The first thing! felt when I climbed aboard the Connaught was vulnerable. It is only the second ’50s racing car I’ve driven I lapped Spa in Fangio’s Mercedes W196 and it’s still hard to get used to how exposed you feel. You sit on the car, not in it, legs splayed either side of the transmission tunnel with no roll protection whatsoever, no seat-belts and, had I been driving it in its day, not even a helmet, let alone fireproof clothing.
Coming from an era where you are cocooned in the car and surrounded by a carbon-fibre tub, it is very difficult simply to go hard from the start. On the first couple of laps I was driving around thinking “if a wheel comes off here I’m going to die.” What if it crashed? Do you jump out of it? Do you stick with it? Certainly the brakes aren’t going to slow you down much. You just get this incredible feeling that this is a great deal of fun but you just might die. It reminds you ofand cements your respect for those who actually raced these things. They were true pioneers.
After a couple of laps, of course, that all fades away and I found myself just having a great time. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much power from a 2-litre, four-cylinder engine that was nearly 50 years old, but what there was came in evenly from rest to about 5500rpm. The all round drum brakes weren’t great either (though fabulous compared to those in the W196) but I soon learned that you don’t need them much. In fact, like the Jaguar E.-type I drove at the Goodwood Revival Meeting last year, the less you use the brakes, the easier it gets to drive. What was incredible, however, was the pre-selector gearbox. I don’t often wax lyrical, but! got out of the car thinking that was truly sensational. It suited the way the car functioned perfectly because cornering is a relatively lengthy period with not much grip. As you approach a corner you have already chosen the gear you want to be in, then you just kick the clutch and it changes down perfectly, and then, in the age you have while it is sliding, just move the lever up a notch ready for the gear you want on the way out. I never got it wrong and it felt right after half a lap. And it also removes completely the entire missed gear scenario which could have easily cost you the race back then.
The handling balance, however, was not that great. I’m not experienced enough with this sort of car to know if that’s the way it is or if it’s something that can be sorted out with the set up. But where the W196 would drift beautifully and equally at each end, the Connaught just wants to go straight on everywhere and it takes considerable provocation to unstick the rear end and get the car balanced. Even so, it didn’t take long to work out how to drive around the problem and soon I felt confident enough to drive it quite quickly. The point the Connaught proved to me is, it doesn’t matter if the car comes from the ’90s or the ’50s; the thrill of coming out a corner thinking, “I got that exactly right” is precisely the same. Martin Brundle