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TG Speed Week: The Supercars

  1. Because I’m no Stig, and I know it, my custom on days like these is to start gently. For the first few laps, I’ll be found in a hatch getting the feel for the place and my abilities.

    Today we’ve ramped things up. A lot. My gentle bedding-in car is the user-friendly McLaren MP4-12C with its, er, entry-level 600bhp. I shall then be working my way up through a Lamborghini Aventador (700bhp, but at least it’s 4WD). Onwards finally to what strikes me - I’ve never driven it before - as the one that’ll demand most insistently that its driver is in the groove. It’s the 650bhp two-wheel-drive twin-turbo no-ABS no-ESP ‘analogue supercar’, the Noble M600.

    Words: Paul Horrell

    Pics: Joe Windsor-Williams 

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

  2. Today is going to be a pretty extraordinary one. We arrived hours before the 9am track opening, and as the three supercars are lined up, shards of mouth-drying tension - equal parts allure and menace - zings from them just as sharply as the glinting highlights of the morning sun.

    Oh, there’s more to them than this one fantasy day. Out of track captivity, their characters are as different as spring, summer and autumn. The McLaren has astounding comfort and touring ability. The Aventador, conversely, never drops its sheer attention-hogging dramatics, hovering on the line between divine lunacy and cussed idiocy. The Noble, whisper it, harks back to the Ferrari F40, when hypercars really did stimulate in overdose measure, but made demands to match. But, for the rest of these pages, you’ll excuse me if I concentrate on our Dunsfold day.

  3. The McLaren is familiar, and yet not. Whenever TopGear drives one, a lengthy phone call ensues from one or other of the big cheeses at Woking asking what could be made better. They don’t just share a building with the Grand Prix team, they share a thirst for continuous improvement. Even while we’re driving it, they announce that the next cars will get - oh yes! - a proper door-opening button. And 25bhp extra is on its way, which sounds impressive, but, of course, it’s only four per cent, and, frankly, I doubt I’d notice, since it’s already a gut-wrenchingly accelerative thing. What does matter is that this car already has the previous round of modifications: sharper and more progressive response to the throttle, and a recomposed noise to provide the soundtrack its thrust so richly deserves.

    It just howls now, coming out of Chicago, absolutely catapulting towards the Hammerhead, a sawtooth wail as the super-quick DSG spits through the gears and zaps 8,500rpm over and over until the ‘brake’ boards loom and I stand on the pedal, the rear-view instantly orange as the spoiler leaps erectto the airbrake position.

  4. Then tight left, tight right. How impossibly do these front tyres grip? There’s just no apparent inertia, only a magnetic appetite for the turn. I guess this must be McLaren’s brake-steer, the inside rear wheel braked to pivot you into the bend. It doesn’t feel odd or artificial. It simply feels eye-popping. So Hammerhead’s famous long, broadening line begins to open out through the McLaren’s wide, deep windscreen, and the car simply erupts around the line. At which point, it hits a crest, a bump that can severely upset a car that doesn’t have premier-league damping. Ha! The McLaren rides it like it was born to (and it was, because they do use this track for testing) and the near-vicious acceleration keeps up the pressure as the curve unwinds.

  5. This is a car of astounding ability. Sure, I didn’t deploy the very obscure cheat code to fully cancel the ESP. Didn’t feel the need to. There was enough communication and action without it, and a magnificent sense of balance, and borderline-miraculous traction. The McLaren is happy, immensely happy, being tidy. Tidy greased lightning.

    Tidy is always the approach for a Lamborghini, at least on the road. The four-wheel-drive traction encourages it; the huge size and the menacing reputation make any attempt to unsettle it seem like rank recklessness. But here we’ve got a wide-open track. I wriggle down into the Aventador’s strange, dark cauldron of a cockpit, brace myself, and resolve that, with all due trepidation, I’m going to flutter the bull a small red rag.

  6. For a while, it refuses to be provoked. Instead, it awes me with its engine. Every little thing you do to the accelerator brings an answer, a mix of brutal force, coiled-spring urgency and impossibly delicate precision - the sort of thing that, even in 2012, only natural aspiration can bring. And with that the noise, a foot-mixed blend of bellicose exhaust, yowling intake and the tingling polyphony of the V12’s rotating and reciprocating mechanisms. This engine is a special joy in itself, but, on top of that, because it hardwires tractive effort into your brain, it should open a window to new layers of cornering control.

    Well, sort of. It starts out understeering. On the way into every bend, the front washes wide. That “Will it understeer in the Hammerhead?” line you hear from Jeremy every week isn’t some hammed-up piece of TV jeopardy. It’s very real. Most cars do, and the Lambo really, really does. It takes a solid, lengthy lift of the accelerator to get the car settled and pulling with all four, at which point it’s hugely effective and full of feel. Fun, and, of course, the best solution for the road, but a bit one-dimensional on the track. (Later, I mention it to Jeremy, and he says Aventadors don’t understeer. Then I jump in with him as he tries this one and agrees it does.)

  7. OK, let’s break out the red rag. Switch to Corsa mode - which turns the gearshifts into crude hammer blows - kill the ESP, and lean into the bends on a trailing throttle. Using the engine weight this way is like lighting a fuse on a very big firework: you can’t change your mind afterwards. But if you get it right, the Aventador’s electronic diffs, recalibrated for Corsa, will give you more sensitivity. And, if you get it wrong, it turns out to have a surprisingly high, if grudging, tolerance threshold.

  8. However dramatic and operatic the Lamborghini’s power, it’s knocked into the long grass by the Noble’s lunge. On the M600’s dash is an aluminium twist-switch labelled Road, Track, Race. Road is 450bhp, which gives manageable throttle action in traffic and is pretty hectic with under 1,200kg to push. Track is 550bhp. Race gives you the full 650bhp, a torrent of surge between 4,500 and the 6,900rpm red line, a hard-edged V8 cry on the throttle and a crazed flutter of wastegate expulsion when you lift.

  9. This is no games-console supercar. You drive it. The ‘box is manual, a six-speeder with a shift that’s light, but asks for care if you’re to be really quick with it. Yes, it has traction control, but no ESP to collect you if you lift-off too suddenly, and no ABS if you drop anchor thoughtlessly. In mitigation, the throttle is long and the brake pedal firm: you have to ask deliberately if you want all it’s got.

  10. But if the powertrain is an event, the chassis is a total epiphany. I’m expecting it to bite my arm off. Instead, it shakes me warmly by the hand and leads me to worlds I never knew existed. Here’s a mid-engined car you can do anything with. Go in quickly, get mild, stabilising understeer. Feather the throttle, balance it and shoot through the apex. Or head off into bigger, lairier drifts than a mid-engined car has any right to. It’s not just the playable balance that makes it so special, but the wide-armed semaphore of information coming up through the chassis and the utterly delicious steering.

  11. Sure, on the road, I’d want more electronic protection than the Noble offers, and I think the styling’s a bit homely. I was probably faster round the track in the McLaren, because it had more traction and faster gearshifts and was more stable in my inexpert hands. But, oh man, every time I got out of that Noble, I was buzzing, sweating and cackling out loud.

  12. So, the evening track curfew arrives, and the supercars sit ticking away, wafting wonderfully acrid mechanical pheromones. As I stare at them, mildly stunned from the day’s action, the rising heat from their engine bays shimmers the golden rays into the same mildly dreamlike state as my recollections. It’s been a day lost in supercar nirvana.

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