First stop: the white cliffs of... Saint-JouinBruneval.

Top Gear (Malaysia) - - Speed Week 2018 -

No sign of an oiseau bleu, but here they are, just as im­pres­sively dra­matic and im­pos­ing as those on the other side of the Chan­nel. Stands to rea­son, when you think about it.

Let’s call this the trip of home com­forts. White cliffs, fol­lowed by Le Mans, the lat­ter a path trod­den by some 100,000 Bri­tish race-go­ers ev­ery year. Even some of the péages are set up for right-hook­ers. A southerly leapfrog that will put us at Cir­cuit de Cha­rade to­mor­row evening.

“You know the bruises you get from kart­ing?” says Andy Franklin, ten­derly un­wind­ing him­self from the Ex­ige at the base of the cliffs, “I’ve got the same rib pain right now.” “I’m just glad we’re in France,” re­torts Owen Nor­ris, “on that last stretch of the M20 down to the Euro­tun­nel, the sur­face was so rough I could feel the con­tact lenses vi­brat­ing on my eyes. I’m not sure I want that much feed­back.”

Monk-like in their ap­proach to crea­ture com­forts, both the Lo­tus Ex­ige Cup 430 and McLaren 600LT have self-flag­el­lated the weight away. The McLaren has no air­con (sav­ing 12.6kg) and ‘ben­e­fits’ from the Senna’s op­tional 8kg light­weight seats. The Lo­tus un­der­stands the con­cept of pad­ding and cool­ing, but ap­proaches it with a wari­ness borne of seven decades of kilo-shed­ding.

While my col­leagues per­form their dad­danc­ing stretch-and-lunge rou­tines in a bid to stave off cramp, I sur­rep­ti­tiously con­grat­u­late my­self on se­lect­ing the As­ton Martin Van­tage for the first 250 miles of this trip. I had plumply bol­stered seats, vents ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing an arc­tic gale, se­lectable tunes, some ac­tual rear vis­i­bil­ity that wasn’t just wires and the top of a su­per­charger, and Places To Put Things.

Now, plen­ti­ful stowage is hardly the plat­form on which Speed Week is con­structed, but we do these drive downs for a rea­son. Each of these cars has num­ber­plates, head­lights and knows its way around the Euro VI emis­sions leg­is­la­tion. They are road cars. Even the hard­est-cored track­a­holic will be do­ing more road than track miles in their Ex­ige. Same goes for the 488 Pista that Jack Rix is nos­ing through Maranello, and the 691bhp 911 GT2 RS Ol­lie Kew is saun­ter­ing over the Swiss Alps in. Road cars, one and all (yes, even the Dal­lara Stradale). And right now, they’re all do­ing road-car things. Do­ing them a bit faster in the case of Char­lie Turner in the Bu­gatti Ch­i­ron, but that’s his speed­ing ticket.

Back to the north French coast. I’d taken pity on Owen about an hour be­fore we swept down this re­mark­able road cut into the chalk cliffs, and switched my­self into the 600LT. Driv­ing it on a sunny au­toroute boils

(apt word) down to a choice be­tween Björk and Glo­ria Gaynor. Win­dows up: It’s Oh So Quiet, or win­dows down: I Will Sur­vive.

The mu­sic ref­er­ences came to me be­cause I had to make my own en­ter­tain­ment. The McLaren has USB slots, but none of them link phone to stereo. Nor, help­fully, do they in­sert much charge into your phone – at least not if you’ve got a nav­i­ga­tion app run­ning. Which you have to, be­cause this LT isn’t equipped with that, ei­ther. Still, nice of McLaren to in­clude sweat chan­nels be­tween the seat pads.

Dy­nam­ics-wise, the 600LT fares bet­ter. The taut dampers (this is a

Sport Se­ries car, so does with­out the cross-linked hy­draulics and mov­able aero of the Su­per Se­ries cars) don’t get too much of a workout from smooth French au­toroutes, and, boy, does it move well. One slip road is all it takes to ap­pre­ci­ate the steer­ing, the im­me­di­acy, the con­trol at work here.

As a coun­ter­point, I bor­row the Ex­ige for a cou­ple of turns up and down this road. In the past, McLaren has men­tioned want­ing to ‘own’ steer­ing feel, but Lo­tus ain’t ready to give it up just yet. The 600LT is the bet­ter fil­ter, but it doesn’t bub­ble with feel or writhe in your hands like the Lo­tus. It doesn’t give you ev­ery­thing. The Lo­tus does. Kind of ex­pected that, though, so the big sur­prise is the en­gine, not just the lag-free su­per­charger, but the bloody noise – beyond 4,500rpm this thing howls, a bale­ful, con­cen­trated, pen­e­trat­ing sound that has two ef­fects on my psy­che: it makes me want to rag it sense­less on track, but not want any part of it be­tween here and there.

Sorry, Owen, but I reckon Andy has had the tougher time of it so far. The Lo­tus is prop­erly cramped, it’s largely im­pos­si­ble to coax any­thing bar static from the stereo, and while the LT’s seats de­liver a painful thigh scrape ev­ery time you en­ter or exit, that’s bet­ter than the smacked skulls, bashed shins, con­tor­tion cramps and bruised coc­cyx the Lo­tus driver con­tends with. En­try and egress is par­tic­u­larly in­el­e­gant.

