Track days are back on, and busier than ever; you'll be wanting to something good to drive, then…
By Matt Bird / Thursday, October 29, 2020
Nothing quite encapsulates the joy of driving like a track day. There’s isn’t anything (beyond track limits) to stop you driving as fast as your talent will permit for lap after lap and hour after hour. In a world where even the most secluded road routes can feel busy at times, the relative freedom of a track day really is liberating. It helps, of course, that the UK is home to some of the world’s truly great circuits as well.
It’s little wonder, then, that after a summer to forget, track days are back in business and keen to accommodate a nation of drivers desperate to get out and enjoy their cars again. Furthermore, though some might now already be looking to the 2021 track day season, there’s plenty more circuit time to be had this year: MSV’s calendar for 2020 runs until 10 days before Christmas…
With that in mind, it seemed like high time that we considered the best track cars currently available. From little more than Shed money to stripped-out supercars, there’s something for almost everyone. Some will require a bit of tinkering to deliver their best on circuit and others are fighting fit from the factory; all, however, promise to deliver when the light goes green.
Up to £2,500…
- Ford Fiesta ST
If you want to go quickly, cheaply, then you get a fast Ford. Always has been the case; hopefully always will be. The Mk6 Fiesta ST is a perfect example. Now a long way from new and not deified like some elderly Fords, the old 2.0-litre pocket rocket now looks the perfect foundation for dirt cheap circuit frolics.
Of course, back in the mid-2000s, the ST was rightly criticised for its slightly wheezy Duratec engine and was easily outclassed by the equivalent Renaultsport Clio. But now, with model-specific race championships that cater for them, the aftermarket is on hand to realise the potential of the ST. Cams, intakes and exhausts can enliven the engine, and all manner of chassis bits exist to tie the car down better.
With presentable cars available for less than £2k, there’s never been a better time to revisit the less famous Fiesta ST. You’ll be kicking yourself when, out of nowhere, they’re suddenly £10,000…
Up to £5,000…
- Renaultsport Megane II
Another PH list, another Renaultsport product. But the second generation of Megane is here for a very good reason. By the time of cars like the 230 F1 Team R26 appeared, the model had come good as the class leader of the hot hatch field. Moreover, as time has passed, it has proven itself both durable and receptive to modifications. What more could you want from a track project?
Oh yes, and they’re cheap. Because that’s the Renaultsport way, isn’t it? Then the affordable ones get hoovered up, the good ones survive and age and become collectible – then they’re not so cheap anymore. See how much a nice Clio 172 Cup is next time you see one for proof. Being a little newer, the Renaultsport Megane 225 and 230 are still eminently affordable; this R26 is being sold with a chunky history, a fresh cambelt change and not one modification at all for less than £5k.
Were they not such excellent bases for tuning, it would almost be a shame to meddle with the Megane. With R26.Rs still in excess of £20,000, there’s a whole lot of potential in a regular example – which had an identical powertrain, don’t forget – to create something that delivers 90 per cent of the circuit enjoyment for a whole heap less cash. Call it consumer advice, PH style.
Up to £10,000…
- Porsche Boxster S (986)
Here’s one we have some first-hand experience of thank to the Restoracing 986 PH competed in last year. That car was once a £10k Boxster like this. With just one owner and 28,000 miles, no less. And although making a full-blown racer of a cheap Porsche is a fairly serious undertaking, the championship did at least hint at how relatively minor modifications can make for an excellent track car on a more modest budget.
Moreover, Boxster values are only going one way as the 25th anniversary looms into view – best move fast before they follow the 996 into proper modern classic territory. With uprated springs, dampers, pads, fluid and tyres – a base level of mods for pretty much any track project – a 90s’ Boxster will be properly reinvigorated. Yet still retain the flat-six, hydraulic steering, manual gearbox and delicate mid-engined poise that made it such a success in the first place. For, relatively speaking, not much cash.
And although engine worries are an ever-present 986 concern, such issues dog many a track project. All we can say is that the PH Boxster never missed a beat in our year of competing, or the 2018 season (if only the reliability of the driver was quite so predictable). Click here if you aren’t tempted enough already…
Up to £15,000…
- Vauxhall VX220
Slowly but surely, the VX220’s significance as both a cool Vauxhall and a more affordable way into a Series 2 Elise are being recognised, with values going as a result. They’re climbing about as fast as novice ascent of K2, however, so it feels like there’s still time to pounce – especially with winter now setting in.
Something like this is the perfect example of just how much VX220 remains available for £15k; Turbos may now be beyond budget, but this 2.2-litre car is standard bar a Milltek exhaust, uncrashed and has just 33,000 miles on the clock. There’s no way an Elise in similar condition would cost as little.
And although the VX may not have been a commercial success for Vauxhall, that didn’t stop it being lauded by all and sundry. Subtle differences abide, of course, but the 220 was blessed with more than enough Lotus DNA to feel like a very close Elise sibling and not a second cousin twice removed. Which meant it felt pretty damn good indeed, and, because track ability is timeless, still will to this day. Nothing proves light is right quite so well.
Up to £25,000…
- Caterham Seven
There are 7s available for double this money and 7s for sale at half of it, but £25k feels like a sweet spot. The kit-building faithful would be very close to the asking price of a brand new 270; for our money, however, the money would be better spent on something secondhand. Thanks to the strength of Caterham residuals, it offers up a host of options: certainly lightly used and nearly new Ford-engined cars, or racier versions of the K Series classics.
This one is impossible to resist, combining the extra space of an SV chassis with the intensity of a tuned K Series. For track driving, there really is nothing like a 7 for both speed and laugh out loud entertainment. It’ll be a bit of a pain on the way there (and anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar), but the exhilaration of circuit driving in one far outweighs any drawbacks.
