Getting up before the sun rises is good for your health, argues Maurice Malone. There's nothing like having the road to yourself to rediscover the joy of driving.
"Why have you set an alarm for four in the morning? Have you lost your mind?" A valid point from a long-suffering girlfriend. "Don't you dare wake me!" .
It's 11pm on a Saturday night, a time when most people are doing something less nerdy than scouring maps and checking weather forecasts.
There's some semblance of method to my madness. I've long held the belief that roads and cars are best experienced in solitude. Don't get me wrong; road trips and group drives with friends are great, but there's always the danger of being goaded into pushing that bit too hard and ending the day getting intimate with the flora and fauna, or getting stuck behind a group of Lycra enthusiasts. No, every so often, you need to just get up and drive, on your own. No distractions, no rushing, no traffic, no defined destination in sight. Just driving for no reason other than pure enjoyment.
The clock rolls around to 4am, and despite feeling like I've been asleep for mere seconds, I drag myself out of bed, taking extreme care not to disturb Sleeping Beauty. I somehow manage not to brain myself getting dressed in the dim phone-screen light, grab the keys from the locker and tip-toe down the stairs, mindful of the creaky second-to-last step. Another quick scan of the general route and forecast as I strip the lining from the roof of my mouth with the strongest coffee I can muster, and everything is looking good. Dry, cold and clear. Perfect conditions to observe the sun light up the countryside on another spring morning.
More tip-toeing to the front door. Slip out as quietly as I can, unlock the car. Get in, freeze my palm on the aluminium gear knob as I find neutral and twist the key. WHOOOM. All my low-decibel prancing around the house is instantly undone by the sound of a highly-strung petrol engine starting from cold. Oh well. The note builds to a buzzy, lumpy idle and the glorious smell of hydrocarbons fills my nostrils. Fluids and pressures were checked last night, so it's time to get moving.
Clunk-clunk-clunk. The unmistakeable sound of a mechanical limited-slip differential. First port of call is fuel. The tank is brimmed, while some fuel and fluids for my own consumption is gathered and stuffed into the paltry excuses for storage space in the cabin of my road racer. I tighten the harness as much as I can physically bear, pushing my backside deep into the Recaro seat and amplifying the physical connection between me and the road. The ventilation in the cabin has about as much heat and force as an asthmatic Eskimo blowing through a straw, but it doesn't stop me opening the window a crack to hear the faint pops and bangs of unburned fuel exploding in the exhaust system on the overrun, as the ECU instructs the injectors to compensate until the engine warms through.
Cities are strangely beautiful to drive through in the dead of night. Most of the revellers and taxis have finished up, and there's only the occasional drunk or piece of takeaway detritus to steer around. Traffic lights seem to turn green in anticipation of my arrival, and sightings of other vehicles are limited a few hardcore bread men and paper delivery vans working their way through the streets in the icy pre-dawn cold. Speed limits start to progress higher and higher as I wend my way out on to the bypass. On the other side of the dual carriageway, I catch a glimpse of a tidy Japanese-spec EG6 Honda Civic, its exhaust note clearly audible as it whizzes past. My mind wanders to the infamous Kanjo racers weaving in and out of traffic on the highways of Osaka, but tonight the mighty B16 VTEC engine sings a solitary tune.
Every low wall and underpass bounces induction and exhaust noise through the open window, and it's hard to resist a small smile. The turn-off is approaching. A light brush of the middle pedal sets the brakes squealing loudly like a train coming to a halt, as the racing pad compound meets the cold steel of the discs. I blip the throttle on each downshift to ease the transition, the recalcitrant close-ratio gearbox finally getting up to its operating temperature. The sticky Michelin tyres make their presence known with a loud skiiirrrrsshh every time I cross a painted line on the tar, another signal that the car is ready to really start travelling. It's time.
