Friday, 29 October 2010

The Yorkshire Dales

When I started this blog thing, it was my intention to limit myself to the subject of motor racing and although I have explored the edges of my subject occasionally, I have stuck pretty much to this objective. And I will continue so to do, I hope.

However, through this medium, and on the autobiographical theme, I am exposing myself in such a way that some of you may feel that you know me quite well, even if we have never met. That’s all well and good, and indeed to an extent my purpose for being here. No-one, after all, who puts themselves into the public domain, can expect their lives to remain totally private.

Bear with me, then, in order to reach the car theme of this post. And I am afraid it is only a car theme, not a racing theme; but there you are: complain at will.

Last weekend, I drove, with my family (Tatjana, my wife, Sophie, my twelve year old daughter and Robin, my nine year old son) to a cottage in Dentdale (actually just in Cumbria, but part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park). And - lucky me - I was given a car from the Audi press fleet in which to make the trip.

What car? An RS6 Avant, that’s what. If you’re not familiar with it, this is based on the A6 estate chassis, so it’s quite a big car. It quite happily took all the family luggage for a week away, along with various boxes full of food for the self-catered cottage that we were staying in, a cool-box, walking boots and umpteen jackets and coats. What makes the RS6 special though is not the luggage compartment; it is what’s under the bonnet. It has a 5 litre twin-turbocharged V10 engine, giving 572 bhp. That’s more than an R8, although by my reckoning, where the R8 Spyder gives you 305 BHP per tonne, the RS6 is ‘only’ 282. I am sure the performance figures are available elsewhere on the web for those who want to look, but the acceleration was quite simply awesome. As the car accelerated, there was absolutely no drop-off, it just kept on going faster and faster, with cars that were alongside at the traffic lights becoming smaller and smaller in the rear-view mirror.

The car comes with a 6-speed tiptronic gearbox as standard and this too was a new experience for me. At first, I simply left it in fully automated mode, but as I became used to it, I found it extremely easy to use. And it also served as a way to avoid the jerkiness caused by the kick-down facility. The trouble was, with all four of us in the car, it would sometimes decide that two downshifts were necessary to respond to my demands for acceleration. This resulted in a massive jerk as 50 mph cruising suddenly turned into 70mph (officer) and accelerating (causing my wife, who suffers from neck problems, to complain bitterly). However, with a little practice, I could lift off the throttle, tap the left hand (downshift) paddle to select the appropriate gear, and then gently squeeze the accelerator to give the same phenomenal effect, but without the strain on the neck, either upshifting manually or letting the automatic system take over.

The seats were perfectly comfortable (although I do not enjoy heated seats, my wife does, and found this a further luxury), every possible setting of height, rake and steering wheel position being available, which I also like to vary as I travel, to avoid travel cramps. And the steering wheel helpfully moves up away from your knees when you turn the ignition off, to assist entry and egress for the more ‘traditionally built’ driver. And a courtesy light, fitted under the wing mirrors provides a useful floodlit area outside the front doors when you arrive at the car in darkness. Believe me, the darkness in the Dales is very dark.

Such luxury touches abound on this car, to the extent that one struggles to find shortcomings. There’s the price tag of course – but in my opinion there are plenty of less-worthy cars costing £80,000 and more on the market these days. And the fuel consumption is predictably very, very high: I was getting between 15mpg and 20mpg, depending on the traffic conditions. But here is a car that does everything; it ticks all the boxes. It has high performance; it’s comfortable and practical; and as well it is easy to drive and to live with.

The Audi RS6 combines the performance of a Ferrari with the function of a Land Rover. The only real alternative is to go out and buy two cars, which suddenly makes the price look more affordable.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Early memories

I thought it might interest readers to hear of my first motor sporting experiences, and maybe inspire some to leave a comment of their own about early racing memories. I had a notion that one day I might write an autobiography, but as the years pass and reality sets in, this looks increasingly unlikely, so this may be as close as I ever come.

I was always interested in cars and car racing. Where this came from, I have no idea. Certainly not from my parents. My father had more of a passion for boats and the sea, having served in the Royal Navy, and Mum was just, well Mum. And my two older sisters (much older) were more into The Beatles and Girl Guiding, and occasional dinghy-sailing.

I was probably about seven years old, when I remember we drove past Silvermere Golf Club (just off the A3 between Cobham and Byfleet) and I asked my father if we could go to Silverstone one day – word association, you know.

He suggested Brands Hatch was closer and would be easier, but in those days I hadn’t heard of the place, but I slotted it away in my memory to be brought back as and when required.

It was Mum, though, who happened across someone with whom she helped to do school dinners, and whose husband happened to be a marshal, who provided the real trigger, just before my tenth birthday. I had for several years swapped the doubtful pleasures of a birthday party (which I had to share), for a birthday treat (in which the attention was heaped on me). And this other dinner lady provided my mother with details for the Race of Champions, coincidentally held the day after my tenth birthday, 12th March, 1967. So when my loving parents offered a birthday trip to Brands Hatch to see the Race of Champions, I didn’t need to think about it for too long. This was Formula 1, after all, and all the well-known names (apart from Jim Clark and Team Lotus) would be there.

We arrived early on race morning (attending practice days was far in the future for me), and Mum had prepared a picnic lunch for us. In addition to support races, there were to be two heats of ten laps each for the Formula 1 cars, to be followed by a forty lap final. As far as I remember, the only purpose that the heats served was to establish the grid positions for the following race, but it meant that we had three Grand Prix-style starts to experience. And from our initial vantage point on Top Straight (as it was then), we had that experience to the full.

