One last blast before winter
One last blast before winter.
What separates those who suffer the affliction for speed from those who don’t? Most of my peers who must endure a 4-hour return trip, for one appointment, on a "twisty road", consider this a chore. I, on the other hand, consider this heaven on earth. Particularly, if the location of said appointment is at the other end of the finest combination of driving roads in Scotland.
A93-B976-A939-B9008-B9009. Or in simple terms, Perth-Blairgowrie-Braemar-Tomintoul-Dufftown. I am yet to find a finer stretch of tarmac to drive.
On a recent bright but chilly autumn morning, I was reminded of the privileged life I enjoy. Ahead of me lay 100 miles of driving nirvana. As if this weren't enough, I had the luxury of a choice of steed to negotiate the twisty climb up to glorious Speyside.
Normally, when heading out for a day on the road visiting my customers, my automatic routine is to jump into my beloved Renault Clio RS200, thumb the starter button and whizz away (late) to my first appointment.
Purchased as a 'daily driver' earlier in the year for a smidge over £5000, driving the RS Clio has been a hoot and loyal companion to boot. Laps of the UK's motorways, narrow B-road blasts and Knockhill track days alike, have all been devoured by the little Clio without complaint. Sometimes all in the same week.
On launch in 2009, the RS200 Clio was met with gushing praise from the motoring press, hailed as one of the best hot hatches ever built. Following extensive research of my own, tearing across the narrow country lanes of Scotland, I cannot construct any argument to the contrary.
So, if driving one of the finest hot hatches ever built across Scotland's finest roads is the benchmark, what could possibly demote the Clio to the bench? My dream car. My yellow Lotus Exige V6S. Affectionately known in our house as 'Bumblebee'.
In January this year, I acquired this car of my dreams. What seemed so unobtainable for so long for a variety of reasons, all of a sudden became reality. Thanks to a long hire purchase agreement, the sale of my scotch whisky collection in its entirety and a healthy dose of bravery, my dream of owning a Lotus was achieved.
However, as you can imagine, there are a few hurdles preventing a travelling sales person using a mid-engine sports car to carry out their daily duties. Firstly, as a sales person, you must never be scared to ask for an order. Arriving in a bright yellow sports car will decrease your chances of receiving this order faster than said car empties its puny fuel tank.
Secondly, an annual mileage of 25,000 miles a year will guarantee spending all your spare time and cash at your local dealer on tyres, brakes and servicing.
Thirdly, multiple hours a day in a carbon fibre bucket seat will guarantee you become ever more familiar with your local physiotherapist who cares not for the 5kg they save.
Therefore, use of my cherished Lotus is strictly kept for when I am 'off duty'. Up until now, I have been surprisingly compliant with this promise to myself.
On this given morning, with clocks due to fall back at the end of the week, plunging us into the dark, cold depths of Scottish winter, time was running out for Bumblebee and I. It had been two weeks since Bumblebee had been off the driveway. Well except for one trip to Aldi, a mundane task brightened immeasurably by this car.
With winter closing in fast, I reached to the back of my drawer, grasping the keys to my supercharged, flyweight machine and head downstairs. My laptop bag and samples nestled in the passenger seat, I'm ready for my day 'at work'.
Ingress to the low slung aluminium chassis, requires a specific technique, which can be executed with dignity just about intact. Ensuring the seat is as far as back as possible, first up is the left leg. Dangle the left leg into the foot well, gain traction, then free fall backside first, into the rock hard bucket seat. The right leg must then be tucked into the car with both arms and then safely nestled on the throttle pedal.
Once on board, I push the basic key, that wouldn't look out of place on a golf kart, into the ignition. Behind me the fuel pumps hiss quietly until I click the button on the key, ordering the 3.5 litre V6 engine to bark into life. A raucous yet joyful sound that causes me to giggle like the wee boy who dreamt of owning such a car.
Filled with anticipation for the drive north, Bumblebee sits idling with an almost agricultural, metallic chatter. For what seems like an eternity, the asthmatic air conditioning feebly tries to clear the windscreen that has misted in the cool of the night.
Eventually, screen now cleared, I drag Bumblebee out the driveway, allowing my long suffering neighbours the opportunity to go back to sleep undisturbed by the booming V6 burble.
We trundle out of Perth. Bumblebee's Momo steering wheel wriggles in between my fingers as we ride over the bumps and blemishes of the town's road network. Initial stages of this slice of driving heaven are relatively straightforward compared to the meandering contours of Glenshee further ahead. Nevertheless, an opportunity to get into a rhythm and allow the car to reach full operating temperature, is welcome.
What sets my Lotus apart from any other car I have owned, is the uncanny detail and communication that the car transmits to me. Even though I am no professional driver, not by a long chalk, it still amazes me how I can detect the cars manner and drive accordingly. If the AP racing brakes or Yokohama tyres aren't at the desired temperature, the car feels nervous and on its tip toes. Feelings of a biting grip on turn in are absent but slowly build as temperature is accumulated in the tyre.
