UP AND ATOM
We enjoy Aerial antics with ‘The Stig’ in ultimate pocket rocket
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.