Thursday, March 5, 2009

Run to the hills

Day One
It’s 7:15pm, on an unseasonably mild February evening at Reading Services on the M4, and I’m sitting outside on the grass bank that lines one side of the car park. I’m waiting for my best mate and fellow car nut Ian Robinson. A few feet away on the tarmac the TVR sits gleaming under the spot lights, and somewhere on the M25 Ian is nearing the rendezvous in his Fiat Panda 100HP.

The aim of the next couple of days is twofold. Firstly, we’re travelling down to Llandow race circuit near Cardiff, ostensibly to write a story on the Adrenaline Motorsport’s Murtaya Britcar entry for Race Tech, but also to take the TVR on track. Secondly, it seems a shame not to pay a visit to the Brecon Beacons – said to be the home of some of Britain’s best driving roads – while we’re there.

A phone call signals the arrival of the mighty Panda and within minutes we’re heading out onto the motorway. Having had various tip offs about good roads I’ve loaded a mind bogglingly complex route into the sat nav and so all that remains is to press go. At least in theory.

Day Two
Day two dawns early as we scoff an unusual breakfast of Y-Fenni cheese on toast and set off towards the circuit. I can’t deny I’m feeling slightly apprehensive about taking the TVR on track, after my last, (somewhat sobering) attempt was plagued by unpredictable bouts of snap oversteer. It wasn’t really a problem then, but Llandow, unlike North Weald airfield, has very little run off area. What’s more I know from past experience just how quick the Murtayas and the tuned Imprezas due to turn up can be. I fully expect to be scared witless as banzai 600bhp monsters fly by left right and centre.

I do have a couple of tricks up my sleeve though. Since last time I’ve had the front ride height raised to the correct level and, after we park up at the track, I set to work adjusting the dampers. The first few laps are taken cautiously, and then it hits me: The car is handling well. Really, really well. It feels far more planted at high speeds, with a fundamentally neutral balance that can be coaxed into oversteer using the throttle at low speeds, or a slight lift to tuck the nose in at higher speeds. The change is simply unbelievable and the new package is nothing short of sublime.

However, as I start to get carried away, it feels like the rear tyres are suffering somewhat so I head back to the pits. After a few minutes for them to cool down, Ian and I head back out, but something appears to have gone very badly wrong. There’s a massive vibration coming from the rear of the car and we nurse it round to the pits. Trying not to think of wheel bearing failures or broken suspension arms, the only other option seems to be a loose wheel, so I head straight for the rear left. It’s the only wheel that renowned specialists The TVR Centre needed to remove for the recent fuel sender change and sure enough it’s loose. I let off a stream of expletives and settle into a daze – minutes before we were doing 100mph towards a very solid looking crash barrier, dependant on that wheel for safety.

After torqueing the wheel nuts up – something that one of North London’s most expensive garages is seemingly incapable of doing – we head back onto the circuit. Fortunately the car is once again handling fantastically and, confident it’s no longer likely to kill either of us, I come in to swap seats with Ian. “Have fun,” I explain. “But just remember: if you break it, you pay for it!”

Even from the passenger seat the S3 makes for a fantastic ride. Ian has always been quicker to adapt to things than I am and we’re doing a very respectable pace right from the first lap. On about the fourth attempt we come into the bus stop chicane just after the start/finish straight. As he goes for the power on the second left-hander the back end starts to come round and Ian steers into it but overcorrects and sends us into a tank-slapper. The final rotation sees the car pirouetting back to the left, where we finish on a mercifully clear stretch of tarmac some yards away from the nearest barrier.

“That was fun!” I exclaim, but Ian isn’t quite so sure, so we return to the pits for another driver swap. It later transpires that he managed to dislocate his thumb during the first part of the drama and this may well have been the reason we ended up spinning. Sadly it marks the end of his circuit driving for the day. For me, however, the next outing proves to be a rather special one. The Murtaya demonstrator is out of action but, explains Neil Yates of Adrenaline, I can do a few laps in the racer if I like.

