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Apes run amok

  • Ready, set, go Ape

    It's called an Ape, but it's actually a Bee. This is what happens when you translate the name of Piaggio's little tuk-tuk from its native Italian into hearty English. The Bee. For 65 years, these have bumbled around olive groves with ancient farmers up front, or through busy piazzas delivering bread and gelato and other delicious foodie goodness. It's the car of the people. A three-wheeled mule. And we're going to race it.

    You might ask why. So did we. But it turns out you can now buy one in Britain, and to celebrate this, its makers have organised a six-race championship. And they asked if we'd like to have a crack at the first round at Rye House kart track in Hertfordshire. It's a fiddly little place, and top speed is low. Fine: the Ape has a single-cylinder petrol engine with just 20bhp. It has handlebars. And two little castor wheels to stop it tipping over. In short, it has the handling qualities of a roadside shack. In fact, it is a roadside shack, from which to sell your lovely plump olives. (All photography: Don Romney)

  • Ready, set, go Ape

    So, here we are, about to embark on the inaugural Ape GP, having qualified second out of five. It's a Le Mans-style start, where drivers sprint across the grid to their machine. Which is why we've nicked kartist Greg Owens to kick us off (here's a lad built for speed, if ever we've seen one). Then we have the rest of Team TG: Charlie Turner, Ollie Marriage, Piers Ward, Dan Read and a chap called Max, who chases pirates for a living. Really.

    Greg makes a swift start. He knows this place well, having blasted karts around here for years. He wins the sprint and drives straight into the lead. But two other Apes are in a fighty mood and elbow him aside. Warnings are issued. Greg stays with them, until – on lap 10 – he uses his superior power-to-weight ratio to sportingly nip around them both. On lap 12, he dives into the pit lane. Time for Ollie to take over...

  • Ready, set, go Ape

    OM (laps 13-22): Triumphant blocking is taking place. In the pits. The black Ape 3 followed our mighty scarlet midget in for the driver change, and as the pits are littered with karting paraphernalia, there's no room to pass. I'm push-started out of the pits so fast that I let the clutch out in third gear and hit fourth before yumping across the curbs.

    A twist of the clutch/gearbox assembly down to third gear is what's needed, but something feels terribly wrong. I get second. There's barely even a notch in the twist grip where third should have been. I'm second man in, and the gearbox is toasted.

  • Ready, set, go Ape

    And then worse. Looking down to see what's gone wrong, I run wide and Ape 3 snaffles past. I gain yards on him through the trickiest turn on the track and in the glory spot, right in front of the pits, I send our Ape down the inside. The crowd goes wild. One of my mirrors flips in, but my hand won't fit through the mesh to push it back into place and I can't shake black 3, who pounces, and this time he's too canny for me. I trail him so closely, my knees seem to be pushing him along, but I'm denied my revenge. The team calls me in next lap.

    CT (laps 23-28): This is proper racing. And I'm doing it while sat bolt upright in a comedy van that just won't keep its wheels on the ground. I start to think about technique, and while doing so, miss third gear at the most crucial point on the track - the slow exit into the back straight.

  • Ready, set, go Ape

    I shift my weight, sidecar-style, on the approach to corners. Helps keep the inside wheel down, reckon the veterans. They're wrong: the Ape jauntily cocks its wheel at the first sign of weight transfer.

    I pass the pit lane a few times. Not sure how many. As the team boss - Le Patron - it's my job to divvy up the stints. So I do the decent thing and stop for a driver change. Next up, it's Dan, who weighs about three stone. Maybe he can go quicker.

    DR (laps 29-40): Until now, my racing career has been limited to the aisles of supermarkets. Over the years, I've rounded a thousand end-of-aisle hairpins, trolley squeaking like a harrowed mouse, castor wheels flopping around all over the place.

  • Ready, set, go Ape

    Three laps into my first actual motor race, the experience is largely similar. I grip the Ape's handlebars and steer into the first corner, which curls off to the left while I continue straight towards a concrete wall.

    Thankfully I nerf a sausage curb and round the bend. There's another red Ape in my way: a backmarker. He panics into turn one and nearly tips the thing onto its nose. Goodbye, red Ape 2. Next up: black Ape 3, and this time it's for the lead...

    I dummy to the outside. He moves over to defend... then suffers morbid understeer into a sharp right-hander. I tweak the brakes and twitch the bars, moving to the inside. My lonely front tire finds some grip. I exit the corner in front. And that, my friends, is how it's done.

  • Ready, set, go Ape

    PW (laps 41-50): Dan exits to the right as I wiggle in from the left (a door on each side equals quicker pizza delivery). In the rush of the swap, the Ape has stalled, so, like Ollie, I'm bump-started, and the little engine fires just as I squeeze out of the narrow pit lane exit.

    Thanks to some masterful tactics, there's no traffic for the whole of my stint. Which gives me time to think. There's a seatbelt in here, but nobody's bothered with it (it'd stop you shifting your weight around). I'm wearing a helmet, but from the neck down it's jeans and a polo shirt for me. There are just two flags: yellow and red.

  • Ready, set, go Ape

    MW (laps 51-70): Thanks, chaps. I'll bring this home. Put the champers on ice, eh?

    DR: Max is a proper gent. But he's far too busy to write anything, so allow me to sum up his stint for you. It starts with the bravest pit exit of the day, brushing the tire stacks on the way out. By the end of the straight, he's flung open a door, which allows him to hang a buttock outside of the car. Here's a man who takes weight distribution extremely seriously. It pays off, and his second lap is our quickest. He clips every apex. Even mows grass to shave a few seconds here and there.

  • Ready, set, go Ape

    While he's out there, another Ape retires with mechanical problems. Max is impervious to such things and continues to stretch our lead until, an hour and a half after we started, he takes the chequered flag. He pulls over, loads the rest of us into the pickup bed and commences a victory lap. At speed. But while we're taking the applause and squeezing ourselves onto the top step of the podium to pose for photos, a pale blue racing Ape pulls out of the paddock and onto the road.

    Turns out the owner drove here, got stuck into the race and will drive it home again. He'll do the same for the next five races. All for about £6,000 per season... including the price of the Ape. In F1, that sort of money would buy you a wheelnut or something. Admittedly, the Ape might not do 200mph or earn you the company of a grid girl, but it will probably put a larger smile on your face. And after a few margherita deliveries, it might even pay for itself...

    This story originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of TopGear magazine.

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