The hills are alive

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Formula 1 tends to hog the headlines but you’ll find parallel ingenuity elsewhere within our sport, and its provenance might just surprise you

By Andrew Frankel

We’ve all done it: imagined racing cars conceived in a world without rules. Gordon Murray has even sketched one for this very magazine. What is perhaps less well known is that they actually exist.

Or as near as makes very little difference. An unlimited hillclimb car is, next to a kart, the purest motor sports animal it is possible to devise. Apart from limits to the width and height of their front wings and a stipulation that they must run with either methanol or pump fuel in their tanks, you can do almost whatever you like. You can use any engine that’s ever been built whether it has 200bhp or 2000bhp, normal aspiration, supercharged or turbocharged induction. And you can make the car as light as you like. Some hillclimb cars weigh about 280kg, roughly half the weight of a current F1 car.

And to take a close look at the very quickest out there is to see another style of motor sport entirely — to call it a glimpse into another world is not too strong. For it is not just the machines that are different to anything else in modern motor sport, but the people who drive them.

Take Trevor Willis, a bloke with long greying hair and a day job designing electronics for Hitachi. Last year he became British Hillclimb Champion, adding his name to a list of champions that stretches all the way back to Raymond Mays, up to Andy Priaulx and beyond. He did it in an OMS 25 (base car retail price £21,000) that he adapted to the art of hillclimbing in his one-car garage. In so doing he became the first person in 14 years to take the title driving anything other than a Gould.

But if you ask him how he did it in a car weighing barely any less than those of his rivals, with perhaps 150 fewer horsepower and which has never seen a wind tunnel, this usually genial, chatty man suddenly clams up. He’ll mutter a bit about power only counting if you can use it and being fortunate that all the bad weather during the season played to his car’s strengths, but you’ll need to look to others to hear him described as ‘Captain Commitment’ or as possessing ‘other-worldly car control’. And you’ll need to put his name into a search engine to see images of him recovering this vicious-looking car from impossible angles as he slithers up some narrow sliver of tarmac.

The first thing I notice about his car is something it lacks. Sponsorship. Not a word from stem to stern save a couple of logos for SBD, which designs the engine management system, and RPE, which makes the 3.4-litre V8. Given his successes over a 20-year career in the sport, I can’t believe companies don’t want their names on his car. “No, but I don’t want theirs,” he says. “Hillclimbing is not about big sponsors and corporate hospitality. If it were I’d probably not be doing it.”

I ask him to elaborate. “It really is not like other forms of motor sport,” he says. “What it shares with them is that you must have the desire to be the fastest. But it’s actually one huge circus moving from place to place. It’s incredibly friendly and, because it takes up all your spare time if you’re doing it seriously, it becomes your social life. Imagine what it would be like if it were ruled by sponsors.”

I ask whether, if a vital component broke on the car at the championship decider, his deadliest rival would lend him a spare. Willis gives me a somewhat old-fashioned look before saying, “He’d lend me his car, and without a second thought.” And there is little or no skulduggery in the sport because even the most dishonest competitor can’t break rules that don’t exist.

Then there are the venues. Our shoot is taking place at Shelsley Walsh, the oldest operational motor sport facility not merely in the land, but the world. Cars first climbed the hill in 1905, before even Brooklands opened its gates and, except during global conflict, have been doing so ever since. For most of its length, only a well-maintained surface (it was gravel originally) distinguishes it from how it would have been more than a century ago.

It is tempting to think of hillclimbing as the sport that time forgot.

Because it’s never been in a tunnel, Willis has no idea how much downforce his car generates. Asking how fast it accelerates draws an almost complete blank too. Then he remembers that the timekeepers always record how long it takes for the car to cover the first 64 feet of a run, because if you can get there in 2sec dead, your car is pulling exactly 1g. Those 64 feet take Willis 1.8sec, so we can deduce that, from a standing start, he is able to add speed faster than most road cars can lose it during emergency braking.

Now we have a perspective, aided further once he’s furtled around in the data-logging and discovered it actually does 0-60mph in exactly 2sec and 0-100mph in 3.6sec. Quick enough to dust a modern F1 car? “I would think so,” says Willis thoughtfully. “They have more power but we are quite a bit lighter and have rather better tyres for the job.” Tyres? I’ll come to those in a moment.

Unlimited hillclimbing has been described as Formula 1 qualifying in a country lane, and looking up the Shelsley Walsh hill you can see why. What kind of brain do you need to strap yourself into something like the OMS and thrash it to the top?

“I visualise the hill and try to do a complete run in my head before the car even moves,” says Willis. “After that, it’s all about controlled aggression.” He explains that none of the techniques that have traditionally worked in circuit racing apply on the hill. There’s no balancing the car on the throttle or adjusting your line with your right foot. “If you even touch the power too early, the car will just understeer like a pig. You enter the corner as fast as you can to get as much downforce as possible from the front wing, brake all the way into it and only get back on the gas when you know you’ll have the traction to power you out.”

Traction. That’s what it’s all about, which is why Willis’s car is set up exceptionally soft at the back and rock hard at the front. “All the roll stiffness comes from the front,” he says. “That’s why proper hillclimb cars spend most of their time in corners on three wheels.”

It sounds like a rock-ape formula, but it’s not. “Because hills are not like tracks — they’re bumpy and inconsistent — you have to drive reactively. But at the same time you have to be ahead of the car, always anticipating. When you’re really in the groove you are actually able to react to things that haven’t happened yet, because you know the hill and the car so well.”

Willis reckons this is why the career of a fulltime hillclimbing expert is so much longer than that of a circuit racer. Clearly you don’t need much stamina when a climb at Shelsley Walsh is completed in about 23sec (though Willis says the concentration is such that he’ll be exhausted by the end of each weekend), but experience counts for even more than reflexes. “It’s not like racing where you can test and test and tracks are pretty consistent from one corner to the next. Because we’ll do, at most, a few minutes running during the course of an entire weekend, it takes time to learn the craft and the courses.”

