This vibrant squad of supercars represents the current pinnacle of hardcore specials. So what does each one bring to the genre?
What are we going to call them then?’’ I ask.
‘‘They look rather like sausages to me,’’ says Antony Ingram, stabbing a suspicious fork at his breakfast.
‘‘Yes, definitely. Possibly Cumberland. Odd of you not to recognise them, Henry,’’ adds Adam Towler.
‘‘Well, I was actually meaning the cars,’’ I say, trying to chase some black pudding around an egg chicane and into a puddle of brown sauce. ‘‘What’s the group term for an RS, SVJ, Track Pack and Pista?’’
There is some considered chewing and a few thoughtful slurps of coffee. (It’s a fine line between pensive and vacant, but I give them the benefit of the doubt.)
‘‘Lightweights?’’ suggests someone.
‘‘Specials?’’ offers someone else.
A mumble of approval.
With the discussion now reaching fever pitch, the previously silent John Barker chips in with: ‘‘Road racers?’’
I wonder if perhaps it wouldn’t be easier to apply a collective noun? A focus, an intensity, an exhilaration, a grin… Whatever you call them, these cars certainly look right together. They stand, each in a slightly different way, for the same extreme feeling. Although it’s worth pointing out from the start (at least to those who haven’t already gone looking for a result at the end) that this isn’t really a group test, because the prices are too disparate (and certain egos would rather not be bruised). The Ferrari and McLaren will lock horns later, but let’s call this a celebration. A homage to the hardcore. A salutation to the stripped-out. Just a few words about some of the most exciting cars on sale today.
I’m just about to vocalise all this when I realise that everyone else has drained the dregs of their orange juices and I’m the only one left at the table. I wonder which key they’ve left me with?
Half an hour later the pace of the cars is gradually rising in line with the temperatures of the fluids behind each driver. Just as it should be. I’m sitting, slightly reclined, in an intimate yet airy cabin with a wonderful view of the others ahead. The daisy chain of Skittles-coloured supercars, stretching from the orange arches right in front of me through plum purple, apple green and lemon yellow, is flowing through the crests and cambers of a perfect valley road in the Scottish Lowlands.
Occasionally a colour will disappear from view around a corner, or the whole merry lot will be hidden as I dip into a depression. But the sound is always there to reassure me of their continued presence. And this motley choir is getting louder as the needles sweep further. The occasional yelp, wail, crack or crackle carried on the cold morning air lets me know that throttle pedals are starting to be worked harder.
Underneath me the McLaren 720S Track Pack is barely breaking sweat at the moment, simply oozing from bend to bend. It is arguably the least focused of our quartet, with no major mechanical changes over a standard, 529kW 720S (it gains some carbonfibre components and telemetry tech over standard, and is 24kg lighter overall), but that means the suspension has retained its uncanny ability to remain unruffled on the most ruffled of roads. The steering lets your hands know how bumpy the surface is, but your backside seems to remain almost ignorant of imperfections.
Although this isn’t one of Woking’s Longtail products, what the Track Pack shows quite neatly is how a few choice changes can alter both what you feel in and how you feel about a car. Take the seats, for example; these buckets have a wonderfully scooped shape that, as Adam says, ‘‘makes you feel like you’ve dropped down into the perfectly laid-back position of a Group C racer’’. The seat supports the hamstrings and holds your hips more snugly, while a reduction in padding means there is a sense of closer connection.
The titanium roll hoops behind my head have absolutely no impact on performance. And yet the beautiful brushed metal tubing catches the eye every time you get into the car and adds a more aggressive ambiance. Subconsciously I’m sure it just notches up your focus a fraction. The same can be said for the feel of Alcantara in your hands or the louder sound from a sports exhaust such as the one fitted to the Track Pack.
The ribbon of tarmac is getting more and more undulating the farther we go along it and the cars are now popping in and out of view with greater regularity, like small boats on a choppy sea. Occasionally a sharper crest relieves the McLaren’s tyres of their grip on the ground, but the 720S always sinks back to earth like it’s landing on a feather bed. Until now I have barely been flexing my right foot. No need, just carrying speed. But then the digital diagrams on the dash turn from blue to green to tell me that everything is warm and primed.
Flick the big left-hand carbonfibre paddle and a distinctive click accompanies each downchange. Wait, just for a moment, revs hovering, turbos primed, then, as the road straightens, pull the trigger. The lunge that the McLaren takes towards the horizon feels almost impossibly, irresistibly savage. Even though you’ve put just enough squeeze into the stab of throttle to ensure that the torque doesn’t break the traction, even though all you have to do to stop the madness is lift off the throttle, it somehow feels like the car has picked you up and taken control of everything. There’s a slight weightlessness to the sensation. Like falling, but faster.
