evo Track Car of the Year 2011

Roger Green
18 Jan 2012

We crown 2011's greatest trackday car. Caterham, KTM, Radical, Ariel, Ginetta or BAC - who makes the best? Review, pictures and video

They’re toys. Let’s face it – trackday machines are by definition cars you don’t need. Unless you have a masochistic streak you won’t be using one for the daily commute, they have no real practical purpose, and yet on the right day, at the right moment, they can deliver raw, gut-wrenching, intoxicating thrills on a level that exceeds supercars, and at a fraction of the cost. Want to kick the butt of a 458 owner on a trackday? Over half the cars here will lap faster – and none has resorted to the shady tactic of running slick tyres.

All the cars here this year are road- legal, and while for this test we’ll only be examining their on-track capabilities, all could have been (and some were) driven to the Bedford Autodrome. That there are so many new cars being produced for this niche market when the economies of the world are still mired in the doldrums is a mark of just how addictive these things are and how strong the appetite remains in the UK for feisty, lightweight, driver-focused sub-race cars.

The BAC Mono is a case in point. Not only is this an all-new car entering the fray from a company we’d not heard of 12 months ago, its creators have also boldly brought us an all-new concept – it’s the first serious effort to build a single-seater for the road. That the bulk of the 50 cars BAC will produce in 2012 have already been secured tells you everything about the strength of demand in this sector – especially when you consider that the Mono’s starting price is £80K.

Radical Sportscars is equally aware of the demand. It has made road cars before, but in reality they were little more than slightly softened race cars with number plates. The £69,850 SR3 SL is different. It has been designed from the outset as a road car, and to that end it has European small-volume type approval and a Euro 5-compliant engine – the turbo 2-litre EcoBoost unit that will soon appear in the next Focus ST, here tuned for 300bhp.

The only non-UK-based contender is KTM, and after a bruising initial introduction to our shores in 2008 it’s back with a significantly revised machine in the form of the £64,850 X-Bow R. It has more power and a lower centre of gravity, it’s stiffer and there are aerodynamic tweaks too, so we’re looking forward to a strong performance from this carbon-tubbed trackday weapon.

Ariel is a TCoty stalwart, and this year it has brought us two variations of the Atom theme. The £55K Mugen promises almost the pace of the supercharged Atom without the highly strung delivery, while the extraordinary £146,699 475bhp V8 version will surely be more ferocious than anything we’ve sampled at Bedford.

Caterham, meanwhile, has provided us with just 140bhp this year. Don’t discount the Supersport, though. It may be light on grunt but we’ve spent time on track with this tiny Seven before and it’s an absolute joy. And you can get one for under £20K in kit form, so it’ll be tough to argue against in terms of thrills per pound.

That’s something the guys from Leeds are also aiming to deliver with the £29,950 road version of the Ginetta G40 racer that we tested last year. If it can achieve the sensation of a Caterham with a fixed roof, the firm is sure to be onto a winner.

Time to don helmet and gloves, strap the Racelogic timing gear to the cars and head out onto the track…

Caterham Supersport

The Caterham Supersport is the perfect introduction to the world of track cars, and it has ever been thus. Big power in something so small is hilarious, but as the original 138bhp K-series Superlight of 1996 proved, it’s not an essential ingredient to on-track gratification. This is an appropriate comparison, because just like that car, the 140bhp Supersport has all the right bits: a limited-slip diff, a whip-crack short-throw gearbox, wide-track front suspension and – most important of all – the perfect set-up.

When I drove this car earlier in the year (evo 159) it had a touch too much understeer that had to be worked through to get the correct attack angle, but the boys down in Dartford were listening because now it’s balanced just-so. And when you get a Seven on top form it’s impossible not to revel in it.

Editor-at-large John Barker describes its instinctiveness as being ‘as close to a kart as it’s possible to get with a full-size car’. It really is. The responses are so reactive and consistent that even an average driver will have the confidence to push the limits of grip and work all four tiny Avon tyres up to and beyond their capabilities with no fear. It has the ability to make you feel capable of doing anything. If there’s understeer on the way into a corner, you’ll get easily judged oversteer at the exit, or earlier if you wish. There’s just enough power to do this and no more, and this means the experience is not dominated by power – instead the package becomes totally absorbing as you work on exploiting every last bit of purchase, every single horsepower.

