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Speed Week: the Brits fly south

  1. There was the dawn. A dreary early Saturday morning in a summer whose signature theme is a flat grey sky the colour of a dead TV, the tempearature lurking around a sullen 12 degrees, lazily non-committal given that June is firmly ensconced in the calendar. But today it’s impossible to be depressed by unimaginative weather. Today we kick off the TG Speed Week, and a road trip beckons in some of the best fast cars in the world. A grin is not hard to find.

    We have been given a location in mid-France to aim for, and with other TG staff flying off in a multitude of European directions to collect the various cars required, I’m corralling the group departing from the UK. We have until Sunday night to rendezvous, but more of that later. In the meantime, I arrive early at the UK kick-off point - Eurotunnel’s Folkestone terminal - having bounced out of bed at 4am in order to take the long way down. The reason why is quietly clicking itself cool in a corner parking bay: an acid yellow, 616bhp McLaren Spider. There are worse reasons to get up early.

    Photography: Justin Leighton

  2. Editor-in-chief Turner arrives seconds later in a bright red 5.0-litre Jaguar F-Type V8S heralded by sub-bass booming from the engine, overlaid with a cacophony of pops and cracks from the four exhausts. It is basically a small, convertible apocalypse. With the Jag making 488bhp, that makes a not-inconsiderable 1,104bhp from the first pair. Promising. Several early-morning sub-channel commuters fumble their way across the car park, one unfortunate group immediately driving the wrong way up the entry route, encountering a lumbering motorhome and beaching their Peugeot 405 across a kerb. I sigh. Already we’re causing chaos.

  3. Next up, iPad art director Owen Norris appears in Top Gear’s long-term Ford Fiesta ST, smiling like someone who has something up his sleeve. Turns out he has. The 175bhp Fiesta ST is already one of our favourite hot hatches, but for Speed Week, Ford has allowed us to upgrade the little hatch to ST+ specification. Which consists of a £600 ECU and airbox modification by Ford gurus Mountune that adds a scouring induction noise, 10 per cent more torque and a 212bhp output - a bit more with overboost. Judging by the width of Owen’s grin, it works.

  4. Minutes later, there’s a gruff swoosh and a dark grey, red-striped Mini John Cooper Works GP II cannons around the corner, squat and square, filled with camera kit. The lack of back seats - replaced by a strut brace that bisects the rear cabin - have allowed it to be transformed into an impromptu van for senior road test editor Piers Ward picking up photographer Justin Leighton early this morning. This is one very special Mini - it’s lighter, faster and packed with a full 215bhp’s worth of JCW goodness. A friendly car with a pleasingly surprising set of teeth, adjustable suspension and sticky tyres. It’s trailed by Dan Read in a new Porsche Cayman S (the car everyone seems to think is in with a shot at this year’s title), the neat, spare, beautiful shape only slightly upset by the lemon yellow of the paintwork. If anything is in with a shout, then the Cayman must be in a box seat: mid-engined, rear-wheel drive, compact and the kind of balance and delicacy the opposition can only dream of. The fact that it also has a 325bhp boxer engine and involving manual ‘box only adds to the suspicion that this might well be the one to watch over the next few days.

  5. Mentally, I start to tick off the combatants from the UK, and realise there’s one missing. Earlier in the week, none other than Lewis Hamilton handed over the keys of the last of our gang - a Mercedes-Benz A45 AMG. The first four-cylinder, four-wheel-drive AMG Benz. It’s not even been officially released, and we’re nicking one from a former F1 world champion. It appears as if summoned, at the end of the Chunnel queue, purposeful but subtle in white, piloted by a man called Stuart, very little hinting at the 355bhp skulking under the bonnet. We load onto the Chunnel like petrol-powered Smarties being poured into a tube. And we’re off.

  6. Half an hour later, we emerge blinking into sunnier climes and things are looking up. The weather has turned brighter and we knit together on the A16 out of Calais and head south-west, running smartly down the A28 and A29, toward Le Havre. We drive over the bridge that spans the Seine estuary, and pause at the almost comically picturesque port of Honfleur for a spot of lunch. Nothing is on fire, no one is crying and we have not been arrested for nearly six hours. It’s almost surreal.

