They don’t want to know that the Ford Fiesta Zetec S, the 1.6-litre one, is only the absence of a sixth gear away from completeness, having an untouchable blend of ride, handling and steering at anything like its money, or that the original Lexus LS400 was held by engineers as a refinement benchmark for a decade after its 1989 launch. I guess they’d tolerate you waxing about the first Honda NSX, or perhaps even an Ariel Nomad, but the truth is that they want a big hitter. A Noma. An Ali.
A two-word answer isn’t the right one, but I’ve learnt to oblige. “Ferrari F40,” I say, not even convincing myself. “Righto,” they reply, and go away happy. Until a reader, when I wrote the very same, asked why I hadn’t said it was the McLaren F1.
The uncomfortable truth was, I admitted, that I hadn’t driven one. “You should try mine,” he suggested, and I laughed. But it turned out he was serious.
Paul’s F1 is not entirely standard. Which, some might say (but not me), is like putting a conservatory on Blenheim Palace. Paul has done a fair bit of racing, knows how to drive and wants to improve his F1’s limit handling, give it stronger brakes and fit higher-performance tyres than anyone makes these days for the original 17in wheels. So his F1’s larger wheels have a lower unsprung mass, as will the new brakes when fitted, while the springs and dampers are firmer, to better contain the body movements of a car that was created, let’s not forget, primarily for road use.
And in the right place, the F1 is magnificent. Its straight-line speed isn’t shocking by modern standards, but the electric, perfectly linear response of the BMW V12 (no flywheel, remember) and the precision of the gearbox are sensational. The central driving position is wonderful and the unassisted steering is divine.
The test track we use at Longcross is smooth, and the car’s handling response is fabulous there. The roads around it, though – unlike Germany, where the damper settings were chosen – are not. And here this F1 fidgets to the point of distraction. And that last point makes things complicated, because the new answer to the question is not “Ferrari F40” but “It’s the McLaren F1, but…”