Currently reading: Ultimate drag race showdown: BMW, Porsche, Ferrari and more
A variety of seriously quick machines, including racing lorries and superbikes, fight it out on the runway

Pirates of the Caribbean didn’t start life as a huge film franchise, as you might know.

At first, it was just a Disneyland theme park ride – a few-minute thrill whose name and vague theme, decades after its launch, someone concocted a plot around and threw Johnny Depp into.

Similarly, this story didn’t start out as a magazine feature at all. Instead, it began life as a series of drag races that we videoed. Then someone said: “You know, we should probably tell people a bit more about this.” And thus the audio-visual few-minute thrill has become the feature you see here.

The idea behind it was straightforward enough, though: take some quick road cars, superbikes and other wild cards and put them up against each other in a series of drag races, hopefully matching vehicles of similar accelerative ability. We’d line them up and, a quarter of a mile later, see if we were right.

In many cases, we were able to put our GPS data-logging hardware on the machines, but sometimes we were not. Where we have data, we’ve published it.

Race one - Litchfield Nissan GT-R versus race bike

As car vs bike challenges go, this is a pretty senior one. Litchfield Imports has spent nearly 20 years importing, modifying and tuning mostly Japanese cars, and the Nissan GT-Rs that it modifies can run more than 1200bhp.

The RC Express Racing Kawazaki ZX-10R of Ivan Lintin, meanwhile, is a sub-200kg road-racing superbike that makes a bit over 200bhp.

Lintin is in charge of his own getaway. There’s no traction control, so he must feed out the clutch and keep the front wheel on the deck as best he can, but he can give it full throttle from second gear.

Litchfield’s gaffer, Iain Litchfield, has to worry less about wheelies and more about the drivetrain. On his first go, the ECU, it turns out, is set up to give more turbo boost the longer you hold launch control and, after a too-long pause for the lights to change, it lunches a driveshaft. Litchfield thought it might, so he has brought a spare.

Half an hour later he has swapped it and is ready to go again.

With the GT-R’s torque limited to save the transmission, the bike gets away narrowly ahead, but when the car shifts into fourth gear, torque becomes unlimited and it spins up all four wheels. Which is quite a sight, although not one Lintin sees, because he’s still ahead. At the quarter mile, the bike nips it, but the GT-R - 10.3sec at around 170mph for the standing quarter - is gaining.

Race two - Ferrari 458 Speciale versus Nissan GT-R and McLaren 650S


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Two unusual things here: we found a standard Nissan GT- R and an owner of a Ferrari 458 Speciale who was prepared to give it the absolute beans down a runway. All three cars have launch control and, by gum, all three were prepared to take advantage of it.

On paper, the 641bhp McLaren should have the measure of both the 542bhp GT-R and the 597bhp Speciale, but it’s the Nissan that gets off the line first — probably no surprise, given that it has four-wheel drive and the others, despite their engines being in the middle, do not.

Of the supercars, the McLaren gets away better, thanks to some turbocharged oomph, and it stays that way. In fact, it doesn’t just get away better than the Ferrari; the McLaren quickly overhauls the GT-R, too.

At the line, which the McLaren crosses 10.8sec after getting away, it’s holding a half-second advantage over the other two, which finish more or less together, both at a little over 11sec. The GT-R is a touch ahead and travelling at 124mph, but just another few yards and the Speciale would have had second.

Race three - Ariel Atom 3.5 R versus Rallycross Citroën DS3 and race bike

This is one of those that only ended up going one way. We enlisted ‘Big Jim’ from upstairs at work, who has recently spent some savings and a PPI payout on going motor racing on a 1998 Yamaha R1 superbike. He hopes to take it to the TT within a couple of years.

Trouble is, it isn’t set up for standing starts, and an Ariel Atom 3.5R, with a supercharged Honda engine making over 300bhp and a sequential gearbox with pneumatic shifts, pretty much is. It’ll do 0-60mph in around 3.0sec dead on RAF Alconbury’s concrete runway.

Even that, next to Liam Doran’s FIA World Rallycross car, is tardy. His Citroën DS3 - with the best part of 600bhp, four-wheel drive and launch control - hits 60mph in less than 2.0sec.

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The explosive start gives Doran an advantage that the other two - Ariel second and Big Jim third - can’t quite overhaul. But Jim is having the time of his life anyway.

Race four - Porsche 911 Turbo S versus Dodge Challenger SRT Hellcat and Nissan GT-R

With 707bhp and 650lb ft, the Dodge Challenger Hellcat ought to be quite a thing - even though this one, sourced from an early UK adopter, runs an automatic transmission.

