Track test: Holden Commodore VL

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Pastures new!

When Alan Docking’s team decided to compete in the British Touring Car Championship in 1987 it set itself a challenge. The ubiquitous Ford Sierra Cosworth and Rover Vitesse were the most obvious choices to run, but instead Docking plumped for an ex-Allan Grice Holden Commodore VL.

Initially it seemed a sound choice. At its first race, at Oulton Park (where it was very much at home), Mike O’Brien firmly put the car on pole, though the possibility of a golden debut ended when it was sidelined early in the event with a sick engine.

There followed a number of mixed results, including a fine win at Snetterton, but the last few events were spoiled when the Holden would not run cleanly because of carburettor problems, and a spate of cracked cylinderheads caused it to overheat persistently.

Although O’Brien qualified seventh for the first race of 1988 at Silverstone, less than a second from Andy Rouse’s pole-time in a Sierra Cosworth, the Holden, now fully backed by Autoglass, was badly affected by new regulations.

The team had benefited from up-to-the minute tyre technology in 1987, using 12in tyres as used in Group C, but the new rules necessitated a change to smaller wheels. The team therefore had to resort to 10in covers, but there had been little development carried out on running such small tyres on cars of the Holden’s weight. A change in the minimum weight allowed also forced it to run with 15kg of ballast. After months of delay, the long-expected evolution package was finally homologated on August 1, including new front and rear bumpers and spoilers, tail boot and spoiler, side skirts, door panels and engine scoop. Carburettors were replaced by Bosch fuel injection, heads had been reworked, the two bolt mains of the crank was now doubled to four, and there was a new engine-management system. But question-marks remained over whether the car really was good enough in the first instance to compete with the Sierra Cosworths. The carburettored version of the Commodore had bags of torque low down, but while the fuel-injection gave it more top-end power, torque was not as much improved as it should have been. Peak power and peak torque were also too close together.

The new spec Commodore made its debut at Brands Hatch for round ten of the British Championship in August, and although O’Brien found an improvement of 2.2 seconds a lap, he was only one place further up the grid, such had been the pace of his rivals progress. What the car lacked was a thorough testing and development programme, which the privateer Docking team was not in a position to undertake. The situation was further aggravated from Docking’s point of view by the fact that General Motors and Holden were indifferent to the car’s presence in the British series. Even the little help received from Vauxhall caused a fuss within GM.

The attraction of the car for the outsider, spectator and television director was that it was refreshingly different from all those Sierras, its looks and V8 sound bringing to mind the Camaros which used to contest Group 2 in the early 1970s. When invited to try it on Silverstone’s Club circuit, it was an opportunity I was not going to waste.

Even when sitting in the garage the Holden has a presence, the Autoglass livery on its plain white bodywork looking most attractive. Once seated, the driver is confronted by five important dials: the tachometer, red-lined at 7000 rpm, is flanked on the left by water-temperature and fuel-pressure gauges, and on the right by oil-temperature and oil-pressure displays. On the central console, the voltmeter is located above the transmission and differential temperature gauges. Two switches to the right of the dials are fuel pumps, with two others for the transmission and differential. As was to be expected, the interior is spartan, all interior trimmings having been removed except for the driver’s seat vvith its six-point safety-belt and a special passenger seat.

With a Getrag ‘box, first gear is dog-leg left and down, while the four remaining gears are in the usual H-pattern. Once the engine is started, it is necessary to blip the throttle to keep it turning, and then raise the revs before dropping the clutch.

Fortunately, track conditions were very much in my favour, the wet surface of the previous hour having dried out under the Silverstone wind and bright blue sky. Treating the car with respect until I got used to it, I worked my way up to third gear and approached the sharp right-hander at Beckerrs on the short circuit. O’Brien had suggested second gear, so I duly changed down and then floored it up the long straight, quickly reaching fifth gear at 6500 rpm. Speeding underneath the bridge for the first time, I began to brake and change down, wary of the still slightly damp Woodcote.

Charging up the pit-straight and into Copse for the first time at speed, I could not remember whether O’Brien had advised third or fourth. I tried the lower gear, but found I had made a wrong choice. Slingshotting through Maggotts, I approached Becketts again and, feeling that I was still not going quickly enough, disregarded all advice and left my braking and gear-shifting perilously late. I only just made it around. But my confidence was growing. The Commodore was a delight to drive, and I soon felt secure enough to really have a go, taking it right up to the 7000 rpm red-line. Given that it was about the heaviest car I have driven on the track, I was always conscious of the heavy braking required, but that was my only uncertainty. A quick glance at the dials every lap showed all was well, and I was allowed to circulate for lap after lap.

However, confidence soon became overconfidence. As I sped through Copse for the umpteenth time I knew I was going too quickly. Already I was tending to use the rumble strip on the outside, and this time I was on the very edge. I was able to hold it there without putting any of the tyres on the slippery grass but, pleased with myself for keeping control, I then made the mistake of accelerating too quickly out of the corner. The surge of power slightly wagged the tail to the left, which caused the nearside rear wheel to hit the grass.

Instant lack of grip spun me round across the track and onto the wide expanse of grass on the infield, much as Alboreto had done during the British Grand Prix! Unfortunately I was unable to perform a full pirouette as the Italian ace had done, and desperately noticed the armco nearing the car; but a highly embarrassing incident was averted when the car manouevred itself to slide backwards, parallel with track and barrier, and roll itself to a halt in reverse. The only damage sustained was to the ground-hugging front spoiler which had partially detached itself as soon as I hit the grass.

My thanks must go to Alan Docking, Alan Longland and his team for providing the car and the track-time, to Mike O’Brien who had taken time off from his highly successful sports promotions company Speed Sport to be present, and to Mike Cornwell of Autoglass whose enthusiasm enabled the whole session retake place.

Although Docking has plans for next year’s British Touring Car Championship, it now seems unlikely that he will run the Commodore again. From a competitive point of view it does make sense for his team to acquire Sierra Cosworths, but I must confess to a tinge of regret that the glorious Australian V8 might not be seen again in the series. WPK

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