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Drive feature: NSX marks the spot. Image by Honda.

Drive feature: NSX marks the spot
We drive Honda NSXs, old and new, to the Spa 24 Hour race to see the latest racing version in competitive action.


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The history

The year was 1993. Prince Charles was demanding a divorce from the 'People's Princess', Diana. Millwall's New Den football stadium opened, the first new ground to have been built in the country since the war. Sticking with that sporting theme, Graham Taylor's troubled reign as England manager was drawing to a close, with England destined to be no-shows at USA '94 (missing out on Diana Ross's opening ceremony penalty... good grief!). Now 24 was the latest instalment in the long-running musical compilation series, including such bangers as Ain't No Love (Ain't No Use) by Sub Sub featuring Melanie Williams, Mr. Loverman by Shabba Ranks feat. Chevelle Franklin and Pressure Us by Essex's 'best' band, Sunscreem. And, in the car world, Ford launched the Mondeo and killed off the Orion, while Vauxhall bestowed the default learner driver's machine on the public, in the form of the Corsa.

Over at the 46th running of the Spa 24 Hours race, meanwhile, a Honda was sitting on pole position. It was an original NSX, pop-ups and all, wearing the number 30, some spiffing red livery with gold wire racing wheels and driven by the team of German Armin Hahne, Japanese driver Kazuo Shimizu and, on his home turf (sort of; he'd go on to compete on a French racing licence in the future), Belgian bloke and former F1 pilot Bertrand Gachot. In a race that would go on to be dominated by competition 911s of the era (which threatened to withdraw pre-event in a row over ballast), the GT2-spec Seikel Motorsport Honda NSX was a lone, shining light of non-Germanic interest. Of course, the race is now remembered more for the fact it never went the distance, being reg-flagged after 15 hours when news of the death of Belgium's then-king, Baudouin, broke and forced the 24 Hours' stoppage out of respect.

The NSX of 1993, which set the fastest lap in qualifying with a 2:37.84 circuit (half a second quicker than the nearest Porsche), never even made that red-flag situation, having to retire in the middle of the night, after 233 laps, as the result of a fire. And that was about it for NSX involvement at the Spa 24. Various competition NSXs would do well in other endurance races across Europe, while also proving competitive in the Japanese Grand Touring Championship (JGTC), notably in 2000 when the Castrol Dome Mugen NSX won both Drivers' and Teams' titles, but Honda would not return to the Ardennes circuit again.

Until now - the year of Now 100, no less. Having competed its customer NSX GT3 in various series around the world beforehand, the manufacturer decided it would launch back into the fiercely competitive Blancpain GT Series Endurance Cup at the 2018 Spa 24 Hours, using the Castrol Honda Racing team (including JAS Motorsport) to prepare its mean-looking machine for competition in the Pro-Am class (mainly because it didn't compete in earlier rounds of the BGTSEC, meaning it was exempt from the Pro class). This time, the driving team was Betrand Baguette (B), Esteban Guerrieri (ARG), Loic Depailler (F) and six-time F1 GP winner and general Italian legend, the 64-year-old Riccardo Patrese. The number on the door of the 2018 car? Why, 30, naturally.

So, Honda thought it would be a lovely idea to drive one classic NSX and one new NSX, in their road-going trim, to Spa and back, to see how the Castrol Honda got on in the race. And this is what happened...

That was then...

We're not going to go into MY05 NSX in too much great detail here, because we had a magical week and 430 miles in its company in the summer of 2016. Nevertheless, what we will confirm here is that it was everything we could have expected of the legend... and more.

So, seeing the Imola Orange Pearl beauty roll up next to the Nouvelle Blue Pearl modern iteration is a strange moment. In many respects, you'd say the newer NSX is the more attractive car, but in the face of the 2005 model arriving on the scene, it suddenly looks lost. There's just something about the orange NSX's cab-forward perfection, its elegant proportions and its perfectly-sized 17-inch wheels that gets the pulse racing. OK, it might have much to do with the history and mystique surrounding the original NSX, but the fact remains that, hands down, it's the older motor that instantly inspires more lust in the bystander.

