UP AND ATOM

We en­joy Aerial an­tics with ‘The Stig’ in ul­ti­mate pocket rocket

Daily Star Sunday - - NO LIMITS -

FULL dis­clo­sure time, as they say in the States…

The ti­tle’s rather un­for­tu­nate given re­cent events in Ve­gas, but go and see the new block­buster Amer­i­can As­sas­sin (out now).

It’s an all-ac­tion thriller with plenty of car stuff thrown in. What’s not to like?

There, that’s the gra­tu­itous plug out of the way. On the back of the film’s pub­lic­ity gravy train, I got to spend a pretty amaz­ing day at Bed­ford Au­to­drome, a series of race cir­cuit lay­outs, pur­pose-built for cor­po­rate track days, driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ences and gen­eral hooning about.

We were in the com­pany of the orig­i­nal Stig (rac­ing driver Ben Collins) who acted as stunt driver in said film.

But never mind all that. The day al­lowed me to try out the best car I’ve driven for, ooooohh, I don’t know, the past five years maybe?

It’s a very per­sonal thing, a best car. I get asked the ques­tion all the time and re­ally strug­gle to an­swer.

De­pends how I feel. My favourite of all time on a par­tic­u­lar day might dif­fer de­pend­ing on the lu­nar cy­cle, the pre­vail­ing wind and that even­ing’s TV view­ing. But I al­ways love a car that chats to you. By “chat­ting” I don’t mean sat­nav, I mean some­thing far more vis­ceral, more ba­sic, where ev­ery sinew of your body knows what the car is do­ing, what it’s done and what it’s about to do.

Chas­sis bal­ance – that’s what I mean. To achieve this, a lack of weight is cru­cial, so too is an engine be­tween the rear wheels (or ahead of them) and a weight distri­bu­tion (with the driver in place) of 50/50 front to back. A low cen­tre of grav­ity helps, too. Yes, like an Ariel Atom – a men­tal two-litre Honda VTEC engine mid­mounted in a light­weight, steel-tube space­frame chas­sis.

It’s got out­board, can­tilevered coil-over dampers, ad­justable brake bias and a seat pan so low you’d swear your cheeks chafed the tarmac.

It was ab­so­lutely pissing it down at Bed­ford when my turn in the Atom ar­rived. Stair rods. Stand­ing wa­ter, deep pud­dles.

But no mat­ter.

Even with an in­struc­tor/pas­sen­ger who must have had gills be­cause his shouty, deaf­en­ing and mas­sively dis­tract­ing com­mands re­quired no breath in­takes, I had a ball. His hel­met in­ter­com ear­piece didn’t work. If it had, he’d have heard me telling him to STFU.

The Atom cre­ates grip from nowhere. De­spite its fat tyres and on a flooded track more suited to the Ark than the Atom, brak­ing zones and peelin points were re­warded with an eye­browrais­ing level of grip that would hum­ble most road cars in the bone dry.

But it’s the way the ac­cel­er­a­tor pedal lets you steer that is the real joy. Lift off as you peel into a cor­ner and the nose points tighter into the turn. Stamp harder on the gas as the cor­ner opens out and the tail hangs out, re­quir­ing tiny in­puts of op­po­site lock on the high-geared steer­ing rack to main­tain the smooth arc to­wards the track’s edges on the exit.

It’s like the Atom is an ex­ten­sion of your body – an ex­tra limb, part of your back. It’s weird to be able to jump into a car in such chal­leng­ing con­di­tions and push hard from the get-go like you’ve owned it for 12 months.

I still spun it, though. Big­gie. On my penul­ti­mate lap – chas­ing a time – my am­bi­tion out­stripped my tal­ent and the back whipped round at around 90mph, send­ing us into a mud-spray­ing spin on to the in­field. Noth­ing to hit, thank­fully.

But 15 min­utes wasn’t enough. Don’t get me wrong – Cater­hams are ut­terly fan­tas­tic, Rad­i­cals are even bet­ter (down­force and a Suzuki Hayabusa engine) – but an Aerial Atom with a Honda VTEC engine is pretty close to per­fec­tion for me.

Want, want, want, want.

Oh, and if you’re stuck for a gift idea, an Atom driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence can be had for any­where be­tween £60 and £150.

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