Brooklands reborn

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The wonders of modern technology have been used to recreate the world’s first purpose-built track. So would you drive it in a 1933 Napier Railton, or a 1996 McLaren F1?

By Ed Foster

On October 7, 1935 John R Cobb set the Brooklands lap record in the 24-litre Napier-Railton at a speed of 143.44mph. The car, 16ft 3ins long and 5ft 3ins wide, was fitted with a Napier Lion XI aero-engine that turned out a remarkable 530bhp at 2350rpm, the whole package weighing more than two tons. 

To this day that record has never been broken; at the start of WWII Brooklands was taken over for military use, warehouses were erected and parts of the track cut away. So it was that the world’s first purpose-built race track met its untimely end. 

One of the most frequently asked questions in  motor sport is ‘what if?’. What if Senna had lived? What if Schumacher had been alive when Fangio was racing? One such question was asked in the Motor Sport office in 2004: what if Brooklands had survived? How fast could a modern car lap the famous oval?

Well, Lola aerodynamicist Mark Handford set up a circuit simulation programme with the dimensions of Brooklands and went to work. The results, published in the December 2004 issue, were surprising – a 1997 Champ Car, set up for Fontana, would have averaged 237.7mph with a lap time of 40.7 seconds; a 2004 Formula 1 car, with a streamlined Monza set-up, 231.3mph in 41.8sec; and a 2004 NASCAR, set up for Atlanta, 44.6sec at 217.0mph.

But what about the human factor?  Handford did at least say drivers would “get a little wide-eyed about the Fork”, but was adamant the right-hand curve could be taken flat.

With this in mind, I was intrigued to receive a press release claiming that I could not only drive a 1996 McLaren MP4/11 around Brooklands, but also the record-holding Napier- Railton. The Railton is reserved for only the most elite group of people – even Tiff Needell, a Trustee of Brooklands Museum, admitted that he’d given up trying to cut through the red tape and had resigned himself to sitting in the car and making the appropriate noises.

Short of several million pounds and many years of building work, not to mention scything clean through a housing estate and a car park, how was this going to work? Well, Brooklands has teamed up with XPI Simulation and after two years of planning, developing and tweaking, has created a Formula 1 simulator. 

It consists of a prototype of Mika Häkkinen’s 1996 MP4/11, with a large plasma screen perched on its nose. All the simulator commands are processed through the car’s controls and the chassis is adorned with speakers to add that extra sense of noisy realism. 

A few years ago I used a PlayStation to learn Spa-Francorchamps, so the thought ‘how hard can it be?’ did cross my mind. Little did I know that getting my 6ft 7ins frame into the McLaren would be the first of many challenges. 

Having slid as far into the cockpit as possible I realised I was in for an interesting ride. I had to rest my left foot beyond the brake pedal to make room for my right leg. The pièce de résistance was that I could only steer while stretching for the accelerator and travelling flat out. 

Sitting ‘comfortably’, I set out in the McLaren. From a standing start on the Railway straight, I got up to speed on the approach to the Byfleet banking. I realised that although the car’s downforce made this part of the oval a slight “non-event”, as Handford put it, the Fork and Members banking were going to be entirely different. I tried to take the smoothest line into the Fork, but before I knew it the back was twitching and one huge over-correction left me going sideways into the clubhouse at 230mph. 

The next attempt was more successful. Having got used to the sensitive steering and the fact that the faster line, with such efficient aerodynamics and downforce, was actually off the banking and on the inside line, I recorded a lap time of 45.614sec. It correlated quite well with Handford’s figures: 213mph.

I switched to the Railton, which you drive while sitting in the cockpit of the McLaren – a little bizarre, but you soon get used to it. Where the MP4/11’s handling is twitchy, the Railton is this and more. Even the slightest steering movement can set you off on an unrecoverable spin.

All that torque and weight combined with tyres that were only just up to the job meant the car was as hard to keep in a straight line as a teenager after one too many alcopops. This was the best part of the simulation, witnessing the difference that 63 years of car design can make. Allan Winn, director of Brooklands, is adamant that the feeling of the car is accurate. And having talked to XPI Simulation director Alan Davenport about how much effort was put into getting the noise of the Railton “just so”, I am inclined to believe him. 

After a couple of laps in the Railton I realised there was no way I was ever going to complete a flying lap without having a monumental accident. Indeed, I am the first person ever to roll the car clean over the top of the banking… The crash was so spectacular that the whole simulator system shut down and needed rebooting. 

Tiff was, in fact, the only person to handle the Railton flat out over a two-lap stint, recording a time of 68.519sec (141mph) – that’s 2mph off Cobb’s record. The differences between the two cars were fascinating. The F1 car, although lively, could be thrown at the inside line on the Members and Byfleet banking, whereas the Railton had to be driven within a few metres of the top. There was no way the rear tyres could cope with the grip levels needed on the lower part of the track, while sticking to the upper part meant fewer scary steering inputs.

Despite this being a simulation, it was incredible how involved it made you feel. No, the graphics aren’t like something off the TV, nor is driving a 1933 aero-engined special while sitting in an F1 car ideal, but when the back started to twitch in the Railton, my heart skipped a beat. 

The simulator is part of the ‘Concorde and Formula One – UK and Aerodynamic Excellence in High Speed Vehicle Design’ programme, which aims to highlight the role Great Britain has played as a world leader in aerodynamic design. The second simulator is due to be in place soon and should be even more impressive. After Concorde was put to bed, British Aerospace had no reason to hang on to the simulator its pilots used and so donated it to Brooklands. Unfortunately the simulator was in two pieces – a necessary move to get it out the door. Putting it back together won’t be easy either, as there isn’t exactly an instruction booklet… 

A simulator is the closest any of us will get to doing a full lap of Brooklands and I guarantee that however sceptical you are, you’ll have a job getting out of it – especially if you’re tall. 

We laughed about doing a tank-slapper at 230mph, but for the likes of John Cobb it was a matter of life and death. I don’t know whether the simulator has been set up so you can’t beat Cobb’s record, but if I worried about taking the Members banking flat, what was going through his mind when he went over the infamous bump, every lap? Those men were a breed apart. 

The Brooklands F1 simulator is open to anyone over the age of 10 at no extra cost to the museum entry fee (£8 for adults, £5 for children). For more see www.brooklandsmuseum.com