Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Short, back and slides: the New Stratos

There are big, saw-toothed kerbs at Le Castellet, and ex-F1 driver Tiago Monteiro isn�t afraid to use them. We only have access to one loop of this amazing circuit, formerly known as Paul Ricard, now owned by a certain Bernard Ecclestone, Esq., but it�s fast enough to get a car airborne. Especially if you�re launching it into the apexes the way Tiago is.
�Feels good, huh?� he says, while the jugga-jugga-jugga of the kerb�s serrated edges assails the car�s chassis, and he winds on an armful of opposite lock. Then we�re off towards the next corner, fully crossed-up, bouncing off the kerbs again, before catapulting up the straight with a ripe V8 roar.

This feature was originally published in the January issue of Car Evolution magazine

This is a tight, tight car. From where I'm sitting, clamped to the carbon-fibre passenger seat by a six-point harness, there's no slack at all, no roll, no pitch, no dive. It feels like a 1.2-tonne lump of explosive. Tiago is currently racing a Seat Leon in the WTCC. I've driven one of those, and it's no slouch, as you can well imagine. But this, the New Stratos, is almost as hardcore, and moves with the urgency of a rat with pepper on its arse up a drain-pipe. It's a GT2 street car.
Another lap beckons. More kerbs, more jugga-jugga-jugga, more air. Remember, this is a borderline-priceless one-off that's taken the best part of a decade to bring to life. The man who's bank-rolled it - German businessman Michael Stoschek - strikes me as the sort of bloke you wouldn't want to get on the wrong side of. Somebody tell Tiago, for God's sake...

Paolo Garella, the project manager on the New Stratos, describes this as being "the apex of the one-off car". I think he's right. When TopGear ran a cover story on James Glickenhaus's reimagined Ferrari P4/5 back in 2006, we didn't realise it signalled the start of such a significant trend. Grew up worshipping a particular car and now find yourself with enough bunce in the bank to create a wholly modern reincarnation? Anything, it seems, is possible. Just don't indulge your Morris Marina fetish.

Of course, rich car enthusiasts have been clothing chassis in bespoke bodies for as long as there have been cars to clothe. The carrozzeria business was very lucrative pre- and post-WWII, and all sorts of exotic-sounding outfits would come up with all sorts of symphonies in steel (check out Figoni & Falaschi's Talbot-Lago, for example). In the Fifties and Sixties, there were countless special-bodied Alfas, Astons, Bentleys and Rollers, usually produced in limited runs. More recently, the Sultan of Brunei proved to be quite the fan of the one-off: he commissioned a whole range of Ferrari 456s, including an estate, four-door saloon and a convertible, and had Bentley turn its 1994 motor show concept car, the Java, into a fully functioning car. As you would, if you had a gazillion quid.

But it was the Glickenhaus car that really kick-started this fascinating new micro-trend. Ferrari was reportedly rather miffed that its long-standing professional partner, Pininfarina, had taken on this business, despite the unbelievable quality of its execution. The fact that it was an Enzo-based car that was arguably easier on the eye than the Enzo itself, may also have hurt a little. It wasn't long before Ferrari opened its own Special Projects division, no doubt in pursuit of another luscious revenue stream. Ferrari's bespoke projects - an F430-based car and the 599-based P540 Superfast Aperta - have demonstrated just how quixotic the tastes of the well-heeled can be.

Though there's an important Ferrari connection here, the New Stratos is something else. The original is undoubtedly one of those utterly magical cars. Back in the Seventies, you see, Lancia still meant something. Sure, its cars were made of Russian steel so shoddy it had all the integrity of the country's political system, but look at what they fashioned it into. The Stratos sprang from a luridly brilliant Bertone concept car, which Lancia motorsport man Cesare Fiorio reckoned would make a useful rally weapon. By the time the HF Stratos was homologated for the World Rally Championship, it was powered by Ferrari's 2.4-litre Dino V6 (190bhp in road trim, 280 in competition form), and old Cesare was proved right. He'd designed it to win, and win it did, dominating the sport throughout the mid-Seventies, and racking up back-to-back championships in 1974, '75 and '76.

Watching footage of the car at work in this era is a reminder of two things: firstly, that the Stratos's crazy shape has lost none of its impact over the years. Tall roof, visor-like windscreen, pop-up lamps - it looks like something Simpsons creator Matt Groening would draw. And secondly, that the guys who rallied the thing back then must have had gigantic titanium testicles. I'm taking nothing away from the maestro that is S�bastien Loeb, but a Citroen C4 WRC is a shopping trolley compared to a Stratos in full flight (which it frequently was).

