The Moses Mabhida stadium in Durban, South Africa, is the most beautiful building in the world. Built to host the 2010 World Cup, it’s beautiful at night and beautiful in the day. It’s beautiful when looked at from far away, or from inside. No other structure I’ve ever seen gets close. It’s a triumph.
Recently it played host to the most ambitious live event Top Gear has attempted thus far. Not only would the three of us be performing to a wailing squadron of 15,000 South Africans inside the stadium, but outside there would be a motor show and, on roads closed solely for the event, a 1¼-mile street circuit. Here there were races between a superbike and Michael Schumacher’s Formula One Mercedes, demonstration laps from the Stig in a selection of supercars, full-on inter-nation races and the local hero Jody Scheckter, who never crashed anything even once. Honest.
Richard Hammond, James May and I were very impressed with the line-up but decided that since it was, strictly speaking, our playground, we should be allowed to do some laps ourselves. So we devised a competition: pick any car you like and see who can do the fastest lap time. May went for the McLaren MP4-12C, Hammond for some kind of Beetle, and me? I went for the love of my life: a Mercedes SLS AMG roadster. And on my first exploration lap I knew quite quickly that I’d chosen unwisely. Because the track was not only very narrow and tight, but also hemmed in on both sides by concrete barriers. And a tight, concrete-lined street track is not really the main hunting ground for a very large 6.2-litre 563 brake horsepower V8 monster with the growl of a wild animal and the tail of a happy dog. It would be like wrestling with a bear in a phone box.
To make matters worse, the track was a popular attraction for our visitors. Thousands were pressed up to the fences and filling the grandstands. And all of them were thinking the same thing as I roared into view. “Please. If there’s a God in heaven. Make him crash.” They all had their cameras out, videoing my every move, and not so they could show their friends back home how well I’d done. No. It’s so they could put on YouTube the precise moment I hit a wall and my head came off.
Naturally I was extremely unkeen to oblige and decided therefore that the prospect of beating Hammond — May wasn’t really a factor — was in no way enough to balance the risk of ending up on the internet in a fireman’s bucket. Result: I decided to go slowly.
However, there was a problem. You see, it turns out that when you drive in front of a crowd, and you have testes, you cannot go slowly because you are compelled to show off. This meant that wherever possible I didn’t go quickly, or slowly, but sideways, trailing as much smoke as possible from the rear tyres. That, of course, meant turning off the traction control, which in a car such as this on a track such as that was idiotic.
And, worse, I was overcome with an uncontrollable urge to wave all the time. The crowd was waving at me and it seemed rude not to respond, so there I was, waving and power-sliding in a V8 on a track completely unsuited to either of those things. It’s yet another reason I couldn’t be an actual racing driver. You’re not going to win much if you do a doughnut at every corner and pose for pictures as you go by.
And so it turned out to be. Hammond was the fastest. Which meant that I had to spend four days listening to him bleating on about how his Beetle is vastly superior to the big Merc. And that’s why I wasn’t as sad as you might imagine when the Top Gear festival ended. We’d had the best time, living like rock stars. But, as with rock stars, the musical differences between Hammond and me had become so enormous, I was beginning to wonder what he’d look like with no skin. I wanted to get home so I didn’t have to listen to him gloating any more. And then, would you Adam and Eve it, when I got home, guess what car was sitting in the drive waiting to be tested. Yup. A bloody Beetle — or, as it would like to be known, a Porsche 911 Carrera S cabriolet. I sank to my knees and wept.
Of course, the good news is that The Sunday Times is not available in the swampland where Hammond lives. And even if it were, it’s full of big words he wouldn’t understand. So since he isn’t reading this, I can be honest. The latest 911 is actually a damn good sports car. And the GT3 version is even better than that. It’s heavenly. However, I was being asked to spend a week in the cabriolet, and that’s different. Because the truth is, if you remove the roof from a sports car, you are, to a greater or lesser extent, reducing its structural rigidity. And if you attempt to mask that with underfloor strengthening beams, you are adding weight. Which means that you don’t end up with a sports car at all. A Porsche cabriolet, then, is a bit like an afghan hound that’s gone bald. It’s still an afghan hound but the point has been somewhat lost.
Oh sure, on the new cabriolet, Porsche’s engineers have devised a lightweight magnesium and aluminium roof frame, along with composite panels, which is said to be 18% more rigid than the one it replaces. But despite everything, the car’s 50kg heavier than its hard-top sister. Of course, for 99.9% of the time the two versions feel 99.9% identical. But the keen driver will know that for 0.1% of the time, the cabriolet will feel 0.1% worse. And that will be a constant niggle. If you want a sports car, this is not for you.
But if you are the man I met at a golf club in Watford recently, a man who has the old four-wheel-drive convertible, pay attention . . . The first problem you face with the new car is roof-up visibility. At oblique junctions, you have to rely on your inner Mystic Meg before easing out into the traffic flow. And on motorways you pull over at your peril. Then there’s the gearbox. My car had a seven-speed manual. Now I recognise that a loping seventh is needed to keep fuel use down and the European Union emissions wallahs happy but, ooh, there’s a lot of gearchanging. Which would be just about bearable if the clutch weren’t both heavy and juddery. This is emphatically not a town car.
Other things? Well, the cupholders are located right in front of the heater vents, which means that when you turn on the air-conditioning, the first thing to get chilled is your mug of tea. And there’s a mysterious button that, when pressed, makes the exhaust so loud you can’t hear the radio any more. And I didn’t like the electric steering. Or the fact the boot is in the front, which means you get dirty fingers every time you need to get something out of it. Roof down? Don’t know, partly because it rained constantly and partly because, as we know, if a grown man drives around with the top down, he looks like the central character in an advertisement for Viagra.
Of course, there are some good things. It’s beautifully made. It only ever needs servicing after an ice age. It’s not too big. It’s not too ostentatious. And it’s not that expensive. A standard 3.4-litre Carrera cabriolet is £79,947, whereas the model I have here — the 3.8-litre S — is less than £10,000 on top of that. That may seem a hell of a leap for an extra 400cc, but having experienced both, I can tell you it’s worth every penny. The basic model can feel a bit slow. The S never does.
But when all is said and done, it’s only another two-seat convertible. And if that’s all you want, Mercedes and BMW can sell you one just as good for far less. And now, I’m afraid I must get back to South Africa because I’ve just heard that James May is about to finish our three-lap race.