Abarths At Silverstone

Abarth 124 Spider parked in the pit lane at Silverstone.

To Silverstone, where Abarths abound. In a pit garage large enough to have its own postcode there are three, all dating from the early to mid 1970s. Nearest to the entrance is what looks roughly like, and is indeed based on, a Fiat 600 but is known as a Berlina Corsa, its bootlid held permanently open to promote cooling of a rear-mounted one-litre engine almost dwarfed by the large and generously trumpeted twin-choke carburettors attached to its side.

Next is a beautifully designed and equally beautifully prepared 124 Rally, which rides high enough to make me think it actually is a rally car. Not so, I later discover. Unlike the Berlina Corsa, it’s in road spec, but it still has an air of competition about it.

Not to anything like the same extent, however, as the wide-bodied Osella PA2 a few yards behind it. This is in no sense a road car. It was created specifically for sports car racing, and like all such machines from that era (if there are exceptions I don’t know about them) it is simply gorgeous.

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These Abarths are very different from each other, but at the same time they appeal to me in roughly equal measure. My favourite is whichever one I happen to be looking at. I would happily devote half a day to track testing each of them.

The point is moot because I don’t have that sort of time (I’m only here for about five hours, including a lunch break) and mooter still because all three are here strictly for static display purposes, so I have to keep my sticky mitts well away. If I want to drive one of them, I’ll have to buy it. The Abarths to which the journalists present have access are all out in the pit lane.

One of these, the furiously expensive 695 biposto, can be discounted immediately. I’m welcome to go out in it, but only as a passenger for a series of hot laps. Hell, no. The others are the similarly Fiat 500-based but less radical and much cheaper 595 Competizione and Turismo and, the real reason we’re here, a small clutter of 124 Spiders.

Although Abarth does not make a point of shouting about this, the Spider is largely the same thing as a Mazda MX-5, though styled to look not too much like it. It has a much sportier set-up than any of the Mazdas, though, and although its MultiAir engine is smaller at just 1368cc it is also, through turbocharging, more powerful, with a peak output of 168bhp. (By quoting this in imperial units I’m missing a little joke. The metric figure is 170PS, which neatly works out at 124PS per litre, tra-la.)

When I get to drive one on public roads I’m sure it will feel very nippy, but this unregistered car seems a little sluggish because of an unfortunate optical effect. Unless you get things badly wrong, you’re a long way from the scenery at Silverstone, so you never have the thrill of whizzing past any nearby objects. Still, the corners are fast, so you can have a rare old time seeing what the handling is like on the limit.

It takes me a while to work up to this. The first problem is that I have to wear a crash helmet, which reduces the available headroom to about minus three inches. The Spider is a convertible, but it doesn’t occur to me or anyone else to fold down the roof, so even with my shoulder dropped as far as possible I’m jammed up against a metal support bar with my head angled sharply to the right (the Spider being left-hand drive). The muscles on one side of my neck are totally relaxed, but on the other they’re already hurting before I reach the end of the pit lane.

Furthermore, almost every track I’ve driven on in the past five years has been less than fifteen feet wide, and Silverstone International – much the same as the layout used for the British Grand Prix, except that you skip the hairpin left that takes you to Aintree and go over a short linking section before rejoining at the end of the Becketts complex – is four times that. It all starts to feel natural, but on my first couple of outings the accompanying instructors (whose presence is compulsory – I asked if I could do a few solo laps but was gently ushered away from that idea) are politely unimpressed. I can see why.

It’s evident right from the start that at track speeds the Spider is intolerant of careless driving. In particular, if you’re just the tiniest fraction too early on the throttle in mid-corner, the nose will instantly drift off line, and a few yards later you’re concentrating on staying within the track limits rather than heading down the next straight. Anything other than the gentlest of steering inputs has much the same effect.

Get all this right, though, and the car turns in properly, then squats down nicely at the rear as you apply the power. The difference in handling, and the way the process now seems so simple, isn’t immediately easy to achieve, but as always when you have to work hard to achieve the best result it’s deeply satisfying.

For comparison, I later go out for a few laps in another Spider with automatic transmission. The difference in gearing is startling. In the manual I had to select fifth towards the end of the long Hangar Straight, but the automatic will go all the way down without coming close to hitting the revlimiter in fourth. Corners which could previously be taken easily in third are now worth a go in second, a gear the auto seems unwilling to accept at vigorous turn-in speeds. If I had driven the automatic Spider first I would have been very pleased with it, but at Silverstone the manual is better.

The 595 Competizione has basically the same MultiAir engine as the Spider (slightly more powerful at 178bhp) but is otherwise a completely separate car and behaves quite differently. For a start, the back end is a lot less stable under heavy braking, though it’s perfectly catchable and never made me feel I was about to lose control.

More generally, there is only so much you can do with it. It doesn’t continue to reward you the better you drive the way the Spider does, but instead reaches a level of smudginess you just have to accept. That said, it reaches a level of fun within a few corners that the Spider, the first time you take it out, doesn’t achieve for several laps. At a point where you’re still trying to chime in with the Spider, establishing the ideal combination of braking, steering and throttle inputs, the Competizione is already making you laugh with delight.

Again for purposes of comparison, I have a few laps in the 595 Turismo. It’s the least powerful of today’s Abarths (158bhp this time) and is set up more for the road than the track. In my head I have my script written while the instructor is still looking for the keys: slower, less capable, not so well suited for the job, a car I’m driving because I feel I have to rather than because I want to.

Within a minute of leaving the pit lane I’m glad I did. Yes, of course it’s slower, but it’s also absolutely hilarious. Chuck the Spider around the place and it tells you very clearly that this is not the way to go about things. Do the same in the Turismo and it immediately joins the party, bouncing and skidding and twitching but never feeling remotely unsafe. Even more than the Competizione, it fails to reward clinical driving, and I would probably tire of it sooner, but my God, what a hoot it is. If you went to a trackday simply to enjoy yourself, with no regard for lap times or who might be faster or slower than you, the Turismo would, of all the cars mentioned here, be the right one for you.

The Turismo is the principal reason I leave Silverstone in a very good mood, but deep down I know that if I were offered a return visit, I’d spend the whole day driving the manual Spider.