Hans Christian Andersen was born in Odense in Denmark, a town approximately 650 miles from the Eurotunnel train that disgorged our searing yellow Corvette Z06 early this morning. He told a good fairytale did Hans, but even he might have thought credibility was being stretched to breaking point by the journey that photographer Gus Gregory and I are undertaking.
Our far-off land is Gotland, a Swedish island of some 2000 square miles, lying in the Baltic Sea. It really does seem far off too; I’ve just checked the satnav and it reckons we’ve still got a daunting 500 miles to travel across Sweden before we reach Stockholm, from whence we need to catch a boat sailing for Gotland’s medieval capital, Visby, complete with city wall, moat and no fewer than 29 castellated towers, all with dragons guarding damsels in distress. Possibly. If we ever make it to the island we will be studiously ignoring all overgrown lizards and hysterical women because rumour has it that if we travel north from Visby then underneath windmills there lies a kingdom of kerbs, crests and curves quite unlike anything we’ve seen before.
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In reality, mere rumour is a slightly worrying premise upon which to drive a round trip of 3000 miles through seven countries. Fortunately the destination doesn’t seem like the only point to the journey because we’re driving there in a Z06. Now, I’m aware that not everyone likes American performance cars, but there is something about the Z06 that makes it stand out from the muscle-car crowd. For starters, its performance is unrivalled. It has 505bhp and 470lb ft of torque – big numbers. But numbers that seem even bigger when you consider that at 1418kg it weighs 22kg less than a 911 GT2, and has a power-to-weight ratio of 362bhp per ton.
Then there’s the use of carbonfibre, both in some of the body panels such as the wide front wings, and in combination with balsa wood in the floor. Yes, the 7-litre V8 might still have pushrods, but along with the conrods, intake valves and valve springs they’re made of titanium. It’s like the youngest hillbilly son who ran away from the ranch and got a degree in nuclear physics instead.
Just a week ago I was standing behind the fencing at Tertre Rouge watching the C6.R race cars in pursuit of GT1 class glory at Le Mans. In contrast to the silent diesels, you could close your eyes and still feel the slight pain in your chest as the grimy yellow Corvettes thundered through the right-hander and off down Les Hunaudières. I can think of no more appropriate car for a long-distance journey than their closest road-going relation, and I’ve already attempted to mimic my own little bit of the Mulsanne on a blissfully clear stretch of the autobahn above Hamburg this evening. I managed to score 187mph on the luminous green head-up display twice, so as I drift off to sleep in a motel in Odense, for me the trip’s already been worthwhile.
If you’re going to see a sunrise in Scandinavia on the longest day of the year then you’ve got to be up unpleasantly early. But it’s worth it. The view as the sky turned pink then pinky-orange then orangey-blue over the suspension cables of the 4.9-mile-long Oresund Bridge was just beautiful. And we were about the only people there to see it. The rest of the day has quite a lot to live up to after that, and to be honest the Swedish motorway system is struggling to cope with the pressure. If you’ve ever wanted to see telegraph poles in the wild then by all means drive through Sweden on the E4.
The speed limit is 110kph on the motorvägs and most people seem to be driving Volvos in exciting shades of taupe. If you’re lucky you’ll see a Saab. Police and speed cameras seem to be mercifully absent, however, so we settle into a gentle 160kph cruise, the Corvette barely ticking over at 2000rpm and our supply of Opal Fruits and Ritter chocolate slowly dwindling (tip: Opal fruits are noticeably improved if left in the pocket on top of the transmission tunnel where they warm nicely. Chocolate isn’t).
Despite a horrible proliferation of speed cameras once we hit decent driving roads, we reach the ferry port of Nynäshamn in time for the three-hour crossing to Visby. Time for a brief kip. We’re not due at the circuit until the following day, but as both Gus and I agree that we’ll feel better once we’ve seen what we’ll be facing, we head off towards the north of the island almost as soon as we emerge from the bowels of the ferry.
