Two Ital­ian thor­ough­breds and one of Europe’s most jaw-drop­ping roads. Here’s to tak­ing the long way around

Top Gear (UK) - - TEAM ITALY - WORDS: JACK RIX / PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: MARK RICCIONI

There are sev­eral boxes in the cor­ner of my at­tic con­tain­ing more model cars than any 34-year old should ad­mit to own­ing, con­signed to their dusty fate long ago by a wife with a mean eye for in­te­rior de­sign. Just one has slipped through the net and sits de­fi­antly on my desk – a Rosso Corsa 355 Spider – a teenage crush from 20 years ago that’s proved im­pos­si­ble to shake. So you’ll un­der­stand why, as we pick our way through Maranello and pull up at the fac­tory gates to col­lect the new­est, fastest and strip­i­est stan­dard-se­ries mid-en­gined Fer­rari ever, I’m re­gress­ing fast to my 14-year-old self. Such is my state of height­ened ex­cite­ment, I for­get

I’m driv­ing the en­emy – cue fur­rowed brows and firm in­struc­tions to park the Urus be­hind a bush.

We’re led into a room and spared a drub­bing but sub­jected to some­thing far more in­tense – a lec­ture on the Pista’s en­gi­neer­ing in such gran­u­lar de­tail that Adrian Newey would strug­gle to keep up, let alone a jour­nal­ist with only a loose grasp of long di­vi­sion, and who’s been awake since 4am. Thank you, in­dus­trial-strength Ital­ian espresso... of which more will be re­quired. Be­cause rather than tak­ing the safe, eight-hour straight shot from Maranello to Cler­mont-Fer­rand to de­liver two key cars to the Speed Week pit­lane, we’re dou­bling that, split­ting the trip into two seven-hour schleps and cram­ming a visit to the Ver­don Gorge into the mid­dle – a place, I’m told, with views to die for and roads to die on. My plan is to take a stint in the Fer­rari first, then when my ears and body can take no more, I’ll slip into the Urus with a cof­fee and a pod­cast for the fi­nal push. What can I say? I’m a team player.

Rolling out of the fac­tory gates, a bank of tourists get the shot they’ve been wait­ing for, but as we fil­ter into the grid­lock, it’s the Lambo that’s get­ting all the at­ten­tion. Per­haps it’s be­cause Fer­raris are ten a penny around these parts; more likely it’s be­cause the Urus is some­thing new and al­to­gether more chal­leng­ing – a su­per­car com­pany tak­ing a brave pill and fo­cus­ing on ex­pan­sion curves, not corner­ing speeds. It’s an un­fair com­par­i­son with the 488, of course, but if we want to know whether the Urus re­ally has the soul of a su­per­car, driv­ing one cheek to jowl with the Pista has to be an ef­fec­tive way of fil­ter­ing the sen­sa­tions, and fo­cus­ing in on the ones that mat­ter.

Al­ready the sen­sa­tions are com­ing thick and fast in the Fer­rari. The in­te­rior is stripped of its car­pets, glove box and door pock­ets, the seats are firm and deeply sculpted and the har­nesses are a faff, but it’s far from sadis­tic. I’ve got a USB socket here for my phone (lucky, as the sat­nav has been deleted), a de­cent view out, some­where to put my drink and, with the manet­tino in Sport and Bumpy Road mode en­gaged, we’re whip­ping along in rel­a­tive com­fort. Decades ago, I re­mem­ber be­ing shocked driv­ing my first Fer­rari, a well-used 360 Mo­dena, at how it felt one click away from a race car – stiff, wide, low, noisy as hell and al­ways on high alert. This still has that edge, but the for­mula has well and truly ma­tured. Purists may pre­fer an engine that’s con­stantly wail­ing and sus­pen­sion with a dis­like for your spine, but right now it’s a wel­come de­vel­op­ment.

