My Motoring Month

When Tom shared his Bentley with Barnato’s girl

Rarely have I felt luckier to be earning a living this way than at an Audi dinner at Goodwood for racers and writers. From Richard Attwood, who retired from full-time professional driving 40 years ago, to current DTM star Oliver Jarvis, the room was full of some of the best stars of the last generation.

Le Mans winners abounded: Johnny Herbert, Mark Blundell, Allan McNish and Andy Wallace have five victories between them, though just one in an Audi, while Tom Kristensen greedily added a further eight, just one not in an Audi. Nick Mason was there with son-in-law Marino Franchitti, who at Sebring this year helped bring Highcroft Racing’s LMP1 home second in a field full of works Peugeots and Audis despite having never raced in the top class, showing there’s more to him than just being Dario’s kid brother.

I spent much of the evening talking to Kristensen, who is convinced a closed car is the only way to win Le Mans under the current rules – which doesn’t
bode well for Aston Martin.

The last closed sports car he raced was a 2003 Bentley (above) and I asked if he recalled the celebration dinner at the Savoy afterwards. “How could I forget? That was the night I met Diana Barnato Walker.”

Woolf Barnato’s daughter left an impression on Tom, and no wonder. Having spent the war delivering several hundred fighters from Spitfires to Tempests, she became the first British woman to break the sound barrier (flying a Lightning) and held the women’s Air Speed Record. She was 12 when her father completed his unique Le Mans record (played three, won three) and 85 when she joined Tom and others at the Savoy.

A contest was held to see who could wriggle into the Speed Eight’s cramped cockpit fastest. Tom demonstrated the convoluted technique required
and volunteers were sought. No one expected to see a little old lady kick off her heels, sprint across the floor, slip effortlessly into the cabin and slam the door behind her.

I must here appeal to Audi Motorsport boss Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, who will decide whether Tom can be made available to race at the Goodwood Revival
again. Anyone who saw him winning last year in an Austin Westminster after a great battle with Martin Brundle’s A35 will be desperate for his return. I know there are no eligible Audis to race and the Kubica crash has made motor sport bosses wary of their employees’ extracurricular activities, but to allow Kristensen to compete would give only credit to Audi.


Porsche was ahead of his time with Hybrid car

One of the stranger rides of my life came this month aboard the Lohner-Porsche Semper Vivus hybrid. This was a car designed by a young Ferdinand Porsche at the turn of the last century for coach builder Jacob Lohner. Back then it wasn’t at all clear that noisy, smelly, unreliable and dangerous internal combustion engines would form the future of land based personal transport, and comparatively clean electric
cars were popular. The problem, then as now, was their range.

So Porsche designed a car with electric motors inside each front wheel and two single cylinder engines that worked as generators to keep the car moving long after its lead acid batteries ran out of juice. Such range-extending principles lie behind today’s new Chevrolet Volt and Vauxhall Ampera.

Porsche only built one car and it disappeared long ago. But enough drawings, photography and literature survived to enable the company to build another, which I drove through the grounds of the Schloss Solitude. I wanted to try it on the wonderful road circuit to which hundreds of thousands
flocked in the 1960s to watch non-championship F1 races but, in retrospect, Porsche was right to say that was impractical.

It’s a strange thing to climb upon, so high it makes a Range Rover feel like a Formula car. The car’s whole centre section, including seats and power train, are sprung independently of the main chassis, beating the Lotus 88 to the title of first twin-chassis car by over 80 years. Making it move is easy enough. You select one of three speeds – I was told to choose dead slow – lift your foot off the brake and it silently and smoothly eases forward.

All is fine until you realise that trying to turn two front wheels, each weighing 234kg with their electric motors, means it steers like a supertanker. I lost count of the number of turns of the heavy wheel required to prevent me ramming the castle walls, but it’s the only car I’ve driven to have raised a sweat at walking pace.

It was a fascinating glimpse into the way one of the industry’s brightest minds was working 110 years ago. I’m sure Dr Porsche knew his design was ahead of its time, but perhaps even he wouldn’t have anticipated it would take over a century for its full potential to be realised.