Michael Stoschek, who has presided over the car's rebirth, was equally fascinated. "I read an article in a German newspaper some time in the late Seventies," he tells me, "and the writer was testing a Stratos, one with yellow rims. I thought, I want to own this car. I was always interested in cars, and when I was 15, I always looked for a girl who had a car. It didn't matter if she was ugly, as long as she had a car. But with the Stratos, I was just fascinated by its styling and engineering."

Chairman of automotive component supplier Brose, Stoschek is also a highly successful amateur rally driver, with three victories in the Carrera Panamericana to his name. He owns various old 911s and an immaculate Group 4 Stratos, but the New Stratos project only really took hold when car designer and Stratos nut Chris Hrabalek seeded an idea in Stoschek's head and simply refused to let go.

Hrabalek, who owns an amazing nine Stratoses (at one point it was a faintly ludicrous 14, and he still has a Safari spec rally car and a loony 560bhp turbocharged Group 5 car among others), created and exhibited a modern reinterpretation at the 2005 Geneva show. "I'd known Michael for years," he says. "I met him when I was a kid at a Stratos rally back in 1986. I hassled him for eight years to do this car. I stalked him. I literally popped out of bushes."

Hrabalek is as clever as he is persistent. When Bertone inadvertently let slip that the rights to the Stratos name had lapsed, he asked his dad to hire a copyright lawyer to buy them. Shrewd thinking, especially as he was only 16 at the time. He later funded the prototype by selling shares in the copyright to a variety of Stratos-owning business and entertainment figures. I remember the buzz around the car at Geneva that year, but despite shopping the idea around to the likes of Pagani, Prodrive, Koenigsegg and Gumpert, it proved impossible to get off the ground. And that should have been that.
But when the Glickenhaus P4/5 emerged, Hrabalek rolled the dice one last time and persuaded Stoschek that Pininfarina could handle a similar one-off around the Stratos. Maybe the German just wanted to shut the designer up by this point, but he agreed.

"Pininfarina loved this car but hated it too," Stoschek says now, three years after the collaboration began, "because of the perfectionism of myself and my son [Max, a helicopter stunt pilot also involved in the family business and the Stratos project]. But they now say that this is the best one-off car Pininfarina has ever done."

It also owes a lot to the Ferrari 430 Scuderia. In fact, you could ungraciously describe this as the world's most sophisticated cut and shut. Stoschek bought a Scud ("It had everything on it, too," Hrabalek says a little sheepishly), and the project team's engineers got busy with the angle grinders. It must have been like an automotive snuff movie. The 430's aluminium panels were tossed, and its aluminium spaceframe chassis was shortened by 20cm and welded to an FIA-approved steel roll cage. The front of the chassis was altered to house a single radiator, rather than the 430's double set-up, and the A-pillars were reprofiled to accommodate that distinctive wraparound windscreen. The front and rear bulkhead, floor and rear sub-frame are pretty much carried over. The body and interior are made entirely of carbon fibre, with a visible weave that's only apparent up close.

Its heartbeat is supplied by the Scuderia's magnificent 4.3-litre V8, and lightning-fast F1-style transmission. Thanks to a new ECU and a bespoke titanium exhaust system, power output rises from 503bhp to 532bhp. At 1,247kg, the Stratos is reckoned to undercut the 430 Scuderia by 80kg, but in actual fact it might be closer to 150kg lighter. Although the suspension's architecture is the same, there are new bushes, stiffer springs and revised damper rates. Stopping power is provided by race-spec Brembos, with 398mm ceramic discs and six-piston calipers at the front, 350mm discs grabbed by four pots at the rear. The car wears Dunlop Sport Maxx rubber, 265/30/19s at the front, seriously chunky 315/30/19s at the back.

In summary, then, what we have here is a genius visual update of one of the most madly brilliant cars of all time, powered by undoubtedly one of the greatest engines in history, hooked up to a transmission so finger-snappingly fast that Fernando Alonso himself would be happy with it, in a package that shaves off the weight of two fairly big adults from its already pretty sinewy donor. What's not to love?
What indeed. To be honest, I looked pretty hard, and I couldn't find anything. Once Tiago's had his fun, we swap places. So now I'm driving a �3m one-off belonging to a rather intimidating German gentleman with an ex-F1 driver sitting beside me. Being only the second journalist in the world to drive this thing somehow feels almost more pressurised than being the first. I won't trouble the kerbs, I'm thinking, when a hand lands forcefully on my shoulder. "This is my car. It's the only one I have," says Stoschek with just a hint of Bond villain. Oh God.

