Archive | February, 2012

Brooklands: An Elegy to British Motorsport

14 Feb

I can often be found travelling between Oxford and Brighton, negotiating some of Britain’s least inspiring roadways that lie between these two cities. I’m usually in my Golf and it’s fine. You put on Radio 4, put it into sixth and cruise home, the only excitement coming on the motorway slip roads, where you can pretend you’re on a racetrack.

However, driving like this, the Golf is reduced to its most perfunctory level. Trundling along at 70mph, keeping to M and A roads, I could just be one of those apathetic people who say that a car is just “a box with four wheels”, driving along in a Volvo 440. And I hate those people!

A beautiful old Triumph. Note the vertical handlebar configuration. The people that rode these were nuts!

And do you know what the biggest tragedy is? As I’m driving prosaically along the M25, I am mere miles from a place where, in the early part of last century, cars were allowed to reach the pinnacle of their abilities – the famous Brooklands circuit.

Brooklands was finished in 1907, the first ever purpose-built racetrack in the world. The construction of the track was financed by an aristocratic gentleman called Sir Hugh Fortescue Locke-King, who ordered that the circuit should feature banking to cope with the high speeds of the cars. It was a massive undertaking. Look at a map of the circuit on Google Maps. You see that river that runs through it? That had to be moved to accommodate the track. In two places! That’s a level of logistical bravado that is currently only in evidence in the Emirates. Because tarmacking the banked parts of the circuit, parts of which are 30ft. high, was deemed too complicated, these parts were rendered in rough concrete, giving the banking its distinctive look. The concrete was also distinctive for being bumpy. Witness John Cobb thrashing a Napier around the track in 1935 and getting air! On banking! That’s bravery.

John Cobb jumping his Napier on Brooklands' banking in 1935

The first race at the circuit was held on 17 June 1907, and it was used for racing until the war broke out in 1939. There is now a Brooklands museum on the site and Mercedes have their Mercedes World headquarters there. And so, on one of my inter-Oxford/Brighton jaunts, I left the boring motorway and took Thor the Golf for a bit of a heritage trip. Brooklands has been preserved in its interbellum style, with a proper paddock area and clubhouse, whilst a scattering of planes and hangars represent Brooklands’ aviation heritage. Dip into one hut and you find a collection of Formula 1 cars, including one of Senna’s McLaren’s and James Hunt’s Wolf from the 1979 season. In another building, you find a collection of old motorbikes made by the likes of A.J.S., Norton and Brough, evocative names now largely forgotten by the modern motorcycling fraternity. The museum has even maintained the shed where Malcolm Campbell built his Blue Bird cars, which first broke the land speed record back in 1928. It’s a wealth of British motorsport heritage, and it was all…..thoroughly depressing.

A wing-less British Airways jet

Patriotism is a sport for idiots, but Britain used to be a really impressive country. We had a confidence and a swagger in the way we did things. And yes, that confidence had its roots in the violence and domination of the Empire, but in pacific pursuits, it meant that Britain could compete at the top echelons of whatever it put its hand to. Look at our manufacturing sector. British companies, purely British companies, used to make the majority of the world’s cars. Let’s list some names: Napier, Woolsley, Alvis, Austin, Morris, TVR, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Armstrong Siddeley, Hillman, Lagonda, Vauxhall, Riley. These companies today are all either defunct or have been taken over by companies from other countries. And there are many more besides. How can Brooklands hope to celebrate this heritage if by celebrating it, you have to acknowledge that that culture is dead. It’s the same feeling you get at a great person’s memorial service. You acknowledge the amazing deeds and accomplishments of the deceased, but all of that glory is given an edge of melancholy by the collective understanding that those achievements are now very definitely relegated to the past.

The banking today

It didn’t help that I was there on a rather bleak day and that the museum itself has the impression of being left to rot, whilst somewhere like Goodwood is always spick and span. But the saddest part of all, after you’ve dragged yourself past the dismal huts and shacks and the wingless planes, is walking over to the banking, now overgrown with moss and castrated by modern developments, and trying to listen to the ghosts of those cars hammering around the circuit. The dreams of Sir Hugh have been left to die in that inevitable, modern British way. Mercedes World stands almost embarrassingly proud and glassy right next to the museum. As I drove out of Brooklands, I drove past a part of the banking which stopped abruptly, having been cut off to allow Tesco to move a superstore in. Further along the road, I passed a modern retail complex housing a PC World and an Argos. It was called The Paddock, a glib, chummy, hollow gesture, an acknowledgement of a heritage trampled on. I guess that’s why I’m driving a Volkswagen and not a Sunbeam.

