Currently reading: Britain's best driver's car 2021: the final three
The Ariel Atom 4, Ferrari SF90 and Porsche 911 GT3 battle it out on track
Andrew Frankel Autocar
News
9 mins read
20 November 2021

It’s the moment the cricket crowd holds its breath. The first two balls have sent stumps cartwheeling, and this is the third. The hat-trick ball. The bowler has steamed through his run-up, the ball is released. Twenty-two yards away a batsman grimaces. Can it possibly be three in a row? 

This is our 33rd attempt to find Britain’s Best Driver’s Car, and while plenty have won, just three have successfully defended a win (the Honda NSX, Ferrari 550 Maranello and Ariel Atom 4). That hat-trick car has always eluded us. But as an attendee at all bar the first of those 33 BBDCs, believe me when I tell you none has had a better shot at it than the Atom. That it won in glorious weather as a brand-new car in 2019 was perhaps not so surprising; that it was victorious again last year in absolutely filthy conditions was one of the most extraordinary feats and biggest upsets any of us have witnessed at this event. That the Atom made it through three largely dry days on Anglesey to progress to the final shootout, then, is unlikely to move your lower mandible. 

You’ll probably not faint with amazement to see the new Porsche 911 GT3 is here, either. But don’t suppose for a moment that it will walk away with this one just because it’s now got some downforce and fancy-pants front suspension. GT3s always do well at BBDC, but wins are perhaps rarer than you imagine: the most recent was back in 2017. 

That leaves the joker in the pack: the Ferrari. It is a car not far off 200bhp more powerful than any in the history of the event, a car that brings a new level of technological sophistication, not to mention the now customary truck full of spare wheels, tyres and technicians, plus another SF90 to use on the road. You can view this as Ferrari trying to re-level the playing field in its favour, or you can see it as Ferrari taking our event rather more seriously than the others. All I would say is the rules are the same for everyone and Ferrari alone chooses to exploit them to the full. That said, and despite plenty of opportunities, the last time a Ferrari came out on top was 2015, so don’t think for a moment this is going to be any kind of dead-cert coronation. 

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Those, then, are the three and, as we have had cause to observe at this point in previous contests, what a pleasing symmetry they present: one Brit, one German, one Italian. One sports car, one supercar, one hypercar. Two rear-drivers, one with all-wheel drive. One with three pedals, two with two. One with its engine at the back, two with theirs in the middle. You’d have thought that after more than three decades, a formula for doing this right would by now have emerged and that we’d know that only a car in a certain configuration could win. It is a matter of some joy and no little relief to find that the perfect formula remains as elusive as ever. 

To battle. Let’s take the Atom first, just to remind ourselves where the standard now sits. It’s one of those rare cars that, despite having no inherent flaws, is so rapid that driving it as fast as you can make it go actually feels like a brave thing to do. So there’s no point in doing three laps and coming in all breathless and overwhelmed. What story could result from that? Stay out there. Find the car beneath all that rushing air, those wastegate whoops and jet fighter thrust. Let it normalise.

It takes time, especially if you’re flirting with option ‘3’ on the boost settings, but it happens. Perhaps you’re now expecting me to say that what is revealed is just a good, honest, back-to-basic sports car. But it’s not; it is so much more than that. The reason the Atom 4 has done so well over the past three years is less to do with its raw materials than what has been done with them. Yes, this one has all the trick bits – Öhlins dampers, the limited-slip diff, track-day tyres, big brakes and so on – but, all in, the car is not much more than half the price of the GT3. The point is not how simple this car feels but how sophisticated.

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Matt Prior stated simply: “It’s still better than I am.” James Disdale went into greater detail about the way its steering offers “a crystal-clear connection” between fingertips and Tarmac: “It allows you to build up a widescreen HDR picture of the surface and grip levels. On the road, the damping is superb, supple yet with cast-iron control, then with a few clicks of the spanner you get race-car precision and speed for the track.” 

He’s right. More even than the GT3 and Ferrari, you drive the Atom dumbfounded that such a car is even allowed on a public road, even if position ‘1’ on the power setting provides more than enough performance for that environment. It remains today the rare and special experience it provided in 2019 and 2020. As Matt Saunders put it: “It asks plenty of you in terms of effort and commitment, but nothing touched it for outright driver reward.” 

While the Atom was so familiar and the Ferrari an undiscovered land, the Porsche was like returning to a fabulous holiday destination only to find the developers had hit town while you were away. It seems the same, and in the snarl of its engine and the snap of its PDK gearbox it is pretty much the same, but so too is it very different. Its high-downforce aero pack and double-wishbone front suspension with doubled spring rates speak of a GT3 that’s done with light entertainment and wants to get down to some serious fun. 

