A really great driver’s car can be so breathtakingly beautiful that you’d swear it was conceived by Michelangelo himself, or it can look like the back end of a pig. However, in the world of great driver’s cars, beauty is entirely incidental. It simply does not matter. Each of the following five points, on the other hand, is absolutely fundamental. For each one, we’ve highlighted a car that is a shining example of the discipline.
Exemplified by: Lotus Elise
Aside from being the only mechanism on a car that actually determines its direction of travel, the steering system is also far and away the most important point of connection between driver and machine. Only through the steering wheel can you really get a sense of what the car is up to. Next time you are driving and it is safe to do so, try steering through a sequence of bends with one hand. It’s spooky and unsettling, because you suddenly feel only vaguely connected to the car. Steering that is accurate, that offers at least some feedback and that elicits a natural rate of response from the front axle – steering that is intuitive, in other words – makes you feel so intimately connected to the car that you drive with confidence.
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A CHARACTERFUL ENGINE
Exemplified by: Honda S2000
Huge bundles of power can often be rather good fun, but there have been as many entirely forgettable driver’s cars with eye-watering brake horsepower figures over the years as there have been great driver’s cars with not much more power than a ceiling fan. If the car is small and light enough, 80bhp can be more than adequate. Clearly, a great driver’s car does need a certain amount of straight-line performance, but what is absolutely crucial is that whatever power the engine does produce is delivered with verve and energy. That might be enormous mid-range torque, or a howling soundtrack, or a top-end so lively you think the engine is about to explode. It needn’t be powerful, but the engine must at least be characterful.
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THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF GRIP
Exemplified by: Mazda MX-5
Nothing is more frustrating in a performance car than too little grip. The car in question will understeer in every corner and when you get back on the throttle, its driven wheels will spin up hopelessly. Too much grip, however, can make a car feel lifeless. The right amount of grip is what matters, so while a Porsche 911 GT3 RS clearly should hold on to the road the way day-old Weetabix clings to ceramic, a dainty little roadster should not. Its tyres should bleed progressively from grip to slip so that the driver can feel exactly where its limits lie. There is no better feeling in driving. The amount of grip a car has should also be well matched to its level of straight-line performance, so that the car feels like one cohesive package, rather than a complicated bundle of components.
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A GOOD DRIVING POSITION
Exemplified by: McLaren 12C
Only when you sit in a car with a spot-on driving position do you realise how important the interplay between seat placement, pedal spacing, steering wheel location and visibility really is. If you have a seat that holds you firmly in position without squeezing you like a boa constrictor, with your legs stretching out ahead of you, your feet operating pedals that are placed exactly where you think they should be, and with a steering wheel that comes right out to your chest, there’s a sense you are not just sitting in that car, but that you are wearing it. You then feel every chassis movement, become aware of how much grip there is at each corner and you steer with precision.
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Exemplified by: Porsche Cayman
If roads were as smooth as kitchen worktops performance cars could have rock solid suspension. They would therefore be fantastically agile and have the body control of a Formula One car. But roads aren’t like that. Here in the UK, roads are more like the surface of the moon than kitchen worktops. That is why cars need to have suspension, but simply making it marshmallow-soft is no good at all because the car will bounce and roll and flop about like an elephant seal on a trampoline. The suspension must be well-judged, which means firm enough that the car is agile and tightly-controlled in corners, but pliant enough that bumps and compressions can be absorbed and shrugged away. It is a dark art known only to the very best chassis engineers.
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