Track Test -- Renault Clio Elf UK Cup

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Simon Arron

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Highly Sprung

Crunch. Scrape. Bang. Rat-a-tat. Wallop. It sounds like the musical score from Platoon being thrashed out with more than average gusto by Black Sabbath, but apparently all Renault Clio Elf UK Cup racers make the same noise. It’s to do with the stiffness of the front suspension and the proximity of the Michelin slicks to the Noryl GTX (which sounds like an oil, but is in fact a strong plastic composite material) front wings. Those who’ve driven the suave 137 bhp road car will take some convincing that so little work is required to transform it into a perky one-make racer.

Several months before launching the Clio 16v, Renault UK Motorsport imported 50 for racing purposes. Priced at £11,995, they came complete with roll cage and race preparation kit. The latter comprises shorter front springs, an engine management computer and a competition exhaust. Teams are allowed to fiddle around with tracking, cambers and rear ride height, while brake pad choice is free. Otherwise, you are allowed to do nothing more adventurous than adjust tyre pressures.

We prefer it that way,” says Bill O’Donnell, charged with preparing Radbourne Racing’s two championship entries, one of which was entrusted to Motor Sport at Brands Hatch. “It reduces the likelihood of cheating.”

As with any one-make category, the Renault Clio Elf UK Cup is strictly policed, and in its first year it has been generally free of controversy.

Despite the plethora of one-make racing that now exists in Britain, the races have been well-subscribed, with over 20 drivers competing regularly. Renault has supported one-make racing since 1974, and it knows how to market a product and attract support. A prize fund of £130,000 certainly helps.

So popular have previous Renault series been that they all still exist, albeit without manufacturer support. Thus there are upwards of 30 5TS racers competing regularly in club events, and the same is true of the 5GT Turbo. Once such series lose Renault’s official backing — which happens as successive models are superceded — it creates a ready supply of relatively cheap racing saloons. The 5TS series is the longest running of its kind anywhere in the world; it absolutely staggers the French that we should still be racing the things… And such is the championship’s popularity that it may well still be around when the Clio eventually gets a facelift.

But back to the present. Away from the regimented qualifying format at a Grand Prix, there isn’t much time to acclimatise oneself to a new car during a qualifying session. At a national race meeting, you’re lucky to get 20 minutes. Around Brands Hatch, that equated to slightly more track time than you got in the 10-lap race itself.

Thus a morning’s testing was arranged at Snetterton, Brands’ GP circuit not being available for the purpose and its short track habitually having its sessions interrupted to allow the retrieval of Formula Ford cars from gravel traps. Snetterton is ideal in all respects bar its location. Unless you live in Bury St Edmunds or Norwich, a typical journey is arduous. It does however have an interesting mix of corners, so you get a reasonable impression of what a car is like in most conditions. Being in the middle of nowhere, its availability for testing is almost unlimited. Sadly, the controlling Brands Hatch Leisure group has announced plans to sell the site for housing, although it has tentatively said that it will seek another motor racing site nearby. If such a site exists, why not leave Snetterton as it is, and build the houses there instead? Answers on a postcard please to the Norfolk School of Economics, nr Thetford . . .

O’Donnell did warn me that the Clios were not easy to drive quickly. Many of the pace-setters use a left-foot braking technique in order to achieve a decent cornering balance. Fine if you’ve practised the technique, but not the sort of thing you want to perfect in the limited time available. Renault is very proud of the way its Noryl wings spring back into shape after mild impacts, but there are few places at Snetterton to have such things, so conventional braking seems like the best bet.

After three gentle laps to bed in fresh brake pads, O’Donnell permits a more aggressive approach. That translates to around 7,800 rpm through the gears, and as it’s best to keep the engine straining beyond 6,000 rpm at all times, certain corners tend to be tackled one gear lower than you might previously imagined.

Thus the tight right-hander at Sears, easy third gear fodder for most saloons, is best tackled in second if you don’t want to burble, off-cam, onto the long Revett Straight.

The most immediately obvious characteristic of the Clio is the aforementioned stiffness. Through the loping right-hander at Coram it bounces violently, the steering is on full lock against the rack stops and it all feels most uncomfortable. There follows a nasty wiggle, which replaced the controversial Russell Corner a couple of seasons ago. Here, the Clio simply doesn’t want to know. The slow right-left is completed in a series of hops, skips and jumps. Getting any power to the road, leastways smoothly, is a hopeless task.

