Is life on the road tolerable in a converted competition thoroughbred or a track-ready sports car? We find out

Tuesday, 9.23am - Brooklands museum: It has just gone opening time at the oldest purpose-built motorsport circuit in the world and, in front of the century-old clubhouse, a small crowd is gathering.

Early-bird visitors to Brooklands Museum are getting a look at an impromptu exhibit: a trio of modern motorsport-derived production cars whose designs and origins make them at once fundamentally alike but also fascinatingly different from each other. 

Crazy cars that went from race track to road 

There are three cars here – three. I can see all of them. Two of them have rear wings that look large enough to moonlight as ailerons on an Airbus A380. And yet it’s as if the very low, very wide, very yellow Ford GT is the only car anyone else can actually see. For a few minutes, people just nod and grin at it. Beards are stroked (Brooklands is heartland beard territory) and the Ford’s engine bay and cabin are peered into. 

One or two people take an interest in the Radical RXC Turbo parked just a few feet away, but it’s a passing one only. The Porsche 911 GT3 RS – the car that sold out in a nanosecond two years ago, and is now changing hands for north of £200,000 on the second-hand market – might as well not be here at all. Such is the power of the original GT40’s legend, and of the arresting impact of the design of the new GT, it seems. 

We’re all set to take that legend on a short tour of British roads. These cars are about to set out on a 200-mile convoy intended to reveal just how usable they are in the real world. Starting here, and taking in Silverstone circuit in Northamptonshire, Donington Park circuit in Derbyshire and then some favourite roads on the edge of the Peak District, our journey should rack up a modern Formula 1 race distance in the space of 36 hours. 

On the way, there will be motorway, A-road and B-road; traffic queues, potholes and speed bumps; high kerbstones and narrow car parks; and, I’m very much hoping, a bit of proper British weather. So exactly how will that kind of trip be negotiated by a ‘prototype’-style modern Le Mans racer for the road, a road-converted GTE-class competition machine and a sports car with very serious circuit abilities? What kind of road-going existence are you in for in each of them – and would you be crazy to contemplate it? 

Right now, I’m wondering myself. This was, needless to say, not muggins’ idea, and when it all goes wrong and I’m left waiting for a recovery truck by the side of the A43, I shall lay the blame entirely on Matthew James Prior. Right now, he’s probably engaged in something much more sensible. Sensible people don’t normally set out on road trips unless they’re confident they’ll arrive at their destination – and I’ve already heard tales from colleagues about early GT test cars breaking down several times in the same day. 

I’ve experienced first-hand how fragile the Radical RXC can be: the last time I drove one, I started out with all seven forward gears present and correct and ended up with three. If we make the full 200 miles in all three of these cars by teatime tomorrow, I’ll have reason to question my main reservation about them: reliability. And I sincerely hope that proves to be the case. 

Tuesday, 11.23am - Oxford Services, M40:

When regular Autocar group test driver and all-round top bloke Nick Stafford “needs a brew”, he explains, “I really need a brew”. Which must be true if he’s willing to take on a Starbucks ‘drive-thru’ in a Radical RXC. He’s causing a bit of a stir (preceded by milk and two sugars – badoomtish). You wouldn’t imagine he could reach far enough upwards from the driver’s seat to hand over his loyalty card, let alone find somewhere in the car to put his drink - but guess what? The Radical’s got a cupholder. 

More importantly, Nick’s not tearing his hair out or desperately making alternative onwards travel plans having driven it this far. 

“It’s fine,” he says, “once you get used to the seat. And the doors. And the clutch. And the noise. Not that I’d have one. If you can afford one of these, you can afford a BMW X5 and a trailer.” As ever, it’s impossible to argue with the common sense of this man. 

My passage from Brooklands has been spent in the obvious place: the dayglo Ford. The GT’s cabin is wonderful despite its cheaper touches and it’s perfectly comfy for two, as photographer Stan Papior will attest. So far, it hasn’t missed a beat. I’ll admit to watching the various temperature gauges on its TFT instrument screen pretty closely as we rounded the M25 and climbed up past High Wycombe, but I needn’t have. 