Truth be told, much of the journey to and from Spa Francorchamps was conducted on the monotonous boredom of the E40 motorway, a route we've suffered on in glorious machinery before, so learning anything new about the older Honda's dynamics was never going to happen. But we did let it run out into the high lift VTEC mode multiple times on clear bits of motorway, and we did also happen to sit in it as a passenger for three glorious parade-speed laps of Spa itself, along with around 40 other Mk1 and Mk2 NSXs from across Europe, and it remains as alluring and mesmeric a machine as it ever was.

Apart from the driving position, of course. Which a taller driving companion likened to being 'trapped in a Wendy house'. Or the lack of storage space, resulting in the assorted detritus of a long-haul trip accumulating in the most bizarre of places in the old NSX. But we digress.

...and this is now

The logistics of the trip meant that we actually picked up NSX 999 about four days before we were due to depart, meaning we used it for almost 300 miles in the UK beforehand, allowing us to get to know it thoroughly. During that time, it did the mundane - nursery runs, a late-night pick-up from Newark Northgate train station, trips to supermarkets and so on - while providing a few entertaining blasts on quiet back roads, too.

Say what you like about the hybrid drivetrain, as an execution of a 581hp extreme-performance supercar from a company that had, prior to the NSX Mk2's launch, not made a road car with anything in excess of 310hp, officially, the new NSX is quite remarkable. The speed it can summon up from pretty much anywhere on the rev counter is astonishing and the super-rapid response of the nine-speed dual-clutch gearbox, plus the cleverness of the Honda's four-wheel-drive system and hybrid assistance, means the difference in pace between the blue and the orange NSXs is absolutely enormous.

We like much of the way the NSX goes about its business too, because it's comfortable enough for ride quality in its Quiet mode and more capacious onboard than its ancestor, factors that both serve to make it a decent long-distance hauler. Indeed, it can even turn in more than 30mpg on a fast cruise, if you need it to, which is frankly ludicrously good for a car capable of 0-62mph in three seconds dead. But there's clearly also a chassis of rare talent here, with impressive steering, rock-solid body control and a lack of scruffy understeer that's most heartening. The NSX's cornering pace, in the dry, is immense.

The problem is... it doesn't quite suck you in as the driver to the same degree as the older car. Getting it to go fast is simply a case of planting the loud pedal and holding on to the steering wheel as best you can - with the concomitant feeling that anyone could elicit such searing pace from it, even your nan. The twin-turbo V6 makes some strange whooshing and grumbling noises at lower revs, most of which aren't really appealing, and while it has a snarling, top-end induction note in Sport+ or Track modes that's really rather excellent for a forced-induction engine, compared to that hard-edged, metallic wail the older NSX makes as it swings past 5,800rpm, the soundtrack of the 581hp car is something of a non-event.

It's also not great for interior finishing, something it shares in common with the old NSX, but a trait that's less forgivable on a car that is robustly in the six-figure ballpark for pricing. We like the NSX's flattened, part-carbon steering wheel and digital instrument cluster a lot - even though we can't work out why the rev counter gains another 1,000rpm in Sport+ and Track modes, while the limiter stays at 7,500rpm - and we like its seating position much more than the older car's and we like the visual flourishes that the company has delivered with the dash shaping and the use of Alcantara in places, but some of the plastics just aren't up to snuff in this day and age, and the car's infotainment seems sub-standard for this class.

In short, the current NSX is brutally fast and almost comically adept in the corners, but we don't find ourselves yearning for it with every fibre of our being, once we've climbed out of it and walked away.

The race

A big accident in the supporting Lamborghini Trofeo Cup - in which a marshal and the driver were both hospitalised - is echoed in the main 24-hour event by a huge smash at Spa's most infamous corner, Eau Rouge-Raidillon, which red-flags the race for a period in the middle of the night. We can report that, writing this in the wake of the race, everyone involved is safely on the mend, which is the most important thing. Back to the race, a number of full-course yellows also mixed up the action and caught out the tactically unfortunate - the No.30 Honda, regrettably, one of their number, stopping just before a full-course yellow came into force.

