Secret Weapon

It’s the fastest car you’ve never heard of. Just a few weeks before our arrival in Berlin, German race driver Florian Gruber wrestled a Gumpert Apollo Sport around the famous Nurburgring Nordschleife in 7:11.57sec, taking the production-car record in the process.

At that moment, the Gumpert became more than an eccentric-looking rocketship: it could rightfully claim to be the fastest point-to-point car in the world. But you’ve still never heard of it, even though it’s fully homologated and is considered a full production car … if you can afford to fork out $800,000.

We meet the salesman, Sven, at the company’s new sales office in Berlin’s Meilenwerk building. This converted factory now houses a priceless collection of old-timers and instant classics like a 300SL Gullwing and a Ferrari Enzo. Yet even here, the Apollo Sport stands out from the crowd. It’s not the most beautiful – not by a long shot – but this orgy of straight edges is pure, leg-breaking aggression. It’s the antithesis of the more elegant Pagani and Tramontanas that occupy its price range.

Roland Gumpert, the man who introduced four-wheel-drive to Audi’s WRC program, and Roland Mayer, a crack Audi tuner who fancied something more substantial, set about creating a supercar with enough downforce to drive along the ceiling at full speed. What they came up with is a shrink-wrapped, uncompromised racing car with a number plate, and I can’t even climb in without unhooking the quick-release steering wheel.

The minimalist interior is mostly carbonfibre, with two bucket seats, a giant sequential lever, three pedals and a few dials. There isn’t a rear-view mirror (because there’s no rear window!) and grabbing the leather strap and pulling down the surprisingly heavy gullwing door to close it takes serious effort. Reverse, meanwhile, requires blind faith in the camera that feeds into the sat-nav screen.

As I finally fire up the 515kW V8, a hollow bark fills the halls as the Audi-derived 4.2-litre clears its lungs like a heavy smoker, spitting unburnt fuel all over the highly polished floor. I use the car’s hydraulic system to raise the front-end 40mm before engaging first gear by dipping the clutch and pulling firmly on the lever twice. Then it’s out of the perfectly surfaced Meilenwerk and into the outside world.

I’m hemmed in on every side by Berlin traffic. A bus runs ominously close to the frighteningly expensive wing, a cyclist sits ahead and if my foot slips off the clutch, I could smear his yellow jersey all over the road. I feel for the bite point with bomb-disposal levels of care and the Apollo trickles gently into the fast-retreating traffic. I’m slower than everyone else; I’m sweating and I’m working twice as hard.

The clutch and sequential lever are heavy. Both are race-bred and the clutch and sequential marriage works perfectly, but it isn’t a natural set-up to jump into, so it’s a manual workout in there and the optional air-con is a life saver. Without that box ticked, this car would be an oven, with no way to fight the heat on offer from the twin-turbocharged engine that sits just inches away from you.

For the Nurburgring record, Gumpert softened the car to give it the suspension travel to cope with the Nordschleife’s wicked bumps and kerbs. This one bounces and struggles on the cobbles and every rut is transmitted through the barely padded racing shell that forms the seat – it’s like driving through an earthquake. The massive tyres grab at every tram line, painted line, and fault-line in the road.

Downforce doesn’t help, as we’re joining traffic moving at 15km/h, but the mechanical grip is immense and in town, that can work against the Gumpert. It never quite deviates from the straight line, but there’s a riot of noise, jolts and bumps coming through that carbonfibre monocoque as each tyre taps out the road surface.

Of course the car is more at home on the racetrack, where the 848Nm of torque can kick in and send the Apollo Sport scorching to 100km/h in 3.0sec flat, 200km/h in 9.1sec and onto a top speed of 360km/h, which is mind-boggling considering the aerodynamics at work. After our painful run through the city, it’s high bloody time for an excursion onto a backroad.

The numbers really should have warned us, but we weren’t prepared for the sheer violence of the Gumpert’s acceleration. The Apollo Sport packs such an explosive force that it feels like your face is melting. The noise is like an old-world racecar as the metallic V8 roar reverberates around the cabin.

