The supercar section traditionally throws up three strong contenders for outright BBDC honours. This year, Ferrari's 458 Speciale squares up against McLaren's 650S and Porsche's 911 GT3
15 October 2014

These three are sure to be at the business end of this year’s contest: Ferrari’s achingly brilliant 458 Speciale versus McLaren’s unfeasibly potent 650S versus last year’s outright winner, the already proven Porsche 911 GT3 – in non-barbecue specification this time around.

Between them, these three represent the pinnacle of dynamic possibilities this side of a full-blown hypercar. In many ways, they are the most capable road cars that money can buy in the real world. Around a circuit like Castle Combe, they are also a whole lot more approachable than their hypercar cousins and are therefore not that much slower than them against the stopwatch.

Inevitably, though, the Ferrari ended up posting the fastest time, and by a fair margin. But then the 458 Speciale is one of those rare cars that always over-delivers, no matter what your expectations of it may be.

The noise that it makes is enough on its own to make your heart skip a beat. Quite how it manages to pass road car noise regulations is hard to fathom, considering how deliciously deafening it sounded every time it hammered past the pits. And every time it did so, anyone lucky enough to be standing around in the paddock would stop, stare and smile.

From behind its multi-function, suede-rimmed steering wheel, the 458 feels, well, just very special indeed. Its cabin is quite sparse, deliberately so, with bare aluminium staring back at you from down in the footwells. But all of the main ingredients for major driving thrills are there and, as it turns out, are all in exactly the right position. So you sit nice and low in the car, with a big, yellow revcounter dominating the instrument cluster, arms outstretched slightly, right foot hovering over a big accelerator pedal.

As you move off, the 458 Speciale bounces a touch along the bumpy pit lane, but the moment that it makes contact with the circuit at anything approaching a decent speed, it settles and feels immediately at home, totally at one with its surroundings.

Its steering is extremely light and perhaps a mite overly responsive to begin with. Relatively small inputs exact a surprisingly instant response from the front tyres, and if you’re in any way clumsy with your inputs at the rim or with the throttle, the 458’s tail will let you know how keen it is to contribute to your progress. As a result, the Speciale can, just to begin with, seem a little bit neurotic in its responses.

However, learn to drive it in the way its makers intended, which takes no more than a couple of laps, and the Speciale really does burst into life beneath your hands and backside. And the thrills that it can deliver from that moment on, not to mention the speed that it can generate along the straights and through the corners, really is something to experience.

“Closer to a racing car than a road car,” was how Andrew Frankel summed up the Speciale, and Mark Tisshaw said that it has “a quite ridiculous turn of pace, with an amazing willingness to change direction”. Matt Prior also noted how the Ferrari “keeps you quite busy but is supremely accurate and steers on the throttle rather well”.

Everyone who climbed out of the 458 Speciale wanted to climb straight back in and do it all over again, in other words, and for a car to make you feel like that when it is this quick – its lap time of 1min 11.9sec is outrageous for a car with number plates – is a very rare thing indeed.

Having said that, the GT3 and 650S were far from blitzed by the Ferrari at Castle Combe, neither subjectively nor against the clock. The Porsche lapped in 1min 13.1sec, the McLaren in 1min 12.9sec.

And in its way, the Porsche was just as exciting to drive as the Ferrari, with massive composure under brakes, bundles of feel from its rear end, great traction (better traction than the 458, to be honest) and amazingly good feel through its electric power steering, plus a phenomenally good dual-clutch automatic gearbox.

The only element that the GT3 lacked beside the others was pure horsepower. It couldn’t quite live with the 458 or the 650S along the straight bits, basically, which is not something you find yourself saying very often about a ‘991’ GT3. But for many – for most, indeed – this didn’t matter one iota because the GT3 was (a) still extremely rapid in isolation and (b) if anything, even better at the touchy-feely stuff than the 458 in certain places, especially when riding the kerbs.

Matt Saunders described the GT3 as “the one you most want to make your own. You unwrap it like a jewel in a gift-wrapped box. This is a proper, grown-up sports car.” Prior noted simply that the GT3 is “still the one”.

