Play misty for me

Ever since making intimate acquaintance with Vauxhall’s guest car in the Nova Rallycross Challenge, I’d frothed at the mouth for another go. Frequent, rabid telephone calls to Vauxhall Sport’s PR agency met with a polite, but firm, response. “Sorry,” they said. “Much in demand. Only one event per magazine. Got to play fair.” There was only one thing for it. Change jobs. The good news? That did the trick. The bad? What a difference a year makes…

For those who aren’t au fait with rallycross in the ’90s, the Nova Challenge is the first mainstream one-make series (although Minicross is still popular, and offers many drivers a baptism of gravel) and is designed as a stepping stone for those who dream of graduating one day to the insanely powerful Group B machines that proliferate in the upper echelons of the sport.

Nowadays, rallycross is big business. Many of the Group B cars which FISA debarred from World Championship rallying in 1986 are now lovingly cared for (in-between events) in captivity. Within the sinuous, slippery confines of a rallycross circuit, they are enormously popular. European Championship events attract large crowds, and demand substantial financial commitment from competitors.

For the Nova Challenge subscriber, that’s all in the future. It’s not as if the the little Vauxhall hasn’t lessons enough of its own, without casting an aspirational eye the 600 bhp, twin-turbo, integral transmission technotrickery that lies beneath Metro 6R4 and Ford RS200 Group B shells.

The Nova’s engine is something of a hybrid. Based around the 1.6-litre unit that powers the road-going GTE, many of its component parts are to full Group A specification. The fuel injection system has been junked in favour of suitably serious twin carburettors (Weber 45 DCOE), and the net result is around 160 bhp through the front wheels.

Think about that. A 1.9 Peugeot 205 GTi yields only 130 bhp, and that feels fast enough in the high-friction (unless you happen to live in Greece) world of everyday motoring. Zesty performance hatchbacks such as the 205 are also bogged down by weighty inconveniences such as interior trim, electric motors for the windows and so on.

Stripped bare apart from its competition seat, harness and mandatory fire appliance, the Nova weighs in at just 650 kg. It has a power to weight ratio greater than any modern Ferrari with the exception of the F40 and (possibly, though the early season results didn’t bear this out) the F92A.

And you’re driving on mud.

Actually, that’s not entirely fair. The grittier parts of the rallycross track at Brands Hatch are interconnected by tarmac ribbons of the Indy circuit, but even in the dryish conditions of morning practice Avon’s tyre engineers recommend the fitting of hand cut slicks all round. The weather is such that straight slicks aren’t getting up to working temperature in the short, three-lap bursts that crop up from time to time.

With three heats, a final and a couple of practice runs spread throughout the day, you’d think the schedule was quite relaxed. In fact, there’s barely time to grab a cup of tea. You watch anxiously as the microwave timer clicks around the dial, wondering whether there’s time to wolf down a lasagne before the circuit PA crackles into the closest approximation of life that it can manage. The messages, delivered patiently in keeping with the conviviality that is a pleasing hallmark of the rallycross paddock, are usually of a similar nature: “Will all Vauxhall Nova Challenge cars please present themselves in the assembly area.” Or: “This is the final call for car 27 in race 15, car 27 in race 15. If you don’t make your way to the grid now, you won’t race.”

A dry rallycross circuit is a dusty rallycross circuit. Brands Hatch has a thing called The Knife Edge, a cinder strip attacked flat out in fourth gear. It’s more or less straight, but the Nova apparently hasn’t noticed. The back end fidgets furiously. It’s all a cacophonous blur of speed and flailing arms. Perhaps it’s a good job that rallycross heats are short and sweet; 20 laps of this and you’d be knackered.

Actually, in dry weather it’s a blur full stop. The trick wash-wipe system, which sprays a continuous jet of water onto the front screen and actuates the blades simultaneously, is all very well for shifting muck from glass, but it hasn’t yet been developed sufficiently to disperse clouds of dust. In a crowd of Novas, with similar performance, it’s not so bad. In practice, when you run with quicker cars from more powerful classes, you’re never quite sure what to expect.

In the afternoon, confidence borne of a decent result in the same car one year previously still intact, it rained. Incessantly. This has a positive aspect in that the dust disappears. In its place, mud and grease are smeared liberally all over the circuit, tarmac included. In 1991 it had been mildly damp, but tolerable. This time, the Avons would have found more grip at Streatham Ice Rink.

As the rain fell, so too did the level of competence inside the cabin. Good starts are a must in rallycross. This isn’t some 15-lap race where you’ve time to compensate the odd lapse of concentration. The whole thing is over in less than three minutes. Missing the change up to second off the line is therefore bad form. Still, it only happened three times out of four. This wasn’t a problem in 1991, nor had it occurred in qualifying. Science, and Vauxhall’s on-site engineers, remain powerless to explain this sudden aberration.

Although rallycross is very much a noncontact sport — you’ll be penalised for any barging which the trackside observers deem to be excessive — its close, combative nature means that scuffs are not uncommon. What started the day as a pristine white Nova was trailered back to Vauxhall Dealer Sport’s Milton Keynes HQ looking like a cross between Blackpool Illuminations and Arsenal’s away strip. There was also substantial evidence to suggest that it had been involved in a figure-of-eight at Wimbledon Stadium. Much of this was due to an excess of enthusiasm over ability at the wheel, though there is no doubt that the standard — and thus the ferocity — of competition in the series has risen considerably in the past 12 months as participants have acquired further experience.

And despite the occasional knocks, the whole thing carries on in a friendly atmosphere that is sadly lacking in the bemotorhomed austerity of far too many circuit racing paddocks. The fact that many of those who debuted in the category last year are back for more in ’92 is clear evidence of the series’ appeal. So is the reaction of Martin Donnelly, who took the cleaned, tidied and straightened ex-Arron car to an excellent second place in the subsequent round at Nutts Corner, in his first competitive drive since that terrible Spanish GP qualifying accident at Jerez in September 1990. Such was the Ulsterman’s enthusiasm for this newly-discovered branch of the sport that he tried to buy a drive in the car for the following day’s event at Mondello Park…

Brands Hatch ended on a slightly fuzzy note. In an early heat, necessarily enthusiastic deployment of the wash-wipe system led to its running out in mid-race, hence one and a half laps were spent driving largely by guesswork as acre upon acre of Kent accumulated on the screen. Before the B Final (there isn’t a C Final. in case you thought that smacked of proficiency), the reservoir was refilled and the car given a good scrub. During this process, unbeknown to team or driver, some water found its way into the heater. So instead of air blowing onto the screen, we had steam. Within a lap, the whole interior had misted up. Might as well have been driving in tomato soup. Just visible through the gloom were the brake lights of the car ahead, which served as the only means of navigation for the balance of the race.

Even when you’ve had an off day, though, it’s still a disappointment when the chequered flag flutters for the last time (even if you can’t actually see it. . .). If the editors of the OED want to elaborate upon their definition of ‘moreish’, I suggest they cite the Nova Challenge as a prime example.

Naturally, I crave another chance. I’m perfectly happy in my present job, but if working as tea boy at the Baghdad Tribune might sway Vauxhall…