THRASHING SIX DOWN TO TWO
‘IF THE NÜRBURGRING is number one, Circuit de Charade is number two,’ says Jackie Stewart, who won at Charade in 1969 and ’72. ‘It’s difficult to learn, some corners are very similar, there are fast corners, slow corners, steep downhill and uphill sections. You cannot make a mistake: there’s no run-off and just off-track there was black stone, razor sharp. I remember seeing Helmut Marko in hospital after he was hit and lost an eye.’
The rocks are gone now, the Clermont-Ferrand circuit shortened to 2.47 miles from the five Stewart raced, but it’s still a fearsome place: cut into a volcanic landscape that makes you wheeze just walking over it, narrow at nine metres wide, and with elevation that plunges by up to 100 metres and punishes shortfalls in braking and stability.
We arrive as sunrise glows orange over deserted grandstands. The McLaren Senna’s dihedral doors are up in a Karate Kid stance, the GT2 RS rumbles with its jackhammer idle, the Ferrari 488 Pista barks and rattles the floor. There’s an Aston Vantage, a BMW M2… but both James Taylor and I are eager to acclimatise in the Alpine A110. The lightest, smallest, least powerful car at Sports Car Giant Test 2018, it’s a sensible way to ease in to a circuit this serious.
James goes out first, strings together some neat-looking laps and pits with a huge grin that says it all. He loves Charade’s camber, the elevation, the commitment demanded, and he’s properly clicked with the A110 already. ‘It was one-dimensional on the road, lots of steady mild understeer,’ he says. ‘It’s so much more adjustable on track.’ He chucks me the keys, then rumbles off in the Aston Vantage.
The Alpine’s driving position is pure recumbent bike. You sit towards the rear of the chassis, low in bucket seats with fixed backs, generous padding on the base, even on the headrest too. The dimensions are so compact it feels you could touch each extremity – the Alpine is 20cm shorter than a Cayman. Try not to think of that Porsche when eyeing the cheap plastics, infotainment by Mr Rubik, or realise that the front and rear boots are more croque-monsieur pockets than luggage compartments. Besides, there’s aluminium double wishbones both ends, a bespoke chassis, weight pared to 1100kg.
Drive moderately quickly and you’re struck by the bassy gurgle of the turbo four, a Toyota GT86 with more character and poke, off-throttle crackles like gunpowder tossed at a Bunsen burner.
Quickly you sense this is a nimble, quick-witted machine of sublime delicacy. The electrically assisted steering does have an artificially smooth feel, but it telegraphs tremors from the 205-section Michelin Pilot Sport fronts as they seem to swell and balloon towards their limits. The nose darts eagerly in the direction of every steering movement, the suspension soaks up kerbs just like it glosses over imperfections on the road, but the relatively soft springs and mid-engined layout translate to bodyroll and mass gathering over the outside rear wheel on corner-entry, pooling just below your hips; nothing untoward, but an early indication there’ll be weight transfer to manage. As you pile in to corners leaning hard on excellent four-piston brakes, a twist of steering initiates the weight transfer that brings into play the oversteer and throttle adjustability that defines this car, despite a modest 248bhp.
Soon all stability systems are off, and I’m tapping out tunes on the accelerator like improv jazz, using momentum to loosen the rear and position the car for each corner, then riding slides on the power. I couldn’t be working harder – or having more fun.
After three hard laps, only the fuzzy dual-clutch shifts earn a black mark, then power suddenly bleeds away, and I click at the paddles like Verstappen cursing a Renault powertrain failure, coasting to a parking spot. An electrical problem stops play.4
THE GT2 RS COULD PROBABLY BLUFF ITS WAY ONTO A LE MANS GRID
I give James the international distress signal, and he selflessly stands on the Aston’s brakes and pops open the passenger door to shuttle me back to the pits. Despite the Alpine’s DNF, we’re agreed it’s sensational when fully operational, and note the significance of a car costing a fraction of a supercar feeling fast and exciting on officially the world’s second best racetrack. That it’d be so much lighter on fuel and consumables is another plus.
