The worst car I ever drove - French Farce

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Tim Harvey – Renault 19

Renault’s F1 domination boded well for its new touring car – but, as Tim Harvey tells Mark Hughes, there’s many a slip…

Though merely a thirty-something, Tim Harvey is the longest-serving member of the British Touring Car Championship. Since making his debut in the series 11 years ago in a Rover SD1 Vitesse, he’s seen it transform itself from the status of glorified club racing to the multi-million pound manufacturer battleground of today, With crowd and television audiences that in the UK can rival those of F1.

His is a career which has grown with the championship and his CV encompasses the 1992 title for BMW as well as numerous race wins with Ford, Renault and Volvo. He currently races for Peugeot.

Asked to name the worst of all these, he hesitates, uncertain of whether it’s the underfunded Sierra RS500 he campaigned for privateer Terry Drury in 1988 or Renault Sport’s first attempt at a super touring car, the 1993 19 model.

“I’ll tell you about the Renault first,” he decides. “I’d been told that this was going to be absolutely the dog’s the latest all-singing, all-dancing machine with no expense spared.” Indeed such promises eased his concern about transferring from the spectacularly successful BMW marque. Coming off the back of Renault’s domination of the 1992 F1 world championship in the back of Nigel Mansell’s Williams, it’s easy to see why Harvey believed he’d made the right move. Then he saw the car…

“The first time I saw it was in Renault Sport’s HQ in France and I was horrified. It was basically a converted road car I mean it had road car pedals and a hand brake! I was absolutely aghast at their lack of understanding of what was required. I asked why it had a handbrake and they said it was because (former rally star and sometime Renault test driver) Jean Ragnotti liked to do handbrake turns…”

This was at a time when the touring car game had long ago moved on from such direct road car links. F1-style technology was by then being applied to calculating the ultimate roll cage configuration within the constraints of the floorpan and general layout of the model concerned. It was the cage which by then was largely determining the effectiveness of the chassis. The car – most of them at any rate – would then be built around this, using tiny F1-style sequential gearboxes to enable roll centres to be lowered and having the car run with its sills virtually scraping the track. In comparison, the 19 looked like an off-roader.

“The confirmation of all my worst fears came when I went over to France to test it for the first time,” continues Harvey. “Apart from the fact that it was absolutely awful, they had Ragnotti there to drive it too and, yes, he did do handbrake turns! Then, to cap it all, they stopped for three hours to have wine and cheese for lunch.

“In fairness, the car that I raced was built by GB Motorsport and was a lot better than the one I drove in France but it was still a really ungainly, unsorted motor car. The 19 was never going to be the right platform to start with.” Michelin tyres and Harvey’s wet-weather skills nonetheless gave him an unexpected victory in the 1993 Donington race immediately after Ayrton Senna’s mesmerising win there. Other than that it was a barren season, but one which Renault, the reigning British Touring Car champion manufacturer, clearly learned a lot from.

 Rewind five years from that Renault season and Harvey was still struggling to establish himself even within the modest framework of the 1988 BTCC. He wasn’t long out of MG Metro racing and his single-seater aspirations had been quashed through a nasty foot injury in a Formula Ford race. He was thrown a lifeline by Terry Drury, a former racer and loveable wheeler-dealer who specialised in building outrageously chipped Sierra Cosworth engines. For ’88 he’d got his hands on a Touring Car RS500, but had very little money to run it, partly explaining his permanent grease-monkey appearance. Harvey still quakes at the memory of that car.

“It was a combination of rally car bits that he’d got out of the back door at Ford, road car bits and some Group A bits. So sometimes we’d have a standard gearbox in it, sometimes a standard duff but the one thing we always had was loads of horsepower. But it was all fairly unusable in that it arrived with a massive chunk of turbo boost, toluene fuel I think it was NASA research stuff and Christ-knows what else.” It was a common sight to see the paint around the filler of the car blistered from the spilt fuel…

“Considering how much he ran it on, Terry did very, very well. But I really did fear fur my safety. He was buying second-hand tyres from other teams, and we didn’t have proper brakes.” All this on 550bhp plus. “I remember one day at Silverstone, Andy Rouse was testing his RS500 and Terry was just determined that we were going to go quicker, so he just kept winding the boost up and on the old Silverstone GP circuit I was putting my foot down in fifth gear and having it spin both wheels. That was the most powerful Sierra I ever drove, but it was a bit like having an F1 engine in your road car. It was an animal. We did end up quickest on the day though.”

In the early part of the season Rudi Eggenberger who ran the works RS500s in the German, European and World Touring Car championships brought one of his machines over to race at Thruxton. Harvey was there in his Drury parts-special. “At that time,” remembers Harvey with a cringe, “I was still trying to build a career for myself and Eggenberger was someone that I would have liked to impress. So we’re waiting to go out and Terry wanders over to him and asks him straight, ‘How much horsepower have you got?’ Rudi looked a bit perplexed and obviously didn’t answer the question, whereupon Terry told him that if he didn’t have 600bhp he was wasting his time, didn’t know how to build an engine and might as well go home. I sunk right into the background and thought if there’d ever been a chance of me driving for Rudi, it was well and truly gone now.” Needless to say, Eggenberger’s car won the race. And Tim’s? It broke.

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