Track test: Longleat Stages Rally

Into the lion’s den

109th, That’s where I finished my first stage rally, and I am rather proud of it. With a couple of hours the day before as my sole rally experience, I was happy not to be last, and to have beaten seven other cars seemed to me worthy of a works drive.

It was a sort of works drive, actually. GM DealerSport runs an extra Nova, complete with service crew and sponsored by Sureguard, in its Nova Challenge series for invited journalists to use, and I had been entered for the Longleat Stages through the (empty) Safari Park compounds of that great house. Being a tarmac event it should have been less foreign to me than a loose-surface forest rally, but the reality was different . . .

Although rallying at international level is tightly bound by Group A and N homologation, as is our Open series, British National events are open to any vehicle which complies with the RAC’s safety requirements; thus obsolete works rallycars like BDA Escorts and Triumph TR8s mix with specials like Rover V8-engined Sierras and Escort MkIlIs converted from front to rear-wheel drive, or even to 4WD. The unusual cars tend to be popular with clubmen, for whom the sport is a hobby, an end in itself.

Less modified in concept, but often much more expensive, are the current Group A challengers like the VW Golf and Toyota Corolla, tweaked and honed to just the legal side of the regulations. This is the sort of car which the driver who aspires to an international career covets; it gives away a power advantage to many of the specials, but for that very reason it rewards the tidy driver; with strictly limited power, wheelspin and too much sideways travel are wasteful. And these are the vehicles which will be watched by managers of factory teams looking for young talent to add to their strength.

Which is where the GM DealerSport Nova/Astra Challenge fits in. Unique amongst manufacturers, Vauxhall/Opel not only runs a works team, GM Eurosport, based in Germany, but also the separate DealerSport organisation which is funded by all GM dealers in Britain and administered by a dealer committee. As a publicity machine, this organisation has become particularly efficient, running GM’s assault on the British Open Rally Championship, entering the outrageously fast 5.7-litre Chevrolet-engined Carlton in Thundersaloons, sponsoring individual drivers and whole championships in racing and rallying, and generally keeping the GM badge in the public eye, not least by entering the Sureguard-backed Celebrity Nova for interested journalists . . .

And as rallying reaches a wider audience through television, a national search for novice rally-drivers is being organised with Radio Times, using Challenge-specification Novas. What the Nova/Astra Challenge offers is the chance of budget success for young rally drivers in their own class. An established body of car preparation know-how keeps costs down, clear restrictions on modifications make for competitive results, and contestants battle not only for class wins on each event, but also for points leading to the Challenge Cup, the Junior Cup (under 25) and the Ladies’ Cup (although of the 35 people so far enrolled for this year’s series, only two are female).

Some drivers gain individual DealerSport sponsorship, but all Challenge drivers benefit from private test-days where experts are on hand with advice on cars and driving. Last year there were separate series for Astra and Nova, but for 1988 the two models compete face to face, the slowest Astras acting as bait for the fastest Novas.

At 1300cc, the Nova engine is not going to set the forests alight, but a well-sorted and well-driven car is likely to be competitive in the 1300cc class because of its useful front-wheel-drive traction and compact “chuckability”. Tuning is limited: camshaft and exhaust are free, and a degree of work on the head is allowed, but the standard carburettor must be retained. Final output is somewhere around 85/90 bhp, but the little sohc unit will easily rev past 7000 rpm and still put in a reliable season; the only expected maintenance is to replace the cam-followers every three events or so — they tend to wear rapidly with a high-lift cam.

Coping with this extravagant power is a straight-cut five-speed close-ratio gearset and a mechanical LSD, while suspension must incorporate a specified Bilstein damper, although spring rates and height are free. To allow for carnber adjustments, a rose-joint can be inserted in the front tie-rod, while most of the Novas borrow Astra GTE ventilated front brake discs with Mintex M171 pads and add an adjustable brake bias box. A high-ratio steering each is essential.

You can spend a lot of money on rally tyres, but like a great many private rallycars, the Novas run on Colway remoulds with an aggressive tread and extra ribs to reinforce the side-walls, which can be stretched to a couple of events, though most people shell out the £100 for a fresh set every time.

Preparing one of these little cars will cost around £5000-£5500 on top of the cost of a Nova Sport or SR, covering the work mentioned above, stripping, seam-welding and strengthening the shell, and installing the roll-cage, sump guard and compulsory plumbed-in fire extinguisher system.

Contesting all nine of the Challenge rounds this year (which are part of the EARS/Motoring News series supported by our weekly sister-paper), the Celebrity Nova does not score points and need not therefore comply with the Challenge rules. In fact, the only major departure is the use of a rose-jointed gear-linkage as on the Group A version, and larger GTE rear brakes.

