My motoring month

Vauxhall launch has press running for the hillclimbs

Tried my hand at non- Goodwood hillclimbing for the first time, thanks to a novel idea by Vauxhall’s PR team to hold the press launch for its new Astra GTC Coupé (above) at Shelsley Walsh and Loton Park. The idea was brave and rewarded not by a large bill for several new Astras, but by establishing new respect among the motoring press for a type of car I’ve long perceived as an also-ran.

As for my skill on the hills, sadly it left a lot to be desired. True I probably took it less seriously than some – one let slip that he’d ‘had a quick look’ at the hills on YouTube, though given the bags under his eyes my guess is he’d been up half the night – but I just wasn’t prepared to commit fully to a narrow slice of Tarmac I’d never seen before, and others were. Not for the first time in my competition career, my name didn’t trouble the leader board.

But my interest was sparked. I grew up in Jersey, where hillclimbing has taken place at Bouley Bay for 90 years. All the big names from Raymond Mays and Ken Wharton to Andy Priaulx have blasted their way up the hilariously tight course, which still hosts a round of the British Hillclimb championship. As soon as my friends and I could drive we’d convene there in the small hours to try our luck. How we and the loosely assembled wreckage we used as transport survived the experience remains a mystery.

Now, it’s the cars that fascinate me. A modern hillclimb car is such a specialist instrument, so cleverly designed and evolved to its purpose that I suggested to the editor that what Motor Sport needs is a long hard look at such a machine. Enlightened fellow that he is, he agreed. It also took him no time to twig my ulterior motive, so it looks like I’ll have to drive one too. So anyone happy to hand over their state-of-the-art hillclimb car to a 6ft 4in driver who’s just discovered he’s no good at hillclimbing, please get in touch. Offers that good don’t come around every day…

Porsche flywheel power for road and track?

Preposterously good fun was found at Estoril this month. One of my favourite circuits, bathed in November sunshine and a works Porsche 911 GT3R race car at my disposal. Actually it was better even than that.

This is a GT3R like no other, and you only need look at the large carbon-fibre box in what was the passenger footwell to know why. Inside sits a flywheel capable of spinning at 40,000rpm plus the associated hard and software needed to harvest so much energy otherwise lost under braking that it can provide an extra 200bhp for almost seven seconds. All that’s needed to enjoy this benefit is one long, hard stab on the brakes from reasonably high speed. If this sounds suspiciously like the flywheel-based KERS system pioneered by Williams, that’s because it is. They even share the same flywheel.

Porsche has stressed that its system, while similar in concept, is different because it transmits extra power through the front wheels rather than the rear.

This hybrid drive turns the GT 3R from a rear-drive car with 460bhp to a four-wheel-drive car with 660bhp, though its effectiveness depends on your track having tight corners at the end of long straights. It would be incredible at Donington, useless at Indianapolis.

At Estoril it’s merely very good. You don’t get much boost onto its long pit straight because the corner before is a 100mph curve, but elsewhere its effect was transformative. Despite the extra power the GT 3R was easier to drive, thanks to the extra traction and torque vectoring on the front axle that uses the hybrid drive to limit understeer.

When the car was first shown last year it was thought to be a way of winning the Nürburgring 24 Hours, a race it led for all bar the last 1hr 45min. In fact its true purpose can now be revealed – as a mobile test bed for much of the technology we’ll see on Porsche’s 2014 Le Mans car.

But what relevance could there be to a future Porsche road car? Well, the engineers who have developed the car’s software are also working on the forthcoming 918 hybrid supercar, even though that stores its energy more conventionally in a lithium-ion battery pack. Moreover its race engineer Owen Hayes is adamant that the flywheel energy recovery system could work in a road car: “For a certain sort of track-focused car in a few years from now, it could be amazing.”

He’s correct. The pace of development of this system is staggering. In the last year alone they’ve taken almost 100kg out of its weight, increased power by 40bhp, completely integrated its operation into the car (before it had to be manually activated) and refined its manners. In three years or so, just as Porsche is taking to the Sarthe again, it could use the same system to power a road car like no other. Do you think this might have occurred to Porsche? Me too.