It helps that the car feels so damn good the moment you climb into it. Stoschek's perfectionism is clearly manifest in the cockpit. It has the same stripped feel as the 430 Scuderia, and there's lots of exposed carbon and aluminium. As any automotive engineer will tell you, packaging the heating and ventilation system (the HVAC) is a nightmare job, so the Stratos keeps the Ferrari's set-up. There's no media system, multi or otherwise, and the aircon is pretty much your lot, as far as interior distractions are concerned.

Yet the attention to detail is compelling. The wheel, with LED gearshift lights at the top and a flat bottom, feels wonderful. The seats are all-new, ultra-lightweight items; normal seats weigh around 30kg each, the Scuderia's are 18kg, the Stratos's just 11.3kg. Brose makes all sorts of widgets and components for the car industry, so it made sense to use the boss's one-off as a showcase for some experimental new bits. The original Stratos's windows tilt manually into the door frame using a longitudinal slider, and the new version mimics them. An electric mechanism, it's incredibly complex and much lighter than a normal set-up. The door hinges are beautifully milled items. But best of all are the engorged door-bins, designed to hold crash helmets in a cute homage to the original Stratos's most memorable interior feature.

There's Alcantara on the dash and roof, and the dials (which now include a g-meter) sit in an ally binnacle whose asymmetric shape is another tribute to the source. Look as long and hard as you like, but you won't find any gluey residues or ill-fitting mouldings in here. Stoschek must have been the client from hell.
The transmission's column-mounted paddles are the bigger items from the 430 GT2 racecar, and they're carbon fibre rather than aluminium. The Ferrari's clever manettino - which governs the E-diff and traction control - remains in place, but there's a Drexler mechanical diff lock now, rather than an electronic one. Pull the right-hand paddle, and the Stratos snaps into first gear with almost rude impatience. It's 10 per cent stiffer than the 430 Scuderia and somehow communicates that before we've even exited the pitlane.

The first lap of the handful I've been allocated is pretty timid. But a few things are screamingly obvious from the off (the engine, for one thing, which is so loud, it's surely illegal - the exhaust's by-pass valve can be controlled by remote control). This is a car whose dynamics have been set up by someone who's used to competing. The original Stratos was never a car for the faint-hearted, and even the men who conquered it still bristle at the memory of the challenge. The new one, you'll be glad to hear, is in the same vein.
Its electro-hydraulic power steering has that sensation common to most highly bred GT2 cars: you expect lots of weight and resistance, but instead discover something initially over-light and numb. Which is to say that I mess up the first couple of corners, and run the risk of over-driving a car that clearly prefers finely judged inputs rather than being manhandled about the place. As with the wrist-snapping 458 Italia, you have to recalibrate.

It doesn't take long to dial into it, though, and when you do, you can place the Stratos with fabulous accuracy. It's cold and breezy today at Le Castellet, and - while the track isn't exactly offering up maximum grip - it's dry enough for us to start pushing a bit harder. God, it's good. With a power-to-weight ratio of 427bhp-per-tonne, it feels like a caged animal on the loop we're on, but then you can hardly blame its owner for restricting our access a bit. For the record, it'll do 62mph in 3.3 seconds, 120mph in under 10, close to 190mph all-out. Fast hardly covers it.

Paolo Garella, the project boss, claims perfect weight distribution, and it has startling front-end bite. But there's never any doubt about which is the business end. Stoschek reckons it's understeering a bit here today, but a tweak of the manettino is all that's needed to get that stubby back end seriously mobile. It has a visibly shorter wheelbase than the Scuderia and I suspect a slightly higher centre of gravity, so the idiocy threshold is somewhat lower than we've become used to in the latest generation of supercar. That's the way Stoschek wanted it, I guess. But as I get braver and less self-conscious about driving someone else's expensive one-off, I can't help thinking that this is a car I'd leave in my centrally heated garage if it looked like rain.

In the dry, though, it stays the right side of daft. To be honest, the Stratos is up there among the most entertaining cars I've ever driven, as well as being one of the best executed, still rock-solid after 10,000km of punishing development miles. It has a Porsche's attention to detail and deeply engineered feel. It's a lighter, stiffer 430 Scuderia, and moves with even more agility than the Ferrari, which is pretty astonishing given that the Scud is one of Maranello's all-time greats. For a low-volume car, praise simply doesn't come any higher.

Everyone involved is cagey about whether the Stratos will make it into limited production. Stoschek would be happy for it to happen, and seems oddly driven by a need to have his project validated, both by the media who have experienced it and perhaps a handful of potential buyers. There's tooling for another 25 cars, and Pininfarina is on stand-by, so you know whom to call. Besides, Stoschek has done all the heavy lifting, and, even at a projected �500,000, this is a special, special car. The New Stratos is truly airborne.

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