Minutes later I’m struggling to post my less-than-athletic form through the roll cage of the enclosed GT racer. Ingress is a mild challenge, but the real problem comes from trying to fit my crash helmet once I’m inside. The boxer engine’s staccato note fires up and then settles to a bassy idle as works driver James Harrison gives me a few last points: “Try and be smooth, only use 2nd, 3rd and 4th and make sure you short shift coming out of the bus stop.” My apprehension builds as we head out onto the circuit. Pulling out onto the track I take the first trip through the chicane very gently and short shift into third as requested. As I feed the power in towards the first straight it dawns on me that actually this production class racer has significantly less power than the wild road-going demonstrator I sampled last summer.

Nonetheless it feels very much a race car, with the stripped out dash, integral roll cage and plumbed-in fire extinguisher. The characteristic wave of turbocharged torque remains, as does the chirp from the waste gates when you lift off. Beside me, James is proving to be an excellent instructor. He points out a few new lines – particularly through the tricky high speed chicane towards the end of the lap – and provides plenty of encouragement. “Ok, this time go into 5th,” he says. “Good now keep the throttle pinned – pin it – don’t touch the brakes – now brake!” We fly around the long final corner, with the front tyres just starting to give way to mild understeer before slingshotting past one of the road going Scoobys like it’s stuck in reverse. One lap later we return to the pits and I pause to catch my breath before beginning the predictably tortuous extraction process.

In the afternoon I return to the track in the TVR and put some of James’ advice into practice. With the rear dampers turned up another notch and a bit more familiarity with the track I’m starting to make quite respectable process. To my astonishment ‘the baby TVR’ makes its way past several Imprezas, a track prepared Clio 182 and even the odd Murtaya over the next couple of hours. I still can’t believe the change – it simply wouldn’t have been possible one week previously even though they were obviously driving more gently than I was. As it is, my final trip onto the circuit at around 5pm sees the chequered flag hung out from the control tower. I never expected as much track time, nor for the TVR to be so entertaining. I return unbelievably chuffed to the car park and, after saying our goodbyes to the other drivers, Ian and I set off in convoy back to the B&B.

Day Three
It’s another early start on Sunday and another fine breakfast at Rectory Cottage. Today, in theory, is the big one, with a full itinerary planned out taking us over some of the most spectacular roads in Wales. We head out with the Tom Tom in control – me in front in the TVR and Ian following behind in the Panda. From the start it’s obvious that yesterday’s track setup greatly enhances things on the road too. What it loses in ride comfort over the broken tarmac, it more than makes up for with improved body control and greater composure.

After skirting the Beacons on the Head of the Valleys Road for some miles we wind our way through the ominously grey streets of one last Valleys town, before suddenly the road opens out over a cattle grid and we’re thrust onto the moor. There’s little here other than the occasional sheep and mile after mile of windswept heathland. It’s a truly breathtaking location and, as promised, a fine road. Unfortunately the local topography lends itself to repeated blind crests which slow the progress somewhat in a low slung car on an unfamiliar road, but the views are every bit as epic as anticipated. Apart from a few lost tourists acting as mobile chicanes we’re alone until a pair of Porsches streak past in the opposite direction as we descend into Langynidr.

There we once again place our trust in the sat nav, which takes us up to Brecon on the B4588 as planned. It makes for a very picturesque route, but with a narrow road, tall hedges and a dawdling Vauxhall ahead, not one for hooning. However, after a short trip along the A470 we find something altogether more satisfying.

The A4059 starts off inconspicuously, sweeping through a patch of conifers, before emerging onto the open moorland. Pausing for photographs, we spot patches of snow remaining on the opposite side of the valley and a cool wind whistles past the camera. Nonetheless, it’s time to take the hood panels off and, once safely stowed in the back of the Panda, we make our way back onto the road. And what a road... it snakes over the Beacons with reasonable visibility and a good surface all the way. The fast sweeping corners flow into each other with short straights between them and the occasional tighter bend thrown in for good measure. It’s my first chance to really exercise the TVR today and the long gearing, hairy-chested torque and new-found high speed stability suddenly come into their own. With the roof down every last blipped down change is heard in glorious stereo and the pace starts to rise. Life is good.

After a brief spell back on the dual carriageway, we pick up the A4109. It’s only supposed to be a connecting route, but it proves quite an entertaining drive in itself. The slow trundle through the streets of Brynamman that follows may not be quite so exciting, but what is to come more than makes up for it.

