Taking a fully FIA compliant road-legal race car nearly 3000 miles across the Alps in 7 days. Best idea ever? Or would it start to wear a bit thin? The plan was to drive to the Austrian GP and back taking 5 days to get there and 2 days to get back. For company I had a 2012 Nissan GTR – a fascinating heavyweight, high-tech, 542bhp counter-point to the flyweight purity of the Exige.
My best guess was that the V6 Cup would repay any motorway discomfort with interest when we got to the alpine passes. Having done a similar trip across the Alps in my Elise Sports Racer three years ago, I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for. With taller gearing and a more refined powerplant, a V6 Exige S offers a significant step-up for long distance driving over an Elise, but would a V6 Cup be any better than an Elise for a big european trip? The short answer is: ‘a little’. For the full story, read on.
After one very arduous 11 hour stint behind the Momo wheel I knew two things. 1: That I’d be seeing road when I shut my eyes that night. 2: That it can be done. But I was properly, deliriously, cream-crackered as I finally turned into the hotel in Bormio.
Rewind 800 odd miles. The trudge down the M20 wasn’t the best of starts. The unrelenting wall of road noise had us fumbling around for the earplugs in pretty short order. To our relief, the A26 from Calais was much quieter – as was every other motorway in Europe it turns out. Sticking to around 80mph, conversation is no problem. You become more aware that you’re raising your voice as you venture up to 100mph and beyond. Anything over 120mph is a definite conversation stopper in a car whose makers assumed you’d be wearing a helmet. But keeping the speed down has other benefits these days – like not having to resort to the rather feeble ‘oh it’s kilometers per hour, I thought it was 130 miles per hour…’ when dealing with irate Garcons en Bleu.
We arrived at our first night’s stay, a lovely hotel in Beaune, relatively painlessly. A couple of glasses of local Rosé later and around 500 motorway miles were soon a distant memory. Day 2 was a fairly uneventful drive to a friend’s chalet in Les Diablerets, which meant another chance to wash the car in pure mountain water – basically Evian, only even better tasting, straight from the hose! Day 3 was a free day hooning around the Alps so we plotted a course for the Grimsel and Furka Passes – a glorious double-act and highlight of the previous trip and somewhere better suited to the extra firepower we had with us this time. Where the thrilling Susten Pass felt like it was made for an Elise, the wider, smoother Grimsel Pass is supercar territory. We took the route avoiding the motorway via Gstaad and then on to the freakishly turquoise waters of Interlaken, which turned out to be a sizeable mistake. Thanks to a never-ending stream of road works and dawdlers, a two-hour trip took well over three. If this was frustrating in a comfortable, automatic Nissan GTR with a stereo and everything else, it was borderline excruciating in the V6 Cup. The occasional relief that came from tearing past a conga of dawdlers on a wave of supercharged torque was all-too-quickly dashed by running into another torpid convoy moments later. To make it worse the roads would have been stunning without all the traffic.
Once at the foot of the Grimsel Pass, I was pleased to see that it was still as smooth, wide and constantly meandering as I had remembered. Like a child’s squiggle made tarmac. The range and punch of the brawny V6 came in very handy here as there was much more traffic than I had encountered previously. A few critical overtakes later (one past a very racy looking, yellow Mitsubishi Evo X) and I had a good 10-15 minute no-holds-barred run to the summit. The traffic did have its uses though. A crazy section of totally unexpected road works made me thankful for some slower moving cars to temper my charge up the mountain. Had I hit what turned out to be two huge, steep, tarmac ramps separated by unsurfaced road at high speed, I think I would have been looking at a lengthy stretch on Swiss hospital food – or worse (Italian hospital food). After the final, slightly more cautious run up to the dam near the top I pulled over to catch my breath, relax my grip on the wheel and wait for the GTR. I had made good time, the compact dimensions of the Exige allowing me to slip past cars that the GTR had to think twice about. Normally pugnacious hot hatches moved aside when they saw the green and matt-black snout in their mirrors. The yellow Evo rumbled past with a thumbs-up from the driver. The V6 Cup is officially a serious mountain car.
The Grimsel Pass leads to the even more striking Furka Pass. Made famous by the Bond film Goldfinger, it’s as stunning to drive as it is to look at. From the top you can see a single meandering road that is literally etched across a desolate, barren mountain landscape as far as the eye can see. You gawp at a road winding down to a valley far below, then follow its climb up the other side and watch it head-off towards the distant, jagged horizon. It‘s as inviting as a road could possibly be.
The chance to let the V6 Cup off the leash wasn’t wasted. To my surprise there was a persistent something in the rear view mirror that wasn’t shrinking. Duels in the mountains come in all shapes and sizes. This particular sparring-partner turned out to be BMW GS1100 – that’s right, the Land Rover Discovery of motorcycles. He was having to crank it over to some extreme angles to keep up but he wasn’t falling back and appeared to be having the time of his life. I did eventually start to pull a gap on the faster sections but had to push uncomfortably hard to do so – a flipping ‘Long Way Down’ GS! A full-on sportsbike would have been untouchable. Still, it was great fun for both of us and when we parted company the rider gave the Exige a biker nod of respect. They don’t give those out to cars lightly.