Various other misdemeanours, such as a puncture and penalties, put paid to the Castrol NSX's chance of a class victory, but it certainly ran competitively quickly when it was unhampered - and, unlike the Seikel Motorsport NSX of 25 years ago, it completed the race, coming home in 32nd place and eighth in class. It racked up slightly in excess of 2,132 miles in 490 racing laps, with the winning BMW M6 GT3 covering 511 laps in total; the best Pro-Am car, incidentally, a Ferrari 488, managed 506 laps, so without misfortune the Honda should prove to be a strong competitor in BGTSEC in future campaigns.

The return

With a 3.5-hour trudge back up Belgian motorways to an evening Chunnel crossing ahead of us, there wasn't any more time to bag the older NSX again; but we got one last whirl in NSX 999 to sign off a memorable trip that included a startling journey across the north Belgian coast, through some, er... less than appealing resorts west of Ostend, all of which were cloaked in a fug of miserable, pervasive drizzle. Yes, that's right, drizzle - in the middle of the hottest, driest summer on record, the North Sea coast of Flanders was depressingly bleak. Put it this way, we won't be booking a fortnight in Koksijde any time soon.

But we came away from the trip with a huge amount of admiration, desire and, chiefly, respect for the new NSX. Respect for the competition version, which looks bloody awesome and which will no doubt soon be among the GT3 front-runners. Respect for the road-going model, which is definitely a supercar you must try at some point in your life, if only to sample its hilarious levels of grip. And respect for what Honda has done with the NSX lineage, delivering - after a crazy long wait - a car that is definitely worthy of those most hallowed three letters.

You know what we're about to say, though, don't you? If you put us on the spot, right here, right now, and said we'd got 200,000 and could only have one of the two NSXs here... you know which one we'd choose. It's not that MY05 NSX is perfect, far from it. But it has that indefinable, special something, that fizz of excitement, that only the very greatest cars in history possess. As it hammered past us repeatedly at high revs on the motorway, its 3.2 VTEC howling away into the sky, it was the orange NSX that had us drooling and craving more time behind its old-fashioned wheel.

And wishing it was 1993 again, so that we could buy the Mk1 NSX new and perhaps slot the CD for Now 25 into its dash, whereupon we could enjoy some Chaka Demus & Pliers and imagine we were Bertrand Gachot, setting the fastest lap at Spa. Here's to progress, eh?

The specs

Model: 2005 Honda NSX 3.2 Coupe manual
Layout: mid-engined, rear-wheel drive
Engine: 3.2-litre VTEC V6 petrol
Power: 280hp at 7,300rpm
Torque: 298Nm at 5,300rpm
Gearbox: six-speed manual
0-62mph: 5.7 seconds
Top speed: 168mph
Combined consumption: 22mpg
Weight: 1,430kg
Price: circa 70,000 in current condition

Model: 2016 Honda NSX
Layout: mid-engined, four-wheel drive
Engine: 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6 petrol with three electric motors
Power: 581hp at 6,500rpm
Torque: 646Nm at 2,000-3,500rpm
Gearbox: nine-speed dual-clutch automatic
0-62mph: 3.0 seconds
Top speed: 191mph
Combined consumption: 28.2mpg
Weight: 1,725kg
Price: from 149,995 new, circa 150,000-180,000 used

Model: 2018 Castrol Honda Racing NSX GT3
Layout: mid-engined, rear-wheel drive
Engine: 3.5-litre twin-turbo V6 petrol
Power: c.500hp
Torque: c.500-600Nm
Gearbox: six-speed sequential racing gearbox
0-62mph: N/A
Top speed: N/A
Combined consumption: N/A
Weight: c.1,200-1,300kg
Price: around 416,000, excluding any options, all race support, competition fees etc

Matt Robinson - 6 Aug 2018    - Honda road tests
- Honda news
- NSX images

Honda NSX at Spa 24 Hours 2018. Image by Honda.Honda NSX at Spa 24 Hours 2018. Image by Honda.Honda NSX at Spa 24 Hours 2018. Image by Honda.Honda NSX at Spa 24 Hours 2018. Image by Honda.Honda NSX at Spa 24 Hours 2018. Image by Honda.

Honda NSX at Spa 24 Hours 2018. Image by Honda.Honda NSX at Spa 24 Hours 2018. Image by Honda.Honda NSX at Spa 24 Hours 2018. Image by Honda.Honda NSX at Spa 24 Hours 2018. Image by Honda.Honda NSX at Spa 24 Hours 2018. Image by Honda.


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