Several laps in, James says he’s warming to the Vantage too. The damping, he says, is particularly impressive – he’s got the thing nailed in Track where I’ll later lean towards the extra compliance of Sport Plus, but both work here. I hang in my seatbelt when he stands on the brakes, vicariously feeling the body control and lateral grip as we roll through a left-right flick, the Vantage riding the track’s curls of positive camber like we’re on a bobsleigh run. By the time we get back to the pits, I’m itching for my turn behind the wheel.
You’ll probably remember this car is a big deal – Aston’s entry-level model, its first all-new Vantage since 2005. The bonded aluminium platform and double-wishbone front/multi-link rear suspension is derived form the larger DB11, the V8 shared with the least expensive DB11 too, but the brief is to play the aggressive sports car to the DB’s loungier GT.
The soundtrack is pure theatre: a deep, cultured burble in Sport, public-school puberty in Sport Plus, and the full vindaloo in raucous Track. There’s a fraction of lag and you need 2400rpm to really get motoring, but mostly the power feels instant and relentless, blending a keenness to rev out with a torque-rich delivery that keeps on giving like Geldof. The sensation of constant acceleration is emphasised by the auto ’box’s shifts that punch much more cleanly than a DB11’s.
On the press launch at the Portimao racetrack, I remember being deeply impressed by the Vantage on nearby twisting roads but irritated by a lateral bobbing that amplified on some of the long, fast corners at the track. We found the same at Rockingham in the summer. But when I tackle Charade’s often quicker flicks of direction, that feeling is nowhere near as pronounced. But at 1630kg the Aston weighs 500kg more than the Alpine and comes in as the heaviest car here. Naturally it’s a more hulking thing to hustle, and even though that twin-turbo V8 is snug behind the front axle, there’s understeer to manage as you chuck it at a corner. Cool your jets on corner-entry, accelerate when the nose is settled and you’ll find surprisingly good traction balanced with mild oversteer – a sweeter, more manageable balance than the over-cautious ESP Track mode allows, actually.
Fast-paced steering helps shrug off kilos – chunkily welldefined at top-dead centre, its speed quickly ramps up with just a few degrees of lock. I repeatedly take a few nibbles at the steering4
through a single corner, suggesting the ratio is perhaps not as intuitive as it could be, but it’s good.
On the road, the damping of the Vantage can feel a little tight at low speeds even in its softest setting, and James and I both comment on the early brake travel being a bit fussy to modulate, but the stutters smooth with speed, and it’s clear the Vantage makes a better road car than track car as it rips with eager poise and abundant performance over roads that coil like carelessly fired party streamers. Seeing as that’s where most will spend their time, this is important.
That it wears a tux while the others favour Nomex is another consideration: the Vantage has the most sophisticated styling of this test. Shame the interior isn’t as convincing – scattergun buttons and some cheap looking garnish fall below expectation.
For stark contrasts, look no further than the Aston and the Porsche 911 GT2 RS. The latter’s a car that could bluff its way onto a Le Mans grid – and then put in a decent showing. Surely owners of a car so focused would accept sacrifices, and yet there’s alcantara and leather, touchscreen infotainment, solidity and luxury in equal measure. The seats are beautiful carbonfibre-backed buckets that drop you low in the bodyshell and embrace you snugly, yet are still comfortable for motorway stints. Even the titanium rollcage in our Weissach-spec car somehow gels with the upscale appointments.
But underneath, it’s very much a racer for the road. Essentially, it takes the GT3 RS – the Porsche road car most comparable to its Le Mans racers – with its ultra-wide bodyshell, then firms up the spring rates a little and swaps the naturally-aspirated 4.0-litre flat-six for a tuned 3.8-litre Turbo engine. It thumps out 690bhp and 553lb ft (GT3 RS: 513bhp and 347lb ft!) helping it to a bonkers 6min 47sec lap of the Nürburgring. That’s supercar territory… and only £23k off Ferrari Pista money at £229k.
I take the GT2 RS on the road loop and I’m not quite convinced: the ride is super-compliant for a car so hardcore, the steering and chassis sweetly communicative, but I don’t think there’s quite the delicacy of a GT3 RS, and a nagging sense that you’re only dipping into the GT2 RS’s vast reverses of power.