“The Lo­tus’s big sur­prise is the bloody noise – beyond 4,500rpm this thing howls”

And ev­ery time you stum­ble out, there are peo­ple watch­ing. Un­less you’re driv­ing the fourth mem­ber of our Brit pack. The Fiesta ST doesn’t re­ally fit in. So tall did it look be­hind the Ex­ige that at one point I won­dered how a Kuga had snuck into our con­voy. But it’s just so happy to be part of it all. That’s the thing with the Fiesta – it’s like a Wee­ble: you can knock it all you like, but it al­ways pops back up.

It sees no dis­ad­van­tage in only hav­ing a 1.5-litre three-cylin­der mo­tor; in­stead, it con­cen­trates on mak­ing the most of it. Where the oth­ers get to use one gear af­ter each round­about, the Fiesta in­dulges three, each ac­com­pa­nied by this won­der­fully parpy noise and punc­tu­ated by a hastily thrown gearchange. It’s just fun. The front diff of this £850 Per­for­mance Pack-equipped car is tena­cious, and the seats hug al­most too tight. It’s sim­ply an ex­u­ber­ant car that has fun do­ing, well, ev­ery­thing. You can’t keep it down... can barely keep a lid on it, in fact. In com­par­i­son, the oth­ers seem to take them­selves too se­ri­ously.

We come to this con­clu­sion while sit­ting out­side La Frite d’Or, tuck­ing into cod so fresh there was no time to bat­ter it and watch­ing the orange sun sink over peb­bly beach and blue sea.

We might not have moun­tains on this route, but, right now, life for this gang of Brits is plain idyl­lic.

“How far is it to Le Mans?” I ask lazily as we sag back, bel­lies con­tent. “’Bout an hour I think,” comes the re­ply. “Hang on, let me check.”

The alarm that ac­com­pa­nied the re­al­i­sa­tion that if the sun has set, time has moved on, and that Le Mans is three times fur­ther south than an­tic­i­pated and we won’t be there un­til past mid­night ac­counts for what hap­pens next. We dash for the cars. If I’m hon­est, it’s less Le Mans start than a pan­icky, paunchy, gig­gling tum­ble of mid­dle-aged men. Some­how I end up lead­ing/nav­i­gat­ing in the Lo­tus, a role to which it is hope­lessly ill-suited. Nowhere to wedge the phone, so at ev­ery round­about it winds up in the footwell. Or un­der the seat. Or among the gear link­ages.

In turn, this means I fail to re­alise how dry the fuel tank is, so we end up per­suad­ing a chap jet-wash­ing his gar­den fur­ni­ture on the out­skirts of Le Havre to re­open his pumps. My heart rate doesn’t set­tle un­til we reach the A28, where the Lo­tus adopts a self-en­forced slow cruise – the head­lights are rub­bish.

Some sleep hap­pens, and then there’s Le Mans: dawn at In­di­anapo­lis, cof­fee at the Au­berge des Hu­naudières. It’s evoca­tive but busy. Only on the run through the woods from Mul­sanne to In­di­anapo­lis do I get much sense of what it must be like to race here. It prob­a­bly helps that I’m in the As­ton. The Ex­ige may be the most race-like of these four, but the Van­tage is the one I can imag­ine pil­ing through here in. It’s the sense of history, the bel­low­ing twin-turbo V8, the view out over the long bon­net, images of DBR9s play­ing through my head.

It’s not just Le Mans – there’s some­thing about driv­ing this As­ton through France. The badge, the sense of oc­ca­sion, the knowl­edge you have a long way to go but the right tool for the job, the sat­is­fac­tion of just knuck­ling down to it. I re­cline the seat, lay my el­bows, en­gage cruise, rest fin­ger­tips on quar­tic steer­ing wheel and just go. Tours, Bourges and Montluçon tick by metro­nom­i­cally, 250 miles swept aside in a classy dash. Road noise apart, it does the GT thing with a con­trolled, calm dis­play. I find it rest­ful.

The roads ap­proach­ing Cir­cuit de Cha­rade are any­thing but, and the Van­tage snaps to at­ten­tion far faster than its driver. Turn the steer­ing and you feel both front and rear axles en­gage with the cor­ner im­me­di­ately. The Van­tage takes up an edge, carv­ing crisply. The weight is well sup­ported. Com­pared with the Lo­tus and 600LT you sit high and there’s lit­tle steer­ing feel, so it’s not an im­me­di­ately im­pres­sive car. But it gets un­der your skin – a pre­cise, crisp-han­dling, well-bal­anced, ath­letic car.

It’s con­fi­dent, the new Van­tage, and it’s not alone in that. All four Brits have that same trait, all four go about their busi­ness with a cer­tain swag­ger, a knowl­edge they’re good at what they do. Should stand them in good stead for what comes next.

“It’s less Le Mans start than a pan­icky, paunchy, gig­gling tum­ble of mid­dle-aged men”

Fas­ci­nat­ing fact: the McLaren’s red up­hol­stery was mod­elledon Ol­lie’s sum­mer skin tone

Un­sure if the French drive on the right or left, Team TG de­cides to hedge its bets

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