Teaming Metropolis

Into the tight right-hander at Lodge Corner. There’s room for a Rover Metro and a couple of inches of daylight down the inside. Wait for his brake lights to come on. Count to three, grit teeth and go for it . . . now! You’re through the corner as one, but the tighter line confers a couple of inches’ advantage as you aim slightly left up the hill at Deer Leap. Perhaps you’re too busy concentrating on your adversary’s whereabouts, but that funny rattling noise you can hear is the rev limiter protesting at your unintentional demand for more than the available 6700 rpm. Before you can say ‘valve bounce’, that minuscule advantage has become a similarly tiny deficit.

Still, you’ve got the inside line for Old Hall, a third gear right-hander. Previously undiscovered fact: it’s wide enough for two Metros, without either having to use the grass. Out of the corner, you’re still together, and the little white GTi to your left, a clone of the one you’re in bar a handful of sponsorship decals, is better-placed for Cascades, the downhill left-hander beyond the next brow. D’you stay on the outside? More gritting of teeth. This . . . looks . . . a. . . trifle . . . dodgy — but it proves to be within the laws of physics.

You’re still door-to-door on the exit, and there’s nothing to be gained down the Lakeside straight. There’s plenty to be lost at Island though. Given a clear track, it’s flat in fourth. Given that another car is about two inches to your left, and that you’ll miss the clipping point by at least the width of a Metro, you finally accept that you’re going to have to concede. A brief lift on the approach to the corner and your rival sweeps back ahead. But he’s left room on the inside at Shell, the banked, second-gear hairpin. It’s Lodge revisited. He brakes. You delay for a couple of seconds, and hope that the air molecules remain unmolested by Mr Rover’s finest steel panels. They do, and you find yourself parallel once more. On the exit, you glance across, trying to be casual, wondering what’s occupying the thoughts of the bloke next door.

And Jonathan Williams is waving. He’s giving you the thumbs-up. It seems that he’s quite enjoying his afternoon’s sport.

Into the chicane, and this time you have just enough momentum to scramble ahead. There’s strictly room for one only here. It’s Williams’ turn to concede. For him, it’s a question of sound home economics and common-sense. He pays for his racing and rallying out of his own pocket. More to the point, he has to drive the car home to Brecon afterwards, a task rendered much easier if there’s still a wheel at each corner.

Racing and rallying? Yes, because the Dunlop Metro GTi Challenge is primarily for those who would rather crash into ditches and/or trees than guardrails. Seven of the 10 rounds are tarmac rallies, at diverse locations including Cornwall, the Isle of Man, Ireland, Northumberland and Belgium (twice). Oulton Park is the first of three races: Knockhill and Silverstone follow later in the year.

The gesticulating Mr Williams is the epitome of what the series is all about: uncomplicated fun for the clubman. “I really enjoyed that,” he beams, when you introduce yourself afterwards. “I thought I’d try and cheer you up a bit.

Actually, I was smirking from ear to ear; it’s just that full-face helmets tend to mask one’s emotions.

“This series suits me down to the ground,” continues Williams, one of the happy band who can compete and smile simultaneously. “It’s a road car which you can race at weekends.” As for most of the others in the series, the greatest pleasure is in taking part. Success, if it happens, is a bonus.

The recipe for the series is utterly straightforward. Take one Rover Metro 1.4 GTi, add the mandatory Rover Sport kit and simmer lightly for a couple of days. The Rover pack comprises nothing more exciting than an an exhaust system; the remaining bits are all safety-related. Scope for ingenuity is thus strictly limited. Chucking away the carpets, door pockets and radio/cassette might improve the power-to-weight ratio by a fraction, but it’s hardly a hi-tech performance gain. You are required to render the steering lock inoperative and to disable the central locking (further weight saved: this involves chucking a fuse in the skip . . . ). Engine, gearbox, brakes and wheels are all just as you would find them in the showroom, and the series sponsor provides a control treaded tyre for all events. You are not permitted to carve extra grooves, either.

In short, this really is a production race and/or rally car, with all its inherent circuit limitations: not much power (102 bhp), no brakes, not much grip. That’s not to say it’s no good, however. Scribbling colleague David Williams, rallies editor of Motoring News, is a registered competitor in the Dunlop Challenge, and contests as many rounds as his reporting commitments allow. This year, he ran his Metro in the Circuit of Ireland, winning his class and finishing an honourable 11th overall. Don’t let the car’s small size and simplicity fool you. It’s versatile and, in the right hands, effective.