The GT’s steering is weighty but honest and judiciously paced; easy to gel with. The car’s engine is fairly noisy and a bit plain-sounding but seriously potent, and the gearbox remarkably smooth and well- mannered. Select the GT’s ‘normal’ drive mode, put its dampers into ‘comfort’ and it’s also so much more compliant-riding than you imagine it’ll be. The biggest obstacles to enjoying the car on the road are, in fact, nothing to do with noise, hyper- responsiveness or any kind of highly strung temperament. This is a wide car within which the driver sits on the left, so it’s hard to place instinctively on UK roads: simple as that. 

We leave the GT for a few minutes to grab some lunch-to-go, and find it has attracted some company once again when we return. A group of squaddies want a look inside and few minutes for selfies. These lads aren’t really petrolheads – you wonder how much they’d care about a Lamborghini or a McLaren – but they’ve come all the way over to the far corner of the car park for the Ford. None of them have guns but all of them have large, obvious tattoos, and they get what they’re after – and thanked for their public service – before our convoy rolls on. 

Tuesday, 2.36pm - ‘CAR PARK 50’, SILVERSTONE CIRCUIT:

You might think a cavalcade like this would be let in anywhere, particularly at a motorsport circuit – but not here and not today. There’s a Ferrari ‘Corse Clienti’ one-make event going on at Silverstone and, though I’ve asked permission in advance to come in and pose a few static photographs, the man on the main gate’s not budging. “You can use an outer car park but I can’t let you into the paddock,” he says. 

Maybe he knows his Le Mans racing history and how poorly Ferrari aficionados may take to an uninvited successor to the GT40 stealing their limelight. Or perhaps it’s just that Ferrari has paid a five-figure sum to be here and we haven’t. 

I took the chance to swap from the Ford to the 911 GT3 RS on the way here, expecting to find the Porsche several times better-mannered and easier to drive. It’s certainly smaller, easier to place and easier to see out of, but quieter? Nope. 

The RS’s engine, transmission and rear axle could make enough racket, between them, to test the effectiveness of the world’s best foam earplugs. There’s a combination of factors in play here: the 911’s rearward weight bias means it needs unusually wide rear tyres and unusually firm rear suspension settings. When you ramp both up to ‘RS’ levels, take out all the sound insulation and add this car’s gravelly, sabre-edged engine and lightning- rod half-cage into the mix, you get noise. A lot of noise, of many kinds. The Ford GT’s suspension gets noisy when you hit sharp edges and the like, reminding you a bit of the ride in a Lotus Elise: the 911 GT3 RS’s ride is noisy all the time. 

And you embrace that noise in the Porsche because it comes packaged with such a vivid, hair-raising driving experience full of feedback, drama, grip, poise, handling adjustability, revs and speed. The GT3 RS is all the track machine that anyone, except perhaps Tom Kristensen or Max Verstappen, really needs – it’s utterly brilliant. And if this exercise was intended to find out how much you need to spend, and how far you need to go down the line towards driving a competition car with numberplates, before finding a car to excite in equal measure on both road and track – well, the GT3 RS would be its winner. But then it’s also worth remembering how few people buy cars like this as a result of any rational decision-making process. For a great many, the fact that the Porsche is the obvious choice might also make it the last car they’d buy. For others, a 911 – any 911 – just wouldn’t be special enough. 

We line up our trio on the far side of Silverstone’s vast expanse of empty car park tarmac with a view of the circuit’s wing-shaped new paddock complex in the background. And then, just as I’m belting in and getting ready for my first stint in the Radical, a few raindrops begin sploshing onto its stickered windscreen. Oh good. 

