The legendary Nordschleife is like a euthanasia clinic. It will happily take your money and kill you. For 26 Euros you can do a lap of the treacherous 14.173 mile circuit, all 154 turns of it. But the hidden extra is that you’re uninsured and if you hit a barrier you pay for it, and the tow truck. If you want to go bankrupt fast (in the most literal sense), you’ll love this place.
In Nantucket, you’ll find a sailboat in every driveway. In parts of Arizona, pilots park their Cessnas under their porches. In Nurburg every house has a lightly bruised race car outside. It’s a way of life.
The wheels I took to the German Grand Prix were a big hit with the locals and the thousands of fans that descended on the Eiffel. The new Lotus Exige S; a car some journalists have called the best Lotus ever.
I chose the right colour for The Green Hell – emerald. You know how bluebottle flies are actually green? That’s what this car looks like: Compact, agile, menacing and insect-like with a fat rear wing, and lights and intakes that look like a grid of eyes.
Many petrolheads shy away from the GP-Strecke, ignoring the F1 cars in favour of standing on the verge of the Nordschleife as the track day crowd – M3s, Porsches, and the odd Europcar-logo’d Transit van – brave their way around.
The car-spotters crowd around the Exige taking photos like paparazzi on Lindsay Lohan.
I shan’t be taking to the Nordschleife today because although the Exige is the perfect sub 8-minute machine (I’m guessing not a lot more than 7) a) I can think of better ways to blow £53,000 than a burning shell of fiberglass and damaged pride b) I want to see how this track-born car fares in the real world.
Earlier this morning I picked the car up from the Lotus dealership in Antwerp, a suitable location in which to find a rough diamond.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this 345bhp, 1176kg missile is that it exists at all. Group Lotus’s problems have been well documented. The money has dried up and direction has flat-lined, at least when it comes to the company’s new owners. There is a very real and heartbreaking chance that this great sports car company and British brand is counting the days. That considered, the Exige is like a defibrillator. The workforce at Hethel have put all that uncertainty to the back of their minds and gone back to basics to create a car pumped full of Chapman DNA.
Before buckling up, let’s take the car in: The predatory looks are a welcome evolution. The previous Exige was very Elise-like, it looked like a friendly pet even though it could tear your arm off. The new S, with its beefy new 3.5 V6 set behind the seats, has a health warning stamped all over it. Lined up alongside the competition from Porsche, the Lotus seems so much more savage.
The interior is positively Amish in its simplicity. Electric windows and a/c are the only excesses. There’s a cup holder too but it’s designed to be lighter than air.
From the Nurburgring, my destination is Zurich which, confusingly for a moment, means driving past the Hockenheimring. Here the Exige joins a convoy of the Mannheim chapter of the Hell’s Angels. Having once taken a Lotus Evora to Las Vegas on the anniversary of Fear & Loathing, and Hunter S Thompson’s slurring voice in my head, I think it best to open the throttle and press on.
There’s a button on the steering column you can press to cut or open the exhaust noise, depending on your preference. Having competed with the Hell’s Angels’ Harley’s (the Lotus’s off-throttle engine burble sounds like god’s tummy rumbling) I cut the noise and settle into some bahn-storming.
Autobahns are a head fuck. I’m never very sure which bits are speed restricted and which aren’t. And when you find a bit that you think is balls-out after two miles you will meet an 80kmh sign or, as seems to be everywhere in Germany, road works. The Bundesrepublik’s employment strength is perhaps explained by the fact that everyone is working on the highways.
This is not only tiresome for traffic, it’s bloody dangerous. You really don’t know what’s going to be around the next corner. When you’re flying along at 130mph+ and you see brake lights ahead, it freezes the blood. Of course, I wanted to use this legal opportunity to find out what the Exige feels like at high speed. My top score: 165. And then I saw brake lights. The car should be capable of 170.
The ride is, as you’d expect from a Lotus, extremely good but balanced with the fact that you feel the road through the seat of your pants. The result is a 170mph prostate massage.
The fuel gauge is very difficult to read in strong sunshine and, given the size of its tank – 40 litres – you’re well advised to lift your sunglasses and have a close look because it can catch you out. The car might be a featherweight ballerina but at high revs it can drink its little tank faster than Oliver Reed. A couple of times I was down to fumes before I spotted it and managed to coast to a petrol station.
At the Austro-Swiss border I handed over my passport but sought to dodge the year’s road tax the Swiss force you to pay to go on the highways, even if you’re only passing through. Could I not pay if I stayed away from highways, I asked the customs officer. “You could go across the mountains to Zurich but it’ll take a lot longer,” he said doubtfully. Yeah, but it might be more fun I told him. At that point he stood back and took in the car. “Yes, it might be more fun,” he said smiling, “have a nice evening”. And with that I was on my way.
Having cruised alongside Lake Constance I then belted across the b-roads towards Zurich, the Exige finally making use of Sport mode and zipping past other traffic with a quick squirt of the right pedal. It was in these conditions that I really started to fall in love with the Exige.
Despite its immense power-to-weight the Exige never feels scary to drive – well, not unless you’re doing 165mph on the autobahn and every blood vessel wants to burst. Fact is, it feels like you’re going even faster than you really are, and that equals plenty of fun on the right side of the law. When it comes to cornering, you and the car are as one. It’s like wearing a shoe. It does exactly what you want; the connection is telepathic.
Zurich is looking very un-Swiss this evening. It’s Züri-Fäscht – or Zurich-Fest – a three-day event that occurs on the first weekend of July just every three years, so my arrival is timely. Two million people crowd onto the streets, many of them perilously drunk. The main event is the fireworks display, which I went to see with some friends who live in the city. We crammed onto some rocks beside Lake Zurich just as three planes flew over, jettisoning 15 parachutists. At that point, the PA blasted out Adele’s Skyfall and the parachutists flicked on red flashing lights as they descended. With Swiss precision, they hit the ground just as the song finished and at that very moment, bang on 10:30pm as advertised, the fireworks erupted.
It was a spectacular show. As well as hundreds of rockets shooting up from a handful of smoking barges in the lake, there was a helicopter flying overhead shooting fireworks off as well!
The following morning, it’s back in the Exige and, carefully avoiding the highways, I take a north westerly route out of the country, skirting along the edge of Germany and across the French border at Belfort where, randomly, I’d once seen The Prodigy, Pete Doherty and Kanye West in a field.
My destination for today is wine country, Burgundy, to go and see my folks and unite the Exige with my mum’s 1986 Lotus Excel. In and out of the pretty Chardonnay-famous villages like Meursault, Pommard and Puligny-Montrachet the Exige devours the tiny, twisty vineyard-hugging lanes.
With the Lotus due back soon there’s time for a quick trip to the Palace of Fontainbleau and an overnighter at home in Paris before getting up at the crack of dawn and storming up the E17 to Belgium, back to Antwerp’s famous square mile of diamonds and a suitable place to hand over Norfolk’s gem.