You’ll have heard the plaudits all before, of course – the immediacy, the connection with the car, the infinite adjustability – but the relevance is undeniable 70 years after Chapman’s first go at the idea. As cars increasingly require less and less driving, even on a circuit, so a Seven still serves as the perfect palette cleanser – long may it continue.
Up to £35,000…
- Ariel Atom 3
Along with the original Lotus Elise, the Ariel Atom is the best example of British brains reimagining the lightweight sports car. Now 20 years old, the Atom is firmly established as segment royalty, a car that thrills like little else on four wheels.
Also like the seminal Lotus, early Atoms were tricky to drive hard, reminding you of their mid-engined nature at less than opportune moments. But numerous revisions and evolutionary updates have ensured that the car came good on its initial promise, and provided the buying public with a track thoroughbred as good to drive as it was to look at.
That has reached its pinnacle in the current, turbocharged Atom 4, which actually only costs a little more than this budget threshold. But you could be waiting two years for one of those; a car like this Atom 3, recently serviced and with the screaming K24 Honda engine making 245hp, is available right now with just 11,000 miles. Given exposure to its unique, intoxicating take on a track day special and dreams of the newer Atom 4 might fade away. Or you can head to Crewkerne to have this car supercharged…
Up to £50,000…
- Lotus Exige S3
There was some consternation in the ranks when this V6-engined Exige was announced; the previous two generations were sub-1,000kg, four-cylinder, honey-I-shrank-the-racecar track specials, suitable for only the most committed. This third generation represented an unwelcome break from the norm, boasting a V6 engine, one or two creature comforts and a kerbweight in excess of 1,100kg – could it even be called an Exige?
Yes, in a word. The S3 Exige, based on the Evora, was a different experience to the old cars, yet no less of a Lotus. New technology like the Dynamic Performance Management made the S3 more accessible and faster on track, the supercharged 3.5-litre engine brought a whole new level of performance and the styling had evolved to give the Lotus genuine junior supercar drama.
Though more expensive, more powerful Exiges have arrived since the S3’s 2012 arrival, the standard 350hp cars ought to be more than enough for most as a track toy. Prices for those now start at £35k, which looks like an enormous amount of Lotus expertise for the money. With £50k to spend, there are Cup and Sport 350 models available, but it would be hard to ignore something like this unique Exige S in original Elan Sprint colours - what a stunner!
Up to £75,000…
- Porsche 911 (997) GT3
Perhaps more so than any other car on this list save the Caterham, nothing more really needs to be said about the 997 GT3. That is reflected in the values: this money only buys higher mileage versions of a 911 launched almost 15 years ago. A Carrera will cost about a third as much.
But that’s the GT3 magic, isn’t it? Arguably nothing in the past 20 years has so seamlessly melded circuit ability with everyday manners; the reason there are so many in the Nordschleife car park is because they lap up (pun most certainly intended) road and track use so very well. They’re built tough, but drive with a tactility and feel to match the very best.
The 997 is a real high point of the breed, too, combining a more modern feel than the 996 with the traditional charm of the Mezger engine that the 991 went without. Given you’ll pay more than a quarter of a million for a 4.0-litre GT3 RS, perhaps £70k for this original 3.6 is pretty reasonable after all. As a Porsche to use, enjoy and not lose your shirt on, it’s hard to think of much better.
Up to £100,000…
- Radical Rapture
Here’s where the decision-making process becomes difficult, because we all know that more than £75,000 buys all manner of very serious circuit machinery. From Nissan GT-R to Lotus 3-Eleven and BMW M4 GTS to Porsche Cayman GT4, it’s an embarrassment of riches for those after road legal track day wheels. So we’ve the only sensible thing, and picked a car more focused than all of them. And, er, more expensive as well.
Technically, a new Rapture is very slightly beyond the budget threshold. (And the only one for sale in the classifieds is dramatically more.) But Radical’s latest addition to its single-minded lineup is too tempting to ignore – especially if you’re intending on going terrifically quickly on circuit.
“It leaves everything else with number plates feeling not just slow and heavy but numb and unresponsive” was Sam’s verdict on driving the Rapture last year, which is more than good enough for inclusion here. Sure, it’s going to require some dedication to endure the road drive, but with Focus RS power (and half the weight to haul around), genuine downforce, a sequential gearbox and semi-slick tyres, the Rapture is intended to reach parts few other manufacturers dare to tread.
Sky’s the limit…
- Ferrari 458 Speciale
You won’t be surprised to hear that this choice was the subject of much discussion. Because removing a price limit here unlocks some of the most sophisticated and expensive cars the industry has ever made. And frankly when your potential choices include everything that’s ever lapped the ‘ring in under 7mins 30secs – not to mention a cavalcade of historic race cars – it isn’t really possible to fall on a bad one.
But a decision had to be made so after much slamming of laptop lids we settled on the Ferrari 458 Speciale. Predictable? Maybe. Deserving? Without doubt. With the 488 imminent, the Speciale was Ferrari’s fond farewell to the naturally aspirated, berlinetta road racer, a lineage that stretched back to the 348 GT Competizione. It was duly sensational; power was up to 605hp from the 4.5-litre V8 and weight dropped by 90kg over a 458 Italia. That the Speciale was sharper than standard was to be expected; that it retained the regular 458’s manners and approachability made it something very, er, special indeed.
Now prices start at around £250k or, amazingly, twice that for an Aperta. This Giallo Fly, right-hand drive car has only covered 2,607 miles since 2014; find a track with lenient enough noise limits and you’ll be bemused as to how it stayed so low.
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