Trickling through the next village, cars bunched up, some details up ahead catch the eye. The starburst asterisk indicators blinking on the rear of the Ferrari as it navigates the junctions. The hard-working asymmetrical radiators lurking in the shadows on the back of the Lamborghini, vanes horizontal on the left, vertical on the right. The blue tinge to the titanium tailpipes on the Porsche. Come to think of it, all these cars have proper exhausts and that is surely a prerequisite of the true road racer (or whatever it is we’re calling these cars). And the car that arguably puts its pipes to best use is the one I want to hop into when we next stop.
Like the McLaren, I find that the best way to access the Lamborghini is to drop in while holding the handle on the inside of the door, pulling it closed behind me in what feels like one clean, vaguely coolly controlled motion. I probably look like a drunk grabbing at a table as I slip on a spilt pint, but there we are.
Upward swinging doors apart, the Superveloce Jota is almost the polar opposite of the McLaren. Ergonomics are not its strong point and the view out is like prising apart the slats of a venetian blind. But, praise be to Agatha and all the other saints, the 6.5-litre, 60-degree V12, with its titanium inlet valves and lightened flywheel, is truly, breathtakingly magnificent. Creating an almighty 566kW at a drama-filled 8500rpm (its 720Nm doesn’t arrive until nearly 7000rpm either) it is easily the most powerful engine in this quartet. It is also almost 50 per cent more powerful than the 911’s 383kW and 470Nm flat-six, the only other naturally aspirated engine in this test.
Aston Parrott is keen to get some photos and so I just go for a quick exploratory drive. But really all I need is a straight long enough to feel the V12 climb through an entire gear with the throttle wide open. It’s a different sensation to the one served up by the turbocharged 720S under hard acceleration, but it is every bit as shocking and just as alarmingly quick. Where the McLaren punches and sustains, the SVJ surges and builds.
John hops into the nicely warm Lamborghini as soon as I get back and Adam and I listen to him head off down the road. Gradually the sound of the lapwings in the surrounding fields can be heard again, but their curiously squeaky call is still mingled with the rise and fall of the now miles-distant V12.
‘‘Targa Florio, 1973,’’ says Adam, wistfully. ‘‘It’s like being sat with your picnic on the hillside waiting for Munari and Marko to arrive.’’
The other Italian in the group is waiting silently and now seems as good a time as any to get to know it. This is my first exposure to a Pista and I’m trying not to approach it with any baggage. I know that it received mixed reviews in eCoty last year and judging it against my memories of a Speciale also seems inevitable, but equally I think it deserves to be assessed on its own merits first.
That’s made a little harder when you get into the driver’s seat because the interior is very familiar (quite old), but I love the sense of light. It feels as though you’re looking through about three times the acreage of glass after the Lamborghini, like moving out into a conservatory after sitting in a downstairs loo. As with the 720, it’s a completely non-mechanical facet that ramps up the anticipation, because shrugging on four-point harnesses instead of pulling across a three-point inertia reel is akin to that moment when a normal knife is replaced with a serrated steak knife in a restaurant.
The 529kW V8 starts with a deep, angry woofle. Louder than the other V8 in this test, but not much more musical – the way the sound fills the cabin speaks of paring back and stripping out. I’m a big fan of the big paddles in the Ferrari. Pull back for first and the lightish action and longish throw feel suitably theatrical, but also in keeping with the other razor-sharp control weightings.
Talking of which, even when you’re familiar with the alacrity of a modern Ferrari’s steering, expecting the distinctively direct, darty response, it still takes a few minutes to adjust your inputs when you get back into one. But while you’re recalibrating your hand movements it gives you time to take in the rest of the character of the car and it feels like more of a change over a standard 488 than I was expecting. The front end feels firmer over the bumps. Get on the throttle early and you can feel the E-Diff tightening and the rear tyres clawing aggressively at the tarmac. Fiddle with the modes and you’ll find little differentiation between the standard and Bumpy Road damper settings. There’s just a general increase in focus. And boy is it fast.
Ferrari may not have killed turbo lag, but the throttle response in any gear is incredible and as a result it’s perfectly possible to slice down a road intimidatingly quickly using gears two or three higher than optimum. Fifth provides ample kick out of a third-gear corner.
Dare to pull the left-hand paddle a couple more times, perhaps ignite the red LEDs in the top of the steering wheel occasionally, and the performance is hypercar level. Back off to catch your breath and you feel like the Ferrari is drumming its fingers, waiting for you to ramp things back up to vicious wasp mode. It can do pottering, but it doesn’t really involve you when you’re going slowly, and that super-sharp steering is always inciting you to attack turns rather than merely travel through them. And it really rewards when you push it too. At the pace where the McLaren’s steering leaves you questioning the lateral load on the front tyres and becomes a little vague, the Ferrari’s wheel loads up and lets you know just how hard you’re pushing.