The Malcolm Campbell shed

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Renault Megane Renaultsport 265 Trophy and Clio Renaultsport Silverstone reviewed. Ish.

9 Feb

The Clio Silverstone edition

So as promised, today I’m going to tell you about my little jaunt to Leicestershire to try out Renault’s range of hot hatches, the progeny of the company’s Renaultsport division. Renault had arranged this driving day to show off a number of special editions, most notably the Clio RS Silverstone edition and the Mégane RS 265 Trophy, to journalists. The latter car recently won an accolade that has been oft-quoted in the motoring press, but it bears repeating here. Ready? It is the fastest ever front-wheel drive production car to lap the Nürburgring. Well, the roads around Lutterworth would have to do for little old me.

However, before I waded into battle with the Mégane, I thought that I should ease myself in with the Clio Silverstone. I’d wanted to drive a Clio RS of any kind for a long time. I was very close to buying one instead of my Mk V Golf GTI after reading review upon review which waxed lyrical about the car’s virtues. What ultimately stopped me getting the Clio was the car’s dimensions, which I deemed a little too small for my purposes, and the less than fantastic fuel consumption. But I was still aching to give it a go, and it was…..awesome! Anthropomorphic comparisons are over-used in car journalism, but to equate the car to an excited terrier is pretty spot on. The Clio’s 200 bhp 2.0l engine is naturally aspirated, so there’s no turbo-lag to contend with as there is on my Golf, and unlike the Mégane, the car doesn’t feature anything as sophisticated as a limited slip differential. Instead you simply harry it into the bends and hang on. Plough into the corner with too much speed and you can brake and make corrections mid-turn without being pitched off the road and into nearby foliage. Stick the power on before the apex, and it will try its very hardest to hold onto the road for you and pull through the corner. It is forgiving – a Catholic priest of a terrier, if you will. What that means is that an unskilled driver, such as my good self, can drive with said lack of skill and still go quite fast. The brakes are fantastic, and the Recaro seats are beautifully supportive. Which is a good thing, because the ride on the Cup chassis that the Silverstone employs is pretty crashy – it feels like the car has been set up precisely to lap Silverstone, rather than tackle the little B-roads I found around Stanford Hall in Leicestershire. I love the Clio because it is such an honest little car. It always feels like it’s on your side, like it’s your mate, egging you on to go faster and try harder. And that’s pretty much exactly what you want out of your hot hatch.

Megane. Ominous.

Then it was onto the Mégane. If you think that I’m being unduly reverential towards the Mégane, you should try sidling up to one. It’s quite a sinister looking thing, overt in its claims to being a serious sporting contender. Observe the red brake callipers. Observe the black Renaultsport grill and vents, and the striking yellow paint job. The car is considered in the same category as the Golf GTI, and yet getting into one of those never really quickens your pulse. Here it does. In the driver’s seat, you’re placed low down, far lower than in the Clio, which feels like a van in comparison. The cabin is ominously dark too, the light blocked out by the sloping C-pillars which reduce rear ¾ visibility to…..well, nothing. No matter though. Belt up the horrible yellow seat belts, reminiscent of an 80s city boy’s braces, start the engine and we’re off. You can feel the difference between the Clio and the Mégane straight away. The Mégane has the same 2.0l engine as the Clio, but Renault have fitted a shrieking turbo charger and extracted an extra 65hp out of it. So that’s 265bhp in a front-wheel drive car. That’s a lot of horsies to be running through the same wheels that steer – I can see why Renault put in that diff…..

I see you baby etc. etc.