We left early the next morning for a 350 mile route across the Alps from Les Diablerets to Bormio in Italy. What looked entirely doable in theory turned out to be a gruelling 11 hour drive-a-thon in practice. On the hit list was a return visit to the Furka Pass then on to the St. Gotthard Pass, San Bernadino Pass, Fluela Pass and finishing with the famous Stelvio Pass. It started well. The Furka Pass was no less breathtaking on the second visit.
I also had the opportunity to drive the GTR up the same stretch that the GS chased me up the day before. There’s no denying that it felt like a bit of a tank after the Exige, but it’s one heck of a fast one – straight-line performance is expletive inducing. The stock GTRs go like tuned ones these days. There’s still a hint of lag to let you know its turbocharged but once spooled, the tin snails really snort out some tarmac-withering torque. The power delivery is notably different from the supercharged Exige. The most intense part of the acceleration is felt after that first lunge at full boost. Thereafter it sustains that punch up to and over 6000rpm but starts to tail off ever so slightly by 7000rpm. As such, you rarely hang on to gears long enough to trouble the limiter but flick another gear and whoosh! – all that thrust is replenished anew with no chance to catch your breath. Power ramps-up in the Exige in a more linear way. Despite a very noticeable slug of low-end grunt compared to the 4 cylinder Exiges, it feels most urgent above 5000rpm, right round to the 7200 limiter. So you need to rev an Exige V6 to keep up with a GTR. Leave both cars in the mid-ranges and the GTR will waltz off into the sunset. The dual clutch paddleshift is undeniably impressive but I’d still trade the few tenths it makes against the clock for a bit more old-school driver interaction. I prefer driving to be an all-body action, twiddling fingers is not a satisfying substitute. Still, the GTR was in many ways a better car for this trip. Comfortable, spacious, rock-solid and well-equipped but still able to deliver genuine thrills in the passes, it’s easy to see why they have such a loyal following. I still think I’d have an Evora S over one, just for the extra tactility, steering feel and cleaner, more honest responses but the GTR offers such serious giant-killing performance in a useable, practical package, it’s a mighty combination.
Mind you, not much of its relentless shove was being used as the roads opened out after Andermatt. A few too many perfect overtaking opportunities were missed, presumably due to the GTR’s occupants being lost in conversation. I could wait no more. A glorious, wide, uphill section carved artistically into the rugged scenery was too much to resist. Shift to third and foot to the floor. From there on, it was less like a road, more like a scaled-up Alton Towers ride. You can feel your body compress into the seats as you lean on the Nitron dampers, requiring a quick tightening of the harnesses to better contain your mass. No matter how hard you push on the road, the V6 Cup always remains flat and composed. In fact, it’s never happier than when cornering hard. I realize now that I had just started a descent of the spectacular St. Gotthard Pass. The engineering of this road is as dramatic as the scenery. Vastly wide, smooth and swooping with ‘shall-I-stop-for-a-picture-or-just-keep-driving’ moments at every turn. With huge tunnels that bore through some mountains and towering concrete constructions that cling to the sides of others, I was getting occasional flashbacks from the Gran Turismo games. It’s like an immense, suspended tarmac rollercoaster, at times surreal like some vast Hotwheels track. The sheer scale of it is striking. Of all the passes in the Alps this is the one for a really fast, powerful car. Evo really missed a trick not bringing the F40 here for their recent article. If you have an Aventador Roadster you owe it to yourself to bring it here without delay but an Elise might have more fun somewhere more challenging. One day I will be going back just to drive up. I pull over to wait for the GTR to catch up. It felt like a long wait.
We then made our way over to the San Bernadino Pass. The adrenalin from the St Gotthard Pass had long since subsided and weariness was starting to set in. We stopped for some more 100 Octane V-Power near the bottom of the pass and I topped myself up with a can of Red Bull for good measure. It was well timed.
The San Bernadino Pass (easily confused with the San Bernardo Pass) turned out to be smooth and extravagantly serpentine but disappointingly narrow after the vast expanses of St Gotthard. It was mostly single-track and 1st gear hairpins. We’d taken quite a detour to get here and I had a feeling that we’d already driven the best the Alps had to offer. Hey ho, up we go. A casual glance down to admire the view revealed a sinister black Nissan GTR a few coils down below, not sparing the horses. Within no time he was looming large in the rear view mirror, clearly on a mission. I wound down the window and waved him past – it’s always better to follow on a road you don’t know. My brother, in his GTR, did the opposite and took off when he clocked the impatient black GTR sniffing for a way past. They both shot up the road with brutal efficiency. The game was afoot! What came next was a pretty wild ride. Scrabbling tyres, screeching engines, the pace soon went from ‘considerate tourist’ to ‘crazy-eyed local’. The beauty of the San Bernadino pass is that they built a tunnel through the same mountain to bypass it completely, effectively turning it into a playground purely for sports cars. The only other traffic we saw consisted of fast bikes, a gaggle of Elises and a striking yellow 211. However, we didn’t know there would be so little else on the road at the time, so it felt pretty crazy following a twin-turbocharged mentalist down what is mostly single track pass. My infusion of whatever the heck Red Bull has in it, came at the perfect time, anything that came before was forgotten. All weariness had all gone, lost in the bucking, weaving, face-bending dance.
