‘Can you send me a picture when you get there?’ say the clipped,
matter-of-fact Scottish tones of Allan McNish, over breakfast.
‘Um, of course,’ I say as I reach the soggy part of my sugary cereal. Why wouldn’t I say yes? It’s Allan McNish.
‘It’s just that Lucas [di Grassi] and I were arguing about whether you’d make it or not. And I bet him you wouldn’t.’ As ringing endorsements for a trip go, it’s not great. ‘And Tom [Kristensen] thinks you’ll get arrested,’ he adds, smiling.
I should point out that I don’t normally eat breakfast with Le Mans winners (although admittedly Andy Wallace and I have occasionally clashed over the early morning toast rack on evo group tests), but it’s the morning after the Brazilian round of the World Endurance Championship and McNish and Kristensen are staying in the same hotel as us in São Paulo. I should also admit that I wasn’t exactly brimful of carefree enthusiasm about the drive ahead of us even before McNish’s jolly breakfast chat.
In about an hour’s time, photographer Dean Smith and I are due to begin a 500-mile drive south to a road that I’m hoping will be one of the most spectacular in the world. Most of the 500 miles should be fine, but it’s the first part that’s making me nervous. São Paulo, with its population of over 20million people, many of them living in slum-like favelas, is not the friendliest of places on earth – particularly if you’re going to be drawing attention to yourself in a bright white Audi R8 Spyder V10, a car that costs the equivalent of about £250,000 over here.
On the flight over I had convinced myself that all the guidebooks were being cautious and overdramatic about the risks of driving through this vast city. They must be. I voiced this to Dean over in seat 37B, who then reminded me that it was here that some nasty fellows with machine guns attempted to hijack Jenson Button’s car while he was on his way to the GP in 2010. By the following morning I’d just about brushed that off as an unfortunate isolated incident when our shuttle turned up to take us across the city to the circuit: a black, armoured A6 sporting thick, tinted glass.
Thankfully the transfer was machine gun-free and Dean and I spent a very enjoyable six hours watching Audi battle Toyota round Interlagos. One of the privileges of being a journalist is that you can sign your life away and then get a beige waistcoat in return. This then lets you access the parts of a race circuit that other waistcoats can’t reach, and Dean and I made full use of ours. We watched a huge multi-car pile-up on the first lap of the 911 support race. Then we wandered up and down the grid for the main event, marvelling at the uphill gradient, ogling intricate bits of carbonfibre, trying to determine the gender of the dancing ‘girls’ (seriously), and catching a glimpse of a huge pair of sunglasses, which turned out to be Emerson Fittipaldi.
We watched the rolling start from the end of the pitlane and then found the highest point we could on the grandstands so that we could see almost all of the circuit sprawled out in front of us with shabby tower blocks providing an incongruous backdrop. We then trekked out to the grubby far reaches of the circuit, which were rough enough to make Snetterton look like Yas Marina by comparison. And three hours later, when we’d done all that and got back to the pits, there was still half the race to run.
I love endurance racing. I like the big mixed grid of cars, from the recognisable shapes of the Ferrari 458s and Corvettes in the GT classes, to the alien-looking prototypes like the R18. I love having time to watch the different styles of different drivers in the same car. Standing near the Senna Esses at the end of the main straight, for example, you can see that McNish takes noticeably more kerb in his R18 than the other Audi drivers. This time, though, no amount of extra kerb was enough to hunt down the Toyota of Alex Wurz and Nicolas Lapierre and the Japanese team took the chequered flag in a straight fight against the Audis.
The Audi drivers were understandably disappointed in the press conference afterwards but they were also extremely gracious in defeat. They seemed glad to have some genuine competition, too. With the demise of Peugeot, endurance racing really needed Toyota to step up to the plate and challenge Audi, because wins are only really validated by having some worthy opposition. When an R18 took victory at the following race in Bahrain, I imagine it tasted even sweeter.
‘You should go and see Senna’s grave while you’re here, too,’ says McNish as we say goodbye in the lobby of the hotel while Dean and I wait for ‘our’ R8 (which di Grassi has been using all weekend) to turn up. ‘And remember, that R8’s not yours… so rag the arse off it!’
The R8 we’ll be driving is equipped with standard passive dampers and the R-tronic single-clutch paddle-shift transmission. Sadly there’s no armour plating visible. It doesn’t have a satnav either, but it does arrive with Lothar, who will be our guide for the next few days driving a similarly bling S5 Cabriolet with most of Dean’s camera equipment on board. Outside the hotel Lothar seems perfectly sane as he introduces himself in excellent English. He tells us that the speed limit is around 70mph and that he will drive at between 70 and 75mph. Very sensible. He seems mild-mannered. Reassuring even.
