Where on earth had I been, the valet must have thought. Some 48 hours earlier I was ankle deep in what Uncle Monty would have described as “beastly mud and oomska” at the Festival of Speed. I had received a call: Would I like to drive a Maserati GranTurismo MC Stradale from Goodwood to Monaco? Well yes. Yes I would, actually. To whet my appetite, they drove me up the hill in the new Levante SUV and I can confirm the luxury 4x4 was plenty thrilling as it glanced Lord March’s wall.
Then, first thing in the morning, I was up and out in my murder-black Stradale, en route to Folkestone without a minute to lose. The race to Monaco was on. As the cars were loaded onto the Eurotunnel, our hosts from the trident marque produced luxury picnic hampers, and I proceeded to eat scotch eggs off the Maserati’s carbon-fibre rear wing as we hurtled under the English Channel. The weather was dire as we set south from Calais and I was cautious of any gendarmes who might like to punish a UK registered exotic for the Brexit vote that had been announced just three days before. Suddenly the continental roads for British holidaymakers seemed fraught with danger, but as we headed further south the sun appeared and the speedo needle started to rise.
Having driven for over six hours, it was time to pull off the autoroute at Beaune and take our lodgings for the night. The Hostellerie de Levernois is an old favourite of Nicolas Sarkozy. The former French premier has helicoptered in dinner companions including Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates. But the Levernois is entirely without ostentation, as discrete and rustic as anywhere in wine country. The French export the bordeaux and keep the burgundy for themselves, or so they say. We were just a couple of miles from the most celebrated chardonnay domaines on the planet and within minutes of arriving there was a bottle of Puligny-Montrachet on my room service bill.
Dinner was a pleasing event. Lobster tempura; shellfish gnocchi; crayfish with morilla mushrooms; roasted veal; and a chocolate and caramel mousse that looked like an alien spaceship.
The next day’s weather was spectacular and by the time we reached Serres it was 34 degrees. We had swerved off the autoroute and, after following the route Napoleon took from Elba to Grenoble, we took the E712 that scissors alongside the 25km long Verdon Gorge. This has to be the most spectacular road in Western Europe. A green thread of water trickles through the canyon 700 metres below and on it frolic vacationers in pedalos and kayaks. Personally, I prefer my steed, with its 460 Italian horses and a V8 that delivers a smidgin more power than a rowing boat.
The Verdon’s switchbacks were never-ending. Each time we went around a hairpin the rear would drift out ever so slightly before burying the traction and leaping into the next bend. Overtaking had to be prepared with surgical precision as the opportunities were hazardous, and I could hear the odd yelp from the passenger seat. But this was as satisfying as driving gets, in a car with immense balance and poise.
In many ways, the car is a throw-back. It’s a handsome cad, flawed in many ways but irresistibly charming. The shortcomings include an attractive but dated interior and a sat-nav system which is Citroen-derived. The last collaboration between the two was the Maserati-engined Citroen SM, whose bold futuristic shape and eccentric technologies I adore, and I assume this sat-nav was devised alongside it during the 1970s. Then there’s the gearbox, a dual-clutch puzzle which had the Stradale jolt violently every time we changed gear, even on auto setting. The only way to combat this was to predict when the change was coming and back off 50 percent on the throttle. It took some finessing and is hardly what you would prescribe of a continental mile muncher designed for high-speed, low-energy cruising. In this respect, the car falls well short of the offerings from Aston Martin, Bentley, Porsche and Ferrari.
But I will forgive the analogue technology because of its vintage noise. Few automobiles bark and grumble like a Maser. It’s Ray Winstone in an Armani suit; all polished red carpet stuff and suddenly “You f*****g c**t!”. Only the British and the Italians are capable of engineering such bi-polar machines. A German car won’t surprise you in this way. The Maserati pulls a Gordon Bennett, swooning for his society wedding guests before pissing in the fireplace of the Waldorf Astoria’s ballroom.
This car was inspired by Maserati’s Trofeo racing cars, and there’s a carbon fibre venturi at the rear that looks like Hannibal Lecter’s mouth hole. It’s been on the steroids and no mistake. As family-friendly two-plus-two GTs go, this one looks like it’s headed for a restraining order. The 4.7 V8 doesn’t quite deliver on the sound, and with 0-62 in 4.5 seconds and a top speed of 188mph it’s a generation behind the new Aston DB11. To squeeze performance out of it, you have to keep it in the red band, though with such feral noises emanating from under the carbon bonnet, this isn’t much of a hardship.
Evolution is overdue. At £110,000, it’s in a segment where you want to break the national speed limit in under four seconds, and you don’t want the sat-nav to get you lost. But the underpinnings are sound: the styling is sound, the chassis is terrific and the ride is at once thrilling and assured.
Past Serres, the roads opened up but the mountains continued to rise until we descended into Nice, cruising along the Corniche. We had left Goodwood in the drizzle a day before and were now arriving in Monte Carlo, bathed in early evening sunlight and just in time for aperitifs and the Yacht Club.
I swung the Stradale under the Hermitage’s Belle Epoque awning and proffered my muddy wellingtons to the porter. I’d come a long way the last 1,000 miles, but the Maserati looked perfectly at home.