But on track it’s sensational. You need mid-threes on the rev counter for the variable-geometry turbos to kick, but it’s not laggy like a McLaren engine down low, still tractable and malleable, and with full boost it just hunkers over its rear axle and fireworks down the track, PDK gearbox popping in changes. It doesn’t sear like a naturally-aspirated GT3 – peak power comes at 7000rpm, not the GT3 RS’s 8250rpm, and more tellingly peak torque at 2500rpm not 6000rpm – and the soundtrack is pure Swedish death metal – machine-gun drums and parched-Satan vocals – but somehow there’s character and raw excitement here.
The steering is perfection: light enough to make such a serious car feel wieldy, tactile and relatively quick too. You wind on some reasonable lock before the GT2 RS settles, but there’s an elastic, slightly springy feel as it bobs around in your hands, like you’re gently leading a dance partner by the fingers, picking up on its nuances all the time, responding to them.
But it’s the way in which a car apparently so intimidating manages to feel so approachable, so playful, that’s captivating. Go in hard on the brakes and the merest nudge of steering makes the heavy rear end begin to rotate, the balance centred around your spine where the mid-engined stuff pivots about your middle. This slight slide bypasses any of the 911’s inherent understeer, and then it just settles at a mild attitude, a hunk of weight pressing over the rear wheels. It makes the GT2 RS feel solid and settled, so you flatten the throttle, oversteering gently, torque just edging the tug-o-war with the 325-section 21-inch4
Michelin Cup 2s. All this with stability control on! Magic.
The carbon-ceramic brakes are the biggest flaw: their stopping power is generally extremely good, but the pedal softens after several laps and there’s excessive ABS intervention, especially on bumpier roads. I let them cool in the pits, and jump in the M2.
On a test like this, there’s often one excellent car that feels a little underwhelming among high-calibre opposition. This year, the BMW M2 Competition seems to be filling those boots. It is our only contender based on underpinnings developed for people more concerned by CO2 than bhp, though M division has had its way with those foundations, squeezing an M4 chassis under that compact little body. And now, upgraded to Competition status, the original M2’s 365bhp single-turbo six is replaced by the 404bhp M4 twin-turbo engine. It’s a lot of muscle in a tight little T-shirt, and you also get rear seats, a decent boot and infotainment that’s easy to operate. It’s comparable money to the Alpine at £52k, but you can put things and people in it and it didn’t even break when we hammered it.
James and I weigh pros and cons: the M2 feels porky for a compact car (it’s 1575kg), there’s a woolly layer between the ground, the controls and the driver, and there’s some roll and understeer to pre-empt. The seats are pretty fantastic, particularly the way they cup you around the ribcage, but they’re mounted so high they’d give a Wimbledon umpire vertigo; the brakes are effective but mushy, the straight-six hugely potent but rather charmless in the way it churns with a deep monotone drone – a complaint we’ve always levelled at the same unit in the M3 and M4. James thinks the M2 rides well on the road; I find it a bit tightly-coiled, if just on the acceptable side of the line. Strangely, I also find it the least intuitive car to slide for photographer Pardon’s pleasure; it just feels a bit clumsy, like working wearing oven gloves.
Then I head out for faster laps and start to bond with the M2. There’s one section of track in particular, where you slow at the bottom of a hill and coil left, then fire up and out through two rights that progressively open onto a straight. The M2 just hooks up and powers out, and you can feel the diff locking and the rear tyres just starting to over-speed, and suddenly you’re powering towards one of the quickest sections of the track, balancing this feisty little thug right on the edge of oversteer, knowing you couldn’t give it any more. In such moments the BMW’s brilliance makes itself known in no uncertain terms.
But in this context, the M2 is still falling towards the back of the pack. And if any context will put that into sharp relief, it’s the Ferrari 488 Pista, the more driver-focused version of Ferrari’s driver-focused 488 GTB. James is rolling into the pits as I’m parking the M2. ‘I’ve never driven a chassis this good,’ he beams. ‘And wow, what a gearbox.’
