24 hours in a Maser MC Stradale
Some things are worth getting up early for. When there's a Maserati GranTurismo MC Stradale sitting outside your house, it seems churlish to hit the snooze button. At 3.30am, though, the chances of making it out the front door without disturbing the wife, kids or dog are slender. Not least because, in Stradale form, the Maserati's V8 rouses itself like an act of God.
Actually, there's a biblical feel to this whole quest. Maserati has recently become title sponsor for a series of yachting world-record attempts, and has lent its name, trident logo and financial muscle to a vessel crewed by an Italian maritime legend called Giovanni Soldini. Right now, it's so early on Monday morning that the sparrows have yet to begin breaking wind, and I'm piloting the Maserati round some slippery Essex back roads to photographer Steve Perry's hotel. Soldini and his hand-picked crew are due to embark on Wednesday, aiming to set a new record for sailing across the North Atlantic from Cadiz to San Salvador in the Caribbean. We're planning to hook up with them beforehand, which means we're staring down the barrel of a 1,800-mile trip.
Words: Jason Barlow
Photos: Stephen Perry
This feature first appeared in the July 2012 issue of Top Gear magazineAdvertisement - Page continues below
There are several ways to slice this. A conventional approach would favour spreading the load across a minimum of two days. However, armed with a car like the Stradale, the TopGear approach is to attempt a little light, unofficial record-breaking ourselves. Our satnav suggests that, with a fair wind, this journey should take 20-odd hours, if we regulate the fuel and caffeine stops pretty rigorously. Having done some research on Signor Soldini, though, we reckon that's the very least we can do. Soldini, you see, is one of the world's most experienced round-the-world yachtsmen, a man who routinely stares death and 50ft-high waves in the face, and who once deliberately scuppered his own chances in a race to rescue a rival who had got into severe trouble. A proper hero, in other words. What would he think if Team TG took a leisurely 48 hours to drive 1,800 miles in a Maserati?
Exactly. We also decide it's our duty to bring a little bit of Britain to keep him company during his record attempt, hence the plastic bag containing a jar of Marmite, a curry-flavoured Pot Noodle and a copy of today's Daily Telegraph tucked behind my seat. We are proud cultural emissaries.
Having gone under the sea rather than sailing over it, we're in France early. This leg of the journey is pretty familiar, having driven to Paris, Le Mans and beyond more times than I can remember. Never in a car quite like this, though. Put the words Maserati and GranTurismo together in the same name, and you conjure up a Sixties Technicolor automotive dream. Whether you were a playboy, film star or ageing Lothario with an impressionable young lady along for the ride, in a Maserati 5000 GT Allemano, Mistral or Ghibli, you were in for a rare treat.
The MC Stradale is not that sort of Maserati (and photographer Steve is not that kind of girl). The most powerful car the company has made since the Ferrari Enzo-based MC12, the Strad has junked the rear seats and sound insulation to shed 110kg from its porky 1,890kg kerbweight, and ramped up the power from its sonorous 4.7-litre V8 to 444bhp. There's a roll cage, racier carbon-fibre seats with a four-point race harness rather than regular seatbelts, and carbon and Alcantara trim. This Maserati, then, is tilting at Porsche 911 GT3 territory, while casting envious looks over its shapely Pininfarina-designed shoulders at its Trofeo racing brothers rather than wondering which Riviera hostelry serves the best vodka martini at 3am.
All of which suggests that it should be largely rubbish on the long haul south through not one, but two large European countries. In fact, it's surprisingly effective. A good car knows when to shut up on a journey like this, and though the Stradale generates the sort of subterranean, barrel-chested bass frequencies last heard when Brian Blessed exhorted Flash Gordon, it also settles into a profoundly appealing, péage-punctuating sixth-gear lope. At 125mph, front downforce is apparently improved by 25 per cent and a handsome 50 per cent at the rear, courtesy of a reworked front splitter and rear diffuser and carbon-fibre spoiler. Its high-speed stability is noticeably better, and despite a lower ride height, tighter dampers (fixed rather than active) and chunkier anti-roll bars, it rides with surprisingly old-school GT suppleness.
