We’re sitting in a queue of traffic, waiting for the lights to change. The driver and I chat calmly while we wait. Glimpses of blue sky break out from between the clouds, and the sun reaches down, its light dancing on the road ahead of us. It’s a peaceful Saturday afternoon, and all is right with the world.
Bang! The lights have changed, and my driver drops the clutch, firing the car towards the horizon and compressing my spine into the seat.
Bang! Snatching second, we lurch across the road. Bang! We’re millimetres away from the car in front as we grab third, but still we’re accelerating. Slam! A jab at the brakes just before we turn into the right-hand bend, forcing my innards to retreat further into my rib-cage. Nnaaaarrrrrr! We’re accelerating harder now, and my spine is being compressed again – downward, this time, as we hit the bottom of the hill and begin the climb back up the other side. Slam again! More eyeball-popping braking, this time just before we nip up the inside of the car in front and beat him through the next corner.
In any normal circumstances, this would be considered the behaviour of a pair of hooligans on their way to a court appearance and a public burning of their driving licences. But I’m sitting in the passenger seat of a brand new Abarth 500 Assetto Corse race car, my driver is Giles Dawson, who’s made quite a name for himself in the Ginetta G20 Challenge among other series, and we’re at the Brands Hatch circuit in Kent.
Giles is testing the car with a view to competing in the Trofeo Abarth 500 GB one-make race series. This is his first time in the Assetto Corse, too, and despite this allegedly being our slow ‘out’ lap, I fear I may have lost a couple of inches in height and maybe a stone or two in weight.
I can’t hear him over the angry noises coming from the engine bay, or the crackling and popping from the straight-through exhaust, but Giles is providing a running commentary as we rip from corner to corner.
The tight right-hander at the top of Druids becomes a favourite over-taking spot for us, suiting the 500’s ankle-biter character as we nip past the bigger cars on their inside.
We build up speed on the run down into Graham Hill Bend where the rear begins to drift, and carry it through Cooper Straight, before grabbing some kerb at the entry to Surtees but go easy on the brakes while the back end unloads. We’re tight up behind an MR2 now, despite its serious power advantage over us. The 500 holds its line tightly through Clearways while the Toyota drifts wide and, ever the cheeky up-start, we nip through.
We hold our advantage on the Brabham Straight, too, claiming another scalp – a Legends Championship car – just before we cross the start-finish line. I make brief eye-contact with its driver as we slip past, and imagine to myself the words running through his head: “Damn that bloody shopping car!”
It’s Paddock Hill Bend that Brands is famous for, though. With a wide entry, blind apex and negative camber, there’s a choice of lines before it plunges down into the compression.
In the Assetto Corse, it’s like driving a post box through Alton Towers – the sky disappears from view, your lunch tries to hide in the corners of your stomach and, with the suspension compressed onto its bump stops, you can’t help but run wide towards the impending doom of the gravel trap. Just as I’m praying for Carlo Abarth to reach down from heaven and rescue me from this petrol-fired hell, the 500 claws its way off the kerb, my vital organs stop fighting with each other for position, and blue sky fills the windscreen.
After a handful of laps, its time to return to the pit lane. I’d have happily stayed out there all day, being alternately tortured and elated. I shake Giles by the hand, unfold myself from the car, and undo my helmet. My first words?
“I gotta get me one of those!”