Essentially the Pista is a 488 GTB with up to 90kg less and 50bhp more power – for a peak output of 710bhp. Like the 911 GT2 RS, it borrows from motorsport: brake servo, crank and flywheel from its Challenge one-make racecar, diffuser from the Le Mans GTE car. The already excellent engine is said to be 50 per cent new. This is no sticker special edition.
The Pista weighs 1385kg to the GT2 RS’s 1430kg, but even so it feels much brisker despite having just a claimed 20bhp edge – floor the throttle and you wail down the circuit so rampantly that, at first, it’s overwhelming, the rush of speed knocking you back in the low-set seat, a shocking early punch. Red lights strobe over the crown of the steering wheel as revs zing to 8000rpm, you pull the long blade of a paddleshifter, third gear ka-blams in – no lag, no let up, just pure, visceral acceleration, butterflies and excitement swirling.
The Pista is flighty, up on its toes. Its steering is far faster than the 911’s, and as you twist it the Ferrari feels wide and low and locked down, the weight in its nose settling quickly into the corner, 245-section front tyres biting hard, arcing you through the apex. Limits are high, but you make quick, constant corrections at the wheel, edging just a little into understeer here, lifting the throttle, transitioning into oversteer, then getting the e-diff working and flinging down the next straight. At times, when the4
Pista rides up on the kerbing, the nose light, rear end writhing away and the V8 yelping ferociously, it is fabulously and sometimes dauntingly intense.
But there’s huge confidence to be found here, partly because you can go almost suicidally deep into a braking zone on carbon-ceramics that never waver in their performance – no palpable ABS, no fade, just stopping power like a superhero fist. Partly because you can chuck it into a corner and the front end will grip. And partly because the CT Off stability-control mode gives you just enough rope. It makes a surprisingly polished road car too: supple suspension, unintimidating to potter about in, power delivery that’s enjoyable at saner speeds too.
I find the Pista’s knife-edge responses harder to manage, and feel more at home with the GT2 RS’s more languid rotation and the way it settles into gentle oversteer with a chunkier, more planted feeling. James finds the 911 GT2 RS harder work, more understeery, lacking on the brakes.
One more lap? He’d take the Pista.
To be honest, I need a nap before I do one more lap in anything, let alone the yet faster Senna. I mumble about making notes, and watch as James closes the Senna’s dihedral door and buzzes down the pitlane, the optional lower door glass giving the curious appearance of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde shark in race trim.
The Senna’s carbonfibre tub is unique in this test, if familiar from the McLaren 720S, so too the dual-clutch gearbox and 4.0-litre twin-turbo V8, here tuned to 789bhp and 590lb ft. The rest is more specialised, including lightweight carbonfibre panels that weigh just 60kg combined, hydraulically interconnected suspension that drops to the ground in the Race mode we’re running, carbon-ceramic brakes that shed heat four times faster than regular ceramics, and active aero for as much as 800kg of downforce. McLaren bills it the ultimate road-legal track car, then bills each client £750k – at the very least.
Later, when we swap stints on the road, we’ll come back with different takes: James adores the Senna, the naughtiness of using effectively a GTE racecar on the road, the visibility, the laser-guided handling and outrageous performance. I find the resonance and the buzzing too harsh, the powertrain too charmless, the steering a bit too sensitive to cambers to properly settle. It’s fun flat out, but too much of a pain in the backside to contemplate using frequently.
We find common ground on the track, though. ‘That section at the back, where it flicks left and the camber sucks you towards the wall?’ says James. ‘It feels like you’ll have an accident in everything else, but the Senna just monsters it without4
breaking sweat, like it’s painted onto the road.’
Tyres like a sticky toffee pudding, it’s my turn. You buckle in the low-set seat, canted back, surrounded by weapons-grade lacquer-free carbonfibre. Serious, but the Senna calms nerves: perfect driving position, excellent vision, a pace and relative lightness to the steering for a nimble, friendly feel, a gloss to lowspeed gearshifts where a racer would huff. But there’s absolutely a racecar edge, partly due to vibrations through the body. Sod pleasantries, it’s saying – let’s crack on with going hard.
