I know this course like the back of my hand. I’ve driven a thousand laps and witnessed a thousand more and, nine days from now, I’ll be glued to the box, eager to see if Messrs Vettel, Alonso and Raikkonen can beat my 1min 15sec best. Set on a games console, of course, some years ago when my reaction times were measured in milliseconds and not months. In the virtual world, you can bounce your computer -generated car off the barriers willy-nilly and still come up smiling.
Today, I’m in the latest BMW Z4 Roadster, a real car, made of real metal. I’m bringing it north from Tuscany and couldn’t resist the lure of the Cote d’Azur. BMW withdrew from the F1 scene a few years back but, if I can put in a good lap time, perhaps it will consider coming back to the fold.
My car is the entry-level Z4, the sDrive18i. It’s new for 2013, powered by a detuned version of the twin-turbocharged two-litre petrol engine that sits under the bonnet of the best-selling model in the Z4 range, the sDrive20i. With a modest 154bhp, it wouldn’t trouble the F1 boys, but power is only part of the formula for success at Monaco – there’s barely room to get up to top speed on this tightest of street circuits. A precise but forgiving chassis and a motor with lashings of low-end vim are what’s needed. Let’s see if the Z4 can deliver.
Flip the Drive Dynamic Control switch to Sport mode for snappier throttle response, cross the start-finish line and, with a snarl from the engine, we’re off. And… by the time we exit the first corner at Saint Devote, we’ll be doing 120 and… we’ll be stuck behind a coach of German sightseers as we slog up the hill towards Beau Rivage. The Principality might be prepped for a weekend of hedonism and horsepower, but the circuit’s still open to mid-afternoon traffic and pedestrians.
In all my Playstation practice laps, I’ve never had to give way to cars at the roundabout just before the tunnel, or weave between Japanese tourists taking pictures of the Bentleys lined up outside the casino. And has Jenson Button ever had to stop at La Rascasse to let Gucci’s grandmother cross the road? The result: Six and a half minutes, for a two-mile lap. I could go round quicker on rollerblades.
Reaffirmation of my skills behind the wheel, and the Z4’s charms, can be found on the Route Napoleon, which carves north through Provence towards Grenoble and the Alps. For 200 miles, it writhes and rears, sheer drops on one side, rock faces on the other.
The driver of a Dutch-registered Fiat 500 Abarth has clocked us in his rear-view mirror and is happy to never let us pass. At first, it doesn’t seem a fair fight – a BMW roadster versus a piddly little Fiat? – but the Abarth isn’t giving much away in terms of horsepower and weighs as much as a mayfly, and we spend the rest of the evening playing cat and mouse before a parting of the ways at a little village with a big castle perched on an enormous rock.
At dinner, I’m still thinking about the Abarth – if Fiat can squeeze 140bhp from a 1.4-litre blown engine, why does BMW need an extra 600cc and an extra turbocharger to harvest just 14bhp more? I’ve no idea, but I can’t argue with the way the Z4 flexes its muscles. A little turbo spins up at low revs so that the power comes in early, before a second, bigger, turbo kicks in. The end result is snappy throttle response and an impression that the engine must be far more powerful than BMW claims.
Can’t fault the Z4’s looks either. Some BMW designs leave me cold, but the Z4 looks fantastic, from the tip of its long bonnet to the end of its stubby little rump. Apart from this new engine, changes for 2013 are limited to circular LED running lights with a narrow LED “eyebrow” above the headlight cluster, and a bit of chrome trim on the grille.
You sit very low in the Z4 and a long way back from the front wheels. Peering down that long nose gives the impression that you’re behind the wheel of something much bigger, an illusion aided by the Z4’s supple ride. The BMW’s chassis does a cracking job of smoothing out the bumps, and the low centre of gravity helps it cling doggedly in the bends, aided by optional sports suspension and a 10mm drop in ride height. If there was any flex in the bodyshell with the roof down, I didn’t notice it.
At £27,610 on the road, this is the cheapest new Z4 you can buy. The key to keeping it that way is to take it easy on the options list. You’ve already got your folding hard-top roof, your sassy looks and your spirited engine with burbling exhaust, so what more do you need? We could easily have lived without our car’s £2,165 internet media package (a posh stereo that can do all that Googling-on-the-move trickery), the £455 automatic air conditioning and £1,055 leather seats. Although the 18-inch alloys fill the arches nicely, the £1,000 cost to upgrade them from the standard 17s is a bill we’re not willing to bear.
The £1,495 comfort package, on the other hand, seems a sound investment. It adds cruise control, front and rear parking sensors and a wind deflector that sits between the headrests. Only remove this if you’re the sort of person who looks at Donald Trump’s hair and thinks: “Now that’s a look!”
Back to that engine. On our trans-European tramp, we eked almost 32 miles from every gallon of fuel. That’s some way short of BMW’s 41.5mpg claim, but not bad when you consider that the Italian/French riviera was, for the most part, a traffic jam, and we didn’t exactly spare the horses on the Route Napoleon.
At the Eurostar terminal, we caught up with another Z4, an sDrive35i with a 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine. The driver told us his car had guzzled a gallon of unleaded every 21 miles and, although he loved the performance, he found precious few chances to exploit it, even on the unrestricted bits of Germany’s autobahn. And it was a bit nose heavy in the bends. And £12,000 dearer. And I’ve got a better tan after three days of driving with the roof down.
In the wake of my Monaco disaster, I’m claiming a victory of sorts.
CAR BMW Z4 sDrive18i 6-spd manual
PRICE From £27,610
PERFORMANCE Max speed 137mph; 0-62mph 7.9secs
MPG (combined) 41.5mpg
CO2 EMMISSIONS 159g/km