Leaping Tom



Another one-make saloon series? Is this what British motorsport really needs?
Doubters beware. For would-be BTCC racers, it could be just the ticket . . .

I have long had a problem with Rovers. In my eyes they have always been staid and middle-aged cars for executives. A Rover is the sort of car my dad would drive.

Hang on a minute. It’s the car he does drive.

Even the launch of the Dunlop Rover GTi Cup in 1991 – that action-packed, panel-rubbing, grid-filling series for the 16-valve 216 – failed to change my impression of Britain’s favourite ‘Auntie’. OK, so the racing may have compensated for many a dull, bill-topping Formula Three thrash, but many of the cars were still driven by greyhaired businessmen with little chance of, or inclination towards, a professional racing career. Watching the drivers bully their machines into corners, outside rear wheel hopping like mad, was anathema to someone brought up to admire the smoothness and artistry of a top single-seater exponent.

Entertaining? Yes, but it still resided in that one-make, front-wheel drive ghetto.

Now, with the instigation of the Dunlop Rover Turbo Cup, as well as the similarly new VW Vento VR6 Challenge, we are faced with a fresh breed of ‘mixed race’ saloons. The new Rover still hops, it still understeers, but it rewards smoothness into the turns and is endowed with fantastic brakes, as I was to find out at Silverstone.

None of this should be surprising, really, seeing as the development of the 220 Turbo Coupe – nicknamed ‘Tomcat’ – has been left in the hands of Tony Pond.

Under the guidance of Rover Sport’s Wynne Mitchell, former rally star Pond and Rover development engineer Paul Northall, a regular competitor in the old Metro GTi Cup (see Motor Sport, January 1993) have been thrashing around Silverstone and Donington throughout 1993 in a bid to produce as perfect a package as possible.

The result?

A car in which even a saloon novice could lap within a couple of seconds of Pond, and which, furthermore, is already a good three seconds or so quicker than the 216 GTi pace: “We did 5,000 miles of testing, and we did that because we found that’s what some of the competitors have done in a season with the 216,” reasons Pond. “We didn’t want a car that only Steve Soper could drive. Anyone can drive this.

He’s right.

I was strapped into the Tomcat on a cold, wet, miserable Silverstone morning. I felt that there was plenty of room inside the 220, even without adjusting the seat to allow for my lankiness. As Pond fastened me in, I noticed that most of the standard interior trim was still in place. Very civilised. Mitchell had already advised me that the five-speed synchro gearbox was the standard example, but Pond had added that the gear ratios had been revised for racing use before the ‘box was sealed at the factory.

The engine?

Well, the 200bhp, two-litre, four-cylinder Rover T Series Turbo remains absolutely bog standard, once again having been sealed before leaving the factory. No blueprinting here.

Out on the track, the power assisted steering is fingertip light, even though at 1065 kilos this is one of the heaviest racing cars I have ever driven. Cornering is aided by the Torsen limited slip differential, as well as the Dunlop (of course) slick or treaded racing radials. The brakes are phenomenal, even in the wet. Although standard Rover gear is used at the rear, racing specification AP ventilated discs are bolted in at the front.

It may have been damp, but Silverstone was beginning to dry a little by the time I had my first go in the Tomcat. I was sent out on slick tyres for a 15-lap session, but immediately had to wend my back into the pits as somebody had deposited a new chicane on the Club Straight, in the form of an exhaust system!

Once that had been cleared away I was soon able to establish a rhythm. I felt at home in the car, although I needed to overcome a habit of trailbraking into the predominantly slow corners, which tended to make the Rover oversteer dramatically when it hit the wet apex. In fact, the best thing to do was to finish all the braking in a straight line, turn in on the power and thereby induce enough understeer to balance out its tendency to swap ends in the wet. Not a good car for opposite-lock fetishists . . .

