Sunday, February 15, 2009

Out to launch

There are some things you’re always supposed to remember, be it starting school, learning to rider a bike or your first kiss. Well I can add another one to that, and you don’t have to worry about nose-avoidance tilting or whether you’ll accidentally get entwined in anyone’s braces. Specifically, it’s any budding car journo’s first launch. And mine just took place.

I nearly didn’t make it thanks to an unbelievably hellish trip round the M25 which saw me take nearly three hours to cover the twenty or so miles to Heathrow. There I met Peugeot UK PR bosses Ian Sedgwick and Andy Sutton over breakfast, before boarding our flight to Paris.

The waiting taxi whisked us from Charles de Gaulle airport into the heart of the city – coincidentally along the very road that featured in the opening part of the infamous driving movie Rendezvous. After a brief orange juice in a café on the opposite side of la Grande-Armée we crossed into the firm’s Paris headquarters. There I was introduced to Bruno Famin, the technical director of Peugeot Sport division and none other than Christian Peugeot – heir to the family business.

We sat through a predictably corporate presentation at the start of the ceremony, where the drivers were announced and, surprisingly, Peugeot declared it wanted to win the 2009 Le Mans 24 hours. Then two very pleasant young ladies and a group of less aesthetically gifted middle-aged executives took the wraps off the car. I tried to get a photo of the exact moment it happened, but conscious of the fact I was there to write the words – unlike the snappers whose mortgages actually depend on it – I stayed back. Still, holding the camera aloft, I did manage to get the one grainy, out of focus shot, which you can see below. And it captures the exact moment I went through this rite of passage. Here’s to many more.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Going dizzy

The horizon rotated around and around as I catapulted across the wet tarmac. I’d just got it wrong on the high-speed turn again. Although not that high speed in the grand scheme of things - about 80mph in the streaming wet - the corner in question was showing up inherent flaws in both the car and the driver.

I’d tried Andy Walsh’s techniques for high speed cornering with mixed success and it was rapidly becoming obvious just how much skill it takes to pedal a car with the same panache as the wry Welshman. Whatever I was doing wrong it was still immense fun, given more than enough run-off to pirouette to my heart’s content and a group of like-minded individuals who were all doing much the same thing. Admittedly, being principally cocooned in edgy mid-engined Lotuses, they had more of an excuse.

Come the afternoon we switched to a different approach. Two circuits were set up on opposite sides of the airfield and we were free to move between them. At each, people queued to hurtle round a succession of cones which marked the track from the grey expanse of tarmac that forms North Weald airfield. The Lotus drivers were seemingly all regulars who knew Andy, not to mention each other, well. They’d set up camp on the slightly longer circuit and the handful of newbies present were recommended to try the shorter sprint.

In the streaming rain my first run came in at a less than impressive 1:03. I went out again, determined to break the one-minute barrier: Out, round the tight infield section, onto the long fast service road, braking hard to a 180 degree loop around the far cone and then back, retracing my route and sliding to a halt in the finishing box. After a couple of immensely enjoyable attempts I finally crept into the 58s and I was grinning like an idiot. What’s more something strange had happened – on those slightly slower turns the TVR was pure joy to drive. After the merest hint of well-telegraphed understeer it would go into eminently controllable, deeply flattering power oversteer. Bargain.

And so, buoyed by the experience, I decided to try the main track. After joining a long queue of drenched Lotae I finally got a run at the new loop only to find it involved roughly the same track time as the circuit I’d just left. It had roughly the same number of corners, just considerably longer straights between. The competition was fierce amongst the Lotus boys, but I scraped anonymously onto the bottom of the leader board merely labelled as ‘TVR – slowest so far’. Time to head back.

On the other side of the airfield the crowd had thinned down to three other cars, dropping to two after a few minutes. And it was simply fantastic. Everyone was in good spirits, the car was feeling better and better, and I eventually summoned a time of 56.3 seconds. This put me well into Lotus territory (although not in the case of the guy with a supercharged S1 Elise who was a clear four seconds faster). What’s more, with virtually no waiting time in between the runs, I could afford give up on the stopwatch and stage my own mini drift tournament on some of them. Again the car impressed, but I couldn’t believe it was due to a dramatic increase of skill since lunchtime. It seemed likely that something in the setup (or indeed my technique) inherently favoured low speed corners - the difference was night and day.

Whatever the reason, the Car Limits activity day had been tremendous fun and fantastic value for money. It may not have quite given the track time of a conventional circuit day, but it cost a fraction of the price and still offered far more than a corporate driving experience would. It provided an excellent taster for Andy’s (much more intense, two or four person) driver training days and left me eager to book a return visit. Maybe next time I’ll finally be able to drive the car as flamboyantly at high speeds as I can while slithering around the cones. Maybe.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

North and Sarthe

After watching my boss’ face contort in a variety of amusing ways when I explained I’d never seen ‘the definitive racing movie’ Le Mans, I promptly decided to order a copy. It came through some weeks ago and last night, with my long-suffering girlfriend oop north and a ready supply of beer and pizza on hand, I finally had the ideal opportunity to watch it.

It is indeed an epic experience - providing you’re a petrolhead. Despite Steve McQueen’s brooding presence, the cars are the real stars of the film and it even goes for an impressive 37 minutes before the first line of dialogue is uttered. Some might say it’s a little bit light on plot too. Mercifully, the growing connection between McQueen and the widow of a driver killed in an accident he was involved in is kept brief. Instead it simply follows the race between arch-rivals Porsche and Ferrari.

The footage of Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s battling it out at La Sarthe is breathtaking, and with good reason. Many of the driving sequences were filmed in the real 1970 Le Mans race where the production company entered a Porsche 908 camera car. Persistent rumours claim that, despite the producer’s attempts to stop him, McQueen actually drove during the race.

Either way, it provides a very atmospheric and authentic portrayal of the most evocative motor race on the planet. It’s very much a product of its time, complete with CI5 haircuts and an achingly cool jazz soundtrack, but the action is 100 percent contemporary. Heartily recommended, but definitely one for the hardcore petrolhead.