Track test; Vauxhall Lotus Reynard

Dragonfly

The inaugural year of the Vauxhall-Lotus Challenge in Britain, and its Opel-labelled European counterpart, ostensibly filled every hope expressed for it, and the massive backing of the world's biggest car manufacturer, General Motors, ensured that the series was seen in all the right places: it gave European competitors a better preview of current Formula One tracks than did either F3000 or F3.

Allan McNish of Dumfries and British domiciled Finn Mika Hakkinen, GM's two first-year Champions, have already announced their ascension to 1989 Formula Three with top-line teams. British series winner Allan McNish won the top Celnet (nee Grovewood) Motorsport Award ahead of another Vauxhall Championship driver, Peter Hardman. The perfect send-off for a new series in 1988? Not quite ...

Mechanically and financially, the tightly controlled formula worked beyond expectations, and changes for 1989 will be minimal, but there was a large hiccup. Expatriate Yorkshireman Tony Fall, manager of GM's European motorsport operations from the Russelsheim headquarters, was arrested by West German police. He was still in custody when we attended the Vauxhall-Lotus track-test session at the Estoril Grand Prix circuit.

Deputising for the absent Fall is an engineer of great versatility and sporting enthusiasm, Dr Fritz Indra, who started his career helping out on Niki Lauda's Formula Vee and subsequently worked at Alpina-BMW and Audi. Dr Indra was intimately involved in four-valve-per-cylinder technology at Ingolstadt R&D before his move to Opel, where he has been a senior member of the team working on the 16V Astra/Kadett 2-litre engine which lies at the heart of these Vauxhall-Opel single-seaters.

Naturally, the upheaval did produce some administrative and parts supply problems in all General Motors European Motors activities. But, to its great credit, the Luxembourg-based co-ordinator of the series, Dan Partel's European Formula Drivers Association, seems to have overcome these political shock waves, and the 1989 season promises to maintain the momentum of this alternative stepping stone to stardom for ambitious drivers.

To help us to understand what the formula was about, Berkshire-based Dragon Motorsports had brought along the two most successful 1988 cars for our appraisal. These were the British and European Championship mounts of Messrs McNish and Hakkinen, but it is worth remembering that all cars in the category have to use the same chassis, engine, tyres, gearboxes, et al. So the Reynard-built open monocoque we enjoyed for eight increasingly wet laps was the best possible amalgamation of mandatory features.

Most confusing aspect in 1988 was the use of the Lotus name, which not only extended to the publicity material but was also appended to chassis-plates. Apparently the Lotus role was simply to set a seal of approval on the design, the GM-owned Hethel Group's name more reassuring to overseas customers at the time of the formula's conception. Now, following Reynard's sparkling F3000 results and enlarged international prestige, we can expect 1989 cars to carry only Reynard chassis-plates.

The test car was No 30 amongst an estimated total of "up to 115" made so far, but some of those have been cannibalised for further spares so it is thought "there are probably 80-odd running around at the moment."

The 1989 British Vauxhall Challenge saw Dragon Motorsport's duo finish 1-2 in the points, both virtually doubling the score of third-placed Justin (son of Derek) Bell. Thus it was a competitive honour to drive one of the partially 1989-uprated cars.

The team ensures we are well prepared for the challenging 2.7-mile laps ahead. Allan' McNish, still only 19, picks us up at the airport and provides a mature guide to the formula and car characteristics that belies his years. Asked his biggest problem in the formula, he nominates with a grin "rny team-mate Mika Hakkinen". The £100,000 which a professional team such as Dragon will demand to run a full season is not nominated as a particular problem! It is acknowledged that plenty of other front-runners have delivered top-three placings for considerably less — £35,000 seems the favourite starting point.

McNish completes our wet morning introduction to the Estoril Grand Prix layout with a thoughtful drive in a LHD equivalent to the Vauxhall Carlton, his two instructional laps accompanied by a map with preferred dry-weather gearchange points and a request for the three journalists present to complete one lap with the young champion as passenger.

I cheat my way through the personal demonstration on two counts: first, having, spent several days tyre-testing in assorted saloons, I have an idea about what happens over some of the brows which will be cornpletely blind in a single-seater, and secondly, because a passing "real" competitor is etching the correct racing line on the dampening tarmac.

As soon as the team starts to fit the car to you, it is obvious that the drivers with this equipe start with the traditional racer's "unfair advantage", in that these people are geared to giving the driver such a feeling of cosseted superiority that anything less than victory, with the ultimate in lap times would represent itself in the driver's mind as a mild betrayal.

Entry was made easier by leaving off the top covers for the cockpit and engine-bay. The pedals were brought into, adjustable, contact with my feet whilst foam padding elevated me from supine to recommended angle of recline. Behind my borrowed helmet and single-layer overalls there was the choice of two “head-stops" which filled the role of a road our head restraint. Instrumentation is still of the familiar analogue kind at this level, and our conventional Momo steering wheel, with its heavily padded and contoured rim, is probably too big for use in the current F3000 cars, which have echoed F1 in the adoption of ever tighter cockpit confines for the driver. Significantly McNish and 1989 Dragon Motorsport signing Ben Edwards (winner of the first Formula First series in 1987) are even smaller than my modest 5ft 8in.

There is just a combined water temperature and oil pressure gauge, plus a revcounter supported by a 7100 rpm cutout to monitor. After the initial exploratory lap a turn is taken off the brake bias to lessen the risk of locking up the fronts on Estoril's tricky corner entries.

Starting is not the simple matter of a saloon turn-key action. An external battery supplies power and, for the dismal conditions on hand, we take the precaution of illuminating the rear warning light as well as dropping a switch and pressing a button to set the warm 2-litre in motion.

