There are few cars so well suited to a 1200-mile cross-country blast
Porsche's 911 GT3 is powered by a 468bhp 3.8-litre flat six
The trip started from the Frankel residence, in the Wye Valley
Livestock on the road is a common sight; it can have an effect on the amount of grip available
The GT3's fixed wing does more than just keep its tail pinned down
Wales is full of absolutely dazzling roads
Even on roads that are a little too narrow for the GT3, it still proves itself a hugely capable car
Our initial destination was west, to the Black Mountain
It's important to drive only the road that's visible, lest you misjudge an apex and hit an unseen boulder
The Porsche 911 GT3 was crowned Britain's Best Driver's Car by Autocar in 2013
Roads that are intellectually challenging, with tough apexes and hazards, can prove immensely rewarding to drive
Just remember, across country, to keep an eye out for mobile obstacles
Our first fuel stop took place in Llandovery, just as the sun started to set
Driving in the dark turns familiar roads into strange ones
A decent map is a worthy companion on any trip
We headed North, via the A55, M53, M56 and M6, crossing the Lake District in the dead of night
The GT3 felt its best with the shockers on soft, gearbox in Sport, exhaust in quiet and with all the safety kit off
A brief overnight halt permitted both the car, and its occupants, some rest
A trail of overturned vehicles punctuated the next morning's drive, victims of high winds
Traffic was commonplace, as people crawled past those who'd fallen foul of the high winds...
... like this overturned trailer, which had shed its load
Keeping the exhaust in quiet mode helped avoid any unwanted attention
The Porsche's Dunlop tyres proved remarkably capable in the inclement conditions
Frankel shows Stuart Price, Autocar's photographer, what he has planned...
... when they hit Yorkshire and the road from Castleton to Hutton-le-Hole
The option of heading to Fort William and beyond was ruled out by road closures, as were routes east and west
The roads around Loch Lomond had suffered in the weather; myriad roads were blocked with trees or downed powerlines
The GT3 did an about-face and headed back south, at speed
The next target was the moorland of North Yorkshire
It's accessible by taking the A66 east from Penrith to Scotch Corner
The Porsche's body control is excellent; it maintains its ride height well, regardless of what the road throws at it
Its impregnable poise, whip-crack gearshifts and bewildering grip make it ferociously quick across country
Crossing the Castleton Ridge, heading south, is a real challenge for most cars
A smattering of slush doesn't detract from the experience
The GT3 is in its element on open, fast moorland roads
Another fuel stop; a larger fuel tank would be appreciated
Frankel and Price take on curry and chips in Buxton, reputedly England's highest market town
The GT3's summer tyres become more of a problem over the Cat & Fiddle pass, to Macclesfield
The ice, slush and snow combine to deliver a lethal surface
At points like this, it's best to find the shortest route to safer ground
The GT3 proved capable of devouring roads in a fashion unknown to the likes of the Mercedes-Benz SLS Black Series
We covered a total of 1261 miles, averaging 20.7mpg and 49mph
A match made in heaven: one focusing on great driver's roads, the other just focusing
The 1200 miles proved that, wherever you may live, you're probably not that far from some great driving roads
Stats rarely convey the essence of a drive like this but, for the record, its mpg was what Frankel's old Land Rover might do
We all like driving, otherwise your eyes and my words would not be meeting on this page now.
But how often do you go for a drive? The difference between driving and going for a drive is profound. Given our common passion you have thought we’d all be out there, driving for the sake of driving. But that’s not what happens: every drive is compromised, usually by the destination. The hard facts are that you are here and it is there. These are immovable parameters within which you must work.
What if you woke up one morning and just drove and not just for a few hours but a couple of days? What if driving became not the means, but the end? Where would you go?I thought I knew. We needed a car and as the Porsche 911 GT3 is our current Britain’s Best Driver’s Car champion, that choice was not difficult.
But we also needed a route. This was the delicious bit. To keep it relevant, the only limit to this plan would be the shores of Great Britain. Upon that canvas I could doodle any damn journey I chose, taking in the roads of England, Wales and Scotland over which I’d most enjoyed driving cars during 25 years in this job.
As most journeys tend to, this one started at home. I live in the Wye Valley where if you drive west from London is where the good roads start. Parked outside my shed with my old Peugeot, older Land Rover and ancient Fiat peering down upon it, I fondly imagined startled gasps of French, English and Italian as my blue collar accumulation of antediluvian wreckage beheld the young German nobleman in their midst.
