Amid the economic gloom, if you want a reason to feel good about British manufacturing, go to an industrial estate in Peterborough and see if you can arrange a quick trip around Radical Sportscars. But be quick: Radical is growing so fast it’s run out of space – in a factory once thought far too big for a small manufacturer of race and track day cars.
So Radical is building a new facility nearby, from scratch, that’s almost three times the size of where it is now. Radical’s claim is that by volume it’s now the second-largest racing car constructor in the world, beaten only by Porsche. And with 230 racers made last year, that’s not hard to believe.
But that’s not all Radical does. Its business is impressively diversified, making components for other race cars and parts that have nothing whatever to do with cars at all: the factory also produces bearings that are used in motors that drag probes across the floor of the ocean.
Looking around makes you feel proud. Unlike some other small British sports car companies that merely assemble their cars on site from parts provided by external contractors, Radical makes everything from the steel space-frame chassis to the glassfibre bodies.
Engines come from Suzuki motorcycles, but it is Radical that adapts them for use on four wheels, bores them out – and in the case of the flagship SR8, combines the internals from two into a home-brewed V8 engine. Like Porsche, it also offers a warranty for all its racing engines.
So long as it’s done less than 40 hours on the circuit, if it unstitches itself, it’s down to Radical. And that is a hell of a lot of racing. Mind you, Radical boss Phil Abbott says he’s seen one engine from a race car driving school that still remained in good health with over 200 hours on it.
But it is Radical’s first road car I’m here to see. Although it’s possible to make any Radical road legal through the process of single vehicle type approval, the SR3 SL is not a racing car wearing a number plate but one that’s been gone through from end to end to adapt it for road use. Though it looks like the Radical’s staple racer the SR3, it has different bodywork, suspension, aerodynamics, and perhaps most importantly, a new engine. In the interests of driveability, the Suzuki motorcycle engine has been replaced by a Ford 2 litre turbo motor offering 300bhp, in a car weighing 745kg. This sounds like enough to be getting on with.
It certainly feels like a racing car. You still have to climb over the side and settle down into a moulded GRP bucket seat. Actually you sit a little higher than you’d expect, but you soon get used to it. Information comes from a central LCD display which is not that easy to see at a glance, though apart from what speed you’re currently doing, a bank of change up lights tell you what you most need to know.
There are some comforts in here, but not many. There’s a heater of dubious strength, a padded steering wheel, a handbrake and electric adjustment for the wing mirrors. Lacking a windscreen as it does, there is neither central mirror nor wipers.
The engine wakes up with an anodyne blare. This motor is a tool for doing a job, much as is the Audi turbo motor in the KTM X-Bow, the car that probably most closely mirrors the SR3 SL’s positioning. Expect any aural excitement or enthusiasm to accompany your progress and you’ll be disappointed.
Negotiating the car out of Peterborough is quite an alien experience. Amid the lorries, vans and normal cars the Radical feels quite out of place, though if you do settle down to a steady cruise, it’s actually respectably comfortable. I’m wearing a helmet but you could probably get away with looking a lot less silly by wearing sunglasses and a cap, though you risk your face becoming stone-chipped. You could certainly drive it from home to the Nürburgring, though after a couple of days in the Green Hell you might feel somewhat less stoked about the idea of driving it back.
I head for a road that is the stuff of legends among colleagues who test cars in the east of England. Predictably the Radical is fearsomely fast. There’s not a Ferrari made today that can touch its power-to-weight ratio, and with a turbo that spools up almost instantly from as little as 2000rpm, there’s not even much of an imperative to make sure you’re in the right gear. Shifts come via paddles and can be dispatched without using the clutch in either direction, though I found that if you just lift the throttle for an instant on the upchange and dip the clutch on the way down, you can eliminate entirely the slight jolts in the driveline that would otherwise accompany your progress.
But it appears to have even more grip than power. Not far into your journey there comes a stage where the kick in the back becomes normal, while your apex speed is still boggling your brain; a stage when you have complete confidence both in your machinery and your ability to control it, yet for it still to be unwise to go faster on a public road. Point-to-point on a dry road like this, the Radical is possibly the fastest road car I’ve ever driven.
Still, the SR3 SL is not actually a very easy car to drive fast. It tram-lines sufficiently severely for your progress to be punctuated by a series of small corrections as its nose darts left and right like a bloodhound picking up a scent. In a lesser car this would not be so problematic, but in a car with performance such as this, the need for it to go precisely where you point it is an obvious imperative. On the road its colossal potential to entertain and indulge the driver is compromised if not entirely spoiled.
The SL is probably this way to maintain circuit performance, and as a hybrid road-cum-track day machine, this is understandable. But if Radical is to turn its road car business into the same roaring success its race car business has become, there is work to be done here. Radical wasn’t surprised by my feedback; it’s already working with its damper supplier and tyre specification to make the car more user-friendly on the road. If it cracks that, Radical can start to build a reputation for road cars as strong as the one it already has for its racers.
ENGINE: 2.0 litres, four cylinders, petrol
TOP SPEED: 160mph
POWER: 300bhp at 6000rpm