We are wearing silencers at this circuit, which "accounts for about 3 bhp" in the words of Dragon partner Doug Bebb. The best units he has seen have been right in the Formula Three league (165 bhp), but the formula itself calls for all power-units to be equalised within 3 bhp of 158 on the production line. The Vauxhall-Opel 16-valve sounds supremely at home on the circuit, pulling just over 160 mph and towards 7000 rpm in the dry conditions of 1988's Estoril Grand Prix supporting event. Today we will be lucky to exceed 6200 revs, but that is still some 140 mph in what feels like an open-air shower bath.

Even though conditions are far from ideal, with the inevitable carburation problems of a slow and wet day and long periods of novice over-run on the throttle, tick-over speeds are maintained with urban decorum at 500 rpm. The 8.8in single-plate clutch takes up the story from little over 1000 rpm with ponderous ease, but the five-speed gearbox and the lack of a limited-slip differential take some acclimatising. The left-hand-drive saloon had prepared us for the vagaries of changing gear with the right hand in the usual single-seater manner, but the Mk 9 Hewland gearchange is heavily spring-loaded. The change pattern is the traditional competition one of isolating first gear, whilst second to fifth lie in the usual "H-pattern". That is not a problem, though accurately guiding the shift from first to second, and third to fourth, across the gate in both cases, took some practice in the opening lap. Only thereafter could one guarantee success.

From the security of a comfortably heated saloon, the prospect of open-air lappery amidst the rubber and oil slime, now brought to skid-pan perfection by heavier rain, had been uninviting. Out there on this fabulous track (almost a match for Brands' Grand Prix circuit in its imaginative use of rising and falling terrain), the raw exhilaration of conducting a single-seater again permeated through three years' absence from such an opportunity.

After seasons of sloppy 290 bhp saloons on 205 road tyres, the prime impression must be of the sheer cornering accuracy that is supplied and demanded in a solo machine. You can brush the paint strip beside a kerb with Van Gogh artistry because there is none of the stuck-pig tyre squeal and rubber-bushing slop that lies between you and such commands in a road car.

On heavily treaded wet tyres there was not much opportunity to measure the sheer grip supplied, but the weight of the steering tugging against forearms previously pampered by power-steering systems soon told you how fast the Reynard-Vauxhall alliance was conquering even second and third gear twirls. So did the rate at which the tyres steamed back to a fully dry state when under shelter at the pits...

The outstanding single-seater characteristic that compliments such an agile chassis is the stunning effect of four-wheel disc braking (using generously sized four-piston calipers at the front) in such a light car. In wet conditions nobody was brave enough to come close to their capabilities, which would take them so close to the corner itself that rapidfire gear-hanging would become a necessity.

The gear choices indicated by Allan McNish came from a dry day's racing experience, but the engine proved so flexible that we could afford to run in fourth and third from low revs (2500 upward) and still find rapid response. Of course, it works best if kept between 4000 and 7000 rpm, but like its roadgoing ancestor it uses its two litres to compliment 16V high-rpm thrills with flexible co-operation, almost regardless of gear. The amount of under or oversteer exhibited in anything up to a fourth-gear corner in these conditions was simply dependent on the amount of throttle applied. Lots of throttle equalled a signal to the rear wheels to try and overtake the fronts in second and third. Accessible torque and lack of a limited-slip differential meant that most forward thrust was safely dissipated in wheelspin under full throttle.

Generally the front always went where pointed, and the rear simply followed on as best it could within the limited confines of the traction available. A peek rearwards gave one a slight inkling of the new for the aces of this world, the Marlboro colours filling trembling mirrors. Whatever the conditions it always felt like a "proper" racing car, something Formula First has failed, in rny view, to offer. JW

Rolling Chassis: All built, and spares supplied, by Reynard Racing, Bicester, Oxon. Aluminium monocoque with honeycomb side structures, single-alloy sheet floor, cast-alloy bulkheads, steel rollcage and suspension arms. Safety fuel-bag tank; 6.6 gallons (130 litres). For 1989, aluminium honeycomb nose section.
Dimensions: Length 159.4in; width 64.5in; wheelbase 96.4in; height 37.7in. Weight: 420kg (925 lb).
Engine: GM "Family 2" Astra GTE Kadett GSi unit with dry-sump lubrication and twin 40 DCOE Weber sidedraught carburettors. DOHC, 16v 10.5:1 cr. Bore x stroke: 86mm 86mm. Capacity: 1998cc.
Power Figures: Average maximum horsepower: 158 bhp at 7000 rprn. Torque: 155 lb ft at 4700 rpm.
Suspension: Triangulated wishbones front and rear, upper rockers operating inboard White Power gas-filled shock absorbers and three choices of coil-spring rates. Adjustable front anti-roll bar. For 1989. adjustable rear anti-roll bar.
Wheels & Tyres: Techno Magnesio 6 x 13 front, 8 x 13 rears. Bridgestone Potenza wet and dry tyres.
Brakes: Solid 9.8in (250mm) diameter discs. Cockpit-adjustable front, rear bias. For 1989, disc diameters up by 1 mm.
Steering: Rack and pinion; 10.51, diameter wheel controls; 0.8 lock-to-lock gearing.
Performance: 0-62 mph in 4.5 seconds. Up to 161 mph, dependent on gearing. Price: £17,400 complete. Engine £3,900.

Also in attendance at Estoril were the Runnacles family, father Keith and daughter Amanda, sorting out one of three Vision Clubmans cars they will run with the help of former independent preparation specialist Colin Davids. Next season, one Clubmans series will be entirely for the I6V Vauxhall-engined machines, with another permitting them to run against the highly modified and traditional "A" category Clubmans machinery. The signs are that the Vauxhall-engined cars should not be too far adrift of the outright winning pace, whilst offering a lot mope reliability. JW