It’s not only the throttle that’s worthy of praise; the brake feel is exemplary from the moment you begin to squeeze the pedal, and that makes it so easy to judge and get everything from the stoppers.

The Superlight may be small and simple, but when you’re having this much fun it’s hard to pick holes.

Ginetta G40 R

Overall we were impressed by the G40 racer when we tested it at Cadwell Park last year (evo 152). The main criticism was that with slick tyres it just had far too much grip for the available power (150bhp), so you were limited in the ways you could exploit it. As a road car on highway-friendly rubber, and now with 175bhp from a 2-litre naturally aspirated engine (mated to a six-speed manual gearbox), that issue should be resolved.

Despite retaining the FIA-standard roll-cage, the G40 R isn’t awkward to get into. You sit good and low in the race-style bucket seat, but visibility remains clear. It feels racy, there’s a proper pedal box and the primary controls are placed where you want them, so the early signs are good, particularly for the price point (£29,950). Shame, then, that it doesn’t quite come together when you get out on track.

The main reason is that Ginetta has moved too far away from the race car. It’s soft – far too soft, in fact, for a car that weighs just 795kg. It robs the G40 of immediacy and, compared with last year’s car, some of the feel goes too. And when you expect to get decent traction from the malleability of the rear end, you get a hard snap of oversteer that takes some skill to hang on to. Over two days and numerous laps, this was the only car I span, and it happened more than once.

The brakes are also the complete opposite of the racer’s. Where that car’s middle pedal was so solid it felt like you were trying to squeeze a rock, this one’s is more like a Victoria sponge. And, as Barker noted, the only way you know you’ve locked a wheel is by smell – the odour of scorched rubber permeates into the cabin as you travel down the next straight.

There’s plenty of promise here, but it still needs fulfilling for the G40 R to become a true trackday hero.

Ariel Atom V8 and Mugen

It’s impossible to ignore the drama of a pair of Atoms sitting together in a pit garage – particularly these two. Unlike the rest of the Ariel range, these have coloured skeletons and it’s the blood-red Mugen version I clamber aboard first. It’s a special edition that falls between the standard 245bhp Type-R-powered Atom and the manic, screaming 300bhp supercharged version. With the input of Mugen’s European arm (based in Northampton), this £55K machine packs 270 normally aspirated horses.

There’s always something cool about a car where you can watch all the working components interacting, the springs and dampers doing their thing and the hubs bobbing up and down over serrated kerbs. Unfortunately this isn’t the best of the breed. The powerband is so small you have to rev the 2-litre engine to within a whisker of the limiter to avoid dropping out of the zone on upshifts through the six-speed manual ’box, and its bark is so loud it’s as if your eardrums have been sucked through the intakes and into the combustion chambers.

The whole car tingles and buzzes as every vibration created by Mugen is transferred to those crimson chassis members by the solidly mounted engine. You certainly feel part of the car, and all of this would work if it was perfectly set up. JB concurred, adding, ‘For me the Atom always betrays the fact that its major masses are not as indulgently balanced as they are in a Caterham.’

In many ways it’s like a classic 911: you never get away from the fact that all its weight is stuffed in the rear and as a consequence it’s a constant battle to work the front tyres hard enough on turn-in. Trail-braking helps, but the Palmer Curves complex highlights the issue – through the long left and the opening right that follows, you want to be hard on the power, but this squats the rear and exaggerates the understeer. That said, the lap time of 1.21.0 is still good, but frustratingly there’s more there that you just can’t access. What it surely doesn’t need is almost twice the horsepower…

It’s with some trepidation, then, that I bolt myself into the Mugen’s big brother. Let me set the scene with a few figures. The Bugatti Veyron has a power-to-weight ratio of 521bhp/ton. The 268mph, 1183bhp Super Sport Veyron has 654. The Atom V8 has 877! No question, this thing’s psychotic.

And yet within a corner or two, any misgivings are dispelled. Make no mistake, the thrust created by two Hayabusa engines sharing a single flat-plane crank is nothing short of violent in the extreme, but the package is far more resolved, it gels as a whole and feels complete.

