I’ve just been undressed by a £1.4million (RM8million) McLaren Elva.
It’s my own fault for refusing to wear the unforgivably dweeby McHelmet designed for this roofless, screenless screamer. My cosy bobble hat substitute is forcibly ejected, dances through the heat haze across the rear deck and is lost in the slipstream.
If you were in the Fiat Panda overtaken by a solid gold rocket car on the A87 near Fort William last month and pulled over to retrieve it after you’d finished laughing, could you post it on to the Inverlochy Castle Hotel? I’d like to stay again.
Words: Ollie Kew // Photography: Jonny Fleetwood
Top Gear staffers do not habitually overnight in castles, but it’s important to get into character. We’re here to rendezvous with the apex of supercar excess: speedsters. Cars devoid of shelter, practicality, and any dregs of common sense. Jack has spent several months negotiating the loan of a Ferrari Monza and Aston Martin V12 Speedster, and thrown in the fastest car Caterham makes to see if Top Gear might be able to offer a bargain alternative to this roofless self-indulgence.
We’d harangued McLaren for an Elva: the Senna’s (much) more beautiful, less downforce-literate cousin, but the prototype was too busy touring the world to be risked in the Scottish Highlands. So we elect to do without. Days before zero hour, there are murmurings from Woking. Staggered we’d got its competitors to agree and wracked with FOMO, McLaren has scrambled an Elva to Inverlochy in the nick of time.
You join us the evening before the shoot. Rowan squelches in from a location scout in the Caterham he’s voluntarily buzzed up from London. We gather in the entrance hall to brief the photography crew. I tune in for snippets. Tomorrow’s forecast is wet enough to have had the Battle of the Somme rained off on a pitch inspection, but the three enclosed transporter trucks lurking in the hotel’s overflow car park insinuate that our £4m (RM23m) trio is present and correct. Jack wears a look of pure satisfaction one suspects only Mrs Rix is familiar with.
I can admit now that while my colleagues discussed lenses and locations, I was horribly anxious of the bone china plates we’re about to spin. Not one but three impossibly valuable ultra-roadsters, on a public road. Torrential downpours predicted. No hope of rebooking them. Intermittent phone signal. Eye-watering insurance paperwork. It was a tiring bank holiday Monday, but despite the long northward voyage I did not sleep soundly as threatening gusts rattled the window panes right into the night.
Dawn breaks into a mild, dry morning. This can’t last. My mood surges. We quit the castle walls and ascend to base camp north of Glen Garry. Yes, Garry. Far be it from me to inflame Anglo-Scottish relations, but did the natives run out of names as they neared Skye? We skirted the shores of Loch Lochy on the way up here. Does the Lake District have a Lake Lakey?
Good Lord, Scotland is beautiful. The mottled heather, the steadfast firs, the millpond calm surface of Loch Garry framed by snow-capped peaks and, somewhere enveloped in the morning mist, the summit of Ben Nevis. The pregnant sky promises rain, but the clouds of midges I’d expected to ingest are absent. In the foreground, three trucks disgorge their 800 horsepower contents.
There is, as the saying goes, no such thing as bad weather: only inappropriate clothing. And deeply inappropriate cars. At last they meet outside of a heated garage, untethered from trickle-chargers, 2,294bhp of delectable vulgarity. Just us standing agog, majestic scenery, this road, and the cars.
And the Aston Martin technicians. And the McLaren pit crew. Ferrari has neglected to dispatch rosso-pyjama’d experts to mollycoddle the Monza, because this is the only car not lent to us by the factory. Ferrari doesn’t have a dealer-demo Monza. The gentleman who’s sent us his actual car has also deployed his personal bodyguard, with the strict instruction that if a stone chip appears in the pearlescent white coachwork, I’m going to be sleeping with the Loch Ness monster.