Forty-something years later, it is perhaps surprising that so many memories of that day still abound. Especially when I struggle to remember who won the last Grand Prix. In fact where was the last Grand Prix?

But I can clearly remember the first car on the track that day – the Honda (number 7) of John Surtees, who drove round at what seemed to me breakneck speed to take up his slot on the 3 x 2 x 3 grid. Earlier in the day, the only cars on the track were service vehicles and occasional road cars (I later learned that these were probably marshals going out onto the GP loop to take up their signalling positions). And with such benchmarks, the speed of a Formula 1 car, even on a warm-up lap, just knocked me for six.

Jack Brabham was the reigning World Motor Racing Champion, and hence was number 1, but that day he could not keep up with the Eagle-Gurney Weslake (number 5) of Dan Gurney. Brabham was the only one to pass Gurney, though, as he unlapped himself in the final, following a pit-stop. To my eye, even then, the Eagle was a more attractive car than the functional-looking Brabham, but with so little experience, I did not fully appreciate the iconic status of Dan Gurney’s mount.

After the race, I pushed my way to the fence in order to show my appreciation as the winning car was towed round the track on a trailer, with Gurney and his mechanics waving to the crowd on their ‘lap of honour’. Dad took a photo, as I recall, which I must have somewhere.

Then there was the queue to get out. In those pre-M25, pre-M20 days, the way home was through Croydon (and over the flyover – as hi-tech as civil engineering went then). But just getting out of the circuit, let alone getting to Croydon (with still another hour to drive thereafter) sent Dad into a rage of ‘never again’. Luckily he relented, and I went again to the Race of Champions for my birthday treat in 1968. Then I managed to persuade him to take me to the British Grand Prix in July, and it all sort of snowballed from there!

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Britcar 24 hours thoughts

What a great weekend at Silverstone! The Britcar 24 hours was indeed a very thrilling race and I thoroughly enjoyed being able to be part of the commentary team. In the overall scheme of things, I suppose that we were lucky that there was such a good battle for the lead – it certainly made it easy to maintain interest and avoided the set-in of boredom at any stage. Looking back on it now, and with the benefit of my notes and the lap chart from TSL (thanks, Tony), it is staggering to reflect on just how close it was for so long. By my reckoning, the no. 8 MJC Ferrari and the no. 22 JetAlliance Porsche were at it hammer and tongs from midnight through to the finish at 4:30 on Sunday afternoon.

Of course, the battle was assisted in no small part by three factors: the two penalties to the MJC Ferrari, one for speeding in the pit lane, and one for going through the red light at the pit lane exit; and then the fact that the Porsche was held (wrongly, it would seem) at the pit lane exit for a lap while the safety car was out. These 'external' influences ensured that the two cars seemed constantly to be battling with each other.

In my opinion, it looked like the JetAlliance crew held the upper hand most of the time, but from the moment that John Gaw got in the Ferrari with two and a half hours remaining, the prospects for Witt Gamski's team changed completely.

I may end up giving a full analysis article to, but as a reward to my loyal blog readers (however many of you there are), here are some highlights:

Time in pits:
  8   MJC Ferrari:               38mins 16.3secs (17 stops)
22   JetAlliance Porsche:    35mins 18.1secs (18 stops)
42   AZT Porsche:             38mins 35.9secs (17 stops)

Driving time:
8 MJC Ferrari:                 No of laps          Time
        Gamski                            41                1 hour 30 mins
        Robinson                       203                9 hours 33 mins
        Gaw                              241                9 hours 49 mins
        Dryburgh                         80                3 hours 08 mins

22 JetAlliance Porsche:    No of laps          Time
        Lichtner-Hoyer                83                 3 hours 44 mins
        Eckert                             86                 3 hours 31 mins
        Seefried                         130                 4 hours 33 mins
        Nykjaer                         168                 6 hours 56 mins
        Rich                               121                 5 hours 17 mins

(Note: For the purposes of this table I have excluded the penalty laps for the Ferrari. In fact Robinson and Dryburgh each completed one more lap than shown).

Which brings me to my contentious matter. I said on the commentary at the time, and I have done some further analysis since, and I am pretty sure that Martin Rich drove a stint of 3 hours and 7 minutes, in contravention of the regulation limiting drivers to three hours. The stint in question was from 22:42 (when the car exited the pits, starting its 161st lap), until it re-entered the pits at 01:48 (completing its 230th lap). In between, the car also stopped twice (during safety car periods), but as far as I know, there was no driver change during either of these stops.

If anyone reading this can confirm or deny this, then I would be happy to know. I am not about to mount a protest or anything, just wanting to establish the truth of the matter.

At the end of the race, there were rumours flying around that the Porsche would be credited with an extra lap, on the grounds that it was wrongly held at the pit lane exit at the end of its 16th pit stop (at 12:56, Sunday lunchtime), thus giving it the win. It struck me that this would have been ironic, since the Ferrari had already been penalised two laps, one of which was for going through the light at the end of the pit lane when at red.

Fortunately, from the point of view of the credibility of the series, the result was allowed to stand, although I suspect that the JetAlliance crew might well have felt disgruntled. But surely there can be nothing worse than changing the result after the presentation ceremony? And in any case, without those two penalty laps that were applied to the MJC car, the race would have lost a good deal of its excitement.

Funny old business, isn’t it?