What started out as the ‘TLF September Spa/’Ring trip’ grew into the mother of all challenges for the Exige V6 Cup. I took the opportunity to set up some interesting comparison drives while we were away and it struck me that we couldn’t have conceived a tougher test for the car if we tried. It began with a drive across Belgium to the most challenging circuit in the world for 10 laps on a mad public day. Next was a back-to-back road comparison against a car that would expose any lack of road manners with ruthless efficiency – the new Porsche Cayman S. Then it was off to Spa where things wouldn’t be getting any easier. Just for starters, a duel with the formidable new Porsche 991 GT3 around the epic F1 circuit. If a 130bhp deficit was going to show anywhere, it would be here. The new GT3 has had car journalists lavish it with accolades, many arguing that it’s the best all-round sports car money can buy. Would the Exige be out of its depth here? I was about to find out. After taking on the Germans in their own backyard, it was time for some sibling rivalry. First, a track battle with a 430 bhp Komo-Tec Exige V6S and then, before the V6 Cup had a chance to catch its breath, a comparison with the 365kg lighter Lotus 211 track special too. If the V6 Cup could come through all this with its head held high, it would deserve an extra coat of Swissvax an early oil change when we got home. With too much content for a single article, we’re dividing the whole thing up into a number of rounds, bringing you a new round each week.
Round One – Nürburgring Nordschleife
It proved something of a challenge just getting there. Less than an hour into the journey towards Folkestone I felt the dreaded lurch and corresponding weaving at the nose. Cue the hard shoulder of the M3 in the pitch dark, iphone torch on, trying to read the instructions on the can of Tyre Weld: ‘Drive away immediately for 6-12 miles at no more than 30mph to seal the tyre’. It should have continued ‘unless you’re on a dark motorway‘. Even with the hazards on, the speed differential was giving me the yips so I got off at the next junction. Three more cans of Tyre Weld later and the tyre still wouldn’t seal. I’ve never had 4 blowouts in a night before but I don’t recommend it. Time to admit defeat and look for a room for the night in Winchester. Thanks to the AA, I was on the road again with a plugged tyre before 8am, heading for Bell and Colvill, praying that they had some rear Pirelli P-Zero Trofeos in stock. To my great relief, they did. With the help of a few good men at Merit Tyres in Leatherhead, I made the 12.50 Eurotunnel. Things were finally looking up after a very shaky start. My Bose noise-cancelling headphones got me through the worst of the Belgian motorways and I made the ‘Ring in time to meet up with fellow TLFers Trevor and Stuart for a ‘steak on a stone’ in the Pistenklause.
The steak didn’t disappoint. Neither did the Nordschleife the next day. Surfers have Teahupo’o. Drivers have this place. But like a great wave, you need patience to experience it at its best. This was a public ‘touristenfahren’ day on a hot, dry, September Sunday and it fairly quickly descended into mayhem after a number of early stoppages. I managed a few laps before lunch but as the track temperature soared around lunchtime, the queues getting on and off were the worst I’ve ever seen. We decided that we weren’t going to bother with public days from now on. Time for a break to watch the Monza GP. After Lewis had done the business it was my turn on the incomparable Nordschleife – all 154 corners of it. Fortunately, a relative sense of calm had descended about the place and, by 4 pm, many of the day visitors had gone home. Our day the ‘Ring ‘proper’ had just begun. There is literally at least one of every single type of corner imaginable and a good few unimaginable ones too. With the exception of the lumpy Karussel, many of them are in the running for the ‘Best Corner Ever’ competition. The V6 Cup was feeling spot-on with the stock factory damper settings. A firmer set up would not be beneficial here. The undulations, bumps and cambers combine for a very wild lap and the feeling of speed is unmatched as you keep the throttle pinned after the jump at Flugplatz and plunge down towards Schwedenkreuz. It’s not just the proximity to the barriers, it’s the way the car is moving around at high speed that really widens your eyes. It’s intimidating at first but, gradually, you learn to trust that the car can take the pummeling without being pushed off-line and keeping your foot in gets a little easier with every lap, even as the needle sweeps relentlessly towards 150mph….
By the end of the day, and with something tasty to chase, you’re doing things you wouldn’t have dreamt of trying in the morning. There was a feeling of having made progress that evening as we washed down our second ‘steak on a stone’ in two days with the obligatory flagon of Bitburger. You can’t push as hard as you can on a regular track day, a public day here is somewhere between a track day and closed road and it really is ‘run-what-ya-brung’. In fact, it made me think this is what our favourite UK roads would be like if all the traffic cops went on strike. Slipstreaming fast bikes laying black lines out of corners, there’s an anarchic touch of Mad Max about it all. It’s massive fun and the craziness is part of what makes it so unique, but this feels like no place to be bringing the kids in the Renault Scenic. During one early lap I counted 3 bikers in the scenery and came face to face with a Focus RS pointing the wrong way.
Unless your name’s Sabine Schmitz there is always something out there faster than you, but it’s not always the cars you expect. I was really hoping for a challenge from a 991 GT3, or any GT3 for that matter (there were loads) but most didn’t put up much of a fight. Then, all of a sudden, some other GT3 or modded M3 comes out of nowhere and leaves you for dust. Taking your time getting past slower traffic seems prudent with so little run-off, but it really costs you time. The locals just barge past or sit on your bumper until you move over. Circuit knowledge really is power around here. On the one hand there was a Mini ‘Ring taxi who just would not budge from the rear view mirror. Then there was the 911 Turbo that couldn’t pull away even on the fast uphill sections. Surprises come in all shapes and sizes at the ‘Ring. But through it all there was one constant – the V6 Cup was just sensational. It really felt like it had been here before. It responds quickly enough to get you out of trouble if the track goes left when you thought it was going to go right. Yet it’s also composed enough to forgive minor lapses in judgment at speed. The Trofeo tyres bite hard into the tarmac, making the barriers seem that little bit further away. The steering communicates constantly with both reassurances and early warnings. On a track with so little room for error, having a car with some margin to play with is a real asset. More than anything, the Cup really seemed to be enjoying itself. After the motorway slog it was like a dog finally let off the leash. I have driven a Caterham R500 here but I enjoyed it more in the Exige – never mind the drive over. It was sheer magic and confirmed my belief that Lotus owners owe it to themselves to come here at least once a year.
It’s a round one knockout for the V6 Cup and I’m sprawled on the canvas, punch-drunk on speed, with a toothy, mile-wide grin. But before we left for Spa there was a new Cayman S with PDK to try…