The chassis is more firmly suspended. It’s an Intrax system rather than the Konis fitted to the Mugen and it’s far more exploitable as a result. Grip levels themselves don’t feel appreciably higher (and in fact the minimum speeds through the fast corners are the same) as the racy-looking wings provide very little proper downforce, but you now have a sense that the tyres are working for you. The chassis balance still has a rearward bias, but now, like a modern 911, it’s something you can exploit.  

The engine’s power delivery is far more linear than the Mugen’s. That in part is down to the perfect way the V8 engine interacts with the Sadev ST90 sequential gearbox. The weighting of the paddles, the speed of the shifts and the effect of the unbroken torrent of acceleration it creates will live with anyone who has the opportunity to sample it. It all happens so fast you actually spend very little time on full throttle – the straights disappear and you accrue so much speed so suddenly that you have to brake early because, unlike the cars here with true downforce, you can’t carry it into the apex.

The V8 Atom will set the second fastest lap time in this test, making it one of the quickest cars we have ever driven around the West Circuit, but I have never done a lap where I’ve spent less time on full throttle. What a ride.

KTM X-Bow R

You have to give KTM top marks for not throwing in the towel – it brought out its first car just as the world went into financial meltdown in 2008. Instead the company’s automotive division restructured, downsized its sales predictions and knuckled down for the long haul. It even found the funding to develop that first car, and the ‘R’ is the result. It’s got a load more grunt (almost 25 per cent more), and there’s been a raft of revisions under its carbon skin too.

The 2-litre Audi unit from the S3 (now fitted with a larger turbocharger) always dominated proceedings, not just in terms of its output, but its weight and position in the car too. KTM can’t do anything significant about its mass – it’s too heavy for a lightweight machine and in part explains why the X-Bow tips the scales at 790kg when the Mugen Atom is 550kg – but it has now been mounted directly to the carbon monocoque rather than to the rear subframe as before. This has stiffened the X-Bow and lowered its centre of gravity by 15mm, so it no longer feels as if the lump’s sitting behind your shoulders. It still creates some roll oversteer but the tail is no longer wagging the dog.

The R is actually much faster than it feels, perhaps in part due to the torque of the motor allowing you to run through turns a gear higher than you otherwise might, but also because it’s a very feelsome, pointy and easy-to-place car. The brakes are also hugely impressive, so it feels cohesive. The springs and dampers are stiffer than before and that creates fast reactions to your inputs without losing the progressiveness of its slides.

On the debit side, the six-speed manual gearbox remains numb and unfulfilling, and I’d prefer not to sit quite so upright. The pedals adjust rather than the seat, but I’m always too close to the wheel with too much bend in my elbows. That aside, you’d have a lot of fun with one of these on a trackday and it remains a unique and extraordinary object to ogle.

Radical SR3 SL

I’m familiar with the racers, so the roadgoing SL looks a bit odd at first. That narrow triple-plane rear wing looks like it’s been nicked off the back of a Formula 1 car, but it’s a consequence of the European legislation and a neat way of clawing back some of the downforce (60 per cent) provided by the huge bi-plane wings of the racers. Climb aboard and the SL is different again: you sit upright while the top of the dash is lower, so you’re more in the airstream than before. In fact it’s not unlike the KTM, except your arms are not quite as angled.

There’s no gearlever to worry about either: the Quaife transaxle is operated pneumatically by wheel-mounted paddles as well judged as those of the Sadev ’box on the V8 Atom. The 2-litre EcoBoost engine is remarkably responsive considering it’s turbocharged, and you’re never in any doubt that this unit is blown because, as JB observes, there’s ‘a right old cacophony of guffs, chuffs, chatter and wheezes from behind.’ Sometimes you get those noises when you’re not expecting them, like a film that’s been badly dubbed. But while it’s an old-school soundtrack, the performance is bang up to date – there’s instant power and plenty of it.

There’s more downforce here than with any of the others, and that’s why it proves to be fastest of all; through the high-speed turns at the end of the lap you barely need any slowing. And yet it has a sweet, progressive nature. Fantastic steering too. There’s a delicious weight and directness without it being over-sharp and too racy.