This is one of my favourite stretches of road in the entire country. It starts off smooth and flowing, the surface damp and greasy in places under a dense covering of Scots pine. I can hear tiny pebbles clatter off the underside of the car, a warning sign not to get too brave just yet. My headlights flick back and forth as the gradient increases and the turns come thick and fast. The occasional short straight allows the needle on the rev counter a brief foray into its upper reaches, a loud crackle on upshifts quickening my pulse before it's hard on the brakes again, my right heel stabbing the throttle pedal between downchanges. It's important to keep the momentum going on this climbing section, attacking each apex, trailing the brakes to get the nose tucked in and getting back on the power as soon as I feel the car rotate to the desired angle. The differential has stopped being a noisy nuisance, and is now enabling maximum propulsion from the exit of each corner.
Halfway around a long, constant radius left-hander, the trees suddenly clear to reveal open moorland. Shadows hide the aftermath of bumps and crests, daring me to keep the throttle pedal pinned to the bulkhead, the trick dampers performing their magic trick of keeping all four tyres in contact with the tarmac while the body stays composed. That's until one particularly vicious mid-corner rise causes the revs to flare momentarily as all four wheels leave the road, and I grimace as I wait for the bang that never comes, the suspension soaking up the landing without breaking sweat. The sight of small remnants of snow on the ditches causes an involuntary glance at the dashboard, the negative figure on the outside temperature readout tallying with the numb feeling on the right side of my face. I may have neglected to close the window.
The ink-black sky starts to lighten at the very edge of the horizon and I pull into a gravelly lay-by to catch my breath for a few moments. It's only then that I realise I've been automatically tightening my belts on every straight, to the point where I'm now almost crushed into the seat. Time to get out for a quick walk and take stock. The cloudless sky is littered with countless stars, and as the car rests I can hear the ticking and pinging of cooling metal interspersed with distant birdsong. I scoff a banana of distinctly sub-optimal ripeness, gulp a few swigs of water and get myself strapped in once again. I can sense an engine note in the distance, rising and falling with an alacrity that suggests a superbike is powering rapidly up the hill towards my stopping point. I'm mesmerised by the rapid-fire upshifts and insane rev range of this crotch rocket, to the extent that I decided to stay and listen some more. Sure enough, a single headlight flashes by in a wall of noise, the shrill exhaust note piercing the icy air as the committed rider keeps the throttle twisted around to its stop with not a brake light to be seen.
Suitably refreshed and inspired, I progress on towards the descent. The first rays of morning sunlight are now picking out the silhouettes of surrounding hills, their sides dotted with stationary wind turbines. The car comes alive once more, the feel and feedback through the Alcantara steering wheel allowing me to discern the exact point at which the front axle transitions from grip to slip. I brake as deep as I can into each corner, an approaching treeline heralding a return to greasy tarmac once again. The car's lack of weight manifests itself in every direction change, the quick-ratio steering rack allowing me to think it through each section almost subconsciously. A snatched glimpse in the rear-view mirror reveals a grin on my face as wide as a barn door. I pat the steering wheel as you would a favourite pet, then swiftly scold myself for being such a soppy idiot.
Too soon, I'm back to reality, and the urge to turn around and do it all again is strong. I refrain though, as the sun is almost up and the road will soon be crowded with sheep and cyclists in equal numbers. No, that will do just fine. I can finally relax my grip on the controls and allow the endorphins to course through my body. Suddenly, it all makes sense. This is why I love driving. Feeling the work of talented engineers combine to give an experience that puts you on a high for hours, incredulous that a ton of metal, plastic, rubber and glass can invoke such emotions. Cruising back into the city, the brakes squeal loudly after their thorough workout, the suspension suddenly feels stupidly stiff and the near-solid engine and gearbox mounts contrive to rattle every bit of interior trim in unison. This car does not like being driven slowly, but that just makes me love it even more.
Coming to a halt outside my house, I allow the engine a few moments to idle while I reflect on the last couple of hours. As I've mentioned before on these pages, increasing traffic on our roads and the inevitable rise of autonomous vehicles means that driving pleasure is becoming harder and harder to achieve, and it's a situation that's only going to get worse. However, if you're willing to forego a little sleep, a world of enjoyment still awaits. Just ensure that you pick up a couple of fresh croissants on the way home to help thaw the frosty reception that may await at the breakfast table...