During the first in a series of track tests, Ian Flux finds that certain of his preconceptions are rapidly altered…
The single-seater brigade and one-make racers are going to hate me when I say this, but the most popular support race to the British Touring Car Championship is the ICS Historic Racing Saloon Car Challenge. Its sights and sounds – especially the latter, a factor that is sadly being eradicated from our sport – has more spectators on their feet than the hordes of whispering single-seaters and swarms of raspberry-sounding buzzboxes.
Therefore, as I personally head towards my historic period as a professional driver, I was swift to accept an offer to test the sensational Chevrolet Camaro of Pete Hall – its his company that sponsors the series – and Sean Brown’s championship-winning Ford Lotus Cortina. And they threw up some major surprises: I’d anticipated correctly that one would be quick on the straight, ride the bumps well and be a nightmare in the corners, and that the other would be a nicely balanced extension of my arms and backside. I had the right answers but I’d put them in the wrong order.
In hindsight I made a mistake by taking the Camaro out first, but then it’s difficult not to be drawn to this ‘Daimler-Benz blue’ device. There are a handful of cars that truly look fast even when stationary. This is one of them.
A 1966 model sourced as an unfinished project in the States, the car was privy to a last-nut-and-bolt rebuild by John Simon and Dave Griffiths the latter had worked on the Broadspeed Jaguar X112C project in the mid-70s – while Andy Rouse oversaw the project. Clearly, we are not messing around here. When the four-times BTCC champion puts a car together you just know that it’s going to be a joy to drive. His ability behind the wheel enables him to channel his engineering expertise to exactly where a driver wants it. There is no frippery with Andy car’s, but it’s always immediately obvious that the man who put it together is also a driver.
After 20 years it’s still a thrill to fire up a big V8, be it CanAm or TVR Tuscan. Its slightly irregular beat at tick-over still gives me goose bumps as the prospect of a wild ride looms large in the imagination. Plainly, with roughly 500 bhp on tap from its 5.3litre mill, and a concurrent six-figure price tag, a certain degree of trepidation was mixed in with the excitement as I trundled along Snetterton’s pit lane. Respect was the watchword.
Andlwas respectful for half a lap! For this was all the time it took to realise that this was one of the best cars I’d ever driven. Pete has a hectic business schedule and is renowned for arriving about 30 minutes before practice or race – testing is not an issue – but the car is set up so perfectly I don’t see this as being a problem. Its 1400 kg ensure that it is not quite as rapid as my usual TVR, but the Tuscan seems amateurish in comparison with the Chevy.
Somehow I managed to force myself to pull in for an as-promised debrief after just two laps, before setting off for the best half a dozen laps I’ve had in recent memory.
Just nudging it around the paddock gave lie to the fact that all the controls were perfectly weighted, and on the track everything was just so. The steering was surprisingly light, and its one a half turns from lock-to-lock made the car very easy to place on the road. It felt like a very big go-kart. Thus I was gobsmacked to learn after the test that the car did not have a rack-and-pinion but a steering box from an Australian Ford Fairlane!
The car was particularly impressive through the very fast Coram corner. This is a long – third gear in the Camaro – right hander with very little run-off. Its one of the bravest corners in the country, and certainly not somewhere you want to go off in another’s pride and joy. The Chevy had to be balanced on the brakes before turning in, but once this was accomplished the throttle could be safely and swiftly nailed. This would be striking on slicks, but all the cars in the series have to run on an eith-and-a-half inch wide Yokohama A-088R road tyre! Personally, I think to run cars of this performance on road tyres in marginal, but I have to say that I was amazed by the grip provided by these –albeit buffed – off-the-shelf tyres.
And the Chevy was certainly long on performance. Useful power began to chime in around 4500rpm, which provided for a further 3000rpm of tarmac-narrowing, scenery-stretching oomph. Snetterton’s Revett Straight is the fastest in the country and, exiting Sear in second, I was touching 7400rpm in top by the 200-yard board before the Esses – a cool 152 mph. This was with an engine up on mileage the superbly simple but effective four-barrel Holley was dumping in a little too much fuel on the over-run which caused a slight fluff under acceleration and a braking safety margin of 50 yards. The brakes had been specially developed for the car to provide for the biggest discs and calipers possible inside the 16 in rims, and once the carbon metallic pads were warm they proved well up to the task.
My confidence was sky high, and I was soon down into the 1m 19s – Giampiero Simoni’s ’94 BTCC pole for Alfa Romeo was a 1m 13.46s and Rouse has been down in the low 18s, with another second to be found on slicks. This is a seriously quick motor car. But it’s not all due to sheer grunt. This was fingertip stuff. I was amazed.
