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.
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
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