Supercar versus aeroplane

Ever since Top Gear’s car v aircraft race, we’ve been itching for a re-run. In the yellow corner, Andrew Smith in J3 Cub, in the black, Colin in Audi R8 Spyder...

Words by Colin Goodwin  Images by Ian Meredith (Cub Team) and Philip Whiteman (Supercar Team — boo!)

You’ll remember the infamous Top Gear challenge in which Jeremy Clarkson was given the task of driving a Bugatti Veyron from Alba in Italy to a fancy restaurant in London, where he was to deliver a handful of truffles. James May and Richard Hammond had to carry out the same delivery, but their transport was a Cessna 182: the race was on.

Things started to go wrong for the 182 right from the start, as it had to detour via Nice to avoid having to go over the top of Mont Blanc. (I’d have done the same, especially as I don’t hold a French mountain rating. May certainly didn’t, not least because he didn’t have a licence to add it to — what you can’t see in the TV footage is the instructor sitting in the right-hand seat. May was halfway through his PPL course when the episode was shot in 2006.)

I won’t bore you by repeating the details, but the Cessna’s race came unstuck when dusk fell and it was explained to viewers that the pilot couldn’t land at night and so had to put down at Lille, from where the crew carried on by Eurostar. The Veyron won. Now there was a surprise.

In the good old days…

I have a lot of experience of driving across Europe, often in cars capable of sustaining over 150mph for long periods. A run from Marseille to home in a Porsche 911 RS stands out in my mind as being particularly memorable. The French cops were less efficient twenty years ago, and you could cruise at dramatic speeds that gobbled up the miles. The thing that really slows you down, however, is having to stop for fuel. If you want to cover Europe quickly you need a car that has a big fuel tank, good economy and yet can cruise happily at around 100mph. One of my quickest runs was Rome to Calais in about ten hours... in nothing more exotic than a BMW 318iS. The worst possible car you could use would be the Bugatti, because at full throttle it’ll empty its fuel tank at the rate of 1.2 gallons a minute. That’s a Rolls-Royce Merlin rate of consumption.

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Of course the whole Top Gear challenge was biased towards the car: can’t have a silly light aircraft whupping a 250mph supercar, even if the aeroplane has a range of almost 1,000 miles and a cruising speed of around 130kt. So to put things right, Pilot decided to stage its own race. Obtaining a Veyron is possible, but a lot of hassle: so to make life easier for ourselves we’ve blagged an R8 Spyder from Audi’s press fleet. There are two engine options — a 4.2-litre V8 that has 424hp or a V10 with 518hp. We went for the 185mph V8 version because in the real world there’s little difference in on-road performance.

A Cessna 182 is easy enough to obtain, though the one that Top Gear used was unfortunately written off a couple of years ago. Let’s really stick it to the supercar team and use a modestly-powered aircraft: an old Cub with 85hp of Continental in its nose — a David versus Goliath confrontation for sure. The Editor, being a bit of a car nut, has elected to be my co-driver, so instead of using his L-4, we track down G-BTUM and Andrew Smith — a member of the group that owns it. Handily for us, Smith and his fellow owners have moved the yellow Cub from its usual home at White Waltham to the private strip near Aylesbury shared by the Editor, so that the faff of Olympic airspace can be avoided.

Gentlemen: start your engines

So we have our combatants: sleek, aluminium-bodied 2012 Audi versus rag-and-tube 1946 Piper. All we need now is a route. After much study of the quarter mil chart, we decide upon Aylesbury to Sywell. Last one there buys lunch. Smith has brought along his pal Ian Meredith to take photographs and help with the navigation. There are showers about, but not so many that a little bit of snaking won’t avoid them. As you’d hope with a �96,625 car, our R8 is equipped with a sat-nav that can also receive live traffic information and suggest a change to the route to avoid congestion.

At the strip, the Cub is full of fuel and ready to go. Well almost. We can jump in the Audi and just go, but the aeroplane team will need to spend a bit of time preflighting the Piper and making sure that nothing will fall off and all its vital fluids are present. So we synchronise watches and at 12.00 we’re off.

“Uh oh,” says Whiteman looking at the rutted track that leads away from the strip, “ground clearance!” Audi built the R8 to be an everyday practical sports car, easy to use and to drive. A Lamborghini would bloody its nose on this farm track but the Audi is fine.

The lads are probably still doing their checks. We’re in Whiteman’s manor so he will know plenty of short cuts that the smarty pants GPS doesn’t. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a solution to the wretched tractor that is blocking our path. Terrific; we’ve only been going five minutes and I swear I’ve just heard the Cub’s flat-four being started. At last the tractor turns into a field and we are off again. I like the R8. It’s understated and technically interesting. And, as Audi intended, very straightforward to drive and own.

Our navigator says he knows a quick route to avoid Aylesbury town centre. I had a mind to go up the M40, across the A43 past Silverstone and then circumnavigate Northampton and on to Sywell. We’d immediately be going the wrong direction, but at least it would be mostly motorway and dual carriageway on which we can exploit some of the car’s performance. But it’s irrelevant because we’ve gone for the route that a crow — or rather, a Cub — would prefer. There are no airspace restrictions between the strip and Sywell so Andrew and Ian can more or less go in a straight line, which by my calculations is about 35 nautical miles or 40 statute miles. According to the sat nav our road route is approximately 52 statute miles, so already we are at a disadvantage.