Remember how I drove the Clio, throwing it at corners with reckless abandon? Do that in the Mégane and you’ll be eating privet hedge for a month. With the extra horsepower and the diff in the Mégane, you have to drive the car properly – it’s a far more sophisticated affair compared to the Clio, and it really does reward the ‘slow in, fast out’ approach. Fail to drive like that and the diff won’t hook up, leaving you torque-steering all the way to Loughborough! But once you understand this and get into a rhythm with the car, you realise that it really is an excellent tool for going fast. You start going through corners like a champion, and on the straight bits it eats up the road, the turbo barking elatedly at you all the way. To understand how fast the car is in the hands of proper drivers, a Porsche Cayman S went round the Nürburgring in the hands of the great Walter Röhrl in 8.04. The Mégane did it in 8.07. Think about that for a minute and you realise that that really is some feat. The Mégane is a fabulous car, one that would excite you day in and day out on Britain’s back roads. It’s not as compliant or as playful as the Clio, but any serious driver would find it far more rewarding.

 

Clio Gordini. Booooooo!

I drove other cars that day, including Renault’s new electric van, which was a hoot, but the Clio and the Mégane really stood out. They certainly stood out more than the Clio Gordini diesel I drove, which should be ashamed of itself for its blatant sullying of the Gordini name. All in all, ‘twas a fine day out for an aspiring motoring journalist, and I feel duty-bound to thank the good people at Renault who looked after me that day – even though they won’t read this…..

A small editorial

7 Feb

Me, yesterday

Let me clue you in on some of the thoughts that I had a few months ago regarding my blog. I had finished my master’s degree in September, writing an expansive final dissertation piece on the likelihood of the death of the combustion engine, which to my mind was very good and to the mind of the examiner who marked it was a load of old twoddle – which just goes to show that there’s no accounting for people’s terrible taste, lack of judgement and general stupidity.

Anyway, post-dissertation, I found myself turning into a statistic. Unemployed and with no hope of regular employment, I decided that I would become a freelance motoring journalist and, between articles, would turn Carficionado into a self-supporting blog. I wrote to a prominent freelance motoring journalist to ask for some advice and general pointers. The man was kind enough to write back and tell me that, in his opinion, it was “easier to climb Everest without oxygen” (verbatim quote, right there) than for me to become a freelance car journalist with no magazine experience.

 

Mr G. Gekko, a PR man from a prominent car company who shan't be named,

And so, realising that my ideas were perhaps a little far-fetched, I instead decided to take Carficionado and turn it into a legit car blog, with advertising and various bells and whistles, and legitimise myself that way. A fiendish plan. But to do this, I would need to be in cahoots with PRs from all the major car brands, who would provide me with cars to try. I would then write about the cars, people would read my articles in their thousands, advertising people would think “hmmm, I want a slice of that” in their usual parasitic way, I’d make dollar, become a sensation and be featured in various Sunday newspaper supplement articles about people defying the economic downtown with their entrepreneurial and innovative zeal. Voila, future employment prospects secured. I would be the Mark Zuckerberg of the automotive journalism world.

And so, with the gleam in my eye of a naïve Victorian chimneysweep about to undertake his first job, I began contacting PRs. Some replied, barely able to conceal their contempt for this cretinous little tick who had managed to find his way into their inbox. Others simply ignored me. All the responses said effectively the same thing. “Thank you for your interest” (seriously, let’s form a lynch mob and murder the insipid little syntactician who first stuck those words together) “but unfortunately due to our limited supply of cars and current commitments with various magazines, it would be impossible to fulfil your request. Best of luck in the future. Yours Truly, Bonzo the Wonder PR”.

I can't think why it's taken me so long to mention this but this Renault Laguna is, to my mind, the greatest car of all time. This specific one.

Fair enough really. But being as how almost every strand of ‘lifestyle’ journalism (fashion, interior design, art etc.) has now got its own blogger set, shouldn’t the automotive world have embraced me as The Future™? Apparently not. Only one car company was good enough to give this young dreamer, this veritable automotive Gandhi, a chance. And those heroes were, of course, the magnificent, gracious and benevolent Renault. Well, they didn’t actually give me a car. But! They did invite me to a hotel in Leicestershire to try out their full range of RenaultSport cars, including the Clio RS ‘Raider’ and the Megane RS Trophy. And I’ll be putting my thoughts up about those cars tomorrow…..

In the meantime, thank you for reading and supporting a small blogger!