Two blogs back, I spoke of the purity of the mental experience of racing. Then, the bitterness of a bad weekend. After that – silence. My year of Mini Challenge racing came to an abrupt end. A simple cost / benefit assessment left the completion of the season as a no-go. I quit. In the meantime, a lengthy chat with Andrew from the team at Advent Motorsport has opened an interesting door.
Ultimately, most of us who get into racing are inspired by single-seater cars at some stage. Whilst modified saloon cars are challenging and exciting and arguably provide the better racing, a thoroughbred racing machine is a powerful draw. This was my thinking, and following my experience in a 1983 Lola T644E Formula Ford on Friday, I can confirm the truth of it. The single-seater experience is just astonishingly good – incomparable, in fact.
Let’s have a look at the Lola. A lightweight metal frame chassis, with fibreglass bodywork. The bottom of the chassis is finished with a 3mm sheet of aluminium which sits the thickness of your hand above the tar. The bottom of you sits on that sheet. The whole car, with driver, weighs less than 450kg. The Ford Kent 1600 engine pushes out 85 kW. The syncro-less Hewland four-speed box is as slick as it gets. Independent suspension and disc brakes at all four corners. Steering is direct and intuitive. Avon semi-slicks. It was, is and always will be a racing car – nothing more and nothing less than the mechanical tool with which one seeks to negotiate some pre-defined stretch of tarmac in the minimum time possible.
I was nervous getting into the car. It’s quite valuable (good history and a sought-after model). It’s even more different to a saloon than I expected. It’s fast (that 85kW translates to 320kW if you want your fat saloon to keep up). The track is wet. The tyres are old and stale. It’s rear-wheel drive. It’s a mid-engined chassis and twitchy by nature. I’ve never done this before.
I won’t bore you with a corner by corner exploration of my first laps – suffice to say the damp session got me 12 laps and I spun – at least once – on all but one of them. Cue much teasing. Later, on a dry track, I was going faster and faster and mostly straighter.
How did those laps feel? Alien. That’s probably as close as I’ll get to a description. This is not a saloon. There are vibrations. There are noises. As speed climbs, the air grabs my helmet and tries to pull it off. When that doesn’t work, it buffets my head side-to-side alarmingly. The car itself is getting pushed around in similar fashion. I have lost all concept of speed – 100 km/h, or 150, or more – I couldn’t tell you. Gearshifts are lightning fast – a poke at the clutch, a flick of the wrist and it’s done. Between shifts is a matter of seconds – 2nd, 3rd, 4th – bang-bang-bang, job done. Downshifts are just as clean, heel-and-toe perfection. Steering is go-kart direct. Brakes need some adjustment. Handling? Well, the set-up is a mile off, so let’s not judge too harshly. I’ll say this, though: it doesn’t appreciate trail braking like a saloon does, and don’t try to use the throttle to pull out of a slide! 360’s will result. Repeatedly. People will laugh. Also repeatedly.
I finished the day with cramps in my cheeks from smiling so hard. I thought I’d like the experience, but it is so much deeper than that. It’s visceral, emotional, involving.
Where to next? Admin, running around and some EFT’s just might get me on track in a few weeks’ time. There are some big events coming up in the next month, including the Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch and the Walter Hayes Trophy at Silverstone. Both attract huge, international fields that need elimination heats to whittle unmanageable numbers down for the finals. In at the deep end? Why not! Hold thumbs for me, will you?
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