As we skirt Genoa and start trac­ing the coast, we find tun­nels – per­fect for a lit­tle band prac­tice. The Urus is a cu­ri­ous one: crack­les and pops are the gar­nish but the meat is harder to de­fine. At times, its 600bhp 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8 is a chugging, vi­brato replica of AMG’s finest, then, when re­ally stretched, a slight rasp… all in all, noth­ing spe­cial. The Pista beats it for vol­ume, but it’s still not a sound wor­thy of goose­bumps – a gut­tural whooshy whump that does crescendo and harden, but by that point you’re more wor­ried about keep­ing 710bhp of an­gry twin-turbo V8 point­ing in the right di­rec­tion, and won­der­ing why your face is on the wrong way around. In both cars, ac­ces­si­ble speed takes prece­dence over sound.

Three hours down, 300km driven. Time for a swap, be­cause de­spite prais­ing the Pista’s ci­vil­ity, my bot­tom has lost all sen­sa­tion and my lower back is start­ing to scream. Clim­ing into the Urus’s more ac­com­mo­dat­ing arm­chairs is a bit like slip­ping into bed – a thought I’m keen to ban­ish, given there’s still three hours un­til our ho­tel for the night. I needn’t have wor­ried, or pur­chased quite so much Red Bull, be­cause the mo­ment we turn off the coast to­wards Grasse, the roads are enough to keep us fully caf­feinated.

We join the Route Napoleon around mid­night with only our own head­lights to fol­low, but it’s im­pos­si­ble not to throw our con­voy around the con­stantly mor­ph­ing to­pog­ra­phy – nar­row and acute one minute, flow­ing and faster-than-you-think the next. And the Urus just soaks it up, stays res­o­lutely stuck to the road and makes the Fer­rari work twice as hard to keep up. And then we ar­rive, with no sense of the precipice we’ve just driven along, at Hô­tel le Panoramique. It’s 1am. We park up and the Fer­rari’s alarm goes off for no ob­vi­ous rea­son, wak­ing up the en­tire ho­tel. Ut­ter diva.

We’re up be­fore sun­rise and po­si­tion our­selves high on the Route des Crètes – a tourist loop that en­cir­cles the gorge, to catch it in full sun­rise splen­dour. Slowly, the sky opens its eye­lids, re­veal­ing what we’d beasted our­selves to come and wit­ness. Yep, worth it: moun­tains wrapped in mist, a gorge plum­met­ing down to the most per­fect turquoise river be­low and two cars itch­ing to be used prop­erly af­ter our monk-like re­straint on the mo­tor­way. Shame, be­cause this isn’t the place for any driv­ing hero­ics. Sure, there are flat­ter, wider sec­tions where we open them up, briefly, but it’s still a trailer for what’s to come – a gen­tle shake­down against na­ture’s most dra­matic back­drop, be­fore prob­ing the lim­its prop­erly on track.

On the slimmest, gnarli­est sec­tions, it’s a game of sur­vival – stay­ing far enough away from the rock face to keep the paintjob in­tact, but close enough to let other traf­fic steam past, obliv­i­ous to the fact that these two Ital­ians are in­sured for a com­bined half a mil­lion quid. At one point, we tip­toe through a tun­nel, only to meet a coach com­ing in the op­po­site di­rec­tion. The driver points and bursts into un­con­trol­lable laugh­ter, then gets on the tan­noy and en­cour­ages his pas­sen­gers to do the same. Bit un­fair, I think to my­self, be­fore re­vers­ing 250m blind, back through a dark tun­nel. At which point I sug­gest that per­haps it’s time to start mak­ing a dent in our sec­ond seven-hour can­non­ball run to the TopGear gîte.

This time, when the sat­nav tells us we’ve got 553km to cover, the sighs aren’t quite so au­di­ble. Be­cause while nei­ther is a moun­tain goat, we know even the Fer­rari can do a pass­able im­pres­sion of a GT. The Urus has crushed the de­liv­ery run as ex­pected, but it’s the Fer­rari that has sur­passed its brief. To­mor­row we’ll see their true colours…

FER­RARI 488 PISTA | LAM­BORGH­INI URUS

2.2-tonne Lambo wisely lets fly­weight Fer­rari cross the an­cient bridge first

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