“You’re writing this. You drive the Ferrari first,” proffers Rowan, hurriedly settling down amid the McLaren’s golden innards. I wheel around to see Jack has selflessly poured himself head first into the Aston’s retro helmet/goggle combo. Usually we engage in a passive-aggressive duel before someone senior pulls rank on the scarlet key. Today my colleagues are suspiciously generous in allowing me first crack at someone else’s al fresco 812 Superfast.
The Monza is impossibly gorgeous, and a stunning piece of business. Having upset a hoard of one per centers who aren’t used to being told ‘no’ by their own governments – let alone their toymakers – by denying them a LaFerrari, Maranello’s stopgap limited edition borrows the thin-crust base of a 6.5-litre V12, twin-clutch gearbox and running gear from its series £295,000 (RM1.7m) super GT and sprinkles it in exquisite carbon fibre toppings inspired by the 750 Monza and 860 Monza racers of the mid Fifties.
There are bespoke 21-inch turbine wheels, expensive light clusters and a switchgear panel from a Nineties Punto alongside the familiar 812 dashboard and button-festooned wheel, plus a token 10bhp power boost. Yours for £1.4m (RM8m). Too late. All 499 sold out in 2018.
Access is the first of many first-world problems we’ll encounter today. Reach inside to tug its fabric door handle, sidestep the uppercut from the praying mantis wing door, then sit on the thickset carbon sill and tuck both feet into the footwell before sliding into the embrace of the bucket seat.
Ferrari offered two bodystyles: a single-seat ‘SP1’ and this sociable double-hump SP2 complete with a passenger chair hidden beyond a carbon fibre tendon that splits the cabin like a felled telegraph pole.
The door is tugged shut with a hollow thud, the key secured in a suede pod and a thumb on the red button wakes the finest engine in production. It idles with an almost derisive, bored blare. Pull the right paddle for first, push the throttle slightly further than you’d hope for a smooth getaway, and the Monza scoots forward into my first kilometre of speedster motoring. It feels enormous, but the arch flares help sight the front wheels, and two of the three mirrors aren’t useless. This, I now realise, was the calm before the storm.
Beyond town speed, onrushing air doesn’t just ruffle my face: it brutally attacks it. I take a hand off the wheel to catch my glasses as they bid for freedom and instantly regret prioritising shades over some bloke’s wallopchariot. The Monza has inherited the 812’s katana-sharp steering, and though the car’s far from as lightweight as you might expect despite shedding trifling luxuries like sun visors, wipers and glass, it flits right across the lane. Gulp.
Ferrari claims the duct ahead of the pilot seat sucks in airflow and blasts it vertically over the cockpit and you’d imagine that lot know their way around a wind tunnel, but I’m afraid the so-called Virtual Wind Shield exists virtually only in the mind of the man who coined it. To go faster than 110kph, you need (besides a dry surface and Olympic ping-pong reflexes) a full-face helmet. And that rather spoils the point of jettisoning the windscreen to wrap the world around you in a panoramic vista.
hough if you’re enjoying the bracken ’n’ thistle backdrop in this, you’re about to become a permanent fixture in it. Everything about the Monza is on a knife edge: the instant turn-in, the tripwire throttle. Except the ride, which is spectacularly comfortable.
Rain begins to splodge from the heavens. I foolishly attempt to drive ‘through’ the turbulent zone, and discover those gentle droplets that soothe you to sleep as they pit-pat on your bedroom window become razor sharp microbullets when you headbutt them at speed.
Seriously, was taming a V12 Ferrari not dicey enough? Ordinarily you’ve enough to focus on without having to consciously blink and breathe. At the top of third gear in a Monza, you physically force air in and out of your lungs against the pressure wave that’s ricocheting around your gob. Breathtaking. Literally.