Once again civilisation rolls back to plunge us into the wilderness. But this isn’t just any patch of wilderness; it marks the start of the A4069, the infamous Black Mountain Road. After briefly lulling us into a false sense of security it starts to live up to its reputation. The sides of the road close in, with an unremitting stream of jagged rocks marking out its boundaries and a series of adverse cambers. What’s more the surface changes to a dark tarmac with curiously shiny flakes imbedded in it that the TVR’s Bridgestones don’t like one bit. We slither cautiously around the corners until the surface changes and the road widens somewhat just uphill of the old quarry that sits by the summit of the Black Mountain. Back on the gas, we slingshot down the next half a mile or so until we reach what is possibly the most famous photo location in UK motoring journalism.

The ‘Evo Hairpin’ as it’s often dubbed perches high up on the side of the valley, offering incredible views over the northern tip of the Brecon Beacons. For this very reason we slow down looking for somewhere to take a few photos and pull up on the outside of the bend next to a beautifully prepared TVR Griffith. There’s a tremendous camaraderie between TVR drivers and they always seem to be up for a chat with like-minded enthusiasts. Wyn Davies is no exception - it turns out he owned a string of V8 TVR ‘Wedges’ before adopting the immaculate black Griffith you see in the picture. He gives us the benefit of some local knowledge regarding the Mid Wales roads, before heading off in a thunderous symphony of V8 revs and protesting tyres.

As we make our way back down the valley the narrow mountain road jinks left and right clinging to the side of the hill, with regular bumps and camber changes to keep us on our toes. Aided by the new setup the TVR is digging in out of the slow corners and catapulting itself down the road with impressive force. The tenacious little Panda isn’t losing any significant amount of ground either though, as we bang and pop our way off the moor.

What the next stretch of the A4069 lacks in visual impact compared to its high mountain section, it makes up for with better visibility and a wider, more reliable road surface. We swoop down under the trees, apex to apex with barely a dab of the brakes as the road flows towards its northern tip at Llangadog. It’s so good that we turn around as the road flattens out and make a return trip up to the quarry. On the ascent, with the road now more familiar, we up the pace a little. The TVR’s torque becomes a clear advantage on the uphill stretch, but the diminutive Fiat is doing a good job of staying in touch. I’m learning that it pays to dip down into second gear – if nothing else it gives the excuse for a self indulgent down change – but it makes for quite an interesting ride as the wheels spin up and S3’s rear skips nervously over one of the more pronounced bumps. This is not a road to be taken lightly, but it certainly rewards when you get it right, particularly in the southerly direction. At the top we turn around and head back down with ever increasing grins.

This descent fundamentally marks the end of our Brecon Beacons route, but after lunch and an hour or so burbling along behind tourist traffic on the A40 we found an unexpected highlight. The B4235 starts off as a pleasant, but fairly unassuming country road. It gets progressively twistier as you head towards Chepstow, culminating in an almost alpine series of Armco-lined switchbacks under the trees. Once again a repeat is in order and we go back to a point about half way up before turning around. Setting off we encounter two bikers who approach from behind. After a brief spell it’s clear that lead rider is able to make more progress than us on the more open stretch, so I signal to let him past.

Tagging on behind I can get a much better idea of where the roads goes and I keep up for a time before the bike edges out of view. Then something happens. It all starts to come together and the TVR and I start covering ground a lot more rapidly. Coming back into the tighter section, the improved body control offered by the new setup and superb feedback from the front wheels allows me to exploit the excellent road surface. The bike comes back into view and soon, along the tightest stretch, I find myself gaining on him. For a couple of hundred yards we go along in unison until a slower car spoils my fun and he disappears into the distance. It doesn’t matter though, because I’m grinning like an idiot after one of the defining driving experiences of my life. I’m still in this state of delirium as the Panda comes back into view behind, with the second biker still tucked in behind it. It seems a good drive was had by all!

Shortly afterwards we pull into a service station, buzzing with adrenaline, before commencing the long slog back to London. It’s been a superb weekend, one with some unexpected bonuses, yet - perhaps more impressively - absolutely no disappointments. It seems a repeat is definitely called for – but one thing’s for sure – we won’t forget this trip in a hurry.

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