The process of stepping over the RXC’s wide sidepod, dropping into its Corbeau bucket seat, squeezing your thighs under its Alcantara steering wheel and doing up your six- point harness is several times more complicated and difficult than even getting into the carbonfibre-tubbed Ford. Then you’ve got to remember the start-up routine, close the gullwing door without inadvertently punching yourself in the head (I failed with that on my first attempt) and pull away. I stall the car four times before I successfully get the racing clutch out, and twice more before we hit the A43. I also realise I’ve failed to close the driver’s door properly when it swings open above me at 50mph; queue another frenzied grab and another punch in the head. 

My word, this thing’s noisy. Being in it reminds you of watching endurance racing in-car video footage, except that the gear whine in here is dialled up beyond 80 decibels, I’d estimate. That heavy, troubling clutch doesn’t bother you once the car’s above walking pace, though, and the car’s seat and driving position is certainly comfy and roomy enough to spend a few hours at the wheel. 

The rawness and physicality of the Radical’s driving experience would wear you out soon enough, though, I reckon. The car’s steering is very heavy indeed, and the Radical’s suspension settings make it tramline and bump-steer much more than either of its road- trip buddies. Its ride is respectable as long as the surface you’re on is decent, though it’s both short and somewhat unforgivingly firm over typical B-roads, making the RXC skip and deflect. 

The car’s accelerative pace is readily apparent when you’re brave enough to dig into the pedal travel but, on cold tyres and in traffic, it’s a car you drive with a necessarily large dose of circumspection. 

On just the right road, on just the right day, with nothing else around, you’d have a ball driving it. Most of the time, I suspect you’d simply be getting to or from a circuit – where you’d have an absolute riot. But on-road journeys in a Radical RXC would need to be carefully planned to avoid bumpier stretches. You’d have to avoid tighter junctions and car parks too (the car’s turning circle must be approaching 15 metres), as well as sleeping policemen (the limited ground clearance is always in the back of your mind). And bad weather – God, you’d want to avoid that. Dunlop Direzza cut slick tyres and no anti-lock make you very aware of the distance to the car in front when it’s raining because the RXC’s brakes feel like they’d be very easy to lock in the wet. 

After a diversion off the M1 to avoid some built-up traffic, the convoy stops for fuel. Somebody asks me if I want anything: coffee, water, sweets etc. “Honestly,” comes my ref lex-like reply, “I’d quite like to get out.” What a jessie. But the truth is, both the Ford and the Porsche spoil you for a car like this. 

Wednesday, 9.56am - DONINGTON PARK CIRCUIT:

The dew was clinging so seductively to the Ford GT’s waxed haunches in the morning sunshine earlier on, before we left our B&B, that I must have spent a good ten minutes just staring at it – willing myself not to imagine it in Gulf colours and failing miserably in saving myself from falling completely under its spell. It gets past your normal defences, this car, as much for what it is as what it does. 

An hour or so later, we’ve just about managed to get the Radical’s front splitter up the gravel slope to the Redgate corner viewing area at Donington for a photo. The yellow Ford is parked highest up, quite plainly in view of anyone contesting what looks like a practice session for a Mini Challenge race on track. Not long after we’ve parked, one Mini driver away on his own loses it in a pretty odd, innocuous place on the way out of the corner. Did he look up and get a visor full of yellow distraction? I like to think so. 

When you bring cars like this to places like Donington, you’d be amazed who you meet. We’re not standing around long when a fairly short, lean-looking bloke with a broad Belfast accent pitches up. You can tell he’s a racing driver – but then the paddock’s full of them. 

This guy’s Steven Kane, works driver for the Bentley M-Sport Blancpain GT racing team – and he’s getting an advanced look at the boss’s next car. Turns out Malcolm Wilson, who runs the Bentley team but also fields Ford Fiestas in the World Rally Championship, is one of the lucky few getting a new GT this year. With Wilson’s independently run Fiestas topping the WRC, perhaps Ford has offered him a GT as a thank you. From here, it’s only 40 miles or so up to the Ringinglow Road running west out of Sheffield up into the Peak District, where we’re due to wrap up our race-car rideabout. I’ve got the pick of the trio for the drive up there, and if I was being serious about how much fun I might get out of the miles, I’d probably pick the Porsche. But I’ve driven the Porsche plenty, on several occasions over the last two years: and the GT’s calling my name again. 

