“Isn’t that the one on semi-slicks? Good luck,” are the words of encouragement I hear from a colleague while opening the door of the Megane R26.R. Or to give it the full, needlessly lengthy title, the Renault Sport Megane Renault F1 Team 230 R26.R. Let’s just call it the R26.R or 230 hereafter.
Its name could be double that character count for all I care, as just sitting here, ready to be taken out at Curborough Sprint Course in the pouring rain, it’s so clearly a proper piece of kit. The R26.R could punch my nan in the face and I’d forgive it.
The car sits low and squat on multi-spoke wheels which are, yes, Toyo Proxes R888 tyres that are little more than slicks with a light suggestion of tread. The bonnet is naked carbonfibre, the boot lid is polycarbonate, and opening the door - which contains thinner glass - reveals two deep bucket seats and a bright red half cage where the seats used to be. All told, Renault shed 123kg from this thing.
Clipping into the six-point harness offers a sense of occasion unmatched by any other hot hatchback, and even though the weirdest handbrake I’ve ever seen takes me away from the moment a little, I’m giddy about what’s coming next. There are no pre-flight checks to do here, either - no Sport or Race modes to fiddle with, and a simple traction control system which you can either have on or off. Let’s try it in the ‘on’ setting first.
As anticipated, there’s wheel spin off the start point. The tyres light up all the way through first, but the 230 hooks up part-way through second, offering a decent feeling of straight-line performance despite the power deficit relative to the fast Meganes on the menu for later today. It makes a big deal out of it, too - thanks in part to the lack of rear-seat bench and all the missing sound deadening, you get to enjoy the noise of exhaust gasses excitedly rushing through the pipework below. This makes up for the 2.0-litre inline-four engine, which is effective but unremarkable on its own.
Through Curborough’s tight and tricky chicanes, the R26.R’s steering immediately feels slow compared to modern hot hatchbacks, but there is some feedback here. The damping is more supple than expected, and despite the downpour and the 230’s choice of footwear, understeer in the loaded-up, middle of the corner is at a minimum. But on the way out of the long hairpin at the far end of the track, the rear has no such qualms with letting go.
The R26.R seems intent on swinging its arse out on every lap, but it’s not a snap when the rear gets loose - its a beautifully fluid transition, giving plenty of warning for you to get the opposite lock on.
For all the crazy angles in the bodywork, the track day-ready stance and the purposefulness of the interior, it’s a docile machine, but one that’s still thoroughly exciting. The most surprising thing of all is that the mid-noughties-spec traction control doesn’t just shit itself whenever there’s slip - it’s surprisingly subtle in its interventions, although switching it off is still my preference.
Parking the R26.R up by the next-generation Megane 275 Trophy-R and the new RS300 Trophy-R does the middle car no favours. Compared to the spaceship-like 230 and the 300 with its carbonfibre wheels and outrageous bonnet Naca duct, the more rounded, curvy 275 is, if anything, a little dull to the eyes. The cabin is keen to impress, however, with delicious leather/Alcantara bucket seats and another set of red six-point harnesses.
Here, they’re attached to a harness bar, with the 275 Trophy-R doing without a roll cage. Having tightly belted myself in almost to the point of causing pain, I pull away and immediately have to stop. It seems you have to put the 275’s conventional three-point belt on as well to stop the warning bongs moaning away, and I can’t reach it, because I’m so snuggly attached to the driver’s seat. Ah.
As with all the cars here, the rear seat bench has been ditched, giving a similar WOOSH from the exhaust system with every full throttle application. It’s much less pronounced here, and while the 275 wears less aggressive (but still very focused) Michelin Pilot Sport Cup 2s, it struggles more to leave the line. Plus, every bit of wheelspin shudders through the cabin via some of the nastiest axle tramp I’ve ever experienced.
Once it composes itself, the 275 Trophy-R is noticeably faster than its predecessor. The shifts from the six-speed manual gearbox - while not a stand-out aspect of the car - are sweeter, too.
The good news continues as we reach the first tight set of bends, with the steering speed increasing without losing the natural feel. There’s more bite to the front end and a little less roll. On the way back out of each corner, we have - again - a rear end that’s just begging to come forward, but in a much more aggressive way. Much more attention needs to be paid here.
