Presenters have come and gone. Even the The Stig has been replaced on more than one occasion. But the Top Gear test track has remained a constant of the show since its reinvention in 2002 and relocation to Dunsfold airfield near Guildford. And, from power laps to the Star In A Reasonably Priced Car segments, corner names like Chicago, Hammerhead, Follow-Through and Gambon are as familiar to TV audiences as the clips of the countless cars to have navigated it.
Yet for all this familiarity it’s actually quite rare to see a full, driver’s eye view of the circuit from start to finish. So a chance to ride shotgun alongside Chris Harris in a 612hp Mercedes-AMG E63 Sas part of preview activity for the new season was too good to miss.
It’s not entirely obvious from the way the track is typically filmed on the show but it’s actually a figure-of-eight layout, apparently improvised with a few cones and painted lines but now as established in motoring folklore as much as many more celebrated tracks. Like many famous circuits – Goodwood and Silverstone included – the Top Gear Test Track is based on a combination of runways and perimeter tracks on an old military airfield, the lack of gradient and reference points making it a real challenge for any driver, even one who’s lapped it as many times as Harris.
As he points out though, for all its lack of glamour, relatively low speeds and short length it’s a proper test of a car thanks to the bumpy, low-grip surface and deliberately tricky corners designed with help from Lotus chassis engineers to expose any handling deficiencies. With the all-wheel-drive AMG set to its ESP-off, rear-wheel-drive Drift Mode, however, you’ll see it provides plenty of opportunities for skilled drivers to showboat. And have-a-go celebrities to go down in legend or infamy, depending on their levels of skill and commitment.