There’s an almost American feel to the island as we drive through it in the early evening. It’s slightly spooky – everywhere’s immaculate, with wooden houses freshly painted, lawns mown and V70 estates (a tautology, I know) neatly parked. The roads are smooth and attractive, winding through the sparsely populated countryside with masses of purpley-blue flowery spikes (Viper’s Bugloss, apparently) lining the verges. There are curves in the road but you’d have to be travelling well into three-figure speeds to make them challenging.
After twenty miles or so, small signs for Gotland Ring appear, and we follow a succession of narrowing roads until eventually we arrive at a single-bar barrier. We park the Corvette by the side of the road and, after 1300 miles, prepare to stretch our legs and travel the final one on foot. As we walk round the barrier and up through the trees there are glimpses of a huge limestone quarry to one side. With conveyors, slag heaps and storage buildings all covered in a thick grey-white dust, it looks like a Bond villain’s lair. In the other direction, looming above the tree-line like mechanical brachiosaurs, are half a dozen wind turbines slowly turning with the strong breeze. But there’s still no sign of a circuit.
It soon starts to feel like more than a mile, and I’m starting to worry. What if all we find is an airfield marked out imaginatively with some second-hand traffic cones? Then we walk round a corner, the trees recede like a theatre curtain drawing back and we appear to have touched down on another planet. There’s a purity to its starkness, with no cluttering infrastructure, just a long white pit wall and one single-storey silver building sitting slightly raised to our right. It’s wonderfully free from messy advertising and branding too. A newborn circuit.
Apart from the gentle whump whump of the turbines’ blades, there’s silence. I crunch across the stones to peer over the Armco at what I assume is the first corner and already I like it. The track sweeps right off the straight, dropping down to a late apex marked by a stretch of blue and white striped kerbing, before rising sharply again into a left-hander. It’s an exciting-looking corner. I can see tantalising hints of others from where I’m standing too. But that will all have to wait for tomorrow.
As we drive up there the next morning there are two bikes already circulating and the place looks as extraordinary as ever. Alec Arho Havrén, the circuit’s owner and designer, has kindly agreed to meet us up here and it’s not long before he arrives… in a yellow Corvette Z06. Fan-bloody-tastic. Thirteen-hundred miles and there’s one here already!
Alec is one of those irritatingly nice people that you suspect is brilliant at everything they ever pick up. Amongst the things he has tried is motor racing, and although he didn’t have the money to keep his career going long he won about a third of his races, including one at the Nürburgring Nordschleife. It’s no coincidence that the German circuit is the one he most wants to emulate here on Gotland. With that in mind, I head out onto the track.
I usually manage to learn things quite quickly, but the two-mile Northern Loop of the Gotland Ring gives the distinct impression that it could take several days to fathom. After a few laps I come in and ask Alec, who is actually Finnish (‘That’s why I can drive!’), if he wouldn’t mind showing me how it should be done. I’m glad I asked too, because not only are many of the corners blind, with early, false, late or double apices, but there are also at least two turn-in points that seem to occur absolutely in the middle of the track.
Alec points out the complex he has nicknamed Senna Esse, and the wonderfully banked corner he calls the Karussell. The circuit’s myriad nuances are exemplified by the approach for the hairpin three corners from the end of the lap, where you have to brake slightly early so that the car is stopping neatly into the slightest rise instead of scudding yards past the turn-in point.
We come in and wait for a 996 GT3 RS and a full Rickard Rydell Touring Car-spec Volvo estate (yes, really) to have their fun, then it’s my turn again. The Corvette’s monstrous gearing means that second and third (good for 130mph!) are perfectly adequate for the entire lap. Strangely there’s actually a natural tendency for the front end to push wide in the corners unless you get brutal with the throttle, at which point you really want to let it settle into a big slide because the rear axle feels a little undecided and disjointed until it’s fully leaning on an outside wheel. The steering isn’t fidgeting with feel (one of the reasons, along with the incredibly comfy seats, it was so relaxing on the way here), but there is instantly a perfectly judged consistency of weight from the straight-ahead and it’s accurate too.