There is a little cornering roll and that gives you something to work with. Barker describes the chassis as having ‘nicely bevelled edges’ rather than being dynamically paper-cut sharp, and it’s this that inspires trust levels that are a match for the Caterham and makes the Radical’s performance accessible irrespective of driving ability. You will undoubtedly be the fastest thing at a trackday, but equally importantly the SL has the composure and a level of inspiring feedback and driveability to make you feel like you’re worthy of being quickest.

BAC Mono

We have been allowed a run in the Mono on the understanding that this is still a prototype and there are a few bugs to be ironed out. That said, the Briggs brothers, Ian and Neil, are very keen to get as much feedback as possible on their creation before signing it off and starting deliveries.

It doesn’t look much like a prototype, though. The engineering detail is a match for anything else in the pitlane and the finish wouldn’t look out of place in a hypercar showroom. Its guts are not quite as exposed as the Atom’s, but there are glimpses of suspension wishbones, springs and dampers that are seriously cool to anyone who has even a passing interest in race cars.

The cabin is trimmed, but the driving position is just the same as in a single-seater racer. You’re almost completely horizontal, only there’s a little more width. Even if you’ve not sat in a pukka race car before, you’ll recognise the view from computer games – outstretched arms and a steering wheel with all the information you need displayed in the middle of it. This one’s from an F2 car, but it’s one of those items that still needs a little development, as the screen can’t be read in direct sunlight – out on the track I couldn’t read it at all.

The motive force is courtesy of a 2.3-litre Cosworth-tuned Duratec motor good for 280bhp that delivers linear performance but lacks aural character. But that’s being picky – Formula Ford has never suffered in popularity because of a lack of a racy backbeat. The Hewland sequential cracks each gearshift home, although the downshift blip isn’t quite big enough (it’s already on the snagging list).

The Mono corners hard and flat. There is downforce that comes into play in the quick stuff and it genuinely does have the feel of a junior single-seater race car. There are still a few set-up tweaks to be completed (the rear end is a little floaty under hard braking and there’s some mid-corner understeer), but it has a deftness of touch and accuracy that promises great things once it’s all hooked together. This isn’t a car to take liberties with, not one for exaggerated showboating, but one that’s hugely efficient and very fast. Just like a race car, in fact.

Verdict

The BAC Mono impressed us more than any other start-up project has before. The level of engineering alone makes it covetable and it backs up its presence with sharp on-track ability. It’s the kind of machine that rewards and challenges in equal measure, and on this showing the future for BAC looks very bright indeed. However, we weren’t presented with the finished product and there is still some dotting of i’s to be done, so it seems unfair to rank it just yet. We’ll leave that until next year’s TCoty.

Unfortunately the Ginetta was probably the biggest disappointment of the group. It’s not a bad car, it’s just that we were hoping it would deliver something closer to the responses of the race car we tested last year. The concept is spot on, it’s priced well too, but it was just too soft and woolly in its responses to thrill us. When you don’t have huge reserves of grunt, the chassis has to be bang on, and sadly the G40 R’s wasn’t.

The fact that the Mugen Atom is in the lower echelons of the final scores was a surprise. All the ingredients look good on paper, but they don’t quite gel as a whole. There’s plenty of fun to be had but the Supercharged Atom is similarly priced and more compelling.

KTM has made positive strides with the X-Bow R. It’s a punchy machine that pummels the track into submission rather than dancing around the lap; you take it by the scruff of the neck rather than guide it round with your fingertips. If that’s your thing, you’ll get on well with the R.

The V8 Atom is the one that’ll take your breath away. Literally. Its accelerative force is hard enough to collapse your lungs. It’s demonic. The chassis is also (thankfully) more resolved than any previous Atom’s, but at £147K it’s also wildly more expensive than any of them too.

Choosing a winner caused arguments – it really was a close call. The Caterham Supersport is one of the very best machines the firm has ever produced, and it’s genuinely affordable too. It has a perfect blend of power, grip and balance, and when you’re out on a circuit in it it’s hard to imagine you’d need anything else. That is until you try the Radical SR3 SL. It has the same beautifully detailed steering, there’s adjustability aplenty and it doesn’t dictate how it needs to be driven. To the Caterham’s qualities it adds intensity and speed. To be able to produce a car that has racer levels of downforce but with pliability is extraordinary.
Perhaps appropriately, the fastest car wins.

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