Andrew Frankel has been racing cars for over 20 years and testing them for nearer to 30. He is senior contributing writer to both Autocar and MotorSport magazines, sits on the Car of the Year jury and was chief car tester for the Sunday Times for 15 years. He cites driving and writing as the only disciplines for which he has any talent and therefore considers himself vocationally employed. When he is not working he lives quietly in the Wye Valley with his family, a small and unimportant accumulation of cheap old cars and some sheep.
To me 2015 will always be the year I nearly got on the podium at the Goodwood Revival. Safely third on the track with five minutes of the Lavant Cup to go (and second in the race thanks to a 30 sec time penalty because the car ahead jumped the start), I was smelling the champagne, feeling the wreath around my neck and composing my most modest responses to those kind enough to congratulate me. And then some widget somewhere between the prop and the diff gave way, forcing me to park a car with a perfectly healthy engine and gearbox but no way of transmitting power from one to the other. But I finished the Spa Six Hours the following weekend with just one wheel bearing change which given that in previous years our Ford Falcon had blown its engine, lost a wheel, locked its driveline solid and caught fire seemed something of a result.
To everybody else, out there in the fast car loving community, it’s been an odd kind of 2015. The direction in which the industry is heading is not difficult to spot. Whether you like or loathe the idea is not really the point: we are steaming towards electrification with all the speed we can muster. The internal combustion engine will survive and possibly for decades, but increasingly it will be forced to trade places with batteries and electric motors as they take on the starring roles and it is reduced to the supporting cast. Of all developments, Porsche’s decision to make its Mission E all electric concept and sell it before the end of the decade is probably the most significant. With the electronic architecture it will develop then becoming available to everyone from Bugatti and Bentley to Seat and Skoda, not to mention VW itself, this will be too large a development for other manufacturers to ignore.
But we’re not there yet. In the meantime engines need to become smaller and lighter not just for their own economy and CO2 emissions, but to provide space in tightly packed engine bays for electric motors and all the other myriad apparatus that comes with hybrid. To see just how far we have progressed down this road answer this question: how many normally aspirated V8s are now on sale in the UK in mainstream production cars? Right now there is the Aston Martin V8 Vantage, the Porsche Panamera GTS, which is counting the hours until its V8 is replaced by a turbo V6, two imports from the Land of the Free (Corvette and Mustang) and, so far as my brain can figure out at 6.00am on Christmas Eve, absolutely nothing else. Mercedes, BMW, Ferrari, Audi, Jaguar, Land Rover and many other marques have given up entirely on an engine configuration they’d have once considered a staple of their range. Volvo has gone far, far further and made it clear it has no intention of building an engine that displaces more than 2-litres or possesses more than four cylinders. Ever.
Happily manufacturers are getting more and more clever at making their smaller turbo motors behave like larger non-turbo motors. Of them all, Ferrari’s 488 GTB powertrain is the most astonishingly capable even if ultimately it possesses neither the soundtrack nor the rev range of the atmospheric 458 engine it replaces. But so improved is the car in so many other areas, it’s still one of the best cars I drove all year.
But the best? I’d have also to throw into the ring the Porsches Cayman GT4 and 911 GT3 RS and the McLarens 675LT and 570S. And having done so, I’ll now withdraw the Ferrari, the GT3 RS and the 675LT simply because, spectacular though they are, they sit in market niches we’ve seen before. But, for the money asked and at very different price points, there is nothing out there to compete with either the Cayman GT4 or the McLaren 570S, both of which and in their own very different ways I found mesmerising.
Forced to choose a performance car of the year however and it would have to be the McLaren. In my line of work cars come and go quite rapidly and if you fall for one and it gets taken away you know something else will come along in rapid succession to take your mind off it. But the 570S is still with me, sadly in spirit rather than person, weeks after I drove it. The cheapest McLaren it may be, but its performance is still strong enough to make you want to have a little lie down after a decent run in it. Its ride and handling balance are as good as I’ve known and it has the best steering of any supercar on sale. What’s more it’s sufficiently quiet and comfortable for daily use not only to be possible, but actively encouraged.
There are some spectacular cars heading our way next year, including the Aston Martin DB11, Alfa Romeo Giulia, BMW M2, Ford Focus RS and GT, the Honda NSX, Porsche 911R, Jaguar F-Pace, Bentley Bentayga, Bugatti Chiron and an even quicker Mercedes-AMG GT. And if just a few of them exceeds the standards already set by cars like the 570S, for those of us who just love cars, 2016 will be a year to remember.