The road from there to Davos was mostly on great roads blighted by yet more holiday traffic. Then we took a turn for the better – towards the Fluela Pass. This road was mentioned on Top Gear as an exceptional stretch and so it turned out. Only a few road works spoilt a fast, fluid run. Somewhere in the Swiss National Park after Zernez I became separated from the GTR, which was ahead and no-where to be seen. It was only a matter of time really, our sat-navs had been plotting different routes all week. Thinking I had to play catch up, I picked-up the pace and dipped a little deeper into the Cup’s huge reserves once again. Some long, straight sections through a dense conifer forest were ‘go as fast as you dare’ stuff and the V6 really does not let-up over 100mph. But the road was mostly wide and smooth with good sight lines through corners that were begging to be attacked. Moments of feeling like you’re going in a bit hot, only exist in your head it seems. The car just grips and digs-in, carving into the road without a squeak from the Trofeos. Despite all this, still no sign of the GTR. However, I did catch sight of a very ordinary looking Audi estate in the rear view mirror, matching me overtake for overtake. I cooled the pace a little just because I didn’t know the road and he started to gain. Pretty soon he was a few inches off my bumper, looking for a way past. It was a fast road. I was in a V6 Cup. Sorry, not going to happen. Now we all know that a determined local in any old crate can do shocking things on roads they know well. But seriously, I had race-spec brakes, Trofeo tyres, 345bhp, the list goes on, I had a gun in a knife fight. The battleground was a road seemingly designed by a giant-slalom skier. Very fast, mostly 4th gear stuff with the occasional use of 3rd for the tighter turns and a real sense of flow and rhythm. What a road! I was having too much fun to notice what it was called but basically it led to a town near the base of the Stelvio Pass, which I think was probably Glorenza. What I do remember is how hard I had to push before finally breaking free of his fiendish Audi tractor beam. I can only imagine he frightened himself at one point or suffered hideous brake fade and decided to back off. But he put up a fight against overwhelming odds the Spartans would have been proud of.
So it was, alone, that I saw my first sign for the ‘Stelvio Pass’, some time after 8pm, the light just beginning to fade. This was the part of the Stelvio Pass that you won’t recognize from Top Gear or Youtube and it’s a tortuous route. Pathetically slow, narrow, precipitously steep and relentlessly climbing it felt more remote and desolate with every turn in the gloaming. One section of completely unsurfaced road had me worrying that the TomTom was on the fritz. Off-roading in a V6 Cup at walking speed was definitely not part of the plan. I took this picture of the descent into Bormio about 30 minutes later. I reached the hotel around 9pm in bits.
The next morning we had a much anticipated run up and down the famous Stelvio Pass. Unfortunately around 500 vintage tractors of all shapes and sizes also had the same idea. What followed was tedium beyond description as they turned each and every one of the countless hairpins into a horrendous bottleneck. Throw in a number of buses, a few hundred frustrated cyclists, some disappointed bikers and bake at around 32 degrees for a recipe for absolute mayhem in agonizing slow motion. There was plenty of time to wonder how the Stelvio became this ‘must drive’ road. It’s spectacular without question but as a driver’s road? Hopeless. It’s probably the last pass in the Alps I would choose to return to. Even without all the tractors it’s all fiddly 1st gear stuff and poorly surfaced. Best to move on. And so I shall.
Austria was fabulous. We couldn’t find a bad road, I don’t think they have any. Reminiscent of the best roads in Scotland, you are treated to chocolate box views and well-sighted, nicely surfaced roads wherever you turn. The drive to the Red Bull Ring was a riot. It was quite a sight following a fast motorcycle, seeing him swoop from one side to the other, banking over to extreme angles like a low-flying Red Bull air racer. There was nearly another riot when we left the gridlocked circuit. It all got a bit lawless in the parking field and it took a good hour and a half to travel all of 100 yards in roasting heat. The drive back that evening, heading west through a pristine alpine valley, the road snaking towards the setting sun, was very evocative. Austria deserved much more time than we had given it. It felt like we were leaving behind silent, empty mountain roads that should have been echoing to the sound of screaming V6s. There was a sense that perhaps the very best roads in the Alps were nearby, secret routes known only to the locals and to the occasional lost tourist. But they will have to wait for another trip. It was time to head home.
The rest, as they say, was motorway.