‘Our’ car has been supplied by Rover Sport. Along with half a dozen other entries, it has arrived under its own steam, though the team has access to a trailer, should it be required later. The time saved loading and unloading is spent, instead, wrestling to apply mandatory championship decals to awkwardly contoured surfaces. This takes an age, most of the time being taken up perforating zillions of air bubbles with a scalpel. Eventually, after much meticulous effort, it looks less like the surface of the moon and more like a racing car. Or leastways a road car with a few stickers on it.

To complete the package, Rover Sport proffers a set of its own overalls. There’s a whole pile of them to choose from, as worn by various ne’er-do-wells over the past couple of seasons. The pair which come closest to a good fit bear the hand-stitched legend ‘Eddie Jordan’ on the waistband. Doesn’t say much for his physique.

Although a degree of aggression is essential in any one-make formula, smoothness is advised if you want to get the best from the Metro. It is all too easy to scrub off speed by over-driving. Furthermore, its short wheelbase makes it quite nervous. Thus it’s best to temper your animal instincts. This lesson was learned quite early on in a brief, five-lap trial run at Silverstone several months before the race. Hopping out of a Rover 216 Challenge car and into the Metro, you swiftly discovered (on the first flying lap, actually) that the braking point for the latter at Copse was not quite the same as that for the former. As the slick-shod 216 that you had followed into the corner glided serenely on it towards Becketts, you are left trying to peep out through a dense white fug of tyre smoke that is mildly obliterating your view of the direction from which you had approached. .. Hadn’t really intended to establish the car’s limits quite so early, but at least it was a useful, and non-damaging, reference.

At Oulton, the 15-strong field is broken up into closely-matched, and energetic, little groups. Poleman Don Kettleborough is quickest by an unfeasibly large margin. Then there’s a second covering the next quartet, a small gap, then another second across the next handful of cars. We’re ninth, and it’s a nightmare scenario for the aforementioned Williams D. He has lent his pride and joy to brother Richard, a former Formula Ford racer who has come out of hibernation for a bit of fun. Sensing impending rivalry, the absent rally hack had kept fingers crossed that his car and ‘mine’ would be at opposite ends of the grid, and not as it transpired sharing the fourth row . .

The free-revving Metro needs only a tickle to get it off the line, as both fourth row occupants discover as they sit there spinning their wheels at between 5000-5500 rpm. Apparently, 3000 is quite sufficient.

Still, the first couple of laps are quite productive, thanks partly to Andy Dawe flying off the track at Island and rejoining, at right angles, smack in the middle of the pack. Everyone misses him, and he finishes up in the tyres on the left. He’d selected first and restarted almost before the yellow flags were shown.

By the end of the second lap, having passed Jonathan Williams for the first of several times, we’re up to sixth. The leading quintet, scrapping furiously (Adam Crowton eventually beat Kettleborough by the depth of a championship decal), have pulled away. Temporarily finding yourself with nothing to chase, concentration lapses by Cascades on lap three. Plunging down the hill, you’re acutely aware that the exit kerb which you’ve used as a target for the past couple of laps has moved. Either that, or you’ve turned in too fast and too. . . screeching of rubber stops ominously. . . late. You’re not the first person to try the grassy approach to Island, nor will you be the last. The effect on lap times is not good, though you only lose one place. Trying to recoup it at the fiddly new Knickerbrook chicane is a tactical faux pas, which sends you sprawling across the kerbs. Another two places are lost. The brother you had been instructed not to hit is one of those who sails past at this point. The other is the increasingly familiar Jonathan Williams.

After a couple of laps settling down, training the mind to accept that this is essentially a rally car but that this is not, despite lap three, a rally stage, the battle with Williams J for what was, eventually, eighth place unfolds. Which is about where we came in.

How much does it cost to have this much fun? Depends how mechanically gifted you are. The Rover Sport kit costs £2500. That can be fitted to anything from a crash repairable to £9599’s worth of K-registered showroom stock. “The rally crowd tend to be quite happy building up a car from a pile of bits,” reckons series co-ordinator Rick Smith. “So long as you fit the kit to a standard 16-valve Metro with multi-point injection, the car’s origins are unimportant. The fact that it is homologated in Groups A and N is a bonus, too, because it means drivers can use the car in lots of events outside the Metro Challenge.”

For 1993, the series will retain its mixed race and rally format, although there may be fewer races. If you fancy having a go, give Jonathan Williams a wave from me when you see him.