You’re thinking that this is all scant inconvenience for being at one with that searing engine, but the tragedy is the V12 loses the shouting match with the headwind once you venture beyond 60ish. Honestly, it might as well be electric once you’re above 4,000rpm in any gear. It’s incredibly disorienting, losing that aural clue of when to change gear – or when the revs have spiked and you’ve got to either catch it or headline the evening news. The best place to enjoy a Monza, perversely, is from outside a Monza, where you can drink in its spaceship curves and bathe in the howl. Your turn, chaps.
Our suspicion was the reasonably priced £765k (RM4.4m), carbon-cloaked Aston Martin would offer a more relaxed take on the Monza blueprint. Its first impression is less racy: slab-sided door, turbo-muffled ignition. The scuttle is taller, lapping at your chin rather than nipple height. Grab your PlayStation’s steering wheel and lie in a roll-top bathtub for an idea.
It’s impossible to judge where the mighty nose ends, but as rain morphs to sleet (more numbing, less painful) the Aston redeems itself as the only speedster equipped with heated seats. Well, so does the Caterham, but its seatbelts are submerged in a bucket seat puddle which has to be bailed out before it can tag along.
Meanwhile, the Aston too is way faster than the speed of its sound. It growls menacingly at idle and a look-at-me blip rocks the entire chassis on its supple suspension, but you only get a sense of how much racket you’re making from the heads turning to follow as you swoop past. Later on, Jack will spend half a kilometre on the rev limiter in third, the only person in the valley unaware it’s time to grab the paddle.
With the kitsch lid on, earflaps down and goggles seated, eyeballs remain moist and ears undeafened. Useful given this is the only contender that doesn’t make a high-tech effort to interrupt the category five hurricane that’s currently using your face as a crumple zone, just a bolt-on glass ramp. What isn’t gulped down by the twin-turbo 5.2-litre V12 is coming atcha, ready or not.
Though this Speedster’s livery nods to Aston’s Fifties DBR1 racer, there’s a Battle of Britain vibe being channelled here, right? The tan leather strapping, the pert aero screens, the sense of a huge Merlin V12 chugging away ahead juxtaposing a daintiness in the controls. It’s a brute, with a lightness of touch. It’s a Spitfire. Moments later, it chases the Italian enemy headlong into a hailstorm, providing an authentic rat-a-tat-tat as the frozen pellets ping off the bodywork and pool between the carbon chair’s padding.
Rowan emerges from the Monza with the complexion of a Chernobyl firefighter, but importantly the Ferrari’s paintwork remains intact. I sense he didn’t really believe me that the Monza’s V12 shriek gets lost in its wake and decided the traditional Horncastle application of throttle was required, which put most of the colour in his cheeks. As the icy shrapnel morphs into steady rain the Ferrari’s bouncer produces a bespoke car cover. We rush to peg down the tarpaulin before it’s inflated by a passing gust and drags us skyward. They always made this look much easier at Wimbledon.
The Aston’s less highly strung – more gentlemanly – than the Ferrari. In its default GT mode it’s downright squidgy, but two clicks of the mode buttons amp up its reflexes: much more like it.
Usually the lazy eight-speed auto box would annoy me, and I’d prefer more bite from the low-cal steering, overly assisted to disguise the Aston’s portly kerbweight, but these devices are proving to be such a sensory overload I don’t object to the Aston’s friendlier gait. It’s an easier prospect to tip through a bend in one linear movement. As the clouds roll away to usher in a sun-kissed afternoon we hadn’t dare dream of, Jack agrees it’s refreshingly easy to build a flow with. Handy in a dogfight.
I’d been putting off driving the Elva for two reasons. It seemed like more of a known quantity, and chassis 000 needs a software patch for its trick Active Air Management System. Yup, even when McLaren crafts a preposterous nitro-glycerine go-kart, it takes it seriously. All three cars are made by Formula One marques, but only the Elva has done extra homework.
See that grid in the nose where McLarens usually offer a sizeable boot? That ejects airflow ingested up front, having rotated it 130 degrees on its journey through the bonnet. An ugly but necessary pop-up fence creates an area of low pressure behind it which helps to suck this localised storm through the vents, then up and over the cockpit, while whatever wind the system hasn’t gathered up is parted by a specially crafted instrument binnacle.