Not that understeer feels like an option in the Pista. Flashing through a sequence of bends the whole car changes direction like it weighs about 500kg and has aggressive rear-wheel steering. It’s astonishing. If you’re in Race or CT‑Off mode you’ve got more than enough torque to trigger oversteer, but instinct has an ally in the alertness of the steering, which easily lets you add enough lock to contain the swing. Just be careful when the roads and rubber are wet or even just cold: ‘‘Ten degrees Celsius outside results in ten degrees of oppo inside!’’ says Barker. ‘‘I don’t recall the M3 CSL being this lairy on its first-generation Cup tyres.’’
I’m buzzing like I’ve misjudged my caffeine intake by about four shots when I get back to the others. Yes, I think the Speciale remains the sweet spot, but when you’re experiencing everything that a Pista has to offer I’m not sure you’ll feel like you’re missing much.
‘‘I’m slightly troubled by the fact that I like the Pista more than I did on eCoty,’’ says Adam. ‘‘I haven’t yet been able to pinpoint exactly why that is, save to say that I think the more time you spend in it, the more you get it.’’ John, now back from his strop in the SVJ (‘‘looks like a spaceship but feels like a dinosaur these days’’) agrees, adding that perhaps the Pista suits these roads a little more than the ones last September.
At lunchtime we find a cafe on the outskirts of a village. Clearly the bush telegraph works well up here in Scotland because the entire population below the age of about 16 has arrived and is swarming around the cars before we’ve finished deciding what sort of sandwich to have. To me the SVJ has accumulated a fussiness of fins and fillips in the same way that later Countaches rather masked the original purity of the Periscopio, but to judge by this and other occasions during our time with the cars, the Lamborghini is the clear winner in terms of Instagram kerb appeal.
By contrast, why does the car with the vibrant Lizard Green paint and easily the most prominent wing feel like the most ordinary to look at? In isolation, sure it stands out like a yacht at an airport, but in this company it just feels a bit less exotic and a couple of notches down on the glamour scale compared to the mid-engined trio. However, it does look the most race-ready, because while the McLaren and Ferrari have surfaces that have been smoothed and sculpted with an element of the aesthetic always at hand, the Porsche has a utilitarian bluntness to things like end plates and intakes.
That abruptness extends to the way it travels down the road too, as I discover after we’ve all finished lowering our power-to-weight ratios with cake. During the first few miles you instantly notice the shorter travel and firmer rebound in the suspension. The smallest amount of lock seems to have you leaning on sidewall. Look at the rear tyres tucked up in the arches and it’s hardly surprising that it feels like roll has been reduced to an almost incidental increment. Everything feels tough, verging on the uncomfortable, especially if you’ve just stepped from the suppleness of the McLaren.
But what the RS heaps onto you is a reassuring connection with the road and how the car is reacting to it. This is enjoyable at low speeds because it makes you feel involved, but it becomes absolutely crucial at faster speeds.
Knock the gear selector sideways to give you control of the shifts and then set about the road. The hardcore nature means that you initially treat bumps with a little wariness, a hesitation on the throttle or a dab of brakes to temper speed and avoid troubling bump-stops. Yet gradually you realise the RS can take it. The travel may feel short, but the damping is so ruthless that it can soak up the hits, controlling the compression. Sure, where the McLaren keeps all four tyres in contact, the Porsche is often skimming the surface, but it never loses composure or scuffs like the Pista occasionally does.
And talking of the Ferrari, the Pista pulls out of a lay-by just behind me, a flare of revs signalling that John’s getting some heat into the rear tyres in the process. The weighty little PDK paddles are the opposite of the Ferrari’s but still tactile, and the speed and smoothness of the downshifts they now summon are every bit as impressive. Heading back up the hill, the green and yellow adversaries must be quite a sight and sound. It certainly feels good from inside the Porsche.
The tarmac lightens through a stretch of bends, the road surface recently repaired, but badly. A lift might be prudent but I launch the 911 into the sequence of corners, trusting in the car. The RS jinks, the wheel kicks in my hands, and I’m not sure that there are ever more than three points of contact with the road as it rides and reacts to the cambers and bumps. But because you feel a part of the car, hardwired to each movement, you can carry the speed and hold a line through the maelstrom of jolts and junior jumps. There is no guesswork. When grip goes, you know how it will feel when it comes back a moment later.