It’s hard not to feel disappointed when first hopping in the RS300 Trophy-R. There are no harnesses this time, just regular ol’ three-point belts, and the seats - while fixed buckets still - are probably the most ordinary-looking chairs here. For something costing £72,140, I was hoping it’d be a little more silly inside.
Ah yes, the price. We’ll tackle that one now, as there is a caveat to the headline-grabbing, near-Porsche Cayman GT4-like cost which you’ll have likely seen quoted for this car. You can only spend that much by speccing both the carbon fibre wheels and the front carbon-ceramic brakes, and Renault is only making 30 Trophy-Rs in that spec. All of which are sold. Without those items though you are still looking at a £51,140 car, and that plays on my mind as I line up to start my final track session of the day. This thing really ought to be good.
Despite having the friendliest rubber of the Megane trio - bespoke Bridgestone Potenza S007s - the modern Trophy-R makes the biggest meal of the hard launch, wildly spinning its front wheels through the first few gears. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised - it is squeezing the most power out of the smallest engine, making for one hell of a boosty mid-range.
With - once again - a reduction in sound-proofing, plus the deployment of a titanium Akrapovic exhaust, the 300 Trophy-R scores well on the noise front. And once it’s done lighting up the front wheels, it gains speeds nicely.
The Ohlins suspension is conspicuously firmer than the other cars here, contributing to an aggressive overall attitude. Renault Sport’s engineers ditched the 4Control rear-wheel steering found on other current-gen hot Meganes, deciding the weight saving was more important during the Nurburgring lap record attempt. The Trophy-R is a better hot hatch for it, with the standard Trophy and the RS280 Cup’s feeling of unpredictability eradicated.
You have to be on your toes still - the Trophy-R’s uncompromising setup means it’s a twitchy bastard. When the car does start to rotate, it’ll do it quickly and without much warning.
The steering is more darty off-centre than the 275 and offers up considerably more feedback than the non-R Trophy we also have here today. The big step up over our hastily-assembled Megane pack is the brake feel, making modulating the part-carbon stoppers a joy. It’s something you need to be careful about, however, as the sheer strength of them is at odds with the ABS, which intervenes far earlier than I’d like when you really go in hard on the middle pedal. Also, along Curborough’s straight, the Trophy-R wriggles around alarmingly when the stoppers are applied.
"It's as though the 300 Trophy-R is doing a very convincing touring car impression"
The RS300 R also doesn’t seem to be getting around the track any faster than the 275 R, with the similar speed I’m hitting at the final braking point appearing to back up this suspicion. I’ve no doubt that in the dry it’d monster the other two, but in these conditions, it’s just too boisterous and uncompromising to get the best out of it.
Out on the road, the R26.R is - as predicted - the easiest car to get on with. There’s a decent amount of compliance in the suspension, and 227bhp plus 228lb ft of torque feels like plenty on public tarmac. The 275 comes into its own more than it did on the track, revealing a welcome mix of the other two hero Meganes.
And the 300? Well, it’s much the same story as it is on track, albeit with the bumpier surface giving a lot of wheel kickback, meaning steering inputs are near-constant. The twitchy, knife-edge setup is amplified too. Even a short blast proves to be tiring and nerve-wracking, but undoubtedly exciting. Give it the respect it commands, and the Trophy-R is ready to reward.
It’s not the car I’ve come away wanting today, not because it isn’t any good - far from it. When comparing it to the normal Trophy earlier today before our Megane generation game began, I got it - yes it’s pricey, but it is a huge step up from the car it’s based on. It’s as though the Trophy-R is doing a very convincing touring car impression. You can see where the money has gone, and I love the thought of how the conversation might have gone when the Renault Sport boys tried to sign this off with the bean counters, which surely resulted in someone shouting whatever the French is for, “you f—king what?”
The problem for the Trophy-R is its ancestor - the R26.R. Because the 230 is more fun. More accessible. Perhaps more special, even. It has a skunkworks feel the follow-up cars simply don’t posses. And at the time, Renault didn’t charge an other-worldly price tag for it - it was £22,990, and amazingly, it was a struggle to shift them all at the time.
Today, you can get one for around £20,000. That sounds steep for a 12-year-old hot hatchback, but you can’t think of the R26.R like that - it goes far beyond the normal remit for such cars. And think of it this way - you could buy one of those and a non-R 300 Trophy minus the carbon options, and you’d be no more out of pocket.