Ed Foster

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Knight racing
With seven gold medals in his saddlebag, Sir Chris Hoy is buckling down to a Radical new competitive discipline

From footballer Luther Blissett to Olympic decathlon medallist Bruce Jenner, there are plenty of sportsmen and women who have gone on to try motor sport. Not all reached the heights of Jenner, who won his class in the 1986 Sebring 12 Hours, or indeed Jackie Stewart who was a clay shooting champion before he took up racing, but there’s clearly a synergy.

One more is about to join the list and he’s sitting next to me, eating what can only be described as a mountain of tuna and baked potato. “I need to go on a diet, try and lose some weight,” he says after he’s finished. “I don’t need these big legs anymore.”

Eight-time Olympic medallist Sir Chris Hoy might have fairly substantial legs — today they’re hidden under a fireproof racing suit — but they have powered him into the history books as the most successful Olympic cyclist of all time. Yes, Sir Bradley Wiggins has won as many medals, but not as many golds.

Just a few weeks before we met up at Brands Hatch, where he was testing the Radical SR1 that he’s racing this year in the beginner’s SR1 Cup, he announced his retirement from cycling. “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it any more,” he tells me, “it’s just that I didn’t feel physically that I would be at my best. I’d got the best out of me for the London Olympics [where he won two gold medals] and I didn’t just want to turn up to be another guy.”

Being a Scot, it’s no surprise that Colin McRae first got Hoy interested in cars. Despite not learning to drive until the age of 21 — “I just cycled everywhere” — he watched rallying on TV. Soon he got into Formula 1, then the British Touring Car Championship. More recently a Jaguar ambassadorial role led to a track day at Bedford Autodrome and that led to the purchase of a Caterham and then a Lotus 2-Eleven. He’s not just a track day warrior, though, as anyone who has seen his passionate BBC documentary on McRae will attest — he’s a proper car fan. “Most lads are into their cars at some stage, aren’t they?” he says. “I’ve been out to Sardinia to watch the World Rally Championship, I’ve been to F1 in Melbourne and Silverstone and to Knockhill to watch the BTCC. There’s actually a big crossover between the drivers and cyclists. A lot of drivers do cycling as part of their training, so I’ve got to know a few of them.”

Before we sit down to lunch, I notice Andy Wallace looking at one of the 185bhp, 480kg racers. The 1988 Le Mans winner is in Radical overalls and has been helping Hoy get to grips with life in a racing car. “It’s funny,” he says when I ask him about the crossover and whether or not a good sportsman means a good racer. “With someone who has the dedication and self-control you need to win seven gold medals, there’s obviously the frame of mind needed to succeed. Even though the medals were won on a bicycle, he focuses that ability to win. When we first went out together on track, he was doing lots of things wrong and I said, ‘Chris, that’s not how to do it, you do it like this’. He just says ‘OK’ and changes it straight away. His progression is fantastic. If I tried to race his bike I’d be rubbish — I’ve got no power in my legs. But if you take a top tennis player and his dedication to win, you could apply that to racing.

“Driving around on your own looking for lap time is one thing. Racing is something that takes longer to learn.” Unlike a tennis player, however, Hoy has spent much of his life racing in a pack of cyclists. Surely this will help?

“In cycling terms you have your strategy,” Hoy says, “but you never know what’s going to happen. It’s the same with motor racing. On a bike you’re never looking right in front of you, you’re looking ahead and trying to predict what might happen. You’re looking for gaps and you’re reading the body language of the guys ahead — a lot of the time you can see an accident happening almost a lap before it does. But with a bike race it’s a very short burst — two and a half laps are over in 25 seconds. The challenge will be to hold that concentration for 20 minutes.

“With car racing you get that buzz, though, the same buzz I used to get as a kid when I raced bikes. In the morning you’d set off for the event full of nerves, but excited nerves. There’s also a healthy element of fear with cars because you’re aware of the danger and you’re aware of your limits as well as the car’s. It’s different to the nerves you get in an Olympic event because in a bike race you know what you’re doing. The nerves are there because of all the time and energy you’ve put in. Also, an Olympic event is quite a big occasion, there are a few people watching…”

Hoy might not expect to be at the front of the grid straight away — he openly admits that he has a lot to learn — but if someone is determined enough to win seven Olympic golds you’d be a fool to suggest that he just wants to make up the numbers.

Racing starts on June 1 at Brands Hatch, but there has been a timed track day at Bedford Autodrome where Hoy finished seventh out of 19. He might have been 3.5 seconds off the fastest time of the day, but that was set by an ex-karter who was two seconds clear of the opposition. Whether or not Hoy fights for the podium, his participation is great news for the public’s interest in British motor sport.

