May all your Christmases be as relaxed and as carefree as a journalist driving a manufacturer test car on circuit. Not a thought will be given to the super unleaded being drained from the tank, nor the expensive tyres as they're roasted into clouds of white smoke or even the brakes, which will be hammered to within an inch of their lives. And insurance? Someone else is paying for that, and for the stone-chipped bumper too.
Unforgivably, until this year I'd never driven one of my own cars on circuit before. Partly that's because I haven't owned many track-worthy cars, save my old R56 Mini Cooper S and an S13 Nissan 200SX track project that barely turned a wheel, but also because I'm fortunate enough to have access to test cars, and with them gratis fuel, tyres, brakes, insurance and all the rest of it. But that all changed at Thruxton in September when I nervously took my Alpine there for its first track outing.
I might have chosen somewhere else. After all, Thruxton in Hampshire is not only the UK's fastest track but also its most frightening one. I'd been a couple of times before, once to drive a Vauxhall Corsa VXR and again to test a Ford Mustang GT350 - nothing if not varied, this car journalism game - and had been intimidated by the place both times.
If you've been, you'll know how daunting the not-quite-flat-out run around the back of the circuit is. Even in a modestly powerful car like an A110 you approach Church at almost 130mph, carrying at least 100mph through the unsighted apex. The consequences of getting it wrong don't bear thinking about...except that doing just that - and spinning onto the grass before whacking into the tyre barrier and couple of hundred feet up the hill - will be all that runs through your mind as you tip your car in.
I was more anxious pointing the Alpine's nose towards the pit exit than I had been during a track day for a very long time. It was far from the first time I'd driven an A110 on circuit and I knew very well how lively these cars could become. They're famously very softly sprung, which makes them a joy to drive on an uneven public road, but the pronounced weight transfer you get as a direct consequence does mean they tend to move around a lot beneath you. I remember driving an early A110 at Anglesey and feeling it want to half-spin at one of the slower corners just on turn-in - I had to be ready to catch it with a good armful corrective lock.
Thruxton is a circuit of two halves, the section from the Club chicane right at the end of the lap to Noble several corners later mostly tight and fiddly (although the first corner of the lap, Allard, takes some commitment). From Noble onwards you find fast, sweeping turns, plus wide expanses of featureless tarmac that mean you're never quite sure where you are. Whereas elsewhere in the lap you want agility, around those faster corners you need stability.
Through the chicane and the 90-degree corners near the start of the lap the A110 is sublime. It flicks this way and that, changing direction like a housefly. The brakes are strong and resilient and you can toy with the car's mid-engined balance, persuading the rear end to swing around gently to help you find each apex. The steering is brilliant too, being perfectly weighted in Track mode and giving a clear, instinctive sense of what's going on beneath you.
But it scared the life out of me in Goodwood and Church, the two really quick bends. The problem, for me at least, is that its soft springs and skinny anti-roll bars don't keep a handle on the weight transfer in those fast corners, so as you pitch the car into the turn, you feel its mass shift suddenly. You always feel as though that shift in weight is just an instant away from turning into a huge yaw moment.
Actually, that never happened - but the anxiety never really left me. For this circuit, or rather for those two corners, I'd be happier in a more tautly suspended car, perhaps an A110S - certainly one that didn't lurch like mine as I threw it at a fast corner. But you know what? I think the fault lies with me not the car. I asked Karun Chandhok, the former F1 driver who was there on the day, if he wanted to have a go and wasted no time getting strapped in.
We all know what racing drivers are like - they think all road cars should have rock solid suspension and be fitted with very sticky track day tyres, as if that's all we ever use them for. But not Karun. He wasn't in the least bit fazed by my car's tendency to roll heavily in those quick corners, pointing out without me promoting him that the A110 is a road car first and foremost and needs to be comfortable on the public highway. He was actually very complimentary about the car, saying it steered well and praising the speed of the gearbox. He thought the seats could be more supportive, though.
The 1.8-litre turbo motor gives good punch out of tighter corners, but I wish it would rev another 500rpm higher - the limiter calls time just a bit too early. Still, the car didn't miss a beat all day and showed no signs of overheating or running out of brakes, unlike plenty of other, much heavier performance cars I've driven on track over the years.
I did a handful of four or five-lap sessions, but when the fuel light blinked on during the afternoon I breathed a sigh of relief. I could park up, call it a day and go home knowing I hadn't ruined the tyres, brakes or bodywork. Just as driving a manufacturer test car on circuit is a liberating experience, I suspect I'd have far more fun on track if I bought something cheaper, slower and older specifically for that purpose. I now know there is no bigger barrier to enjoying oneself on a track day than worry.
Car: Alpine A110
Run by: Dan P
On fleet since: November 2019
List price new: £46,910
Price as tested: £51,494, comprised of Metallic Thunder Grey paint for £780, 18-inch Fuchs forged wheels for £1,656, Brembo high performance brakes for £936, lightweight Focal audio for £552 and parking sensors front and rear for £660
Image credit | Jayson Fong
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