Wingman would be Autocar staff photographer Stuart Price, picked not just for his talent with a camera, but his tolerance of the kind of driving I have in mind. He’s done 200 miles just to get here, so now it’s already lunchtime on day one, and our journey has yet to commence. On the plus side, Stu is lovingly constructing a tuna and Quavers sandwich: if he can stomach that, he has nothing to fear from my driving.
Where to go? I thought about the west country, but few memorable drives have come on those roads, fewer still since a blanket speed limit was draped over Dartmoor. So we go west to objective one at Black Mountain, probably the single most challenging road in Wales.
I’d not say the road from Brynamman to Llangadog is perfectly for the GT3 – its narrowness makes it a more Caterham-friendly facility, but the Porsche still flings itself at the mountain with monumental conviction. There’s no time to relax here: huge boulders line the road that can – and have – ripped entire suspension assemblies off cars conducted by drivers greedy for more than their fair share of apex.
But armed with a precision instrument and taking care only to drive what you can see, it presents an inspiring challenge. Of all the roads for which we are heading, this presents the toughest intellectual challenge. You might not whoop with joy at its conclusion, but that quiet glow is no less satisfying for that.
We fill for the first time in Llandovery and at just 3.30pm, the light is already failing. Photo shoots usually stop around now at this time of year, but this is not a shoot: it’s a drive during which we’re taking some shots to prove we did it. Besides I love driving in the dark: roads you think you know well become strange and new as your journey through the night takes on an altogether more intrepid quality.
So we hammer north, up the wonderful A483 to Beulah and then the B4358 to Newbridge-on-Wye. The A470 from there to Rhayader is fast, but the B4518 from there to Llanidoes and on to Llanbynmair is simply epic. Narrow, quick, full of crests and cambers its surfaces are made variable by the ingredients of both its tarmac and stomach contents of the livestock that frequently passes this way.
I’ve worked out the best configuration for the GT3: shockers on soft, gearbox in sport, exhaust left quiet, all safety nets disengaged. On this road an old GT3 would be a handful: you’d need to be in the right gear and mindful of its desire to understeer. The new car is not like this: both physically and mentally it asks a lot less of its driver, though whether that comes at the price of providing less pleasure in return is one of the questions I’m here to answer. We rejoin the A470, head up to Dolgellau and then turn north again on the A494 to Lake Bala.
Turn left from Bala town itself on the A4212 and you will drive through the best corner in Britain. Not the fastest, or toughest, just the best – an endless, wide open left through which there’s time to load the GT3’s Dunlop Sport Maxx tyres to the limit and then ease on and off the throttle to see how it addresses the road. It adjusts its attitude as if your foot were literally pulling and pushing the nose toward and away from the apex. Clearly beside himself with admiration for my talent, Stu is staring at the stars and propounding a theory of the universe that can only be the product of a brain too long exposed to a diet of tuna and Quavers.
Soon my hidden agenda is revealed. Living in Wales as I do, I know that when it comes to heroically awful Christmas decorations, this country is in a league of one, which is why I have chosen to drive from its south to north coast under cover of night. In Blaenau our efforts are rewarded by a single dwelling whose illuminations are almost certainly visible from space, let from the A470.
I’d like to stay but time is pressing and Snowdonia is waiting. At Betws-y-coed we turn left to Capel Curig and left again onto the A4086 and over the magnificent Llanberis Pass. In most cars you tend to adopt higher gears as confidence builds, but not this one: because the engine is so mighty between 5000-7000rpm, you need to teach yourself to use all 9000rpm that this extraordinary motor provides. My only complaint is the choice of ratios. First and second are two low, with too long a gap to third. Fourth, fifth and sixth are too high, especially since 7th is geared low enough to ensure maximum speed occurs at peak power.
At Bangor we take the A55 east, stopping only in Llandudno when Stuart’s lustings for an irradiated steak and kidney pudding become insatiable; but in Rhyl we need more fuel. This tank is far too small for this kind of work. It’s past 10.00pm now but I have neither the time nor inclination to stop. The radio insists we’re heading into the worst weather the north of England and Scotland have seen in years, but I figure if we don’t sleep until Glasgow 280 miles away, by the time we wake up, it will have passed. I say ‘we’ - Stu announces he’s going to have to have a snooze, shuts his eyes and wakes up four hours later in Scotland.
In the meantime I’ve taken the A55, M53 and M56 to the M6 north and crossed the Lake District in the dead of night. In fact despite the beauty of the scenery, the actual driving to be done past Windermere and up past Ullswater pales beside what we’ve seen in Wales. From Penrith to Carlisle then through the borders I take the line of least resistance until lured by the Holiday Inn Express in Hamilton at 2.00am.