We're over the border and into Spain by the evening, which is where we encounter the only roadworks of the entire trip (yes, the length of France with nary a bollard or cone in sight). With 994 miles covered since Calais, we fuel up somewhere near Salamanca. Astonishingly, this is also the one and only time in three days that either Steve or I will consume a can of a well-known energy drink. It has the desired effect, though. "You know," says Steve, cradling that familiar little caffeinated cylinder, "if we push on, my iPhone's navigation system reckons we'll make Cadiz by about 2.30am..."Advertisement - Page continues below
It's a vaguely unhinged thought, from a gently unhinged man, and we still have around 700 miles to go. But Spain's internal road network is now so good, and the traffic so light, that it seems somehow perverse not to go for it. And despite having spent 17 hours in the Maserati's racy embrace, my arse refuses to succumb to any numbness. Besides, by leaving it in sixth, I can avoid the gearbox's inherent lurchiness...
The final haul is, thankfully, dramatically undramatic. We see Cadiz signposted for the first time at 1am or so, and push on as if drawn by a tractor beam. We arrive a few hours later. How long did it take? Well, let's just say we out-satnaved our satnav...
Cadiz is a city with a long and glorious maritime history. In the posh marina, expensive vessels bob up and down expensively. On the industrial side of the port, hairy-arsed blokes dangle containers off cranes before manoeuvring them onto huge ships. Our svelte Maserati is all at sea here, metaphorically, but its nautical namesake is here because its keel is too big to fit in the marina.
It's a beautiful-looking thing, the Maserati yacht, effectively a floating F1 car, its weight pared right back to deliver maximum attack in the water. There is a galley - of sorts - below deck, but it's made of carbon fibre. I've never seen a carbon-fibre kitchen before. Navigators Boris Herrmann and Brad Van Liew show me round, and explain how they plot the 3,000-mile-plus course.
Brad reckons they'll sail further south, below the Canaries, before heading west across the Atlantic, chasing the trade winds. He also tells me he's seen blue ice that's 200 years old floating free in the Southern Ocean. "Climate change? Oh yeah, it's real," he says ruefully.
Both will be entrusting their lives to skipper Soldini, who rocks up looking every inch the weather-beaten man of the sea, fulsomely bearded, wild-eyed, and quite clearly a fellow who enjoys life to the full. Soldini quickly reveals himself to be one of the finest and most entertaining human beings I've ever met. Flamboyantly, spectacularly Italian, he has an enormous operatic laugh, which he unleashes like a movie special effect when I hand him the jar of Marmite and the Pot Noodle. Neither of them will help him go faster, but he gives me a generous hug anyway. And now, over to the great Soldini...
TopGear: What on God's earth motivates you?
Giovanni Soldini: It's something you have inside, driving you to find your limits. At sea, nature is much bigger and much stronger. It's nice to be in a position where you have to be better and faster than it. When I'm sailing a racing boat, inside you feel like you are in a bus going down the mountains [huge laugh], going waaaaahhhhh.... with no road! And no brakes!!! But this sensation is also what you are looking for. The challenge is to arrive at your limit just before you crash. When you are flying along at 35 knots and the boat is out of the water... on one side, you are scared, yes; on the other, you are the happiest man in the world. Or when you are in the Southern Ocean with waves the size of a building... on one side, you are saying, "What am I bloody doing here?"; on the other, you are thinking, "I will never see anything like this again in my life!"Advertisement - Page continues below
TG: What's your aim on this trip?
GS: Everyone has the same goal. Whatever money my crew are earning in the next six months, they would trade all that to win the record.
TG: How do you manage fear? Do you even experience it?
GS: [laughs] You have no time to be scared. That's not the issue. It all happens so fast, you need to make the right decision or you are dead. You have no time, you have nobody to help you so you just try to... move your ass! Fast! Sometimes, this is not possible; sometimes, there is nothing you can do. For example, in a storm in the North Atlantic or the Southern Ocean. Crazy stuff happens that is impossible to know beforehand. Normally, the guys will be able to tell you there is a storm ahead, with a lot of wind inside, but whether it is 50 knots or 80 knots, they don't know. By the time they do know, it is too late... you are f**ked. And then you might have two or three days of wind blowing at 80 knots, it's possible. When you don't know something, that is extreme. But when you get inside something, the less extreme it is. So you must get prepared for all eventualities. It is about managing risk. There is risk in all your life, even if you stay at home. You could fall over in your living room and kill yourself. And I don't want to die like that! [huge laugh]
TG: When you are sailing on a solo round-the-world race, your boat must become almost human...
GS: In Italy, a boat is a girl. And it's very easy to fall in love with her. In a way, you make a deal with her. "You take care of me; I take care of you," you say. She is a racing machine, and she needs careful tuning. There is a soul there. I can hear what she is saying to me, on the waves. You can be 3,000 miles from land, and it's just you, out there, with her. I tell you, in that situation, it is very easy to fall in love!Advertisement - Page continues below