The latest issue of evo stars the new Mini John Cooper Works GP, the hardcore hot hatch battling the Audi A1 quattro, among others. Normally when we set up such a group test, we’ll borrow cars from the manufacturer’s press fleet, and they’ll arrive on location courtesy of a delivery man with a strong hitchhiking arm.
The Mini, however, had been busy all week on its press launch on the coastal roads near Lisbon. Our test was at Blyton Park circuit, somewhere near Scunthorpe. Before I knew it I was on a plane to Portugal…
The Portugese coast, with the odometer on zero
It’s a funny thing, driving a brand new car to a magazine cover feature. Your excitement at being among the first in the world to drive a key model is heavily countered by the nagging need to get it in front of Dean Smith’s cameras without a scratch or scuff on it. The balance between having fun and taking issue-destroying risks is a fine one.
Luckily, I enjoy a road trip even when the going isn’t so twisty. Driving in other countries – and I had three to cross before I’d board a Eurotunnel train back to the UK – is always an interesting change. Still, I endeavoured to make a few carefully judged detours to make the most of my extraordinarily lucky position: spending three days alone with a very scarce car and being paid to travel Europe in it.
Mini’s launch was based in Cascais, the base of a wonderful road to Sintra – the N247 – which is formerly a leg of the Portuguese rally. It provided ample and instant opportunity to get a taster of the Mini GP’s darty, hyperactive and downright fun character before the long motorway slog began. If you’re ever holidaying locally, I’d advise a day in a hire car for a few runs back and forward here. You don’t need anything fast, as the well-practised locals in battered old 106s and Corsas happily prove…
Venturing into rural Spain
Settling at a sane cruising speed and sampling motorway services nice and often, I was aiming to reach the eastern fringes of Spain by bedtime. There was clearly time for a little off-motorway jaunt, though, and a scour of one of those uncontrollable folding out maps flagged up the LR-113, an incessantly squiggly line near Burgos. Looking quite mountainous (and this being early February) I checked the snow forecast was negative before heading there via the fast and open N-622 and its surrounding flat plains and truly epic sunset.
If the 622 was great, then the 113 was simply brilliant. Nearly 40km of near-endless twists and turns, it was a constant workout, even in a modern car with electrically-assisted steering. Drive it in a Caterham or Elise and you’d end up with the arms of a post-spinach Popeye. It showed the new GP (and its keener reactions compared to a regular JCW) in a positive light, even if the damp conditions and bumpy road gave it little chance of successfully transferring much of its power. The only downside was the pitch black of night – perfect for catching the road completely barren of cars, but drenching what Google Streetview reveals to be excellent surrounding views in darkness. Least I wasn’t distracted, though.
Indulging my inner tourist in Biarritz
Five hundred and eighty four miles later, I was eating black pig in Logrono after my first day’s travels. Day two took me 486 miles to Nantes, via Biarritz (and its must-visit, hammerhead shark-packed aquarium) and the sight of a Ferrari F40 chasing a new Jaguar F-type down the French autoroute.
It was day three where I’d actually planned something in advance, though; a visit to Manoir de l’Automobile at Loheac. It’s a very appealing looking car museum I’d picked a leaflet up for in Reims a couple of years ago, and I’d identified this road trip as one of my few opportunities to ever conveniently visit.
A must-visit car museum...
Trust me, you have to go. With over 400 cars on display – most of them brilliant, completely odd or a lovely mix of the two – it takes a long time to see properly. The two hours I spent there before hurrying to Calais felt like a rush. A few highlights are below.
All owned by one private collector, apparently, the cars range from a gaggle of Group B cars to a hall full of amphibious cars (dating right back to the 1920s), with Lambos, Ferraris, speedboats and an atmospheric room of F1 cars and memorabilia in between. Loheac is a rallycross venue too, so you can potentially tie in a visit with some motorsport viewing.
...with a rallycross track next door
After scampering out the exit an hour later than planned (and having spent more than intended in the gift shop), I pointed myself at the Channel Tunnel, negotiating the cool Pont de Normandie bridge and keeping my eye out for pesky Renault Megane 250 Cup-driving motorway cops.
Around 55 hours and 1636 miles after I’d set off, I was at Peterborough services handing the Mini GP keys to Dickie Meaden as he headed north for this month’s cover feature. I’d achieved my aim – having fun without putting the car, and my job, in any peril. How did it do in the group test? You’ll have to check out the April 2013 issue of evo…
Highlights of the Manoir...
An eclectic view as you enter one of the first halls
All buildings need a 'Group B room'
Loveliness of Ferraris only outweighed by boldness of the carpet
The rarest item in the whole museum: a Tiff Needell Formula 1 helmet