Made to measure Maranello
Ferrari says it will build fewer cars in future but they will be built exactly as the customer desires

Maybe this was the intangible ‘soul’ that makes the Ferrari 458 a more appealing option than the McLaren MP4-12C. Our bags had disappeared again, but were apparently, hopefully, coming back in time for us to leave for the airport and our flight home. It prompted one Ferrari employee to comment, “I’m glad we make cars better than we organise luggage”. It was all delightfully Italian and very Ferrari.

We had just emerged from a press conference in Maranello where Ferrari’s chairman Luca di Montezemolo had wooed the international audience with a display that would have made any politician proud.

Without notes — apparently he ignores a script if one is given to him — he spoke for 35 minutes about the Italian manufacturer: “A Ferrari is like a beautiful woman: she must be worth waiting for and desired. I base my ideas on what I learned from Enzo Ferrari: if we produce fewer cars, we will not flood the market and it makes our used cars more desirable, too.”

What this political rally — sorry, conference — was really all about was Ferrari’s present and future, its profits — C54.7 million (£46.2m) in the first four months of 2013, its reinvestment in future technologies, 250 new jobs this year and the latest road car and F1 factories.

Earlier that morning we spent an interesting couple of hours touring the factory, which included ‘Tailor-Made’, the Maserati engine assembly plant, the Classiche department, the personalisation department and the production line for the FF and F12 Berlinetta. As I did, you may wonder what ‘Tailor-Made’ means, especially as there’s a personalisation department. Surely the two are the same?

Not quite — while the personalisation department does exactly as it says, the Tailor-Made department is for the customers who want to go off the options list, who want their new 458 to look (in colour at least) like Lauda’s Ferrari 312. They have 70-100 clients a year — compared with 500 in the personalisation department — and the options could add a further 25-50 per cent to the car’s cost. No surprise then that one customer was golfer Ian Poulter, who wanted his tartan trouser material used on the seats of his Ferrari. You are accompanied by a designer throughout the process and they do hold the right of veto, but Poulter’s tartan seats passed the test.

Of course, a highlight was the Classiche department based in the old foundry. Whether you agree with its premise or not it is always filled with some fantastic cars. OK, they look ‘as new’ and patina is lost as quickly as Poulter’s Ryder Cup bonus was in Tailor-Made, but if you own a GTO that needs a complete rebuild and want it looking as it did when it left the factory, these guys can do it.

Since the service opened in July 2006, 70 cars have undergone a full restoration. While a certification (the documentation that says your Ferrari is original) costs between £1300-6750, the average spend is £25,000. With 40 cars a year, that’s not a bad £1 m business.

Di Montezemolo has turned Ferrari into one of the biggest players not only in Italy, but the world. But when you walk down Via Enzo Ferrari, the main road through the centre of the factory, you can’t help being romanced by the history of it all. No matter how many Ferrari-branded key rings the company sells, that will never change for me.

Lean, keen but very, very green
A day with motorbike ace Ron Haslam teaches our man he’s no… Ron Haslam

Racing motorbikes is a fool’s errand — you only need to walk around the paddock to see how many riders limp thanks to previous mishaps. With this and a huge lack of talent in mind, I was never going to be anywhere near the pace at Ron Haslam’s race school. Still, there’s not much that can prepare you for the feeling of hammering down the pit straight, throttle pinned, and suddenly seeing Ron Haslam passing you on his back wheel as if you are standing still… and he’s carrying a passenger. A different breed, indeed.

I was there for a media day to celebrate the school’s return to Donington Park, after a three-year stint at Silverstone — a move enforced when Simon Gillett’s failed Grand Prix plans left the Leicestershire track unusable four years ago. As well as two clueless car scribes, there were various ‘celebrities’ including Oliver Mellor from Coronation Street — who came off twice, but still got back on — and Red Dwarf’s Danny John-Jules. ‘Cat’ had just come back from a passenger ride when I was leaving and could only manage the words “that was mad”.

I may think Haslam is a breed apart, but he thinks MotoGP sensation Marc Marquez is a different species, too. “Oh, fantastic!” he says after giving another passenger ride. “He’s young, he’s fearless and he’s obviously been brought up right because he’s learning from the ones he needs to learn from.

“It’s awkward to talk about another Rossi-like era of dominance, but at this point I would have to say that it could happen. It’s hard to say because when you’re young you break easily. I don’t mean physically, but in terms of your confidence. Having said that, he’s fallen off, got back on and gone just as fast…

“He hangs a lot further off the bike, but it’s not like he leans the bike over more than the others. That means the bike is more upright, which helps the tyres, the grip, everything. His style is different, but it’s working.”

Here’s hoping that it carries on working, because it’s an absolute pleasure to watch.

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