Two hours later I’m pretty certain I misjudged Lothar’s sanity. Once in the car he seemed to discover his inner Tommi Mäkinen. Everything was taken at maximum attack. Through the city’s back streets as we went towards the cemetery with Senna’s grave he appeared to forget that there was anyone following him. If there was a gap in the traffic he would go for it like a ferret down a hole, never mind the fact that it was a gap made for half a car at best, let alone two. Indicators were used at the last possible moment if at all, and sometimes with a bewildering inconsistency with the actual change in direction. Once out of the city, dropping below 100mph suddenly seems to be a massive slur on his family.
This will continue for the next 500 miles. Every corner on one particular section of road that winds up over a mountain is taken like it is a part of Interlagos. There are duels with lorries (at vast closing speeds) and we’ll use all of the two or three lanes available on any given road to maximise the angle of attack on each bend, the S5 leaning on every inch of its suspension travel through long, sweeping corners, bobbing and sliding on its bumpstops.
At normal speeds you wouldn’t think the roads particularly interesting for driving, but at the sort of speeds we’re going, they become a lot more exciting. I clock 173mph at one point just trying to maintain visual contact with Lothar. To be honest it’s absolutely hilarious watching this S5 being manhandled like it’s on fire. It’s just all so unexpected and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much while trying to keep up with someone. Several times there are enormous bumps on the way into bends that unsettle the S5 horribly, but far from backing off, Lothar seems to relish these and uses the ensuing near accident to get the car set up with a decent angle of attack for the turn. We then watch in disbelief as the convertible’s unloaded inside rear lays a long black line through the corner.
The 518bhp R8 obviously gives us a good chance of keeping up, but even so, at these sorts of speeds and loadings it’s a full-time job and we’re always bracing ourselves as we follow the bucking S5 over the bigger bumps, feeling the weight of the V10 just behind our shoulders trying to break free.
Ayrton Senna’s final resting place is lovely, by the way. In a city like São Paulo, so stuffed to overflowing with buildings, noise and grimy concrete, the cemetery is a wonderfully green oasis of calm. The grave itself is under a tree and not ostentatious in the slightest – just a simple plaque in the grass like everyone else.
The moments of calm in our journey come when we hit traffic and the roof on the S5 goes down so that Lothar can have a smoke. Every fuel or food stop (where Lothar always seems to be related to someone) is accompanied by a recharging caffeine hit and some more information about the country we are travelling through, from its crippling taxes to the cosmopolitan nature of its population.
We are being taken on the scenic route south and the landscape is suitably extraordinary. The roads out of São Paulo, which is on a plateau about 1000m above sea level, were jaw-dropping for a start; after we’d passed the vast and foreboding favelas there were great carriageways suspended across valleys in staggering feats of engineering. Much of the scenery seems to be rainforest, but we also go out to vast, long beaches with palm trees, and any time we approach a city the road is flanked for miles beforehand by shabby housing, crowding alongside the road like a lifeline. It reminds me of India.
The roads are generally in pretty good nick, thankfully. However, as we get closer to our destination, Lothar says we are going to take a shortcut that will trim hours off our travel time. This turns out to be a dirt road… which is interesting. Up to this point I’ve thought about rallying most things, but never an R8 Spyder. At least we have quattro.
And then, finally, we begin to see signs for the road that we’ve come all this way to drive: the SC-438 crossing the Serra do Rio do Rastro. I found out about it from a video of Rhys Millen driving here in his drift-spec Hyundai Genesis, and it should be fairly obvious from the first photograph of this feature why I instantly wanted to come here.
From way down in the valley it starts well – smooth, fast and heavily cambered, even before the spectacular hairpins begin. It’s wide enough too, which is important, and the road surface seems to be made of some kind of concrete pebbledash, which is quite slippery but hasn’t descended into potholes.
Initially the R8 feels quite soft at the front end, with more roll and understeer than I was expecting in the early and middle parts of corners. But very soon you learn to adopt a quite exaggerated slow-in, fast-out technique, settling the nose, using the weight transfer and then getting on the throttle early and aggressively for the exit. This gets the chassis up on its toes, driving hard through the turn and steering from the rear for all the world like a rear- rather than a four-wheel-drive car. It probably also helps that the rear tyres are not in the first flush of treaded youth… thank you Mr di Grassi.
At the top of the road, nearly six miles after the first hairpin appeared, there is a car park with two excitements. The first is a breathtaking view of the road snaking away below. With the crags upholstered in lush green vegetation (mostly a type of bamboo, with some mophead hydrangeas thrown in for good measure), the road stands out clearly, and on a good day you can apparently see the Atlantic sparkling in the distance. The second source of joy is the raccoons. They’re a bit like exotic, friendly badgers, with long noses, hooped tails and a permanently inquisitive look. They seem quite happy to mingle, especially if there’s any food in the offing, and I think both Dean and I are rather besotted. Raccoons – they’re the new meerkats. Trust me.
