Driving a purpose-built competition car on circuit is an enlightening experience. Whereas most road cars feel all at sea on track – not enough grip, far too understeery in their balance, body control much too sloppy – racing cars are altogether more capable on circuit. Of course they are. That’s what they’re built for. To drive a competition car on track really is to have your eyes opened, though, and for one simple reason: in a road car you concentrate on the car, but in a racing car you concentrate on the circuit.
It’s all to do with dynamic ability. Road cars, even sporty ones, tend not to have the grip, control and precision to really perform on circuit, where cornering forces are so much higher than on the road, so you have to make allowances for them. You eventually settle into a rhythm of managing the front-end push as you gently sail well wide of yet another apex before crawling back into the pits because your brakes are cooked. It’s frustrating and you never really tune into the track itself.
In a racing car, though, it’s a very different story. They’re capable enough on circuit that you really can turn your mind to the track and think about tackling it in minute detail. Running over that raised section of kerb but missing the serrated edge, for instance, or taking a wider line around the first bend to set yourself up for the following one. Eventually you stop thinking about the car altogether – what sort of engine it has, where it sends its power, even which side of it you’re sitting on – and you focus entirely on the track. Soon enough, it feels as though the circuit is simply rushing underneath you like in a computer game.
Put another way, imagine a speed climber. He needs a certain level of strength and fitness to be able to concentrate on the rock face, whereas most of us would be far too wrapped up in the sheer discomfort of it all to even begin thinking about the technical details of the ascent.
So in a road car you think about the car; in a racing car you think about the circuit. The reason for all of this? Well, the very best high-performance road cars do actually allow you to focus on the track because they have the requisite level of dynamic ability. The Porsche 911GT3 RS does it. Caterhams and Radicals do it. The Renaultsport Megane 275 Trophy-R does it. You can see where this is going.
For the time being, this Renault Sport Clio RS16 is just a concept car.
Renault’s racing and high-performance division rather likes building completely off the wall performance cars and we’ve long praised it for that. This RSI 6 is its latest bonkers creation and it marks 40 years of Renaultsport. it’s also the fastest road car ever to wear the diamond emblem, which shows they know how to celebrate a birthday at Les Ulis. A feasibility study is on going, claims Renault Sport, but if the company doesn’t eventually build a run of 250 or so units I’ll stage a one- man protest outside its headquarters in just my underwear.
We first looked at the RS16 last issue, but to recap, it is a Renault Sport Clio shell fitted with the 275 Trophy-R’s running gear, a heavily uprated chassis and a set of sticky Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2 tyres. The result is 202kW in a B-segment hot hatch – that’s a first – and, given that it’s lighter and smaller than the Megane, the potential for even greater dynamic ability. The RS16 could be about to raise the bar.
Circuit des Ecuyers, an hour east of Paris, is like a big kart track: mostly second and third gear with one or two quick corners to which you can really commit. This sort of track isn’t going to tell us everything we want to know about the RS16 – and I can only guess how it might cope with a bumpy road – but after this briefest of test drives there will be very good reason to believe this could be the fastest and most capable small hot hatch ever.
The engineers are at pains to point out that this car’s steering system is unchanged from the standard Renault Sport Clio’s and should the RS16 make production the steering will be revised. There isn’t much fundamentally wrong with the concept car’s helm, but given how hardcore the RS16 is a touch more weight and physicality wouldn’t go amiss, in certain front-wheel-drive hot hatches you can actually feel the limited-slip diff working through the suspension and the steering, which allows you to measure throttle inputs really precisely. For now, the RS16 is a touch vague in that respect.
That’s the only significant criticism l can level at the car’s dynamics, though. In almost every other sense the RS16 is a masterful track-going hot hatch. The bucket seats and harnesses make a huge difference – In fact that’s one of the major differentiators between road and competition cars – and by being fixed in place you can be so much more accurate with your steering inputs. A suede steering wheel would really set the cabin off, though.
“The balance is sweet and the RS16 feels agile and responsive, particularly in quick direction changes”
Grip levels are really high but there is still a shade of understeer if you don’t manage the front end into the corner by trail-braking. Do so, though, and the chassis balance is brilliantly neutral, which is where a great deal of this car’s speed around a lap comes from. The RS16 doesn’t have the same lurid oversteer as the 275 Trophy-R, but there’s plenty of adjustability. The neat, uniform wear across the rear tyres shows how well this car works its rear axle.
The balance is sweet, then, and with good body control the car feels agile and responsive, particularly in quick direction changes, in the faster corners, meanwhile, once the front end has bitten it holds a lovely, tight line all the way through to the apex.
“The gearshift is brilliantly direct – what a pleasure it is to have a manual shifter in a quick Clio again”
The differential could be more aggressive – in one corner the unloaded inside wheel spins so furiously that I can actually see the tyre smoke out of the corner of my eye – but the engine certainly doesn’t overwhelm the front wheels with its swell of torque and on this smooth surface there’s no real sign of torque steer, either. The engine is strong and responsive with an eager top end and the gearshift is brilliantly direct – what a pleasure it is to have a manual shifter in a quick Clio again – while the Akrapovic exhaust emits a distinctive, blast-furnace soundtrack.
The Clio RSI6 is tremendously good fun to drive and, on this small circuit at least, it has enough dynamic ability that you absolutely can start to chase that perfect lap. Renaultsport, you must build this car.
Renault Clio RS16
Engine: 1998cc in-line 4-cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Power: 202kW @ 5500rpm
Torque: 516lb ft @ 1900-5500rpm
Weight: c1230kg (164kW/tonne)
0-100km/h: 5.8sec (est)
Top speed: 255km/h (est)
Basic price: n/a