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Top Gear mag's greatest cars - hypercars

At the very edge of human understanding sit a group of cars for which “super” doesn’t cut it

  1. For Top Gear magazine’s 300th issue, we celebrated the best 50 cars over 299 issues: here’s our pick of the best hypercars

    Legendary automotive writer LJK Setright – who once filed a column in Latin – is the man credited with coining the term “supercar”. He was writing about the Lamborghini Miura in 1966, the first road car to go mid-engined, prompting Enzo Those numbers have been firmly eclipsed by plenty of others since, but if that bothers you, you’re looking in the wrong place: the F1 weighs 1,138kg, and if the last 23 years and 300 issues of TG have taught us anything, it’s that our priorities have become confused. There’s nothing confusing about the F1’s power-to-weight ratio of 550bhp-per-tonne.

     

    The F1 was never meant to race, but it won Le Mans, very convincingly, in 1995. It also stood for so much more than its top speed, but in 1998 racing driver Andy Wallace set a new production-car world record of 240mph. I spent two unforgettable days with Wallace and an F1 last year, courtesy of owner Simon Kidston, solidifying my opinion that this isn’t just the greatest hypercar of all, it’s the best car full-stop, the one I’d sell my kidneys and maybe even my family to own. Why? Because, as much as it pains me Ferrari’s famous barb: “The ox pulls the cart, it doesn’t push it.” Il Commendatore would change his mind soon enough.

    At what point did the “supercar” make the species jump to “hypercar”? When the McLaren F1 arrived. It’s said that Gordon Murray and Ron Dennis began hatching plans for their road car in the departure lounge of Milan’s Linate airport following the 1988 Italian Grand Prix – ironically, the only race McLaren didn’t win that season. It arrived four years later, in May 1992, but the media wouldn’t drive it until 1994. If Gordon Murray is the greatest racing and automotive engineer of the modern era, then this is what the inside of his head looks like. Only not in the ways you might automatically assume: yes, Murray was – still is – obsessive about weight, but he also appreciated the usability of Honda’s then-new NSX, he loved music (big Bob Dylan fan) so the audio system was a corker, and the driver sat centrally (so no pedal offset to worry about or visibility issues), passengers set back either side, in a car that had a compact footprint. Only Alec Issigonis’s original Mini is more cleverly packaged. Of course, the F1 also had a carbon-fibre chassis. The engine, designed by BMW Motorsport’s Paul Rosche, remains one of the very greatest ever made: a 6.1-litre, quad-cam, 48-valve, 60° V12, that produced 627bhp at 7,400rpm, and 479 torques between 4,000–7,000rpm.to say it, this is Peak Automobile. We’ve been in reverse ever since.

  2. The F1, famously, has no power steering, no servo on its brakes, no anti-lock, and certainly no traction control, forced induction, or flappy paddle ’box. It pre-dates ESP, airbags, and it’s true that many have been crashed. I drove it in the wet, and I wouldn’t choose to do so again. Wallace says its high-speed aero performance is “interesting” (something to do with unexpected vortices at 230mph – can’t say I noticed), but in every other respect, the F1 feels entirely modern. Almost futuristic, in fact. (Elon Musk bought one when PayPal paid out for him.) Those who work on these cars – it could be done from Woking via a modem in the early days, and the old DOS laptops that ran the diagnostics have only just been updated – will tell you chassis set-up is a tricky process. Those who own them will confirm it’s also cripplingly expensive.

    Murray’s engineering genius nevertheless ensures timelessness. It rolls more than a 2017-spec hypercar, but rides beautifully. The controls, unassisted or not, are perfectly weighted. The driving position and interior ergonomics are flawless. And when you go for it… My God. There is almost no sense of mass, minimal inertia. The engine has its roots in BMW’s Eighties F1 masterpieces, and it feels like it’s mainlining all that history. The gearbox can be tricky, but you get used to it. The centrally mounted rev-counter is the only dial you watch, and pretty soon you’ll be going faster than you can think in a way utterly unlike any other car, ever.

