The Clio F1 Team R27. That's the 197 special edition named after this year's slothful F1 car, right?
Ooh, get you. We should be feeling sympathy for Renault. It wraps up the World Championship with the R26 racer, launches a brilliant Megane special edition boasting the same name, and can do no wrong. But, so far, the new R27 F1 car has been a bit of a dog. Which is a fair burden for its Clio 197 namesake to carry; particularly as it has no more power, so will still get eaten by Corsa VXRs and Peugeot 207 GTIs if the driver is averse to revs. A bit like, err, the F1 car on the track. But we shouldn't be too sniffy. Below the surface is the Cup chassis option pack, which will be available to all Clio 197 buyers this autumn. It's the beginning of Renault's familiar, admirable policy of continuous hot hatch development.
So the F1 Team edition isn't actually all that special?
It's no Trophy, that's for sure. You get some horrid stickers (optional, luckily), darkened rear glass, a '1 of 500' limited edition plaque, a better stereo and leather Recaros. Doesn't seem hugely impressive for a heady £17,250 list price - not when Corsa VXRs go for £15,595. Yucky Yellow is an option but, thankfully, so are other colours. And the rest of it – red-painted four-pot Brembos, Anthracite alloys, 7mm lower suspension, stiffer front and rear dampers plus cleverer bumpstops – is all part of the £800-ish Cup pack. That's the bit which has to be good.
Is it any lighter, like the original Cup, to give it a fighting chance?
Well, the Recaros trim 6kg off the 1240kg kerb weight. Otherwise, no (and the seats are £850 extra for non-R27 buyers, anyway). So there remains a glaring deficit of sub-5500rpm torque – only with angry revs does the engine come to life. Apparently, the original 172 had such power because Renault suspected Peugeot would fit the (167bhp) GTI-6 engine into the 206 GTI. The Clio 182? A response to the 206 GTI 180. However, with the 197, the company is plouging its own furrow (including one on our brow) by eschewing turbo torque for M3-like high rev thrills. Exciting, certainly, but bloody hard work at times. Maybe that's why they concede a need for a turbo if the market continues its trend.
Let's assume you've done the hard work and got up to speed. What's it like in corners?
The standard 197 is a gem. The Cup chassis only reinforces that. Switch off the ESP, barrel in, lift off and the rear will come round, just like the good ol' 205 GTI. Here, though, you've a fighting chance of catching it, because it's so admirably well balanced and approachable. Okay, so the steering is a bit cloudy, but it's quick and the ultra-grippy front end responds instantly, once you're off centre. The precision of it is superb. It doesn't even torque steer if you plant your right foot to save yourself; that's the RenaultSport-trademark double axis front suspension in action. It all feels, well, special.
That's great, but I'd rather not drive around all the time with ESP off, you know
Well then, leave it on; this is a RenaultSport-specific program, whose leniency and discretion makes the engineers proud. You can throttle-steer and play with the rear yaw as much as you'd sensibly want to on the road, without it slapping your wrists; such is the coherency, it's like driving a four-wheel steer car. The ride is a bit more jiggly, but it's still not harsh and a small price to pay for such FWD thrills.
Thumbs up, then?
Not the F1 Team, which is garish, expensive and celebrates mediocrity. But the Cup chassis option pack is a must-tick box for the Clio 197. Besides, such is the focus and intensity you put into wringing the engine's neck, a bit more bite to the chassis seems only in keeping with this. It makes a great hot hatch into something really rather special, flaws and all.