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Top Gear Speed Week: the misfits

  1. Not often is there a surfeit of pity for a bunch of blokes armed with a load of borrowed fast cars and a free race track, but, right now, I actually feel sorry for my colleagues. Left with the metaphorical sweepings, I have never been more pleased. And while proper motoring journalists with constipated expressions discuss slip angles, I fire up the first of what has been disparagingly described as the ‘freaks’ and roll out, intending mischief. Say hello to the circus.

    Words: Tom Ford

    Pics: Jamie Lipman

    This feature first appeared in the August 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. Now, a couple of people may have noticed that the Transit had too-wide wheels and a noticeably non-standard stance (they couldn’t have known about the coilover suspension), and the less blind will have noticed the big stickers and side-exit exhaust as it wound its dieselly way onto the track. But I guarantee that whoever was in the Aventador noticed it at 95mph on the way into Hammerhead, comedy double take and all. And he continued to notice it most of the way around that endless right, as he waited for the ego-salving balm of a straight. I’d like to say the SuperSportVan stayed with the Aventador but - broadly - as soon as that Lamborghini saw a sniff of daylight, it buggered off in no uncertain terms. The sod.

  3. Truth is, the SuperTranny did thrash its way around Hammerhead looking like God flipped gravity 90 degrees, but I was hanging on for dear life, sat bolt upright over the steering wheel in a ridiculous sports seat, thinking the damn thing was about to fall over. And the sooty floods it chucked out on the upchange from the 3.2-litre five-pot turbodiesel made me think it was about to grenade. The fact that it’s rear-wheel drive, makes 347lb ft from 1,500rpm, has no diff and therefore merrily spins an inside wheel into vapour also adds texture to the experience. It has standard ESP. The fusesort of, er, fell out. Several laps later, something clunks unhappily from the front suspension and the Transit has to be retired. But, my goodness, what a laugh. It can’t possibly get funnier.

  4. But it can. Keeping with the commercial-vehicle theme, next up is the Vauxhall Maloo. A pickup truck equipped with a 6.2-litre V8, 425bhp and 405lb ft. Like the Transit, it apparently serves no practical purpose other than to amuse, but, within a lap, I discover a strange side effect of the Maloo: it can change the weather. I found out by turning all the traction-control systems off and hoofing the throttle pedal while halfway around a corner. Turn, lift, stamp and, whump, you can create clouds. Big chewy, thick clouds of smoke, which dissipate into will-o’-the-wispy mist as the big yellow pickup flings itself off down another straight, making a noise like someone feeding Brian Blessed feet first into a woodchipper. Of course, I spun it eventually, and then translated a good few millimetres of high-quality performance tyre into the kind of walking-pace rolling burnout that leaves me hysterically chanting, “Maloo, Malooooo!” like an idiot, while people with racing licences merely point and tut.

  5. It is at this point that I am nailed, in no uncertain terms, by a McLaren GT car and a Honda race bike, one either side, and bloody moving. I give chase. And lose. Time to come clean: I can’t ride a motorbike, and The Stig won’t let me drive the McLaren, so I’m left flailing around behind them as they eviscerate our little circuit. The Big Mac - a bit like the Caterham SP - relies on downforce rather than power (it actually makes less bhp than the MP4-12C road car, thanks to inlet restrictors required for racing), and it seems to settle over 100mph. It just hunkers down and twists the corners around itself, rather than negotiating them in the traditional sense. It also takes wildly different lines to the bike, which is blisteringly quick on the straights, but seems to elasticate on the brakes and into the corners. Which is a bit of a surprise, seeing as the bloke heaving the bike is Isle of Man TT legend John McGuinness. Holy crap, I’m watching The Stig take on JM, and the whole face off is fascinating.

  6. I’m also watching myself be lapped. As McGuinness drops past (again) on the inside, he dips his shoulders and tugs, hoicking the front wheel of the CBR skyward, and screams past the Maloo on his back wheel. I’m genuinely scared that The Stig will rear-end me for acting like a mobile chicane. But again, I’m laughing. Both demonstrate uncanny abilities, putting more than one of us firmly in our place. Even a local Chinook briefly hovered for a look. You think you can drive? You ain’t seen nothing. In fact, the competition became so intense that we decided to make something of it - and you can see the results in the next issue of TG.

  7. Which leaves me with two vehicles left to assess, and not much time to do it. So I strap myself into the first freak I can find, and suddenly feel a bit… scared. For all the wrong reasons. The Nissan DeltaWing is a lesson in racing-car aerodynamics, mutating accepted physics in new and surprising directions, as it proved in this year’s impressive Le Mans debut. This isn’t a Nissan DeltaWing. It’s the TopGear DeltaWang. Created by custom-car builder extraordinaire Andy Saunders from the guts of a Westfield kit car, it has a steering wheel that will pull clean off if you tug it hard enough through a right-hand corner. This actually happened to The Stig at 40mph. He didn’t seem to care. It also has ‘experimental’ narrow-track front suspension, a wide rear and bits of Batman-like fibreglass sticking out. From 20ft, it’s a remarkable homage. From the driving seat, running at 85mph into the Follow-Through, it’s ruddy terrifying.

  8. My torso is sticking out into the airflow, the wheel isn’t on straight, the inside rear wheel spins immediately - the front end being surprisingly resistant to understeer - and the engine feels like it’s making a bad job of about 100bhp. Gracelessly overtaken by everything, the Swift Sport being a particular speedy ignominy, I still can’t wipe the smile off my face. You want to be challenged as a driver? Forget the Lotus Exige S, or even the BAC Mono or Radical SL. You need a car cobbled together out of what amounts to an extended skip-dive. Thank God the real one isn’t actually like this. Or Le Mans would’ve been much more crashy.

  9. Eventually, even the DeltaWang’s very specific kind of fun wanes, self-preservation kicks in and I’m left wanting something really unique. Which is when I turn to the Bowler EXR S. A road-going Dakar replica sporting what amounts to a Jaguar XKR-S supercharged V8 throwing 550bhp to all four wheels via a 50/50 torque split and locking diffs. It’s well on the way to being one of the most hardcore road/race cars I’ve ever sat in, while still having most of an interior (and also, interestingly, possibly a 2+2 configuration for child-scaring duties), but the physical telemetry tells you this is one odd car to drive fast. It really is strange.

  10. Plant the throttle, and it belts along like a lunatic, auto ‘box crashing through the ratios while yet another side-exit exhaust gutters and spits. Despite being two feet too high for comfort, it doesn’t really lean through corners, and, for a while, all I seem to do is howl around understeering gracelessly. There’s immense shove and plenty of grip from the huge sports SUV tyres, but I can’t quite gel. Until, that is, I just take the car and treat it ridiculously harshly, lobbing it into corners like a rally car on gravel. And then the Bowler comes alive, wandering around under hard braking, oversteering neatly on the exit. It’s completely insane. It makes you feel like you could take on the world. You probably could. I keep lapping until we’re forced to shut the track, and the grin is back. And, this time, it’s rictus.

  11. Everyone started out being very amused by the freaks. Thinking they’d make for a pretty picture, and a couple of interesting stories. But once I park them all up, and wander about talking to men still concerned with cornering g, I realise that there’s no point talking about any of the usual dynamic stuff. It’s just not relevant. I’ve been too busy having simple, glorious fun. What Top Gear Speed Week is about. Like I said, most started the day punting wry smiles in the direction of this group of cars. But, by the end, the assembled journalists catch the slightly wild look in my eyes and suddenly no one can think of a reason to laugh.

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