    Even the Bugatti Veyron. We had one of those along for the ride, too. Actually, the best thing about the Veyron is that it, too, feels like no other. Bugatti’s achievement is no less than McLaren’s, just different in feel and flavour. But it’s much heavier. I’ve done more than 200mph in the Veyron, but it’s how it behaves at 20mph that’s just as impressive. The way it pulses and whirs and whooshes when you prod the 8.0-litre, 16-cylinder, quad-turbo engine into life has something of Frankenstein’s monster about it. You can picture the process in your head, and it’s an awesome thing to be part of. At no point does a Veyron sound as charismatic as an F1 – or the Porsche 918, Pagani Zonda, and certainly not a V12 Ferrari – but it certainly sounds impressive. VW’s best people made this car work, Michelin made its tyres work, they gave it the repeatability of a Polo in all the extremes a Polo has to operate in, and then they made it capable of 268mph. Incredible.

  3. People with the money to back up their instincts are buying early Veyrons. McLaren F1s dropped to around £400k in the late Nineties, and they’re now worth £6m–8m. (It’s the new Ferrari 250 GTO, and that’s a £40m car.) The Veyron is tipped to be the fin de siècle symbol, the last non-hybridised hypercar (to think, we used to be sniffy about turbos). Perhaps Pagani’s Zonda might acquire that sort of status, too; after all, Pagani will surely be rolling out a one-off Zonda Revelation even as the four horsemen of the apocalypse are raining hellfire down on Modena. Pagani deserves its place here because this wonderfully idiosyncratic carmaker didn’t exist back in 1993 and now it does. It also hasn’t gone bust yet. I’ve driven the Zonda F, the Zonda LM, and a Huayra, and had scary moments in all three. So they do still make them like they used to.

    The LaFerrari and Porsche 918 Spyder are where we’re at right now. These are extraordinary pieces of engineering from the two companies who have elevated us more often and more consistently than anyone else since TG arrived in November 1993. So to say we’ve been stuck in reverse since the McLaren F1 isn’t fair: Ferrari’s Hy-KERS system is a fully integrated part of the LaFerrari overload – “torque shaping”, they called it – while there’s no denying that driving the 918 on e-power alone is a key part of the Porsche blitzkrieg. So, so clever, these two. And the McLaren P1. I just can’t help wondering what their analogue equivalents would be like, shorn of the extra weight the e-gubbins entails (918 RS, P1 LT or LaFerrari Speciale, anyone?) And, as the technology vaults forward, whether the three of them are going to be left looking like hypercar v2.0, at the far end of the world’s most exotic cul-de-sac. Or perhaps anything still powered by internal combustion will automatically be deemed a renegade. We’ll find out in 2040.

  4. McLaren F1

    WHAT WE SAID THEN
    Perhaps the most impressive part is the engine. It just goes on accelerating, accelerating and accelerating

    WHAT WE SAY NOW
    The brakes can be interesting and the handling lively, but the engine is unlike anything else. Headline power figures may have grown since 1994, but in terms of raw thrills it remains unsurpassed

  5. Pagani Zonda

    WHAT WE SAID THEN
    You thunder along on a tsunami of sound, simply not believing what the speedo is reading

    WHAT WE SAY NOW
    Nothing comes close in terms of detailing – a sculpture in carbon fibre. A Huayra is fast, but loses the buzz and immediacy that make the Zonda so enthralling

  6. Ferrari LaFerrari

    WHAT WE SAID THEN
    The genius of Ferrari’s creation is its simplicity. The LaFerrari’s cloaked electronics mean it is more natural on the road, and the chassis is sweet as honey

    WHAT WE SAY NOW
    No EV mode, no plugs or cords to fumble with, the LaFerrari takes fuel-saving tech and turns it into V12-enhanced savagery. Its 950bhp demands respect, but its performance is approachable

  7. Porsche 918 Spyder

    WHAT WE SAID THEN
    The 918 is the car with the biggest difference between Race mode and “all off”: switch off all the electronic minders, and the fastest Porsche becomes tricky. Leave them on and you’ll be gasping

    WHAT WE SAY NOW
    These days a Huracán Performante is quicker around the Nürburgring, but we don’t care. The wall of torque, the grip, that race-derived V8…

  8. Bugatti Veyron

    WHAT WE SAID THEN
    Nothing can prepare you for the shock of the acceleration when you open the throttle and unleash nearly 1,000bhp and 923lb ft of torque 

    WHAT WE SAY NOW
    Given the Chiron has 50 per cent more power, the Veyron’s kick isn’t so startling, but its ability to gel 250+mph performance with ease of use is monumental

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