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And so it proved. It was reassuring to see on the road that the rather challenging ride of the GT3 driven at launch had been backed off enough for the car not to jump and bump its way across Snowdonia. Saunders spoke for all of us: “I was braced for firmness and business on North Wales B-roads, but very little of either came. Was easy to get into a fast flow on the road, and so precise and captivating once you were in it.” On the track, the additional body and directional control provided by its new toys didn’t so much alter the way the Porsche handled as much as broaden it. Saunders felt it was “word-perfect” on track. “Felt like you could put it anywhere, at any speed and at almost any angle,” he went on. “You simply couldn’t drive it fast enough to find the limit of its brakes, balance or body control.” It is still as accommodating as ever for those wanting to do the hooligan stuff, but for aesthetes who find beauty on rather than over the limit, it brings a new level to the GT3 oeuvre. Prior put it thus: “You can be as precise and lovely and delicate as you like, or you can throw it sideways and it has lots of ‘oh shit’ angle to let you catch it. Joyful.” 

Disdale felt the same: “Play it straight or hang it all out – it doesn’t matter, the GT3 is brilliant either way.” And if this GT3 is to make it to the top spot, it is this new-found bandwidth that will get it there. 

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Before that, there’s the small matter of the Ferrari. As the first near-1000bhp hypercar to go into unlimited production, it was also the first of that kind to find itself at a BBDC event. Its width and ability to make a Welsh mountain road feel like a Scalextric track clearly limited our ability to make the most of it in public, but on the track we were expecting something over, above and beyond anything yet seen not just this year but in any previous event. 

It did not disappoint. One tester (me, actually) got out and wrote: “For what it is and its mass, it is one of the most impressive achievements I have ever come across.” Meanwhile, Saunders, whose lucky lot it was to set lap times while the Ferrari crew gazed impassively onwards, said: “When we had the 488 Pista here three years ago, I didn’t think anything would ever feel as quick when piling into the braking zone at Rocket. Well, this did – and how.” 

So the SF90 was fast, which you have probably guessed. But its real achievement is how it harnesses that performance. In all the reams of notes we gathered, as notable as anything that was said was that which was not. Read them all and nowhere will you find references to ‘needing to be on top of your game’ or ‘challenged me like few cars I’ve driven’. The closest we came was Disdale’s observation that “turning everything off is a quadruple Weetabix event”. But the truth is that for all its apocalyptic pace, the SF90’s greatest achievement is to package it all up into a bundle that could not only be enjoyed but also exploited. 

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The only condition is that you play the game its way. I well remember Prior observing in 2018 that you could drive a Pista like a Mk2 Escort, and feeling the same way myself. The SF90 is nothing like so indulgent. It is considerably heavier, of course, even wearing its ‘Assetto Fiorano’ gym kit, but really it is the driven front axle’s desire to keep pulling the car straight that means you must bend yourself to its will, and not vice versa. There remains much fun to be had here and even acres of oversteer if you time it right, but it still sits at a different location on the fast/fun scale compared with cars such as the Pista, the 488 GTB and 458 Speciale, the last two both previous outright winners. Saunders’ view that “it didn’t have that instinctive midcorner handling equilibrium and flair of Ferrari’s simpler mid-engined fare. Just a shade too complicated and tough to predict” was echoed by all. 

Take it from us, these are three incredible cars, and the time may come when we look back and goggle at how much fun you could have in road-legal machinery. But which is our winner? Is that the hat-trick ball coming down the track, or is there a Porsche or Ferrari at the other end, waiting to knock it out of the ground? 

Tester’s notes

Porsche 911 GT3: “To paraphrase Richard Parry-Jones, I’d say it takes only 50 feet, not 50 metres, in the GT3 to realise you’re in the presence of greatness. Turn the wheel for the first time and the joyously slick steering tells you all you need to know. Drive further and it only gets better, as all of its systems and chassis sync so wonderfully. I didn’t have a vote, but this car would get mine.” Piers Ward

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Ferrari SF90 Stradale: “The surest way to get a flavour of the g-forces being enjoyed by the fast jet pilots overhead out of RAF Valley, and a towering technical achievement, but not the same kind of sublimely balanced mid-engined driver’s car that Ferrari has fielded in these exercises in recent years. When we had the 488 Pista here three years ago, I didn’t think anything would ever feel as quick when piling into the braking zone at Rocket. This did. On Cup R tyres, the Ferrari seemed to go through Church and Target corners almost a full gear faster than most other things, and yet still only on part-throttle. Open it up slowly on the way out, and then… wallop. Lordy. It wasn’t quite as assured under brakes as some, though.” Matt Saunders

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Ariel Atom 4: “Still much better than I am. Understeers a little on the way in, a little on the way out; steering brings brilliant weight, and chassis is more directionally stable than they used to be. I locked a tyre, knocked back the brake balance and never locked another. You could spend many happy hours having lots of fun here. Too intense? Too fast? I don’t know, but I like it.” Matt Prior

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