Another year has come to a close and it was an historic one, as our car of the year easily demonstrates.
As the auto industry tries to untangle itself from the knot of trying to convince us the electric car is the only future possible, it is only natural that normal cars (normal being the cars people can actually afford and need) that are actually interesting to drive are becoming rarer and rarer.
Press departments want us to drive the latest computer they have put four wheels on and nobody seems to be taking the fact the Chinese are taking over the industry seriously enough. Final numbers are not out yet, but BYD will have probably outsold Tesla in the last quarter, becoming the number one pure-electric maker on the planet. Scary stuff.
In the meantime, in Europe, the electric car hype is slowly dwindling, with many important names saying they are putting money back into combustion engine development, as they believe synthetic fuels will be a viable solution for the future.
Anyway, what I mean is this was probably the year since I started writing, back in 2009, when I drove the smallest number of truly appealing normal cars.
Okay, yes, I still drove some cool metal in 2023, but something is changing and a lot faster than I believe is reasonable. Anyway, I will write about the ones that stood at the next page but, for now, ladies and gentlemen, I give you the undisputed car of the year: the Ferrari 499P #51.
No, I did not actually drive this one, but nor did anyone else apart from Mr. Guidi, Mr. Calado and Mr. Giovinazzi. The 499P, number 51, is, obviously, the car with which Ferrari won the centenary edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Italian house’s first overall victory in 58 years.
In a heartbeat, the 499P became one of the most significant racing cars in history and a symbol of Ferrari’s greatness that will be talked about forever by those who call themselves petrolheads.
Ferrari had won the French classic overall nine times before, the last victory coming in 1965. Masten Gregory and Jochen Rindt took the win at the wheel of a magnificent 250 LM and after that, well, nothing. Nothing in overall terms, of course, as the Prancing Horse has another 29 class wins to its name so far.
Against all odds for the 2023 race, the red car with #51 on the side, was able to beat the #8 Toyota in a battle that lasted until the last hour of the race, making the centenary edition everything that was expected from it.
The name 499P is a nod to the engine capacity: 499cc is the displacement of each cylinder on that glorious V6. It is based on the architecture of the road-going 296 GTB, a V6 3.0-litre, with the turbo placed inside the 120-degree vee banks, making it what has come to be known as a “Hot V”. The significant difference from the road car lies in the fact that the engine is also a fully stressed member of the car. This means the gearbox and subsequent rear suspension loads run through the engine. Amazing, right? And supper effective in terms of dynamics.
The chassis is a carbon-fibre monocoque for maximum strength and lightness, whereas the fire power is a combination of the petrol engine and the hybrid module, delivering a potential maximum of 1000hp (700kw), with the electric motors responsible for up to 200kw (272hp) as per the rules.
The 7-speed gearbox and front MKU-K differential were developed by Xtrac specifically for the 499P, but – and this is a big but – the whole integration of the systems was coordinated by the Ferrari F1 team, who has been running a hybrid racing car since 2014 and had a valuable and unique knowledge in the matter.
The bodywork was created by the racing engineers in collaboration with Ferrari’s own Centro Stile, led by the genius of Flavio Manzoni. In an incredible achievement for all involved, the 499P, a prototype racer, is instantly recognizable as a Ferrari and the most beautiful entrant in the Hypercar World Championship of 2023 by far.
The cherry on top of the whole 499P fanfare after the Le Mans win is called 499P Modificata and it is basically a 499P with even more power than you and me can buy. Well, not you and me because we could sell everything we own and still not have the €5.1 million Ferrari charges for it – and even if we did, Ferrari had sold all of them before announcing the car – but you see what I mean. Those crazy, mad Italians built a Le Mans racer some very important customers will actually get to drive. Has there ever been a better toy for the super-rich? I don’t think so. It’s brilliant.
And so, the 499P is my car of the year. A car that, although I am 110% sure I will never drive, I know I will forever be in awe of.
And so on to more mundane findings.
The best car I drove this year was undoubtedly the Rolls-Royce Spectre, but that does not count. It’s a €500,000 indulgence for the top 0.01% from a constructor for whom it doesn’t really matter which propulsion system is powering the car. A V12 petrol engine or an electric motor is all the same. It’s a superior machine in every way and, like I said, it doesn’t count. My page, my rules.
That means that, starting at the lower step of the podium, I give you the Alpine A110 S. When Renault decided to revive the Alpine back in 2017, the A110 was immediately lauded as one of the greatest driver’s cars of the 21st century. It’s all about lightweight construction and the way the car goes down a twisty road with its very particular personality.
It’s unique and an example of how the whole can be a lot more than the sum of the parts. The engine is not terrific, the gearbox is not the fastest and the interior feels less than special, but, quite amazingly, it is a magnificent thing that I did not want to stop driving. In fact, the title of the text I wrote was ‘It’s why we love cars’, and it really is.
The first new age Alpine is, sadly, also the last one powered by a petrol engine. All subsequent models will be purely electric. I don’t see how Alpine will manage that, I really don’t, and I just wish they would build more incredible cars such as the A110, but who am I to say what they should or should not do? Let’s see what happens and enjoy the one we have right now while we still can.
Second place: the Toyota GR86. Basically, the same recipe as the Alpine but with a very important difference: a manual gearbox when the French car is auto-only.
The GR86 is the replacement for the GT86, perfecting the formula of the two-door coupé with a petrol engine and a stick-shift, built purely for enjoyment purposes. It is a bit more playful than the Alpine, a little less serious in its approach and feels as solid as every other Toyota, meaning you get the feeling you could thrash this thing every day for years and years and it would keep on going faultlessly.
It’s also a lot cheaper than the Alpine and one of those interesting cars I mentioned in the beginning that are becoming a dying breed. A simple car for people who love driving. Kudos to Toyota for building such a thing. I loved it.
This means, when all is said and done, that my favourite car this year, that I actually drove, was the BMW M3 Touring – even with that horrible front grille I cannot get over. I have always been an M3 fan, and I drive a diesel 3-Series Touring as my daily, so to put those two concepts together had always been a dream of mine. Now BMW have finally done it, but it costs over €100,000, so it’s sadly not for me right now and definitely not for everyone who would love to own one. I am praying for depreciation to properly do its job on this one.
Still, the M3 Touring was everything I expected it to be. It’s a truly special car, something that makes every journey worthwhile and has the ability to put a smile on your face, even on those days when life isn’t being so kind. This car makes you forget your troubles and just keep on driving. It is amazing. I can only imagine what this year’s M5 Touring will be like. The last one had an F1-derived 5-litre V10 engine and it was absolutely mental.
So, I say, roll on 2024. All hope is not lost. Maybe there is still some petrol in your veins.