new Porsche 911 GT3.
Seventeen or so years ago, I was tearing around the test route for the launch of some new car or other with my boss, the excellent Tim Jackson - a man of such infinite patience that when I greeted him at his desk one morning with a carefully drawn cartoon depicting a reprimand he had received the previous day from the company’s MD, not only did he not fire me on the spot for wasting an entire day with a set of pens and a sketchpad hidden behind my computer terminal drawing it, but he actually laughed and bought me an egg sandwich.
We were checking the timings and directions to be handed out to the world’s motoring journalists, who would be driving the route later in the week to appraise themselves of our new car’s handling characteristics and so on. I had devised the route and written up the directions and notes, however, so they were rubbish, and a bit of a heavy silence had descended in the car.
Not a man keen on handing out reprimands, Tim went quiet and let the frosty atmosphere express his disappointment at the wrong turns, badly guessed distances and inappropriate terrain in my notes.
Looking around me while Tim drove with his usual exuberance and considerable skill, I wondered what would happen if I pushed the auto gearlever forward from D and slotted it into R. Anyway, the lever was calling to me and, knowing I would be unable to resist it for much longer, I raised the question with Tim, the better perhaps to prepare him for the moment I could hold back no longer.
We stopped, there was some grinning, an unspoken apology for shoddy work from me
Tim answered the question by yanking the lever forward in exactly the way I had been teetering on the verge of doing myself. Now I’m not suggesting you do this, certainly not on a twisting mountain road in a brand-new Renault Espace being driven at some speed by your boss who’s an ex-rally driver and is cross with you for preparing rubbish notes.
What happens, as you’re desperate to know, is a lot of noise. There’s a frantic, metallic whirring and a sense of thrashing and panic. But no physical manifestations of the dreadful goings-on down in the engine room as the gearbox is reversed through the torque-convertor.
We stopped, there was some grinning, an unspoken apology for shoddy work from me and an equally silent acknowledgement all was well in the press team before we headed off again.
And the reason for this event popping back into my head this week? I had my first go in the new Porsche 911 GT3. It features versions of the electric steering and flappy-paddle gearbox fitted to the standard 991, neither of which I like and both of which, I believe, take away some of the standard car’s character. But Porsche seems to have realised this, or deliberately engendered us with a false sense of disappointment… because it’s sorted it for the GT3. The steering feels better, with very little sense it’s electric, but the gearshift is taken to a new level.
The change in the GT3 is addictive. Incredibly, insanely quick with a meaty but accurate and precise feel, both at the paddle itself and through the entire drivetrain as it snicks with impossible speed from one ratio to the next. Tooling about and whanging the gearbox up and down just to feel again and again the joy of it, I remembered the sludgy jerks and rolls and the racket when the ‘box in the Espace was slipped into reverse from drive.
We keep talking about DSG gearboxes in sports cars as being disappointing, taking away some of the heroism and precision demanded of a driver of a proper manual car. But these are not automatic gearboxes where the drive must first proceed through a big bucket of toffee in the torque-convertor. This is a manual gearbox, it’s just actuated differently. And it’s never been better demonstrated than in the new GT3. I think it’s time we grew up, stopped showing off and stopped moaning about ‘auto’ ‘boxes when they’re not. This is how we shift now, and I love it.
This column first appeared in the October 2013 issue of Top Gear magazine