Perhaps the biggest plus the Camaro possesses is that its engine and gearbox are still being manufactured by GM, and thus go-faster bits are still being developed for it. Combined with the re-engineering work done by Simon, Griffiths and Rouse – new steering box internals and linkage, balljoints, gearbox and engine mountings, adjustable front and rear anti-roll bars – we have a very up-to-date car in a ’66 shell.
An alloy-headed V8 is now available, but this car has to make use of the all-iron lump. This dry-sumped unit weighs in at a hefty a 500 lb, but is mounted well back in the frame to give a 40/60 weight split. To cope with this weight the car is set up very stiff. The championship’s regulations stipulate that suspension layouts and pick-up points cannot be changed from the original, but springs and shock absorbers are free. On the Camaro the latter are fully adjustable and the rates remain a big, big secret. The rear axle is restrained by a Watts linkage, meaty anti-roll bar and uprated leaf springs, while the front retains the standard coil-over-shock set-up. The upshot of all this is that the car is four inches lower than its road cousin and remains flat and stable at all times.
The gearbox casing is standard, but this four-speed’s internals and diff are provided by Jericho Transmissions in America, which does a lot of work in NASCAR. The change was smooth but it couldn’t be hurried. But there was no need for rushed cog swaps as the key to being quick in the Camaro was to be smooth. Slow in and fast out has never been more true. Fast out of the paddock and slow to pull into the pits.
Sadly, the same was not true for the Cortina. On its first lap it provided me with the biggest vibration I’d ever experienced in a racing car. It was only when the engine was reaching its maximum 8600rom that it drowned out the noise emanating from the rear of the car. As I approached the Esses I attempted to steady the mirror by pressing my finger against it so that I could look out for any errant F3 cars, but I was unable to stop it shaking.
Sean then took the car out for a few laps only to pronounce it marginally worse than normal. He’s a hero. I thought he’d pedalled the car pretty well throughout the season, but he’d immediately gone up in my estimation. I was having trouble focussing on the apices.
So, at the risk of shaking my fillings out I set off again. This run confirmed that the engine was by far the best aspect of the car. The 1770cc Mass Race Engines-developed unit gave a strong 200 bhp which Sean admitted that he revved it to 9000 rpm if the situation dictated.
Down to Riches on the first flying lap pulling a solid 8500rpm in top. So far so good. Turn in. So far so good. In fact, it feels very good. Whoa! The car suddenly pitches and I’m grabbing as much opposite lock as is available. Mr Brown is very talented, thinks I. Those wheel-waving mid-sixties shots of jimmy Clark, Jacky lckx and John Whitmore flitted across my mind. I can categorically state that they weren’t just doing that for the hell of it!
Even before I got into the car, Sean admitted that to drive the Ford after the Camaro had probably been a mistake. He was right. But in his defence, the Cortina suffers because very little of it was carried over into the replacement model. The drivetrain in particular is a weak point: the four-speed gearbox was designed to take 120 bhp max, while the 4.5 to 1 diff has a very small crown and pinion which had a useful life of just one meeting. This is despite the dill’s capacity being increased to a gallon of synthetic oil, which just about keeps the temperature within respectable bounds. The driveshafts also suffer with the extra grip provided by modern tyres. This is definitely not a modern car in a ’60s shell.
The A-frame rear end has also reached its development potential. There is no chance of altering its roll-centres as the pick-up points cannot changed, and as the rear loads up in a corner it appears to reach a critical point whereupon the tail falls over itself and proceeds to bounce around. In an effort to combat this the 700 lb springs at the front are double the strength of those at the back.
The car is also hindered by its one-piece propshaft, which may be the cause of the dreaded vibration. The dashboard should have read rev counter, oil pressure, Richter Scale… Also, the vague gear linkage made the change a little hit and miss – I almost got reverse passing the pits on one lap – but apparently this would be very difficult to re-engineer.
The Cortina is quick a 1m 24s lap is possible at Snetterton but it’s hard work to get it to flow. It’s not easy to drive. But the team believes that there is more to come as its interpretation of the regulations may have been a little conservative. The car was built in a hectic 10 weeks before the start of the season, and more weight can be pared off its current 829 kg. A two-litre twin-cam is now available and a more modern rear axle has been used by some of its rivals thanks to a different interpretation of the rules.
The bottom line, however, is that it won its class five times on the trot at the start of the season, and then fended off the challenge of Nick Swift’s rapid Mini to win the championship. And the team only used 11 tyres on its two cars throughout the season. Can’t be bad. It just felt bad because the Camaro was so good. So very good. So very, very good. So…
Have I said enough to get a race in it yet?