In the wet, smooth was effective in the Tomcat. Although it takes discipline to brake sufficiently before the turns, this is repaid tenfold by the satisfaction when you exit, the corner at much higher revs.

That was all very well, but after lunch I was able to get another session in the dry. After a few laps I found the Tomcat totally confidence-inspiring. It is one of the few cars belonging to someone else in which I have felt happy to drive not too far from the limit. You can’t get a much better recommendation for a customer car than that.

The only corner where I felt there was still a fair amount of time to find was Copse. A fast, fourth gear sweeper, this really requires commitment in any racing car, let alone one that understeers. Braking just after the bridge, you really need to have the courage of your convictions to squeeze the throttle as soon as you turn in. That way, you see around 5,200 rpm on exit, the left rear hopping from about midway through as you gradually straighten up for the run down to Maggotts. If discretion takes over and you delay the power, the car loses its trajectory and you find yourself heading towards the marbles far sooner than you’d like.

I’ve far more experience in single-seaters than saloons, and I’m not sure whether or not it puts my manhood in question if I admit that I dabbed the brakes for the left-handed kink at Maggotts, before powering down to Becketts.

This was tremendous fun. I found I could leave the braking massively late, change down to second, virtually anchor up mid-turn and then boot the throttle, revelling in the superb traction. I needed to change up to third mid-way through the corner, as the revs crept the wrong side of the optimum 6,500 mark and the wide-tyred Rover catapulted me onto the Club Straight. Later on, while speaking to Northall, I found that third gear is actually the way to go at Becketts.

Bet it’s not as much fun though . . .

Along the straight, I found I was able to wait until the rumble strip appeared on the right before braking and changing down to third for the left handed Brooklands. That’s really impressive in such a large car. In fact, in the wet I was able to take yards out of the slithering Formula Fords at this point.

You’ve got two options at Brooklands. Exit fast and wide, and you find you’re on the wrong line for Luffield. Moderate the pace, and it tidies up your approach. Mine varied from lap to lap, according to somewhat fluctuating standards of competence. Eventually, I discovered that the latter approach was the best, as a result of which the twin right-handers (Luffields One and Two) required just a short brake dab before turning in.

Take to the rumble strip out of Luffield Two and you find that, if you judge everything correctly, you can get from this point to the pit straight via the Woodcote apex in one, graceful arc. I needed fifth gear for a couple of seconds before Copse, and found that the fourth/fifth changes both upwards and downwards were every bit as sweet as the rest of the ‘box.

That was a lap in the Tomcat. Thanks to the sheer user-friendliness of the car there was little drama, but I still got the impression that the final few tenths must be very hard to find: “In terms of driving it’s more set-upable than the 216,” said Pond. “It’s much nearer a racing car. We thought we’d control the package but still leave it up to the driver – this car gives them the opportunity to try different suspension settings; the racing’s only a part of it.”

But is it a stepping stone to touring cars?

Like VW’s new Vento, the Tomcat offers a step up from the traditional hot hatch one-make scene: “It’s got all the ingredients there,” says Pond. “If you get it right with this car, as a team or a driver, you wouldn’t have any trouble with a touring car.”

Maybe so, but if the series is to become recognised as part of a driver’s education on the path to a career in the BTCC, an injection of youth is needed.

By all means keep 216 stars in the mould of Dave Loudouns and John Llewellyn – they’re damned good drivers. All the same, moves should perhaps now be made to recruit a few younger racers from the single-seater ranks.

That may not be too difficult. There was one such driver looking on wistfully as I prepared for my run, contemplating a season in Rovers.

He was 26, and fresh out of Formula Three . . .

And this 26 year-old?

I loved it. It may not make a star, nor even a touring car hopeful, out of a monkey, but it will turn him or her into a half competent racing driver.

No doubt about it, the Dunlop Rover Turbo Cup will be one of the highlights of the new Best of British Motorsport consortium, and races abroad make the series even more attractive.

There is every sign that it just has to be a winner. M J S