The weather up here can be really quite bad, and extremely changeable, so Dean and I set about getting as many photos in the bag as possible during the afternoon. There’s not much traffic and it is remarkably well-sighted on the road, but you do need to watch out for the lorries taking wide lines through the tighter switchbacks. We shoot for nearly three hours and then suddenly, without any warning, the temperature drops from 35 degrees to about 5 in a matter of minutes as mist rolls down from above us, billowing over the edge like dry ice. It’s eerie. We take a few more photos and then decide to retreat to the hotel, which is conveniently just at the top of the road.
During supper Dean and I keep looking out of the window like we’re nervous, or expecting someone to arrive. What we’re actually checking is to see if the swirling mist has lifted. Normally once the sun has sunk below the horizon Dean can pack his cameras away and get stuck into some sort of lethal Belgian beer (‘Bohemia’ seems to be the best beer out here). But not tonight. Yes, the road we have come to is spectacular in the day. The view of it snaking up the lush valley is up there with names like Stelvio and Ventoux for sheer tarmac theatre. But what sets it apart, what really makes it worth flying 6000 miles across the Atlantic for, is what happens at night.
Eventually, at around 11pm, the ghostly mist has drifted off and the southern hemisphere stars are arranging themselves in the sky above. Dean and I are back in the R8. This high (we’re at 1500m) and this far from civilisation on the Rio do Rastro plateau it is really dark on a moonless night, but the xenons are casting their icy blue light over the bumpy dirt track from the hotel. We pull into the empty car park that gave us the spectacular view over the road during the day and as we get out of the car to walk over to the cliff edge we can hear raccoons scuttling around in the undergrowth nearby. At least I hope they’re raccoons.
And then there it is below us, a beautiful thin silver river of light suspended in the darkness, coiling back and forth before stretching out into the distance. Forget stairway to heaven: here we have a celestial highway. I’m still not quite sure why the local authorities for this part of Brazil decided to go to the trouble of putting street lighting on this remote piece of road, but the result is incredible – truly one of the most amazing sights I have ever had the privilege to see. After a while just trying to drink it all in, I leave Dean to wrestle with the noises in the bushes (and take some photos), while I go off and see what the road is like to drive at night.
Having previously scoffed at the provision of heated seats in Brazil I’m now rather glad of them as the warmth radiates comfortingly through my layers of clothing. It’s so effective that I have no qualms about putting the roof down. Surprisingly there’s still the occasional bit of traffic on the road, although it’s almost exclusively lorries labouring their way uphill.
In some ways you would have thought that the road, being lit, would be little different to drive compared to in the daytime, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. For a start, it seems to be endless at night. Just when I think that I must have run out of hairpins and be into the slightly straighter section, another set of switchbacks arrives. The whole descent seems to take twice as long as it did during the day.
It’s worth it, though, because the view when I turn round and look back up is beautiful. In the daytime the green lampposts sprout from the shrubbery like metallic giraffes or horticultural periscopes, and several of them bear the scars of lumbering lorries that have leant against them while struggling to make the hairpins. But at night, viewed from the bottom of the valley, they simply form a daisy chain of stars strung up on a wall of darkness.
I switch off the V10, get out and stand there for a few minutes just looking and listening. It’s wonderfully quiet, apart from the very distant rumble from a lorry and the occasional tisshhh from its air brakes. Perhaps it’s because I grew up in the countryside, or perhaps it’s a lack of imagination, but strangely I feel completely at ease and quite relaxed out here – a world away from the claustrophobic and intimidating streets of São Paulo two days ago.
My reverie is interrupted by a flipping humongous moth, which flutters out from the darkness and flaps rather too close to my face for comfort on its way towards the Audi’s xenons, at which point I remember that Dean is probably being mugged by raccoons up in the car park. With the roof and windows down, the R8 seems to find added voice at night. In the same way that a normal person might consider releasing a solo album after singing in the shower, so the R8 seems to have had a couple of mufflers removed now that night has fallen. Perhaps it’s the colder air, perhaps it’s just that my hearing is heightened and compensating for my reduced sight, but the sound of the V10 as it bounces off the rock faces seems harder and angrier.
Having spent the afternoon sliding the R8 around the hairpins it seems perfectly natural to do the same as I climb back up now, but it’s not always as easy at night. Getting the car sideways isn’t a problem as there’s even less friction between the tyres and the cold road surface. The tricky bit is gathering it all up, as your eyes can wander from the road at the crucial moment. Most of the time the streetlights bathe the way ahead in a warm glow, but some of the hairpins have been left in a little inky pool of darkness and so as the car takes a few degrees of attitude, your eyes are inclined to follow the much brighter illumination of the headlights, which is not ideal when they’re pointing towards the inside of the corner. At least the drops are hidden from view.
Knowing that I’ll probably never come here again in my life means I want to cling on to the experience and stay up all night long driving up and down. Sadly, at about 2am the fuel light blinks on and I know our fun is over. One last look at what is one of the most magical things I have ever seen and then we retreat through the darkness to bed. Yes, Allan, we did make it, and it was completely worth it.