As O’Donnell had suggested, the Clio is not an easy racer to master, though at least Snetterton served as a useful pre-Brands eye-opener.

Previous personal experience of the Brands GP circuit amounted to one lap as passenger in a Ford Transit and one-third of a qualifying session for a round of the TVR Tuscan challenge. The latter ended against the Clearways tyre wall, on a day when there weren’t enough spare parts to go around. As long as the car survived practice, this would be my first actual race on the longer Brands track.

Team-mate Jonathan Salem, a former Formula 750 racer now in his third Renault tin-top season, offered plenty of helpful tips from his lofty perch as a regular top-six finisher. While he agreed with some of my Snetterton impressions, he felt that the Coram phenomenon could have been due to excessive steering input on the driver’s part.

The Radbourne entry is beautifully turned out by O’Donnell and sidekick Mick O’Brien, and their relaxed attitude belies some of the dramas the team has suffered during the season. During qualifying for the opening race at Donington, both cars were all but destroyed when they collided… with each other. The fact that their latest guest forgot to pack a pair of fireproof socks doesn’t bother them; happily, a delay in an earlier practice session allowed sufficient time to purchase a replacement set and still make the assembly area on time.

Within a couple of laps, the Clio already feels a touch more accommodating than the awkward beast encountered at Snetterton. Through the hairpin at Druids it trrampolines briefly, and it doesn’t much like the left-hander onto the Grand Prix loop at Surtees. That was more the driver’s fault than the car’s. On one lap, having sailed past what I had previously taken to be the braking point, I actually discovered a better line, though this subsequently proved elusive for the balance of the day.

The quick section around the back of the circuit is worth savouring. Through the rapid right-handers at Hawthorns and Westfield, the Clio feels utterly stable. The following Dingle Dell chicane has attracted plenty of criticism, so many times has it caught out the unwary, but in something as (relatively) tame as the Clio it has a huge grin factor. Spectators reported that poleman David Kay’s commitment through there was just awesome. It felt exciting enough setting 16th fastest time, even that involving a short spell on two wheels after a brush with the right-hand kerb.

Throughout practice, this whole area was liberally covered with gravel, the consequence of several miscreants having run a yard or so too wide. There isn’t much room here for error. Team-mate Salem reckoned that it was possible to take it flat, but found this not to be the case when there are marbles all over the track surface. He wound up axle deep in the kitty litter. His day took a further turn for the worse when a gearbox mounting broke 200 yards after the start; Alderley Edge to Swanley is a long round trip for around seven minutes’ Sport.

“It’s just been one of those days,” he sighed, taking some consolation that his next event would form part of the Italian Grand Prix support programme at Monza. The International Renault Clio Cup is another bonus for front-runners, who are invited to take on their European counterparts at five major meetings, including the Monaco GP and Spa 24 Hours. (Each round has a £20,000 prize fund, which might not keep McLaren in cocktail cherries for a season, but to an amateur it represents a worthwhile pecuniary return.)

Although you need to keep the engine in the outer orbit of its rev range once on the move, the start procedure demands a degree of moderation. Anything over 3500 rpm will produce more in the way of tyre smoke than grip. The steering wheel tugs slightly to the right as the clutch bangs in, but thereafter the Clio tracks a straight course, gaining a couple of places into Paddock . . . and then promptly losing them again at Surtees (driver asleep). A couple more mistakes on the second lap allow the chain of a dozen or so cars ahead to draw away, while the bunch behind are at least 10 metres adrift. It’s amazing how much ground one locked brake can cost when the cars are so evenly matched. Until a couple of recovering spinners joined me towards the end, it was quite a lonely afternoon, which eventually netted 13th place in the 23-car field.

That doesn’t mean it was uneventful. The Clio demands a particular blend of brutality and precision, a compromise which demands accuracy to within about 14 decimal places if you want to be truly competitive. Like most one-make racers, the Clio tolerates a degree of kerb-bashing, but there is a very fine line between gaining time and clattering into the fence. Finding that line is not five minutes’ work; it is no surprise that the leading runners test regularly.

This all adds to the expense, of course, taking into account time spent off work, circuit hire, travel and fuel (plus the increased risk of mechanical or accidental damage). On the flipside, the Renault Clio Elf UK Cup does give competitors the opportunity to perform at some of Britain’s top race meetings. That, complete with healthy prize money and start bonuses (Elf offers £100 per driver) helps to soften some of the blow, and also explains why Renault’s 17 years of unbroken devotion to the one-make cause have attracted such consistent support. — SA

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