The 1197kg Apollo Sport feels so direct and so responsive that even the Ferrari Enzo seems dimwitted by comparison and I end up winding steering lock off before the apex on more than one occasion. The direct, rose-jointed connections give racecar-like responses at any speed. But high-velocity bends are the Gumpert’s true forte, with its trick chassis and 1700kg of downforce keeping it stuck firmly to the road at outrageous speeds. It’s still quite a job, though, trying to keep this two-metre-wide steed in my own lane.

You see, I feel like I’m only a foot spasm away from a major accident. But the useable, smooth power band helps, as well as the depth of feel on offer from the AP Racing six-pot steel brakes. The almost infinitely variable Racelogic traction-control system is cranked to full and yet I can still feel those massive rear tyres flailing against the surface before the computers cut in to kill the power. It’s disconcerting at first, but I learn to trust the car as we head back into the city and along one straight of the old AVUS race circuit to the south west.

Flowing along with the traffic, I can leave the clutch alone and roll along in second and sometimes third, using the torque (not the turbos) to row along. And I start to see softer qualities in this brute of a car. Kept below its flashpoint of 3500 revs, it is calm, controlled and docile, perfectly engineered to take whatever the city can throw at it. Learn to ignore the white noise from the suspension and the Apollo Sport is a faithful companion. The jolts, bangs and vibrations simply mark progress, rather than any imminent disaster.

Building confidence, I even plug a few cheeky gaps in traffic. And easing through Berlin gives us the chance to see just how much of an impact this car has on Joe Public. Just 40 Gumpert Apollos have been built and hardly any have been spotted on the open road, so its sledgehammer appeal is undiluted by familiarity. Waving back, tooting the horn and an occasional burst of revs to satisfy the growing throng at traffic lights is all part of the Apollo Sport experience as we close in on our destination.

We turn left past the famous Nike flash, a unilateral symbol if ever there was one, and snake past a thousand disbelieving eyes to the chain link sculpture that’s simply entitled: Berlin. Gucci, Bvlgari, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Valentino, Lacoste, Tommy Hilfiger, Cartier, Hermes, Swarovski and Aston Martin all have stores here, and once again, the Apollo Sport fits right in. Its price-tag means it is beyond the dreams of most mere mortals, and ensures that the Apollo Sport remains a plaything for the rich that already have a Ferrari and a Lamborghini in their garage and crave a different buzz.

The fact that it can lap the ’Ring in record time, yet crawl to the centre of one of the busiest cities in Europe makes it all the more unique. It truly is a production car; not just the fastest car you’ve never heard of.

Price: €300,000 base price, €400,000 as tested
Body 2-door, 2-seat coupe
Drive rear wheels
Engine 90-degree V8, DOHC, 40v, twin-turbocharged
Material alloy head/alloy block
Bore/Stroke 84.5 x 92.8mm
Capacity 4163cc
Compression 9.3:1
Power 515kW @ 6500rpm
Torque 848Nm@ 4000rpm
Redline/Cut 7000/7200rpm
Fuel/tank 98 Octane/80 litres
Kerb weight 1200kg
Power-to-weight 429kW/tonne
Transmission six-speed sequential manual
Suspension Independent Pushrod actuated double transverse control arm, horizontal dampers, anti-roll bar; hydraulic lift kit (f); pushrod-actuated double transverse control arm, horizontal dampers, coil-springs (r)
Length/width/height 4460/1998/1114
Wheelbase 2700mm
Track (f/r) 1670/1598mm
Steering power rack and pinion
Turning circle 10.8m
Brakes 378mm ventilated discs with six piston calipers all round
Wheel 19 x 10.0-inch (f), 19 x 13.0-inch (r)
Tyres Pirelli P Zero 255/35 ZR19 (f)
345/35 ZR19 (r)

Positives: A real race car for the road that can just about handle a trip to the city.

Negatives: It hurts to look this cool and supercar owners pay a heavy price to show off their pride and joy.

Stars: 8/10

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