Nearly 50 drivers and motorcyclists have died at Spa-Francorchamps since the first race there in 1922. Nestled in the lush green hills of the Belgian Ardennes, this tortuously twisty circuit is second only to the Nurburgring for morbid notoriety.
So it’s with some trepidation that – having signed a lengthy disclaimer – I don my crash helmet and edge into the pitlane. I’m driving the new Nissan GT-R, the 2017 version of the car the Japanese call ‘Godzilla’. Boasting a supercar-slaying 570hp and a 0-62mph time of less than three seconds, it may not be the ideal choice for a first-timer at Spa. Gulp.
Still, as Colin McRae used to say: “If in doubt, flat-out”. So I blast onto the track at the La Source hairpin, then dive downwards and straight into Spa’s most famous corner: Eau Rouge. This tight S-bend turns into a small pond when it rains, but thankfully today the track is dry. I feel the tyres squirm as I bump over the rumble strips, then the front end of the car goes light as I crest the hill and surge forward into the Kemmel Straight.
My eyes are locked on the horizon as I click the paddle-shifter into sixth gear and the twin-turbo V6 GT-R accelerates to 150mph. Hard on the brakes, the powerful Brembos scrub off speed as I approach the Les Combes bends, but I overcook it and the car understeers (runs wide). The Nissan is no Lotus Elise, and you can certainly feel its considerable 1,752kg heft here.
As Spa’s rollercoaster ribbon of asphalt plunges downhill again, I marvel at how varied – and exciting – this famous circuit is. No wonder it’s an F1 fan- favourite. In the more open corners at Pouhon and Blanchimont, the GT-R’s balance starts to shift towards tail-twitching oversteer, particularly as I gain confidence and my speed increases. But I don’t want to get cocky – perhaps it’s time for a break.
I’m still flushed with adrenalin as the car growls back into the pits, its four huge exhausts ticking as they cool. Spa is just as challenging and thrilling as I dared hope. It inspires awe and demands respect – just like the GT-R, in fact. But there’s no time for reflection; I have a flight from Dusseldorf in a few hours. Time to hit the road.
My journey begins on rural roads that once formed part of the Spa circuit. One can only imagine how terrifying it would have been to race here, with thick clusters of trees lining every bend. On pockmarked tarmac, the revised GT-R rides surprisingly well. An upright driving position and comfortable seats (optional Recaros on our test car) mean it’s more relaxing to drive than similarly-powerful supercars, too.
Crossing into Germany, I’m greeted with the near-mythical sight of a derestricted Autobahn. But traffic is quite heavy – and besides, I’ve already had my speed-fix today – so I opt for a steady 100mph cruise. The big Nissan barely breaks sweat. It’s a crushingly competent grand tourer, with acceleration, braking and cornering abilities so far beyond what you can safely – or legally – achieve on the road that you never want for more.
The GT-R isn’t the bargain it once was, though. When first launched way back in 2007, it was hardly more expensive than a BMW M3. But prices have crept up, with the cheapest version now starting at £79,995. Even with the power boost, plusher interior and touchscreen media system introduced for 2017, that puts Nissan in fairly exalted company. A Jaguar F-Type R will turn more heads and keep the badge snobs at bay.
That said, there is nothing quite like the GT-R. Nissan’s fast and furious flagship has a depth of ability that never fails to impress, both on the road and racetrack. Even after a decade on sale, Godzilla still has teeth.
Tim Pitt works for motoringresearch.com