With 789bhp firing 1309kg down a quick racetrack, the Senna naturally feels crazy-fast. But it’s not outright acceleration that separates it from the GT2 RS and Pista, it’s the speed it carries into, through, and out of the corners, the way it uses its Trofeo Rs, killer brakes, adaptive chassis and that monstrous rear wing to devastating effect. Remember that faster section of Charade that had the M2’s rear tyres fizzing, its driver working the wheel? The Senna is just flat, and you’re gripping the wheel, gritting your teeth, knowing it’ll do it, trying to shut out the visions of a crash-landed 747 that inevitably creep in. It feels insane.
It is also sublime when you finally brake almost as late as the exceptional brakes allow, leaving it a whisker from the gravel or the walls and yet somehow getting it all back under calm control. You pour it into the turn that follows with that beautifully-weighted steering loading and a little roll building to contextualise the lateral loads, Pirellis gripping like suction cups. Go really deep into a tight turn and it’ll start to stickily slide, and when you steel yourself to accelerate early the rear tyres flare on a spike of boost as you jab in steering lock. Involving? Yep. Scary? That too.
The Senna isn’t perfect: there’s safety understeer in this car’s set-up that makes it push through slow turns, a trait exacerbated by a reluctance to boost south of 3500rpm. But the Senna remains astonishingly capable on track, a drive to remember.
Pink with exhaustion, giddy with adrenaline, we settle into chairs in a pit garage to rank our six finalists. Placing the BMW M2 Competition last is pretty straightforward. It’s fun and fast and the only car here that seats more than two, but we both crave more charisma and feel. Still, it’s one of the six best performance cars of the year; if you need something relatively affordable and practical, but still exciting, buy one.
Fifth place is harder, but ultimately falls to the Vantage. It’s a performance road car of huge talent, and entertaining on track. As a car to do the business without looking ridiculous, it stacks up. But the Pista and GT2 RS are both significantly more focused, while losing little in either practicality or civility.
The Alpine is fourth. You could argue for the win based on its attainability, approachability and fun factor, and there are times on tighter roads where its small footprint makes it as quick as the big hitters. On circuit it’s also more enjoyable than the Vantage, and a great ‘budget’ substitute for the others. But we’d be fibbing if we said we’d grab its keys before those of the far more expensive cars we’ve placed ahead. We just wouldn’t.
On track, the Senna is mesmeric in its speed and composure – its braking, acceleration and handling are genuinely awesome, it demands commitment to take to its extreme limits, and yet it’s approachable for those who aren’t professional race drivers. There’s no doubt it honours the Senna name.
Is the Senna a better track car than the GT2 RS and Pista? Yes. It’ll monster the numbers as much as it’ll bend your mind, but it does the subjective stuff too: it entertains, it thrills. If you want the ultimate track car and you can actually find and afford one, you must buy a Senna. But it doesn’t make the final.
The Porsche 911 GT2 RS and Ferrari Pista might be ultimately less capable on track but they’re more playful than the McLaren, more approachable and more than exciting enough. You never lap the Porsche or Ferrari and crave more, and they translate those thrills better to the road in a more usable package.
Over to James to settle it once and for all…4
PINK WITH EXHAUSTION, GIDDY WITH ADRENALINE, WE SETTLE INTO CHAIRS IN A PIT GARAGE TO RANK OUR SIX FINALISTS…
GT2 isn’t just sensational on track. It’s sensationally easy to drive fast, full stop
Airlow runs over here, makes you feellike a god
Perfect driving position, ace visibility: must be the Senna
Pista’s 710bhp V8 is visceral, riotous, manic. And sooo fast
Like a spot of carbon ibre? You’ll love the Senna. Note the clear lowerdoor panelsMCLAREN SENNA
ALPINE A110FERRARI 488 PISTA
Like your performance cars to push boundaries? This one does Be in no doubt: the Senna is a very seriousmotor car
Best that we gloss over the transactions here
The circuit closed hours ago. He doesn’t seem to care
You sense the 911’s waiting for a stripped out version of the BMW M8 with which to duel Jake reliably inds his own jokes funny. Which is good
One car, one more lap – what’s it going to be?