Charged with building and preparing it is Welshman Harry Hockly, who last year won the 1300 class with a Nova on the RAC Rally, and has become the Nova specialist on behalf of GM DealerSport: he is GM team driver in the Open series, runs the Sureguard car and the Radio Times cars, has built up half-a-dozen Challenge cars for customers, runs two privateer cars, and is now developing for DealerSport a 1600cc Nova which he will drive on Open events, and which will be offered as a clubman’s package to customers.

My mentor for the familiarisation session at Milbrook (the ex-GM proving ground) was Richard Roberts, who had trailered the car up behind the Bedford CF service van. Richard was well-placed to advise, since he won the Nova Cup last year, and he started by pointing out the big red ignition cut-off and extinguisher buttons below the dash. Squirming over the roll-cage side-bar I found that the deep tight seats give an upright viewpoint behind the high-set wheel, with the gear-lever just in the right place; the four-point harness of course allows no movement at all.

Starting off took several attempts: first is rather high, and the engine simply dies away if the clutch is engaged smartly. 3500 revs and some clutch slip is the secret, whereupon the car starts to roll with the gears whining loudly. The change is firm and positive, and the harder you ram the lever home, the better it gets. Likewise the steering; weighty at 10 mph, it feels good at higher speeds. Not light, because of the high-ratio rack, but quick to answer, and full of feel.

I wanted to practice some starts, since a stage rally continually stops and starts, so while Richard counted me down, I concentrated on keeping the revs above 4000 and slipping the clutch. After several improving tries but which still seemed slow to me, Richard pointed out that this was only a 1300, and it just would not take off any quicker. So we moved on to one of the handling courses.

Surprisingly, the little Nova has lots of front-end bite, even running knobbly tyres on dry tarmac, and turned in to the corners much more strongly than I expected. After some laps we had begun to get the tyres wailing steadily as I went quicker, helped by Richard’s pointers about braking very deep into the comer before turning in, and being very steady on the throttle so as not to unsettle the car. With limited power it is essential to keep it on as long as possible, being very smooth and letting the car drift out to the last inch of road. Yet the engine seemed to have much more torque than the Nova saloon racer JW drove last year at Brands Hatch.

With this brief session behind me, I had gained some of the feel of this odd creature which (paint scheme apart) looked like a shopping car but sounded like a lorry. Whining gears, throaty engine, rumbling tyres and crashing suspension all made shouting part of the game, and the solid ride added to the excitement.

From Millbrook we towed the car down to Frome in Somerset where a large hotel had been chosen as Rally HQ, and there met up with Harry Hockly and my co-driver, Nicky Grist, who is normally Harry’s other half on Open rounds. Unusually, the Longleat Stages was to start with two re-seeding stages on Saturday, before the event proper on Sunday; these should serve to silence the usual moans about start order, which is normally based on past performances. In fact, being first on the road was much less important for this tarmac event than for a forest round where surface conditions deteriorate rapidly.

This format gave us a leisurely morning to deal with scrutineering, and we joined everyday traffic on our way to the industrial estate where the 130 or so cars were to be checked. Only the brakes make the Nova tricky in ordinary driving; with competition pads and no servo, they need a huge push and seem to take a long time to grab. Queueing for scrutineers revealed that the Nova was being a bit reluctant, refusing to idle or pull properly, but with our radio Harry was told of the problem and was ready to twitch the idle speed up to 1300 rpm the moment we returned to HQ.

Though all the talk was of how slippery the tight narrow tracks in the safari park were, I was still caught out on the first re-seeding stage, making a poor start with the wheels spinning madly on the uphill slope, and then surging messily onto the grass on a long 90° right. “Keep going, keep going!” yelled Nicky through the intercom as the mud flew and we slithered back onto tarmac. After that I was very circumspect, braking early and aiming merely to stick to the twists and undulations of the road, especially as there was a muddy pond on the outside of the last bend. It was not fast, but it was a useful rehearsal.

For the rally we had two back-up vehicles, Richard in the CF van and Harry in a huge 6.2-litre diesel Chevrolet pick-up usually used as a shunter at Vauxhall’s Luton plant. All were connected by radio. Although four of the stages were to be through the wildlife compounds at Longleat, these were to alternate with another four at Colerne airfield nearby, so radio messages would be vital to warn the crew of our arrival or any problems.

Sunday was bright and dry, and we rumbled off to Colerne with the Chevrolet behind and time in hand to watch earlier cars tackle the course. Cars on this stage were sent off at 30-second intervals and did a lap-and-ahalf, so that at times two or three cars overlapped, making it more like a circuit race; but with acres of concrete available, passing was not a problem. Not that it was all wide-open; at places the route dived onto little service roads or round chicanes of concrete-filled oil-drums which threatened to punish minor waywardness with major panel damage. And as I had been told that no-one had so far brought the Sureguard car back whole, that was one thing I was determined to avoid.