All the way to Blairgowrie, our pace is pedestrian. Not necessarily due to the usual morning traffic on this section of the journey but due to the road surface. In Scotland, it's harvest time and I am dissecting one of the most densely populated areas for agriculture in the country. Perthshire’s rough, rural tarmac was smeared with a film of mud and moisture. Coupled with the low air temperature, the level of adhesion resembled a surface doused with the local garage’s weekly supply of Castrol GTX.
Slithering around on the slick autumn surface, Bumblebee lets me know, just how clever the Bosch engineers that engineer the Lotus traction control system are. Full throttle in anything below 4th gear is off limits. So sophisticated are the Exige’s electronics, full throttle in second gear is normally child’s play, today would require a more grown up approach.
On arrival to Blairgowrie, I stop to fill the Exige's microscopic fuel tank, not for the last time of the day. After a slow and slightly anxious drive so far, I try to stifle thoughts that I probably shouldn't have taken Bumblebee for one last blast before winter. But, in the end, neither the road or my car let me down.
With a full tank of petrol and empty bladder, I set off for Glenshee. Departing Blairgowrie, not a large town whatsoever, the roads immediately dry and it's game on. Within no more than 2 miles, the road surface changes beyond recognition.
Pointing the Exige up the hill, slotting in 3rd gear and opening up full throttle for the first time of the drive, stretching every last growling revolution of the 6 cylinder motor, immediately vanquishes any regrets.
A few miles later and Bumblebee, building operating temperature to suitable levels, comes alive. Each straight linking the myriad of corners, is dispatched in brutal fashion as I quickly rush up the gearbox. All my effort is deployed to achieve a consistent rhythm, using the cars strong engine braking, carrying corner speed and rarely engaging lower than 3rd gear.
As we sweep through the north Perthshire countryside, resplendent in a broad palette of autumn colours, I try to keep focused on the road. So capable is the Lotus, that each corner comes thick and fast.
Following the advice of my advanced driving teacher, Mark, I play back his wise instructions. "Ease off the power early!", "Don’t brake!" "Watch for the limit point, here it comes!" "look through the corner and squeeze on the power!". After years in forgiving four wheel drive performance cars, this training from a retired police instructor unlocks a whole new level of the Exige’s performance. I couldn't recommend it more highly.
Surprisingly, given the time of year, the road is busier than normal. Progress is only curtailed momentarily though. At a moment's notice, Bumblebee's 3.5 litre power plant offers a dollop of torque on request and slower traffic is disposed of swiftly and safely. Often I wonder about the thoughts of the driver in front when a bright yellow sports car suddenly fills the mirrors, I suspect it's 50/50 between "Oh wow, look! How cool is that?" and "Can you pass a Werthers Original please".
Next up is the sweeper bends, linking Glenshee ski resort and Braemar. All the bends follow so closely after one another that I am allowed no rest. As the pace builds, it becomes apparent that I am finally reaching the cars comfort zone and approach the end of mine. Concentration is unwavering now as my eyes scan for any imperfection in the road, watching for nasty potholes waiting to claim one of Bumblebee’s matt black wheel rims.
Nearing our destination in Dufftown, I turn right at a square junction, near the village of Tomintoul and onto one of Scotlands hidden gem roads, the B9008/B9009. This section has a layout that builds confidence and momentum. Fast, flowing and with vivid forward vision, Bumblebee is in his natural habitat. Whether the car is making use of the large rear wing and vast front splitter as I hang on for dear life round the fast bends, I don’t know, but to me, it certainly felt like it. Swooping through the long, fast corners, the characteristic Lotus unassisted steering delivers a thesis of information to my palms in a split second. Ever so gently, the steering wheel feels marginally heavier as speed builds through the corner, it is like nothing I have ever experienced in any car.
Throughout the course of the journey home, I retrace my wheel tracks along this breath-taking road. Flying past bunches of visitors taking photographs I feel proud that they have chosen to visit our country but this feeling is quickly followed by gratitude. Those people, have travelled thousands of miles to see our landscape. For me, it is little more than an hour’s worth of pure driving pleasure from my front door.
This brings me neatly to why I chose to break my rule. Of course, it's not the first time I have considered taking Bumblebee out for a day of sales calls. However, I always seem to construct a combination of sensible reasons to convince myself of why that wouldn't be a good idea. But, on this particular day, I was driven by gratitude for the privileged position I found myself in. My Lotus, a blast up one of the world's greatest driving roads, on a sunny day, with winter looming large in the mirror? If I didn't seize the opportunity, I might has well have driven straight to the nearest dealer and handed over the keys for good.
If you are fortunate enough to own a car that makes you smile, don't make an excuse, get in, turn the key and drive.
Peter MacKay is the host of The Peter MacKay Motorsport Podcast. Follow the show on www.petermackaymotorsport.com