December 20, 2011 11:08 AM |
Posted By: HenryCatchpole
Rated 5.0 out of 5.0 by 3 members
There have been, as always, so many brilliant drives to choose from in the last twelve months; Going faster than I had previously thought possible round our eCotY route while perched in the McLaren MP4-12C with its amazing view out and incredible suspension. Driving an F40 for the first time was definitely a watershed moment, and the fact that it managed to be every bit as bonkers as I’d imagined and dreamed when I was 12 years-old still staggers me. The steering on another Ferrari stands out clearly too – that of the 348 in our Ferrari V8s test.
RenaultSport’s Megane Trophy put a huge smile on my face for being so close to my beloved R26.R and a couple of other hot hatches put even bigger smiles on my face, but they were Focus and Mini WRC cars. Then there was the ex-Vatanen Escort and, of course, my own mk2 Escort. The memory of my time in the 911 GT2 RS that we featured in our Turbo issue will also stay with me for the rest of my life.
But my most memorable drive of the year consisted of just a few laps around Bedford Autodrome one sunny afternoon. The pitlane was stuffed with lightweight and lightly treaded things for our Track Car of the Year test and Roger had asked me to come along to give them all a try so that I could provide some feedback. The Radical was surprisingly adjustable despite being blindingly fast; the Caterham was a perfect example of its breed and just fabulous; the Mugen Atom was a little bit disappointing, feeling too soft and reluctant to turn in.
And so the moment came to drive the Ariel Atom V8. Anything boasting a power-to-weight ratio of 877bhp per ton deserves a lot of respect and frankly I was just a bit (or actually quite a lot) nervous when I walked up to it in the cool shade of the pit garage. Getting in and doing up the harness I instantly wished the big sctrachy grey plastic seat felt a bit more secure, but I still love the Spondon style trellis chassis which lets you see everything so clearly. With the V8’s pneumatic paddle shift you only need the clutch to pull away, so after that you can treat it like a two pedal car and left foot brake if you want, which is nice.
It is undoubtedly the fastest accelerating car I have driven this year, and possibly ever. In a straight line it is brilliantly, cartoonishly fast. The big, semi-slick rear tyres mean that you can actually deploy all the power on a dry track in a straight line and there’s no discernable interruption to the blurry rush because the gearchanges seem to go through with the blink-and-you-miss-it speed of a bubble popping. It truly is a wonderful feeling and you can’t help but smile about if you like speed. But as someone once said ‘it’s not the fall that will kill you, it’s the sudden stop at the end’ and the only thing that tempers your enjoyment of the ride is trying to decide when you should stop accelerating. The V8 tends to make the straight bits of Beford’s West Circuit feel a bit like they belong on an indoor go kart track, so picking a braking point out of the rapidly approaching distance is mind scrambling. Never have I spent so much time braking rather too early...
Even with cold tyres it instantly feels more responsive and actually more secure in the corners because the suspension is firmer, the tyres bigger and the tracks wider. But because of the light nose containing nothing more than pedals and your feet, allied to the (relatively speaking) weighty rear end with the engine in it, there’s still the Mugen’s fundamental inclination towards understeer on turn in. However, unlike the peaky Mugen, you now have the option to do something about the apex-averse nose with the 500bhp on offer under your right foot...
To start with I was cautious about trying to drive it on the throttle – fearful that oversteering an Atom V8 could simply result in a very long lopsided spin resembling the flight path of a lump hammer thrown towards some Armco. But after a couple of laps I gave myself a talking to inside my Arai, girded what loins I could find, and got a bit more aggressive with the accelerator in the corners. Amazingly, it seemed to like it. The first few slides in slower corners stabilised sweetly so that you could hold them and still drive forwards under power making progress smooth rather than snatchy. Then, with a bit more confidence it became easier to drive it with the wheels slightly spinning and the rear floating through the faster corners. It wasn’t a relaxed process because you need to react flipping quickly with hands and feet, but the adrenaline and endorphins flooding your body like the world's biggest caffeine hit make it easier.
Perhaps I was having a particularly good day, but it felt genuinely amazing; the car always reacting, always thrilling and scaring you slightly with it’s bonkers g-force under acceleration, constantly asking so much of you physically and mentally, yet also oversteering so enjoyably if you plucked up the courage to grab it by the scruff of the neck and steer it as much with the throttle as with the steering wheel.
Combine this with the incredibly rich bark of the V8 and it was the smallest of steps to playing out all my DFV-powered historic F1 fantasies. On a warm late summer afternoon it’s the sort of thing which lodges in your mind and makes you smile for a very long time.
Happy Christmas one and all.