Just as important, however, is how that experience helps Willis develop the car. With little or no testing possible, the simple business of making the car go faster is as much an art as it is a science.

“You can have all the data in the world but if you get in the car and it doesn’t instantly inspire confidence, you’re still not going to be quick.”

Having finally sorted out the back end, Willis turned his attention to the front and designed a wing that had so much downforce it broke the back loose again. “Aerodynamicists will tell you meaningful downforce doesn’t come into play until you’re travelling fast, but I can show you 40mph corners you’d not even turn into without a front wing on one of these cars.”

So how does he set the aero balance? “I read a great deal and talk to as many people as I can.” To this extent he’s designed and built the car’s rear wing, sidepods, engine cover and floor himself at home. “What I’ve tried to achieve is consistent downforce so that the car is balanced front to back, but also so that the downforce doesn’t disappear when you turn into a corner. If it all vanishes as soon as you’re no longer travelling in a straight line you might as well not have it: you’ll never be confident in the car.”

That ability to impart confidence drives the set up of the entire car. The mapping for the engine is designed not for ultimate power but to provide a consistent flow of torque right through the rev range. Likewise the transmission, honed to such a degree now that while Willis can hear it changing gear, he can’t really feel it.

The more closely you examine hillclimbing, the more remarkable an offshoot the sport appears to be. Although the cars are quicker by some measures than F1 machinery, the discipline with its paucity of rules appears to have been transplanted from a gentler era, and you fear the arrival of big money might come and spoil it. Willis reckons his car would cost about £75,000 for someone else to create, and while a top-spec Gould running an adapted Indycar engine would be considerably more expensive, you’re still talking petty cash compared to most modern single-seater racing. There is always the chance that someone will see it as a soft title, a championship there for the taking for anyone with the cash to create the ultimate hillclimb car. But they’d still have to drive it and might just discover that rarest of things: a branch of motor sport where hard work, experience, raw talent, guts and determination still count for far more than the size of your wallet.

Our thanks to Trevor Willis, Mark Constanduros and everyone at Shelsley Walsh for their help with this feature.

*

Engine

The motor is a 3.4-litre normally aspirated V8 made by Radical Performance Engines and most commonly used in the Radical SR8. Essentially two bored-out Suzuki Hayabusa ‘bike engines sharing a common crankshaft, it revs to a conservative 10,500rpm and when it gets there produces approximately 500bhp, about 150bhp fewer than its most powerful rivals. Other engines used in hillclimbing include Judd Vi Os and normally aspirated Cosworth-designed Indycar engines. Turboand supercharging are both allowed but rarely used. Willis’s current engine has done two seasons without a refresh and is expected to complete a third.

Cooling comes from two tiny radiators, but water temperature rises from 70-95deg C during a 20-sec run. It has a tiny tank Willis will typically start with just 2.5 litres of standard pump fuel on board.

Gearbox

The OMS has less power than most front-running hillclimb cars, so features a Hewland-based F3 paddleshiff gearbox (capable of using four to six ratios) but with strengthened internals to cope with the V8’s extra torque and the loads caused by ultra-soft slick tyres. Generally Willis uses four gears, with an unusually tall first to reduce stress on the crown wheel and pinion. At Shelsley it’s geared to do 138mph over the line while the best Goulds top 150mph. Gearboxes can use split ratios with, say, another second positioned above fourth to obviate the need to go down through the box. The differential is a crude cam and pawl device that’s almost completely locked under power. It doesn’t have to be clever,” says Willis, it just has to survive.”

Cockpit

Spartan doesn’t even begin to cover it. There is a display you can scroll through to bring up various temperatures and pressures within the engine, as well as a bank of coloured change-up lights. In reality and as Willis says,”if you’re looking at anything other than the course when you’re doing a run, you’re doing something badly wrong.” The information is there solely for use before and affer the run; when the car is moving all Willis uses is a change-up beeper in his earplugs, but even this is largely redundant as it’s all done aurally.

Bodywork

All the body is made from carbon fibre, save the engine cover. Downforce figures are not known but will amount to many hundreds of kilogrammes as maximum speed approaches. Basic shape is still that of an OMS, but Willis-designed sidepods, floor, engine cover and rear wing transform its appearance.

Tyres

Willis can’t remember where the wheels came from, but thinks the fronts might be from the back of a Formula Palmer Audi single-seater and the rears from some other formula racing car”. Tyre choice is free in theory but, in practice, Avons are widely used. The slicks feature a compound so soft that even on a damp, near freezing day, the surface feels like it’s been coated in marmalade.

“The tyres have to work immediately from stone cold if you’re not to go straight on at the first corner,” says Willis. Wheelspinning before the start is common but intended primarily to clean the rear tyres rather than heat them. Willis uses three sets for an entire season, one of those being wets. A set of tyres costs approximately £1700. Tyre warmers used to be allowed but were banned at the end of the 1970s to keep costs down.

Suspension

Conventional double wishbones are used at each corner. Carbon fibre is eschewed because knocking corners off your car is an occupational hazard in the hillclimbing world. Spring rates seem nonsensical to circuit racers: the car runs about 5001b of springing at the relatively unladen front and as little as 250Ib at the back.

Brakes

You might expect vast carbon ceramic discs with multi-piston calipers and ultra-sophisticated ABS, but nothing could be further from the truth. When I ask Willis about them he looks momentarily nonplussed before saying, “They’re nothing special and don’t need to be. The car doesn’t weigh much and doesn’t run for long enough for them to get hot. I think we got them from a Formula Ford.”

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