The relative achievements of the two Mercedes-AMGs put us very much in mind of our 2015 contest at Snetterton, where a C63 estate wiped the floor and then did the dishes with the GT S coupé. And history appeared to be repeating itself with the GT R: a car we’d found fast and fluent on the smooth, warm and dry track chosen for its official launch turned into an aggressive, twitchy monster at Combe. Indeed, the GT R steered so violently off centre on some preruined Michelin Super Sports tyres we thought there might be something wrong with it, so Mercedes came and bolted on a brand-new set of Cup 2s, which dramatically improved matters but did not entirely solve them. So equipped, “it feels a bit like a racing car. I don’t suppose it’s ideal, but it’s quite a good laugh. You just drive slower on the way in and hang on to it a bit on the way out,” said Prior.
In the meantime, Castle Combe reverberated perpetually to the sound of the more powerful 4.0-litre V8 in the E63 S estate, which seemed only to come in for long enough to load a new driver and head out again. So although Saunders found the GT R “probably the biggest disappointment of the test”, Prior considered the E63 “a monstrous piece of kit in the damp, really, stupendously fast, and because there’s some body lean, it puts enough weight on its tyres to go very, very quickly, stably and securely, with a mammoth noise to go with it”. Of course, the drier it got, the more its weight, relative softness and air springs counted against it. Some didn’t like how difficult it was to engage rear-drive drift mode, although others pointed out it was quite cool even to have the facility in the first place. Overall, though, we found the estate car punching a little above its considerable weight, while the GT R left us feeling again that an AMG coupé had been set up to work in far too small an operating window, altogether too far removed from the wilds of Castle Combe in November.
By contrast, the Alfa Romeo Giulia QV did an excellent job of bending itself to whatever task lay before it: road or track, wet, damp or dry, and with very few exceptions, all of us except Prior really liked it. And he positively loved it: “I know it’s one of my favourite road cars, but on a circuit in the wet, it’s approachable in a way most 500bhp, rear-drive cars on Corsa tyres are not. Oh, my, what a lovely thing.” Prosser found it retained on track “the pliancy and composure” that had so impressed him on the road and even I, a QV sceptic, conceded that in the wet, it wiped the floor with the M4 and GT R.
But what Alfa was ever perfect? Saunders didn’t care for its superswift steering or adaptive damping and we all struggled with the feel (or lack thereof) of its brake-by-wire system. That said, if you’d suggested to all the judges before the event what chance the Alfa had of scoring a tie for fourth place overall with a Caterham, we’d have all started smirking – except, of course, for Prior, who’d already be wondering why it was not in the top three.
Ah, yes, the Caterham. Tricky cars these. Not tricky to drive, you might be surprised to hear, given the weather and the 420R’s semislick Avon ZZR tyres. Just tricky to treat the same way as everything else. Complaining about its lack of civility on the road is like entering a racehorse into the local dressage competition and wondering why you ended up on your arse. Around Combe, it was mesmerising. Even in the worst weather, the reason you came in was not because it ran out of grip, but because you ran out of vision. Of course, it slid – almost everywhere, in fact – but it did so in such a predictable way and in such a confined space. In most of the other cars, you felt the need to collect it through fear of running out of room, but in the Caterham, you just kept your boot in, rode it out on the steering and hammered up the straight beyond.