Braking hard for the tight left-hander up ahead and the ball of my foot gets detailed information from the changing, pulsating pedal pressure about how the loaded tyres are dealing with the bumps on the way into the corner. No need to let the car settle or regain composure because it’s never lost. Then you’re looking through the corner and are on the throttle, feeling the big Cup 2s smear a little and straighten the exit.
Pulling back into the car park a few minutes later it’s hard to know who has the bigger smile. ‘‘What was interesting about following you in the Pista was that the Ferrari’s performance advantage was almost negligible,’’ says John. ‘‘Fact is, on the road you can’t exploit 529kW as often as 383kW, so the all-out acceleration is not so important as the response and the mid-range shove. And the 911 has loads.’’
The others have wandered over by this point and Antony agrees.
‘‘If the redline was at 6K, the RS would still have one of the best modern production car engines.’’
‘‘And the amazing thing is that the engine isn’t quite the best thing about it,’’ says John, before suggesting that it would have won eCoty 2018 if it had been there…
Before the conspiracy theorists get hold of that sort of chat, I decide to have another go in the SVJ. The single-clutch ’box attracts attention every time you jump into the Aventador, but not in a good way, as upshifts interrupt proceedings with all the charm of a wailing baby monitor during dinner. More than one person during the day likens it to an original Smart car. However, Adam defended it over lunch, extolling the enjoyment to be had from learning to finesse the changes with just the right amount of a lift on the throttle, suggesting that it adds back some of the interaction you get with a third pedal. I’m not so convinced.
What is impressive is that for all that its size and heft can make it intimidating on a small road, the J’s firmer damping really does let you know about all the bumps. There’s real weight and texture to the steering too.
Admittedly, where it feels like encouragement to push harder in the Porsche, the feedback can often feel more like a warning in the Lamborghini, but it’s pleasing nonetheless.
The SVJ is certainly more at home on wider, smoother roads, although even here you don’t fling it around quite like the others. Try to drive it on the nose and you quickly become aware that the big V12 behind you is often a little reluctant to keep pace with the arc through a corner chosen by the front wheels. It means you end up managing the two ends of the car independently rather than everything reacting completely harmoniously.
Much better to step back a fraction from the ultimate capabilities of the front tyres, get everything settled early in the corner and then combine the rear-bias of the all-wheel drive with the mighty V12 to devastating effect. Slow in, fast out might sound dull but you’re not diminishing the SVJ’s stature by driving like this, you’re just playing to its strengths. Just like the power of a prop forward would be wasted on the wing, and a NASCAR doesn’t belong on a go‑kart track.
Even driven the way it wants to be, the Aventador is no walk in the park. These days, some cars make the person behind the wheel feel like such a superhero that you have to check you’re not wearing your underwear outside your trousers when you get out. The Lamborghini is not one of those cars and I like that. This is Antony’s first time driving a Lamborghini at anything more than walking pace and he’s been duly intimidated by the mighty SVJ…
‘‘I spent the first few kilometres with gale-force winds from an open window, a terrible radio station and failing to indicate for junctions, simply because its width and gearbox demand so much concentration that I didn’t dare work out any of the other controls on the move!’’
At the end of the day, I’m still pondering how to collectively describe these cars. After driving each one I can even more clearly sense the thread that runs through all of them, yet each car gives you such a distinctly different experience. And then it occurs to me. I almost hesitate to say it for fear of sounding hackneyed or cloyingly cheesy, but equally it would be idiotically obtuse to avoid such a crystal-clear summation.
The tag line of this magazine, what the writers in these pages have been seeking for over 20 years, is all summed up in this group; each one, whether Pista, Track Pack, RS or SVJ, simply strives to both evoke and evolve the thrill of driving.
I’m about to vocalise this when I realise that Adam has mentioned beer and everyone’s heading for the cars. I wonder which one they’ll leave me with? I genuinely don’t mind.
Ferrari 488 Pista
Engine V8, 3902cc, twin-turbo
Power 529kW @ 8000rpm
Torque 770Nm @ 3000rpm
Top speed 340km/h+
Basic price $645,000
McLaren 720S Track Pack
Engine V8, 3994cc, twin-turbo
Power 529kW @ 7250rpm
Torque 770Nm @ 5500rpm
Top speed 341km/h
Basic price c$550,000
Lamborghini Aventador SVJ
Engine V12, 6498cc
Power 566kW @ 8500rpm
Torque 720Nm @ 6750rpm
Weight (dry) 1525kg
Power-to-weight (dry) 371kW/tonne
Top speed 351km/h
Basic price $949,640
Porsche 911 GT3 RS
Engine Flat-six, 3996cc
Power 383kW @ 8250rpm
Torque 470Nm @ 6000rpm
Top speed 311km/h
Basic price $416,500