Spider, Spider burning bright

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Later this year, Renault will introduce a distinctive new road car, the Spider. First, though, there’s the matter of a racing series to sort out…

Out of your right eye, you notice a man leaning by the pit wall. He’s got his back to you, but just as you take fourth gear on the exit of the corner you notice him twitch.

No. Not now. Please. To your relief, the chequered flag in his right hand stays where it is, but you know it’s only a matter of time. His body language tells you that your card is marked. This is going to be your final complete flying lap in Renault’s new Sport Spider, a lighter, more powerful version of the forthcoming Spider road car, and basis for a new pan-European racing series in 1996. There will also probably be a series in the UK, supplanting the Clio Cup on the BTCC support programme.

For a moment, you must put the bloke with the flag to the back of your mind. The 50-metre board isn’t far away. So short is Nogaro’s pit straight that the last couple of rows on a full grid actually have to line up in the middle of the final corner, aided by their own supplementary set of starting lights.

The straight leads into an invigorating right/left ess-bend. Renault advises third gear for the first part, but that leaves you gasping for breath in the middle. There is a ripple in the road which pitches you towards the edge of the circuit, and trying to keep the car in some semblance of order whilst simultaneously changing up and turning left does not feel like the answer. So fourth gear it is, taking care to avoid the kerb on the right. Touch it, and the Spider steps sideways, though it does so progressively. The suspension, fully adjustable on the racing version, is relatively soft.

In fourth, the car feels slower through the first part of the corner, but it’s more stable, and easier to commit to the subsequent left-hander, taken flat. Fifth gear, another short straight and it’s into the Virage de la Ferme, a fourth gear left-hander which is actually a lot faster than it looks, albeit not as fast as you attempted to take it on your third lap…

If you don’t approach it backwards, the next corner is taken in third, a straightforward right-hander, followed by another with a tricky, adversely cambered exit. It is noticeable throughout this somewhat technical part of the circuit that there are tyre marks going in all directions, and that the regulars adopt a wide variety of lines. The band of rubber on the surface of the track is broad indeed.

Then comes a second gear hairpin, my personal bete noire. You’ve been shown the wide, wide approach that is necessary, but in the short few laps available never once did I get it anything like exactly right. The idea is to stick to the left, going right to the lip of the circuit before plunging to the right, catching the latest of late apices. Then it’s a brief, but violent, application of throttle before a more conventional, left-hand hairpin, for which second feels too short, third too high. But the car is more balanced in third, and the exit speed is still sufficient to give you enough impetus, which is vital as there follows a barely noticeable kink and a long, long straight. Up through the box, all the way to sixth now. The gearchange action of the dog ‘box (taken from the current Renault Clio Eurocup racer) is beautifully light. The only grouse is that it doesn’t always feel as though the cog has fully engaged. But it always does, and you soon get used to it.

Although the Spider has no screen as such, there are deflector vents in the top part of the front bodywork which prove very effective. You are flat out for around half a mile, but there is only mild buffeting to the top of one’s helmet. The instrument panel, taken straight from a Formula Renault Sport single-seater, is neat, but hard to read in bright sunlight. There is a warning light advising you to change up, but that’s hard to see, too. It’s a case of drive-by-car.

The straight feels wider than it is, an effect created by the vast expanse of open land to your left. There are no barriers, just an airfield where the operators, bored with towing gliders, engage in spontaneous aerobatic displays throughout much of the day.

The estimated top speed of the Spider is around 140 mph, though the prototypes were not in their ultimate state of tune. The race engines, taken from the Clio Williams, will be boosted to around 180 bhp thanks to a new camshaft and re% ised electronics. We had a more standard 150 bhp available. Even so, by the end of the straight, which leads into a tight, right-hand hairpin, your brain starts dropping hints that you should be moving your right foot across the pedal box. Those who know the car say there’s no need to brake until 80 metres from the corner. After several laps, you give it a try. One hundred metre board, a deep breath, then bang On the brakes, down through the gears. The Spider maintains a perfectly straight course. No locked rear wheels. No squirrelling. Just solid, progressive deceleration. The brakes, a quartet of ventilated discs, come straight from the excellent, but now sadly defunct, Renault A610.

Later, Claude Fior, who developed the chassis, will conduct a demonstration. Dressed in open-face helmet. T-shirt, jeans and a pair of Hush Puppies (as opposed to the full racing kit preferred by everyone else). he shows a) that the Spider can be held sideways under full power for as long as the mood takes you and b) that it is possible to brake forcefully at the end of the straight… without your hands on the steering wheel. That technique may not be the fastest means of getting the Spider round Nogaro (though he knows the one that is), but it was an impressive testament to the car’s ultimate versatility and, more importantly, controllability.

After the straight and the tight second-gear right which follows, the circuit opens up. A quicker, third-gear right, a third gear left, up to fourth for the fast left-handed sweep behind the pits. Here, the circuit is vastly different in character. The impression of space that you had coming down the straight has gone. The left-hander spits you into a channel with concrete walls on both sides, and no run-off area to speak of. Renault requests, earnestly, that if you are going to fall off the track, then please do it somewhere else.

The final corner looks like a double apex-right-hander, but you take it in one continuous arc. Brake at around 60 yards, turn in and hard on the power in third. The car feels a touch light in the middle, but then it settles down and…

As you accelerate past the pits, there he is again. He’s got you this time though. No question. That chequered flag is pointing at you.

Damn him. lust as you were beginning really to enjoy yourself.

The first impression is that the Spider series will strike a decent balance between reasonable speed and old-fashioned fun. The cars don’t feel all that difficult to drive, in as much as they are comfortable and user-friendly. If anything, they’ve got perhaps too much grip, though the extra 30. bhp should make a difference.

The only aspect of the chassis’s behaviour which attracted mildly adverse comment was a slightly lazy turn-in, to which end Michelin is investigating stiffer sidewalls as a possible cure. Otherwise, it’s pretty well sorted already.

Peak power of the mid-mounted race engine is at 7200 rpm, and maximum torque (150 lb ft) at 5400. It is responsive, however, and delivery is both smooth and constant. There are no nasty surprises in the power curve, which adds to its overall driveability. It also sounds good.

Differences between the racing Spider and its road car progenitor are few. Engine modifications and gearbox aside, the racer has no doors, no headlamps, a rigid tonneau cover (not fitted to the prototype), one-piece bodywork fore and aft, fully adjustable suspension and a cockpit mounted brake balance bar. The road car is already a featherweight, at 790 kg, and the racer is 80 kg less bulky still (lighter than a Cinquecento). The basis for both is an aluminium spaceframe chassis developed by Hydro in Denmark. Renault is particularly proud of this aluminium handywork, which is said to be one-and-a-half times more shock absorbent than the steel equivalent.

The two will be similar in price, too. A ceiling of 200,000 francs (around £25,500 at today’s somewhat punitive exchange rates) has already been set. Renault estimates that a full season in a British national championship would cost around £50,000, car included. When one considers that some Clio teams already spend up to £40,000 per car, the price seems fair.

If a UK series comes to pass, the Spiders will race on the BTCC support programme, as part of the TOCA package. The Clios will be put out to pasture, to run as a national series under a different umbrella, along with the Renault 5TS, the Renault 5GT Turbo…

As ever in the UK, old racing cars never die. The world in general, and Britain in particular, may be horribly awash with one-make racing series, but the Spider at least is something visually different, with an appearance not dissimilar to the Laguna concept car of several years ago.

And, on brief acquaintance, it is also suitably addictive.

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