While the laptop boots up and Jack returns from a blat in the Caterham with his face frozen into a permagrin, I try the Elva in ‘AAM-less’ mode. Perhaps I’ve steadily acclimatised to being happy slapped with fresh air today, but it’s no more uncomfortable than the others. What’s gratifying is hearing – and feeling – the mid-mounted engine at work, pulsing through the bulkhead.
The twin-turbo V8 isn’t as special on paper as the 12-pots, but McLaren’s separated the exhaust outlets to aim bassy frequencies to bounce off the road, and throw high notes vertically where occupants can hear them scream. Welcome to the best sounding modern McLaren: fizzy, zippy, and furious.
Once Mac the Faceripper has its Norton AntiVirus reinstalled, AAMS is activated and I tail the Aston to the local petrol station. I remember bellowing with laughter as the speedo climbed past the pain threshold of the front-engined cars. Unlike the Ferrari, this airbender actually works!
It’s hardly a wafter, but it’s helpful: like a blinking contest with a desk fan instead of a jet engine. For the first time today I properly drink in the skyline, appreciate the crispness of the air and purple-green-yellow foliage whipping past on the embankment. Eliminating the draft allows concentration on other stuff. Like the Elva’s almighty performance. McLaren’s ‘regular’ supercars all boast world class steering, ride and handling, so its lightest road car to date gels all those superlative elements into a virtuous circle of spectacular feedback and feel, anchored to that rigid carbon tub. It grips fiendishly and generates massive traction, yet it’s alive as it pivots and swivels around your hips. In summary: imagine a Lotus Elise to the power of six. Sensational. And vividly, terrifyingly fast. Fast enough to nonchalantly outrun the design limits of the AAMS, even in an A-road overtake. Farewell, headgear.
Everyone who feels it come on boost through third and rides the fury through fourth staggers out puffing their cheeks, shaking their head and garbling swearwords. The Elva delivers one of the most violent, primevally exciting experiences I’ve ever had in a road car. One that plenty of its owners won’t ever enjoy, I suspect.
Are these cars pointless? We could argue this for eons. You might reason that all supercars are futile, but you’d be reading the wrong website. Good luck with your dentist appointment.
Do we overthink the rationale behind supercars? Probably. Are we guilty of chastising supercars for having become too competent, too daily-drivable, not flawed or compromised enough, then deriding speedsters in the next breath as the flakiest of barrel-scrapings: too impractical to drive, too hedonistic to be tasteful? Yeah, we’re hypocrites.
The British pair prove that even up here in the giddy motoring stratosphere, it’s not simply a case of “build ’em and they’ll come”. Ferrari spent decades cultivating its little black book of dead-cert collectors. McLaren originally announced 399 Elvas. Customers insisted that the car should be more exclusive to protect values. Then the pandemic hit. Only 149 of them are now planned, they’re not yet all sold and the business case is long gone. The Aston may be the rarest (88 units) and half the price of the others, but several of them still remain up for grabs.
Whoops. I fell into the trap of trying to rationalise speedsters. Of course they make no sense. They’re unjustifiable toys. A McLaren insider divulged to me the Elva’s rivals aren’t other cars. It competes against yachts. Mansions. Another wristwatch.
I could make equally impassioned arguments that these wealth capsules represent everything that is wrong with fast cars... at the same time as encompassing all that makes them fascinatingly, thrillingly, stupidly wonderful. Here are three machines built for people who already have everything, capable of mainlining the bloody minded joy of driving nowhere in particular. But they are destined to cover fewer kilometres than an asthmatic fun-runner.
It was a deathbed memory to unleash them all together for one halcyon day. What a day. After a year indoors, I needed that raw, unapologetic hit of open-air theatre. Speedsters, I’d take my hat off to you, if I still had one.