It’s the sense of occasion you get from this car that marks it out, and its usability that really surprises you – because it if was as compromised as the Radical on the road, you’d probably only want to wrap it up and admire it all day. That fixed seat and those sliding pedals; the steering wheel you can pull so close to your chest; the cool, tactile, anodised metallic knobs and switches you use to switch drive modes and select gear... so much about the car reminds you that it’s a purpose-built racing car that happens to have been rather cleverly and thoroughly converted for the road, but not fundamentally altered in the process. The sense of purpose the Ford GT has is totally beguiling and completely unmatched in my experience, but it’s allowed to be because it’s so easy to enjoy. 

The Peak District’s moorside roads do feel a touch narrower in the Ford than they might in the other two cars here, and I’m spending longer clattering the catseyes than I’d like, which I’ll blame on left-hand drive. Still, every corner’s a joy; every short, well-sighted straight a chance to drink in the savagery of that turbo V6 again, and to savour it. 

The road’s busy with cyclists and walkers as we knock off the final photographs of the trip. Many of the latter are probably wondering if that odd sound they can hear is the mating call of a rare reed warbler. In fact, it’s just the “psst-psst-psst” of someone trying to find reverse for the umpteenth time on the pneumatically actuated gearbox of a Radical RXC. 

Still, we’re here; nothing’s broken, everyone’s sane. And I’m delighted to say my worst fears were unfounded. There have plenty of truths made plain on our way, but very few genuine trials to endure – and so perhaps we’ve proven that even the most extreme track car can be used on the road, for the right journey. 

All that remains is to go home – part of the way, at least, in Ford’s awesome star of our show. On the way back through the city’s suburbs, a cheery Sheffielder smiles through the car’s open side window and asks what lottery numbers I put on. She’s onto something, because the GT certainly makes you feel like a winner – albeit not quite the kind of winner she was suggesting. 

Related stories: 

Ford GT review 

Radical RXC Turbo review 

Porsche 911 GT3 RS review

Our Verdict

Mini Cooper S

Now in its third generation, we find out if the bigger, cleverer and more mature Mini can still entertain like it predecessors did

Join the debate

Comments
2

23 October 2017

Somebody press the button that goes "Bullshit!"  It's Porsche for the road, Radical for the track, Ford for the stupid.  However much Ford paid to have this written, it wasn't nearly enough to cover for the loss of dignity and credibility resultant from agreeing to be named as the author of such garbage.

I don't need to put my name here, it's on the left

 

23 October 2017

Possibly the single most impressive performance car of all time.  Want!

Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • Porsche Panamera Turbo S E-Hybrid Sport Turismo
    First Drive
    22 November 2017
    Porsche bolsters its hybrid range with a 671bhp Panamera Sport Turismo flagship. Can it justify the premium over the Turbo?
  • Skoda Karoq 1.5 TSI
    First Drive
    22 November 2017
    Driven for the first time on British roads, Skoda's new compact SUV doesn't disappoint, with decent on-road manners and performance
  • Aston Martin DB11 V8
    First Drive
    22 November 2017
    Aston's decision to utilise AMG's 4.0-litre V8 struck us as an inspired one initially, but will a drive on UK roads change our minds?
  • Volvo XC40 cornering
    First Drive
    21 November 2017
    Volvo’s XC40 arrives in the premium compact SUV segment and hits the right note with design, practicality and driving style
  • Jaguar E-Pace D180
    First Drive
    19 November 2017
    Not the driver’s car many would hope from any car wearing the Jaguar badge, but the E-Pace is an attractive and interesting addition to the compact premium SUV ranks