No apologies, then, for putting it up against two of the most accelerative production cars we could think of: the Porsche 911 Turbo S (which can hit 60mph in around 3.0sec and a standing quarter mile in 11.0sec, even on a poorly surfaced runway) and that standard GT-R again, partly because putting a GT-R into a video increases the number of people who’ll watch it by about 50%.

The 911 and GT-R - identical on power - are the more competitive pair. The 911 gets away better, because it’s lighter, because of where its engine is and because it has the most spectacular launch control system known to motordom. It’s an advantage that it never gives up, but the GT-R is only a couple of tenths behind.

In fairness, the Hellcat - despite its whopping power advantage - doesn’t stand much of a chance. Yes, it has launch control, but it can’t get its power down cleanly enough to match the four-wheel-drive vehicles, and it never makes back the disadvantage. However, a 12.2sec standing quarter mile time on this surface is pretty good going for a rear-drive V8 brute.

Race five - Porsche Cayman GT4 versus BMW M4, BMW i8 and Lexus RC F

Another front-engined, rear-drive brute here in the form of the BMW M4, and another slightly foregone conclusion on that front. If you want the fastest-accelerating BMW sports car of the moment, look instead to the i8.

On paper, the M4 should be a 12.3sec car over the standing quarter mile and the i8 a 13.3sec car. But those are in the optimum conditions and surface of our road tests. Out there on the concrete, the M4 can’t compete with the four-wheel-drive i8, which can match its 0-60mph time of 4.5sec every time (until its batteries run out), whereas the M4 can’t get near its 4.1sec time.

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Advantage, then, to the i8, which also retains a tiny advantage over Lexus’s rear-wheel-drive RC F. The Lexus doesn’t have launch control but, driven skilfully by our tame racing driver, makes an extremely good fist of things.

But the Porsche Cayman GT4 is barely capable of being beaten in any arena and, despite having no launch control, takes advantage of its engine’s behind-driver location to make the best of what traction it has. It’s a 4.6sec-to-60mph car in ideal conditions and just about is here, too, nipping through the standing quarter mile in 13.0sec - just ahead of the i8, from the Lexus, from the M4.

Race six - Range Rover Sport SVR versus race truck

Dave Jenkins’ current racing truck makes around 1150bhp and weighs 5.5 tonnes. And like the Litchfield GT-R, the first time he tries to get it off the line quickly - which is not something it’s set up for because race trucks have rolling starts - something breaks on it.

Jenkins doesn’t have a replacement part, so he opts for the next best thing: a supertruck from about a decade ago, when race trucks were bigger of budget and rortier of engine. It weighs only five tonnes and has a full 1500bhp. Game on.

We put it up against the trickiest thing we could find: a Range Rover Sport SVR, which makes 542bhp and tipped our scales at 2335kg when we weighed it. In terms of power to weight, then, the supertruck ought to have it.

However, the Range Rover just gets away better, because it weighs less than half as much as the truck, so even though the truck can do a 13.6sec standing quarter mile, the car can do the same in 12.8sec.

A narrow advantage, then, to the car, but the sight of Jenkins drifting the truck around at the end of the quarter mile is one that’ll live with us for a long time.

Race seven - BMW X5 versus Jeep Grand Cherokee SRT 8 and Porsche Cayenne Turbo

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Yet more truckness, of a fashion. BMW ’s X5 M plays the Jeep Cherokee SRT-8 and a Porsche Cayenne Turbo.

My money is on the Porsche because, well, it’s a Porsche, but the power outputs suggest otherwise: that the Grand Cherokee, with its 470bhp 6.4-litre V8, will be behind the 542bhp Cayenne, which will be behind the 567bhp X5.

I’ll be honest: this one goes to form. The Jeep, for all of its noise and goodness, is slowest off the line and stays that way. The Porsche puts up a better fight against the BMW, but the X5 gets away slightly faster and then holds its advantage. If you want the fastest SUV off the lights, the X5 M is it. 

This article was originally published on 4 January 2016. We're revisiting some of Autocar's most popular features to provide engaging content in these challenging times. 

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

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Add a comment…
FM8 3 April 2020

Symanski wrote:

Symanski wrote:

was the BMW needing an engine rebuild after every run!




I've heard of a few issues with BMW engines, but they're generally quite reliable. Have you ever had an issue?..

xxxx 3 April 2020

And the winner is

A 8ish year old R1 that costs around the same as a set of tyres on the Porsche.  Nice riding by the way

Symanski 3 April 2020

The only problem...

was the BMW needing an engine rebuild after every run!