And what of the McLaren? Despite being quite brilliant at dealing with Castle Combe’s notoriously bumpy surface, which endowed it with a composure in certain places that threw both the Ferrari and the GT3 (under brakes into Quarry, for example), the 650S wasn’t quite at the same level overall.

Not for pure speed – along the main pit straight and through the flat-out kink down to Quarry, the McLaren was actually the fastest of all – but instead for pure driver indulgence. People tended to climb out of the 650S with a knowing smile, full of admiration for the speeds that it could generate and the composure that it maintained over the bumps, but rarely were they giggling with delight. Not like they did after stints in the GT3 and 458.

The McLaren also understeered where the GT3 and 458 just gripped at the front and went. At the exit of Quarry and through Tower, for example, the 650S’s front end washed away surprisingly fast, and all you could then do was wait and be patient. Dialling up more throttle merely added understeer, or a wild hit of oversteer, and in these two corners alone the 650S lost a fair chunk of time (and reputation) on the day.

A couple of testers also noted that its brake pedal began to go long after sustained lapping, although, to be fair, most drivers emerged after a session in the McLaren feeling pretty exhilarated.

Frankel noted that “over the bumps, it is from another world. Hard to believe it is related to the car they brought to Rockingham three years ago”. Tisshaw also had high praise for the McLaren, saying that “whatever the thing that was missing from the 12C has been well and truly found in the 650S. Shows how far McLaren has come in such a short time.”

A very long way in a very short space of time, yes, but not quite as far as Ferrari and Porsche have come, albeit over a far longer period of time. Give it another year or two, though, and the sky will be the limit for McLaren. One day, it’ll win one of these things outright.

Lap times

Ferrari 458 Speciale – 1min 11.9sec

McLaren 650S – 1min 12.9sec

Porsche 911 GT3 – 1min 13.1sec

Britain's Best Driver's Car 2014

Click on the links below to read each section of Britain's Best Driver's Car 2014, followed by the crowning of this year's overall champion as decided by our eight judges.

The sports coupés – BMW i8 vs Porsche Cayman GTS vs BMW M4

The V8 muscle cars – Chevrolet Corvette Stingray vs Jaguar F-type R coupé vs Vauxhall VXR8 GTS

The misfits – Alfa Romeo 4C vs Ariel Atom 3.5R vs Renault Mégane RS 275 Trophy

The verdict – Britain's Best Driver's Car 2014 is crowned

Get the latest car news, reviews and galleries from Autocar direct to your inbox every week. Enter your email address below:

Our Verdict

Porsche 911 GT3

Latest 911 GT3 is big and brutal; despite this Porsche has made it faster, more responsive and more user-friendly than ever

15 October 2014
650S did pretty well considering it's not as track oriented as the other two cars, nor does it have the best tires. Can't wait to see the track version. :-)

15 October 2014
What were the rules for obtaining a lap time? Just curious about the comments about the McLaren losing time due to understeer, wouldn't you just compensate on the next lap?

Also did Lamborghini threaten your future access to cars? Otherwise a privately owned car could have been a possibility.

16 October 2014
Ferrari are really on a roll with their road cars. All 3 cars here are fantastic, but the order for me is: 1. Ferrari; 2. Porsche; 3. McLaren for me.

Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • Hyundai Kona
    First Drive
    18 October 2017
    Hyundai's funky-looking Kona crossover with a peppy three-cylinder engine makes all the right noises for the car to be a success in a crowded segment
  • Citroën C3 Aircross
    First Drive
    17 October 2017
    The Citroen C3 Aircross has got funky looks and a charming interior, but it's another small SUV, and another dynamic miss. Numb steering is just one thing keeping it from class best
  • Skoda-Karoq 2.0 TDI 4x4
    First Drive
    16 October 2017
    Diesel version of Skoda’s junior SUV is unobtrusive and undemanding, but we’d still go for the silkier petrol version of the Karoq
  • Audi Q7 e-tron
    First Drive
    16 October 2017
    Expensive and flawed but this understated diesel-electric Audi Q7 has a lot to offer
  • Citroën C3
    First Drive
    16 October 2017
    Is the third gen Citroën C3 ‘fresh and different’ enough to take on its supermini rivals? We spend six months with one to find out