I'm approaching a fairly tight right-hander in a 911 Turbo S at approximately 130mph, and f*ck me, all I can think is "why didn't I get the insurance?"
If you've been on a supercar experience day, you're probably familiar with the fear of God they instil in you beforehand; all part of the plan to get you to cough up an extra £35 for insurance. Cones are littered around the track to 'guide' you (I'm sure they're there for you to hit, hence the insurance sell). They are placed so tightly to the circuit line that it leaves no margin for error.
The Bottom End has come to a supercar experience day down on Llandow circuit in South Wales. We bought our place online, turned up and registered, and then went through the agonising decision of selecting the cars we wanted to drive today.
We went for the 3 x 3 option, i.e. 3 laps in 3 cars of our choice. We also went for the added extras of a guided installation lap with one of the trainers, and proper lesson in how to drive with a passenger lap in an Lotus Elsie driven by a UK champsionship winner.
After much debate, we plumped for a Ferrari 360 Modena, Lamborghini Gallardo, and a Porsche 911 Turbo S. Aston Martin Vantage, Audi R8 and Jaguar F-Type were also available, but the former won over in the end.
After the initial safety briefing, we headed out with one of the instructors for a couple of laps whilst he explained the best lines and what to watch out for. It only adds £5 to the cost, and it was bloody worthwhile for a Llandow virgin like me.
First up then, the Ferrari 360.
Fire it up and bam, what a noise. Admitieddly, the 360 was never my favourite from the Ferrari range, but there is just something about it (more on this later). We set off and in true Bottom End style immediately there is a problem. Putting the power down results in the car bogging down, almost as if it is in limited performance mode. I sat in silence for 10 seconds whilst I mull it over in my mind; was it me? Would I look like an amateur if it turned out I just couldn't drive? Eventually I break the silence and mention it to the instructor, who naturally has already felt something was amiss. We complete the lap at normal speed for safety's sake and return to the pits. Like losing my virginity, my first time in a Ferrari was overwhelming, over far too quickly, and left an empty feeling inside.
I was impressed to find out they employ an on-site mechanic, so we left the 360 with him. Turns out they had just put new tyres on it which hadn't been scrubbed in a la F1 style, thus giving the traction control some schizophrenic sensory issues. Cue one of the instructors gleefully power-sliding the 360 round the circuit to scruff the tyres up.
By this time I had been moved on to my second car, the Lamborghini Gallardo, with a promise I'd be able to get back in the Ferrari later on. Looks wise, I always loved the Gallardo, and it sounds epic at full chat. I was bit surprised then when I stepped into the cabin to be greeted by a cabin with switchgear from what appears to be a 1980's Volvo. I also immediately notice the third pedal...
The guy who delivered the safety briefing also happens to be the owner of this supercar experience company, and hence the owner of all the cars. During the briefing he discussed buying the cars, the first one of which was this manual Lambo. He made the decision to switch to automatics quite shortly afterwards when he managed to fuse the clutch plates together whilst trying to move it one day from the front of his house to the back of house....£9,000 bill. And he was an ex-F1 tester! He made it very clear what would happen if we did the same...
So of course I ended up in the manual Lambo. Why didn't I get the insurance?! Strap in, switch on, and like a sweaty teenager full of White Lightning in the dark, gently fumble around until you feel her (the car, keep up) start to move.
The instructor suggested we keep it in third gear; "It's so torquey, you don't need to change into anything else." I start to imagine his boss the owner drilling into him about that damn clutch, but as it turns out, he's absolutely right. "It's most responsive in third."
It caught me off guard a little. You work your way up 1st and 2nd, which coincide with the twisty start of the track, and by the time you've hit a gentle right hander you're in 3rd. It open out into one of the two straights at Llandow, and time to give it some welly. The thing that surprised me is not the rate of acceleration, it's that it just keeps going. It's relentless. Just when you think it's about to run out of puff, you find yourself another 1000 RPM further along and another 30mph faster. If I did that in 3rd in my Boxster, I'd feel a similar force for perhaps the first second, but after that it's a different game. The Gallardo just pulls and pulls and pulls. I love it, and all worries about clutches go out of the window.
I finish my laps in the Lambo feeling exhilarated. Little did I know that that feeling would soon be blown away...
Next up, and it's the 911 Turbo S.
Full disclosure: I am a huge Porsche fan and own a Porsche. Believe me when I say though that the following is impartial as I can be:
IT IS F*CKING EPIC.
As soon as I sit in it, I feel comfortable, partly because I'm familiar with the cabin, partly because it's just a really nice place to be. Strap in, switch on, and off we go.
It is very hard to find the words to convey to the reader just what an experience it is to drive this car. Despite the familiarity, it is in some ways completely alien to me. The first time I floored it, I noticed there is that tiny bit of turbo lag, but it's ok, because that brief second where the turbo is spooling up gives you just enough time to draw a breath to prepare for what is just about to happen. A bit like in a drunken fight, as you see your cider-swilling opponent draw back his fist, it gives you that brief second to just contemplate, and think to yourself: "Why didn't I get the insurance?" No, wait, that's not right...
The instructor for this car is the best so far, and we discuss improving lines and power management as we go around.
Discovering a better line.
I finish my 3 laps in the Turbo and go for a sit down. It occurs to me that looking back at the Lambo, which had only just left me feeling exhilarated not even 20 minutes ago, now feels a little...hollow? Things were about to get even more confusing when the chance to re-take my previously aborted attempt in the Ferrari 360 came about.
To be truthful, at this point, my head was still fully in the Turbo S, but it's a rite of passage for petrolhead to have a blast in a Ferrari, so I bounce over and off we go.
It is immediately apparent just how restricted the 360 was in my earlier attempt. The instructor had absolutely mullered the tyres over a few drifty laps and they were now primed for use. However, and in a day full of surprises, I wasn't prepared for this one. The 360 is nowhere near as fast as I was expecting. I mention this to the instructor in case something else was wrong with it:
"Which car have you just come out of?" He asks.
"The 911." I reply.
"That'll be the reason this feels slow then."
Having said that, it is superb. People talk about the 'theatre' of a car, and what it lacks in power it more than makes up for it in theatre. It howls and barks and yelps its way around the track, being overtaken by everything else, but for some reason, it just doesn't matter. Maybe it's the heritage, maybe it's the romantic racer in me, but this is special. And to think it's not even my favourite Ferrari! I make a mental note to re-book the course and ensure I get to have a go in the 430.
I finish my laps with a huge smile on my face. I reflect back on the three cars I've driven and reach a surprising conclusion. The Lambo, whilst initially epic, now feels a tad hollow and a bit characterless. The 911 blew my head off, and I love it. Weirdly though, the real surprise and winner for me was the 360. It was the slowest and possibly the ugliest out of the three I drove, but still the one I enjoyed the most. Dare I use the word 'theatre' again? I think I have to, because that is what it boils down to.
All in all, a fabulous day out. Well run, highly organised, and instructive too. The Bottom End will head back and jump into a different selection. Probably the 430, Jaguar F-Type and *maybe* the Aston.
Whatever I choose next time though our place, I may well add the insurance option.