Four hours later we emerge to find Glasgow apparently under water. For tyres with the word ‘race’ written on their sidewalls, the Dunlops are remarkably good in these conditions and despite wind speeds of 70mph or more, the low, wide GT3 barely notices the gusts. Somewhere up a nearby mountain, one hits 140mph. Every few miles we find some van, lorry or other vehicle that’s been blown onto its side and each time I have to remind myself how it got that way.
By Loch Lomond the worst of the weather has gone, but it has left behind a trail of destruction that has felled thousands of trees, cut electricity to entire communities and caused at least one fatality. We try the west shore but are turned around before Tarbet; the east is no better so we end up on the coast in Helensburgh where the route north is also blocked. The plan had always been to get to Fort William then turn up the A82 to Port Augustus on one of the most beautiful roads in Europe. I’d even fondly entertained hopes of getting to Ullapool because it is where I’d live if all I ever had to do in life was drive.
But the weather has other plans. Faced with spending the rest of this feature providing you with an in depth analysis of a GT3 motor’s idling strategy or heading south once more, we exercise the only option we have. We fuel up – again – and turn around.
Quantum mechanics, string theory and what really goes on at Pine Gap in Australia are just some of the wide and diverse range of topics postulated by my valiant and now entirely refreshed co-driver as we head back over the border. We are fortunate in this currently United Kingdom that despite its population density you can drive such a great distance, hit a dead end and still have so many other outstanding roads on which to play. I am fortunate to have such an original thinker by my side.
My target is clear: the moorland of North Yorkshire is accessible by taking the A66 East from Penrith to Scotch Corner. From there we should head south on the A1 but I’m bored so instead thread my way freehand across to the A19, then up the A172 to Stokesley and across to Castleton. Here commences my favourite single road certainly in England and probably Great Britain.
The route south across Castleton Ridge and Blakey Ridge to Kirkbymoorside is even more of a challenge for a car than its driver. What’s needed here is body control: an ability to maintain ride height whatever the road throws at you. The approaches are slushy and slippery and the light is fading again, but once on top of the moor, the GT3 is in the environment for which it was born.
I’ve driven McLarens, Ferraris and, most recently, a Mercedes SLS Black Series across this road, but I’ve never known it devoured like this. The impregnable poise, whip-crack gear shifts and bewildering grip are enough to reduce even Stu to awe-struck silence. More fuel is taken in Kirkbymoorside as night descends again. But we’re not done yet. Not quite at least.
It’s dark as we hit the A1, M18 and M1 south but at Chesterfield we veer to the right and head out across the Pennines again, into the Peak District, the last great wilderness of our trip. We overnight in Buxton. With its proud claim to be England’s highest market town it seems fitting that it’s here that Stuart introduces me to the dubious delights of combining England’s two favourite foods. However bad curry and chips sounds, it tastes worse.
Waking up at dawn it hits me. My insides have spent most of the night wrestling Buxton’s finest Balti into some semblance of submission, but for the first time on the trip, I am truly tired. There’s a thin veil of snow on the roof the GT3 and for just a moment I’m ashamed to say I’d have chosen my bed over its thin, black carbon fibre bucket.
One crank of the motor blows such unworthy thoughts to dust. It turns out the GT3 is one of those rare sports cars you don’t have to drive fast to enjoy. It’s a special car just to be with, even if you just drive it slowly through the morning commute.
Or over the Cat & Fiddle pass to Macclesfield. Even in dry weather this is reputedly Britain’s most dangerous road, but in ice and slush and snow, in a GT3 on summer tyres, it is lethal. One substantial slither, too far and fast for the ESP to catch, is enough to make me take the shortest route possible to lower ground and head for home. When we get back, the trip says we’d done a little over 1200 miles in a little less than 25 hours driving.
Not much is it? An average of just 50mph. I once covered almost double that distance in 24 hours in a 90bhp Ford Mondeo. But it is enough: enough to confirm the greatness of the GT3 and its worthiness as the next in a long and illustrious line. Is it more fun than the car it replaces? Probably not; but if like me you believe a car’s enjoyment is defined by how much fun it is to drive multiplied by how often you feel inclined to drive it, over a lifetime it would be the more satisfying car to own.
More importantly, those 1200 miles showed that most people who live on this land mass are never actually that far from truly great driving roads. Overpopulated though this island is, for the length, breadth, quality and sheer accessibility of its best roads, if all you want to do is drive, this is still one of the best places on earth to do it.