I’m carrying more speed now, leaving a few more black lines. Round the back of the circuit, amongst the wild flower meadows and in the shadows of the wind turbines, there’s that same feeling of solitude you get driving in the depths of the forest at the Nürburgring or out on the back section of the Brands Hatch GP circuit where spectators hardly ever venture. All too soon it’s time to come back in, however, and let the bikes back out.
‘If you wait until after five then you can have the track to yourself,’ says Alec. ‘Just lock the gate after you.’
Wow, is pretty much all I can think.
Gus and I spend the rest of the afternoon looking around the lagoon in the now disused quarry area. Soon this will become Gotland Ring’s Southern Loop. Alec wants it to be faster than the Northern Loop and there will be a straight almost a kilometre long running underneath a bank that should make a perfect natural grandstand. Some of the corners are also already marked out in the limestone wilderness, and driving round them as they swoop underneath rock faces or up inclines you can tell that it should be blindingly good. It must have been huge fun designing it all. Eventually Alec hopes to expand and have a modern-day Nürburgring stretching a massive 17 miles in length. He has the land and, of course, he certainly has the talent.
Slowly five o’clock draws nearer and the people drift away until solitude reigns. It’s the summer solstice and, this far north, we’ve got at least another five hours as the sun sinks and a soft gloaming twilight falls over the circuit. I slide into the distinctive, laid-back, long-armed driving position, press the glowing green starter button and listen as the LS7 engine gives its one long, then two short, dry coughs as it turns over before rumbling into life.
Engage first gear, then trundle out of the empty pit lane enjoying the view of a deserted track over the wide expanse of yellow bonnet. There’s never a moment to rest during the lap; spend time congratulating yourself on getting the last corner absolutely right and you’ll have missed your braking point for the next one. My favourite section is a tight right-hander that opens over a crest, kicking the tail out as it plateaus then sweeping back left into the camber of the Karussell that naturally drifts the car’s nose down towards the apex. Then you aim for another piece of kerbing that’s just out of sight over a dip but in line with a wind turbine in the distance…
As the Corvette’s xenon lights flash on, it’s hard not to think back to the C6.Rs at Le Mans and then imagine a 24-hour race here one day. But for now, driving sideways into the midsummer sunset on a deserted new circuit is my fairytale ending.
How to get there
The more relaxing way is to get a ferry from Harwich to Esbjerg in Denmark (there are four 18-hour crossings a week), or from Newcastle to Stavanger in Sweden (three 18-hour crossings a week). You’ll still have to drive across Sweden to either Nynäshamn, just south of Stockholm, or Oskarshamn, slightly further south, from where you can catch a three-hour ferry to Gotland’s picturesque capital city, Visby.
|Bore x stroke||104.8 x 101.6mm|
|Cylinder block||Aluminium alloy|
|Cylinder head||Aluminium alloy, cam-in-block, two valves per cylinder|
|Fuel and ignition||Electronic engine management, multipoint fuel injection|
|Max power||505bhp @ 6300rpm|
|Max torque||470lb ft @ 4800rpm|
|Transmission||Six-speed manual gearbox, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential, traction control, Active Handling|
|Front suspension||Double wishbones, composite leaf spring, gas dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Rear suspension||Double wishbones, composite leaf spring, gas dampers, anti-roll bar|
|Brakes||Cross-drilled and vented discs, 355mm front, 340mm rear, ABS, EBD, MBA, CBC|
|Wheels||9.5 x 18in front, 12 x 19in rear, aluminium alloy|
|Tyres||275/20 ZR18 front, 325/30 ZR19 rear, Goodyear F1 Supercar runflats|
|Top speed||198mph (claimed)|