  7. It doesn’t last. Leading in the McLaren, I mistakenly made the assumption the Mac’s satellite navigation is actually capable of reading a map, and become immediately lost, trailing a series of increasingly frustrated cars in my wake like a mass of noisy, evil bunting. I try to self-navigate, only to flip our convoy onto some roads best described as ‘rural’, and worst described as ‘not actually roads’, though for that one 12-year-old boy riding his father’s rusting bicycle down the lane, I suspect that we made at least one person’s day.

  8. Eventually, we head far enough west to pick up the A28 again, and head south towards our mid-term destination - Le Mans. On the way, it’s very, very hard not to wind these cars out on the long, flowing, perfectly surfaced autoroutes. The Jaguar and McLaren have their roofs open, the better to hear their genial woofling; the other cars sit quite happily at the 130kph dry-weather max. It’s even harder to control everyone at the toll booths, only the stern appraisal of roadside gendarmes curtailing a Wacky Races-style full-bore drag race. Get caught, and the local authorities can confiscate your car. It’s enough to stop us. Mostly.

  9. Eventually, we arrive at the spiritual home of endurance motor racing, and it’s hard not to be a little disappointed. The bit we drive through is crusted with barnacles of the light industrial kind, and it’s not until we reach the far side that we realise why we’re here. With little warning, we’re pitching up and around the Indianapolis and Arnage corners, faced with the coiffured gravel and broad yellow, black and blue stripes that mark the margins of the Le Mans circuit. I’ve never been here before the actual race, and it feels infinitely special. We meander gently up the legendary Mulsanne straight and pull off into the half-barricaded Michelin chicane, just past the kink. The sun is just dipping behind the trees, swamping everything in slow, bronze light, and it’s hard not to entertain racing-driver fantasies. We stage our very own Le Mans-style start, Top Gear displaying all the sporting elegance of a herd of drunken bison, and drive out and down the circuit, trying desperately not to behave like the racing drivers we suddenly think we might have become.

  10. Switching from car to car and cruising through sections of track where Le Mans prototypes will be hammering past at 180mph in a matter of days, something suddenly becomes clear. There’s not a car in this group incapable of coping with the boring stuff, or that everyone is avoiding. Which shows the general high standard. Yes, the Mini is frenetic and hard, responding to the barest twitch of the wheel, but fun and immediate, and a damn sight faster and more adjustable than it ought to be, especially mid-corner.

  11. The Mercedes feels a bit awkward in Standard mode, better in Sport, and covers ground with the kind of AWD confidence that means the only thing you’ll get should you enthuse too hard is gentle understeer. On a first appraisal, it’s not the rabid AMG I wanted, but makes for a more usable roadcar than expected. I suspect it would be an absolute weapon in the wet. One car that I’d avoid in the damp would be the Jag, though. It makes the best noise this side of a mid-strafe Spitfire, feels like a hot rod but struggles to put its power down in any meaningful way, and the thick, soft steering wheel needs careful attendance to keep it all pointing in the right direction. It’s a bit of a handful.

  12. The Fiesta, on the other hand, is second-by-second exploitable. Properly fantastic. A friendly, accessible balance and simply superb chassis control. It’s fun all of the time and, with a bit of a Mountune pep-up, it also now has the grunt to keep the big stuff in sight, even if it does get lost come the straights. I’m a little bit in love with this one, I have to admit.

    Which leaves the McLaren and Porsche. They might have wildly different price tags, but they share a lot, these two, and not just a neighbourly Pantone. Mostly in the way the steering communicates, in the balance through a corner and the surety of their responses. But also in the way they both glide through the dull bits, then step up several gears when you decide to go fast. Either of these cars is easy to drive quickly, by anyone, but should you have the ability, they are also capable of satisfying the most demanding of drivers. It’s a bloody hard trick to pull off, but one which both the Cayman and the 12C Spider deliver with apparent ease. It’s a cracking group, this.

  13. The sun sets, and we spin around the section of open track once more, before heading towards Tours for an overnight, only to find that when we arrive, our designated hotel is shut. We end up sleeping in a faintly murdery motel on an industrial estate, which is strangely calming. Now it feels like a TG road trip. Tomorrow we have just three hours of driving to reach a circuit near the town of Clermont-Ferrand.

    Lying in bed listening to muffled screaming and the smell of industrial disinfectant, I can’t wait to meet the others. This year, the arguing is set to go nuclear…

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