Driving while looking out for aircraft is somewhat dangerous, so my navigator has to double as observer. The sat nav says that there’s some hocus pocus on the M1 northbound, and has suggested that instead of joining at J12 at Toddington, we take the A5 north and join it at J14, having worked our way around Milton Keynes. Curses; I was hoping to be able to give the R8 a blast up the M1 to try and get some ground on the Piper. However, the Cub’s typical cruising speed is not that much less than the speed that you can comfortably sustain on a clear motorway without running a big risk of having your collar felt.

This is the thing: it’s getting harder and harder to enjoy driving and it has nothing to do with speed cameras and getting nicked. Finding uncongested roads in the south-east is almost impossible, and worse, the general standard of driving is pretty poor. Overtaking is difficult, even in a fast car, because everyone drives nose-to-tail, leaving no gap for an overtaking car to slip safely back in to. I was talking to a car journalist pal over a pint the other day and we were saying how motoring needs to become a hobby again. As it was in the 1950s and ‘60s when a family would take the car out on a Sunday as a family activity or treat — exactly as flying is for most of us today.

No way we can keep up

Looking at the trees and how the clouds are moving, I’d say that our airmen Andrew and Ian are benefitting from a tailwind. They could easily have a ground speed of 85mph and there’s no way we can match that rate of progress, even if we had Guatemalan driving licences. The A5 is quite clear and we can open up the Audi a bit. The V8 engine sounds lovely. We’re driving an automatic version which, although it makes little difference to performance, takes something away from the pleasure of driving the car. Black is a fairly discreet colour but, even so, a fairly big, mid-engined supercar with its roof down attracts quite a bit of attention. Somewhere above us a little yellow Cub is puttering along at a steady speed making little noise and very good progress.

We’ve been on the road for over half an hour and we’re not even as far as Milton Keynes. If the sat nav was being pessimistic about the M1 traffic situation, it’s really clobbered us. One of the things I love most about going somewhere in an aircraft is that as long as the forecast wind speed and direction are correct — and you don’t have to divert to avoid showers — you will arrive more or less at the time your plog said you would. Recently I flew from Bergerac in the Dordogne to White Waltham in my pal’s big Cessna. The plog said that it would take us 3hr 25min and that we would arrive overhead at 13.25. We were three minutes late. Today, predicting an ETA when travelling by road is a lottery and if you have an important event to get to, you have to factor in a large safety margin. No wonder the dreamers have still not given up on the idea of the flying car. I can’t see it ever happening, particularly in this country where the weather is so fickle. The accident rate would be horrific as flying car pilots made poor go or no-go decisions.

It is already obvious that the fly boys will whip us soundly in this challenge. In France the Cub might have less of an advantage because the autoroutes are usually pretty clear: if you picked a route that involved plenty of straight-line motorway work, the car might get closer. In the UK, the aeroplane is really the king in areas like Wales, where driving anywhere takes ages. (You might remember the feature I did on the Welsh farmer with a big family, a Cub Coupe and his own strip. He and his flying friends used their aircraft like cars, hopping between each others’ strips making journeys in minutes that in a car would take and hour or more.) The West Country is another area in which the light aircraft is king, particularly on a summer weekend when the M5 and A303 are blocked solid with traffic.

An hour is past and we have only just crossed the M1 and are skirting south around Northampton. It is inconceivable that the boys aren’t sitting at a table in Sywell’s fabulous Art Deco hotel, sipping a coffee. What’s more, I suspect that they’ll have been there a while, too. We are passing through average speed cameras on the A45 — can’t mess with those. I was reading about Charles Rolls, of Rolls-Royce fame, who is quoted as saying “I prefer flying to driving for there are no policemen in the air”.

At last we are nearly at Sywell. But even over the last few miles we are stymied by a freshly-laid road surface of loose chippings. Fearful of stone chips and a broken windscreen, we have to drive slowly. I love Sywell Aerodrome. It’s the perfect central location for the LAA rally and is so well kept. Sure enough, as we arrive, park and walk towards the Pilots’ Mess Caf�, Smith and Meredith are leaning over the balcony jeering. On the grass sits the Cub, its engine already cool enough to touch, no doubt. It took our fliers 42 minutes from chock to chock — and no, they didn’t have a particularly helpful tailwind. The car boys, Goodwin and Whiteman, have arrived just over half an hour later.

If you’ve time to spare…

Our little challenge has been slightly tongue-in-cheek, a pay back for the fakery of that Top Gear Bugatti v Cessna epic. Of course the car people will point out that if today’s challenge was not airfield-to-airfield but from the strip to a restaurant in Northampton itself — or to an off-airfield pub near Sywell — the outcome would be different.

But to truly get the benefit of going by air you need to put a bit of water in between points A and B. From experience, I would say that the fastest that you can cross the Channel from arriving at the tunnel in Calais, to driving onto the M20 the other end, is around an hour-fifty minutes at best. By air from Cuneo (where May and Hammond departed) to White Waltham it is 615 statute miles. By road, it is 852 miles. At best, Clarkson could have driven the Bugatti to Calais in eight hours. Another hour to cross to Blighty then an hour and a half from Folkestone to Central London: about 10hr 30min for the total journey. The 182 could have done the whole flight without stopping, and in still air taken around 4hr 30min. That leaves six hours to get from Maidenhead to the middle of town. And even with our railway system, that should be possible.

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