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.
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.