On this dry, abrasive surface I could hear the rubber going up in smoke from the fronts as we howled along, stretching to 7000 rpm before banging the lever up to the next gear. There was no time to wonder what our speed was as I tried to pick out the plastic cones which marked the next bend and flung the car into it.

By the second stage I was discovering the basic technique of momentarily turning the car away from the bend under braking, before releasing the brakes, turning in, and hitting the throttle, which squashes incipient understeer, bringing the tail round neatly and letting the car drift smoothly to the outside. On our second tour, to my amazement, we began to overhaul another Nova. We closed to a few lengths, but that was all I could manage —and just as I was starting to feel smug, we were both trampled by a third Nova which swept past on the main runway even as I red-lined the tach in third and fourth. “Nothing you can do about him”, yelled Nicky above the din, “It’s a much hotter car than this.”

Coasting to a halt after the flying finish, we pulled off our helmets and collected our times: 17 seconds quicker second time around. Something must have been going right. As we whined through country lanes back to Longleat, where the higher cars would be well into their next stage, Nicky called up Richard to get him prepared for our tyre change. Having used fairly well-scrubbed covers for the fast Colerne section, we planned to switch to new ones for the Safari park, in which grip was certainly going to be at a premium.

Service crews were well-off on this event, as the service area was on a pleasant estate road overlooking part of the stage, and the sun shone as our tyres were changed. But there had been an accident elsewhere on the stage, and after a long pause, the news began to filter around that the next two stages were to be scrubbed, and that we were off to Colerne again. Off with the new tyres and back to the half-worns, and another charge across to the airfield. On this occasion over-confidence made me less tidy than usual, but the times were quicker still.

Back at Longleat the stage was drying out in the warm sun , so rather than put new Colways on again, the less worn rears were swapped for the fronts and we joined a line of cars at the stage start. This time there was the added drama of the Tiger Enclosure— rumour had it that this was so slippery a man could not stand up, and it weaved back and forwards through dense trees and tall iron gates. As we sat at the start control on the crest of a long downhill sprint with a steep drop on the right, down which even a Nova was going to run out of revs in top, I began to wonder if a forest event might not have been more comforting. At least gravel has a known degree of slip.

Suddenly the marshall and Nicky were both shouting “Five . . . four. . . three. . . two. . . one. . . go!” and we were bolting down the slope and heading for my nemesis. Yes, I knew that 200 yards beyond the fifth-gear brow was a hairpin right; I hit the brakes early out of caution, but I did it when the car was still light after the crest. The wheels locked up, and no matter how I feathered them, I could not regain control. I suppose I could have done something brave with the handbrake; instead I courageously took the coward’s way out and chose a nice predictable accident. We slithered straight on and head-butted a brace of straw bales. Funny how reverse can be very elusive at times, isn’t it?

We left the scene as fast as possible; it was only later I learned that I had made my mark right in front of the Vauxhall-Opel marquee, where Nova Challenge co-ordinator Andrew Duerden was commentating.

In and out of the trees we darted, tyres scrabbling in the slime and mud on the sinuous ribbon of tar, steering wheel flailing as I struggled to get the front to respond; more worrying, a Toyota was coming up behind and there was no way of letting him pass. But things sorted themselves out; suddenly a tree began heading straight for the radiator, I straightened up, we left the road and dived down the wrong side of the tree, the Toyota whistled past, and we bounced and slithered back on to the road again. I could not have been more relieved to leave the tiger compound than if its regular denizens were after me.

Out in the open again, the grip was much better and the Nova reverted to being the delightful car I had got to know at Colerne. Twitch it into the bend and the back wheels simply follow the front, hovering just short of oversteer and ready for instant changes of direction. Put on the power in the tighter bends and the steering suddenly stiffens as the LSD bites; stamp on the brakes and the Nova digs in and stops promptly. For a novice it is very forgiving, and a lot of fun.

A repeat of the tiger run closed the rally, and I can’t say I waited around for the results. Yet it turned out that we had actually beaten two other Novas and two Astras, while car damage amounted to a little crack in the spoiler from biffing the bales.

As a wet and cold spectator on various RAC Rallies, I used to harbour a desire to wrestle some powerful tail-happy machine through the forests, but in the middle of the Safari Park I realised that learning to drive quickly a small-engined car like the Nova is a far better grounding. Make an impact in one of those and you have proved something about your own abilities, not just the car. GC