Lotus Esprit V8-GT
Top speed: 171mph / Engine: 3506cc V8, 349bhp
/ Weight: 1308kg / Price: £49,950
LAP TIME: 1.10.48
The best bit of a track test is early in the morning: the cool air is still, the shadows are long, the sky is deep blue, and the track is silent, wide and empty. It's waiting for the first car out to shatter the moment and fanfare the arrival of the CAR team for two days of errant madness. Errant madness? I'll take the Esprit V8-GT if you don't mind.
Accelerating hard out of the pits with a whoop of twin-turbo V8, the blood drained from my eyeballs and I found myself temporarily blind. I regained my sight in time to see I had already reached the first corner, a viciously tight right-hander, and without thinking, turned in. The car gripped and cornered so hard the g-forces tried to fling me into the passenger seat. Bracing myself with my ankles I inadvertently stepped on the accelerator again, igniting the ferocious curbs, catapulting me (via a spectacular tail slide, during which I let go of the steering wheel) down the straight and into the oblivion of unconsciousness again. I came round once merely to find myself averting disaster by riding two kerbs, swinging the car to the left, then the right, then off into a side road that could have led me onto the M4 for all I knew, but in fact deposited me back into the pits. Where I climbed out and collapsed in a heap.
You can do things in a Lotus Esprit GT that would bury you alive if you were driving the Ferrari. A little mistake here, a last-minute correction there, the Esprit allows you to be a normally imperfect driver for a few laps and still you'll be quick, you'll stay on the tarmac, and you'll come in swaggering as though you meant to take that unconventional line through the bend. Not that it does if for you, but it's so progressive and clear in its intentions.
In a 350bhp mid-engined supercar, such a forgiving nature is very clever. In fact, in terms of pure handling, judged by the science of damper rebounds and unsprung weights, the Esprit would win this test. Its ability to feed into corners and snap out of them, to let go gently and warn you politely, makes it more usable than the Ferrari.
But the controls let the Esprit down. The interface between you and what the car is doing takes your mind off how brilliant it is. The gearbox is knotted up, so you have to concentrate on changing down at each corner, instead of marvelling at those spring rates. The accelerator feels coarse and sticky instead of well-oiled and progressive. The steering is great, but the driving position isn't as relaxed as others here, and that engine, that big V8, is exciting and thrilling and dispatches lesser cars with ease, and yet.... it sounds flat.
The GT V8 shows that Lotus engineers and test drivers are cleverer than the Esprit itself. And that handling is as much about a great gearbox as it is outright grip.