“I’d be ashamed,” my driving partner said, clucking his tongue behind the wheel, “It’s embarrassing.”
Just up ahead, the shining flanks of a Cayman GT4 rippled along this undulating road – 20” alloys, a 3.8L flat-six making a highly-underrated 385hp, functional aerodynamics, huge brakes. It’s a fantastic little car, terrier-like in tenacity, grippy like a gecko; the best blend of raw driving pleasure and mid-engined docility you could wish for, stirred up with a proper six-speed manual transmission.
And then, just ahead of the best driver’s-car Porsche produces, there is a tiny white hatchback – a Citroën C3. I can’t see the badge, but let’s assume it has the largest engine, a 1.6L four making 120hp. Soft, French, economical, efficient, slow?
The road continues to wind through rural Portugal, past orange and lemon trees, white-painted houses, people going about their daily business. Ahead, the lead Cayman’s flat-six yaps and growls.
Undeterred, the little Citroën keeps kicking its mid-engined ass.
Now, some of this ass-whuppin’ is clearly due to the fact that the driver of the lead GT4 is – not to put too fine a point on it – a sluggardly moron. When we get to the track, he will be so abysmally slow that our lead-follow convoy will have to come to a walking pace on the main straight to allow him to catch up after a single lap. And he still didn’t catch up.
This isn’t hubris – I consider myself to be only a pretty average driver; I don’t do enough dedicated track practice to really improve (not with a two year old and another on the way), and I was never particularly well-coordinated. However, I can at least muddle along well enough to not be a total embarrassment: we can’t all be Paul Frères and Denise McLuggages, but a little basic competence would be a nice minimum requirement. You won’t find it up ahead though.
My driving partner is no slouch, but more importantly, he’s also experienced enough to spot a few erratic moves from the lead Cayman and drop back to not push him into an fatal error. We are on the way to a racetrack after all, even though this road is temptingly windy.
But even if this guy up ahead is a sort of Midshipman Slow, a gastropod in “driving” shoes, he still has near enough 400hp under his foot and a car that’s supremely forgiving and packed with go-even-faster technology. The German panzer should make pâté out of the crappy little French hatchback, in a manner not seen since – oh, I’m sure there’s some good example out there. Can’t think of one at the moment.
But the Portuguese driver in his little sardine tin of an econobox is simply flying. He’s not just keeping ahead of us, he’s actually pulling away; at first one turn ahead, then two, then three, then – he’s gone! My co-driver is pissed, but I’m chuckling softly to myself and making the kind of face Ron Burgundy would. I’m not even mad – that’s amazing!
There’s hardly anyone on this little ribbon of backroad, but the gajo in the Citroën clearly travels this way a lot. It’s his home-court advantage, a back-of-the-hand knowledge of the terrain that has every gearchange plotted, every blind corner traced out.
Basically, dude’s Takumi Fujiwara, this is Mount Akina and we’re the Red Suns. Well, except that our lead driver is a bit of a Keisuke, and that’s a brie-eatin’ front-wheel-drive hatchback instead of a super-dorifto-potential haichi-roku.
The analogy stands. Each of us has a road that we’ve traced time and again, a favourite path that’s like walking through your childhood home in the dark. It doesn’t matter what car you’re driving, you can see three turns ahead, know where to brake, know which corner always has gravel on it, know where the fuzz likes to camp out.
Maybe it’s your Sunday morning canyon route. Maybe it’s your local racetrack. Maybe, like me, it’s the road home to your folks’ house, a winding lane where you first cut your teeth behind the wheel.
There is a joy to be found in exploring a new road. There’s the sense of exploration, the delight found in coming ’round a corner to see a whole serpent’s nest of wriggling tarmac ahead of you, the fizz of the adrenaline in your veins as you discover something unknown.
An old road is like an old car – it’s a piece of music you know by heart, the kind of thing where your fingers and feet bypass your brain entirely and touch only your heart, roving through the apexes with ease, hitting the same old notes, anticipating the tricky bit, achieving mastery.
A long straight ahead means that we finally catch up to within sight of the little Citroën, just as the entrance to the track comes up. My partner shakes his head again disgustedly.
“You know,” he says, “That just made his whole day. He’s going to be telling all his friends at work, you can bet on that.”
And then the track, hustling hard after Walter Röhrl who’s half-assing it around this tightly knotted circuit with one eye on his stragglers. The GT4 snuffles along in his wake – at the end of a couple of hot laps I’ll be able to a pick a handful of black gumballs out of the front intakes like rubberized snot. What a wonderful, ridiculous, idiotic thing to find yourself doing for a living.
But even here I’m thinking about our acquaintance and his honeybadger of a French hatchback. I envy him his road. I envy the way he reacted to seeing a brightly-coloured track special by not giving way meekly, but by putting the damn thing solidly in the rearview. I envy the way he must feel, elated, buzzed, grinning, having clearly demonstrated the difference between a fast car and a fast driver.
I wish I’d had the chance to shake his hand, buy him a cerveja, and hand him a Hooniverse sticker for his car. Hoon of the day, right here kids. King of the countryside. Master of his backroad.
Home court legend.