Not such a wild Rover

Who promotes the best one-make racing series in the UK? Depends whom you ask, really. There are so many of the flaming things nowadays that it's almost as easy to name the cars which aren't catered for by a subsidised championship. Even without Mazda, which has axed the MX-5 UK Cup in favour of a British Touring Car Championship programme, and Honda, which has cut back its support for the CRX Challenge (which continues as a popular club category), there are several series which carry full manufacturer support. VW has stepped in with the Polo G40 Cup. Renault and Ford continue with Clio, Fiesta and RS2000 respectively and both TVR and Caterham vigorously promote the sports car cause with the Tuscan and myriad Sevens in various states of tune. (There are also countless one-make, or single marque, series for Fords, Renaults, Alfa Romeos, BMWs, Porsches, MGs, Fiats, Triumphs, Westfields and so on. If you want to race against like-minded enthusiasts, chances are that there's scope for you to do so. This year, for instance, there is even a series for tuned VW Beetles, which looks set to be well-supported.)

Rover, subject of this particular thesis, has a finger in several one-make pies. The enduring and popular Minis, Sevens and Miglias, continue to entertain wherever they race. They will be subject of a separate, dedicated feature in a future issue of Motor Sport. The Metro GTi Challenge is a multi-discipline affair involving a series of rallies and races. Finally, there is the Dunlop Rover 216 GTi Challenge, jewel in the corporate crown. In 1991, its first season, competition was feisty but, generally, fair both on and off the track.

There isn't in any case, a great deal of scope for treachery. Engines, gearboxes and ECUs delivered to competitors are all sealed before despatch. Rover Sport wanted to keep engines standard, and poweroutput is consequently identical to that for the 216 GTi road car — 130 bhp at the wheels. Fine tuning of the ignition is the only permissible underbonnet tweak.

Race scrutineers check power output, weight and camber profiles regularly. Everything else is controlled very tightly. A suspension kit is supplied with the car, and renders it around 25 per cent stiffer than its road-going equivalent. The upshot of this limited preparation, which takes around 120 man hours (including seam welding, newly authorised for this season in the interests of further bodyshell rigidity), is a car similar in performance to the Renault Clio 16v racer (tested in Motor Sport last December) but which remains a tad slower than the Honda CRX. The lap record around the Silverstone National circuit, venue for this track test, stands to Nigel Edwards at 1m 12.85s, an average of 81.48 mph. The average lap speed around Castle Combe is closer to 90 mph, and top speed is reckoned to be in the region of 125-130 mph on Silverstone's GP circuit. Such high levels of performance from this apparently modest racer are partly due to the fitting of control slicks, naturally supplied by series sponsor Dunlop, and partly to the natural vim of the original article.

The most striking thing about the 216 GTi, at first glance, is the similarity of the cockpit to that of its road-going cousin. The dashboard and its ancillaries remain standard, in an unfetching shade of Rover grey. Even ignition is by key, rather than push-button. There are obvious clues, of course, to the car's true purpose, sturdy Recaro seat, torso-clenching Willans harness and the absence of any trim aft of the driver being the most evident.

The test car was built up by Roger Dowson Engineering, in accordance with the strict guidelines established by Tony Pond Racing, the rally star's company having been responsible for the final specification of the racing 216. Last year, Dowson ran the car for guest drivers, including Slim Borgudd (who won the opening race), Tiff Needell (victorious at Thruxton). Eddie Jordan, 'bike racer Steve Parrish, rally heroine Louise Aitken-Walker, former BTCC regular Graham Goode and various journalists. With no operational budget for a guest car in '92, it was up for sale at the time of our test. Ready to race, the asking price was £15,000.

For a professionally run season under the wing of a team such as Dowson's, ie the driver undertakes a full test session before each of the 12 rounds and just turns up to drive on race day, the annual budget is likely to be £36,000. It's obviously possible to do it cheaper if you are handy with a set of spanners yourself, and success can offset your outlay. Individual race winners stand to collect £350 a time, and there is a road car up for grabs for the eventual champion. However, when all's said and done this is not a bargain basement series. That is reflected in the high general standard of vehicle preparation. In most cases, you could eat your breakfast off the cam covers.

Rover insists fastidiously on such attention to detail. With plentiful TV coverage guaranteed (Rover has secured a deal with several ITV networks, in addition to the inevitable cable and satellite coverage), it wants the product to appear professional, as well as exciting. The latter aspect isn't too much of a problem. Grids of almost 30 cars are the rule rather than the exception. And the intensity of competition is quite something; for the opening round of the 1992 series, at Donington Park, less than two and a half seconds covered the individual race lap times of the 27 participants.

Winner of the Donington curtain-raiser was Ray Armes, who also took the Dowson car to victory in the 1991 series finale at Silverstone. The amiable 40 year-old graphic designer was on hand at Silverstone to offer advice, having warmed the car up before Motor Sport's stint.

"Try and keep it between 6000-7500 rpm if you can," he advises, "and don't let it drop below 5000. I usually change up at around seven-two."

On a dry day, you'd tackle Copse in fourth. Today. the quick right-hander appears to have been fried lightly in Mazola, and Armes recommends experimenting with third. The reasonably broad spread of torque also allows you to use third for both Becketts and the fiddly Brooklands-Luffield-Woodcote complex, so there's not much for your left hand to do except steer.

The Rover's strong road car origins make it very user-friendly. The powered steering is light but direct, and provides a reasonable degree of feel. The brakes (minus the road car's ABS) feel suitably powerful. The handling is pleasantly neutral, though any rash loss of commitment in mid-corner will cause the rear end to break away in the best tradition of relatively powerful front-drive saloons. The chassis is sufficiently communicative, however, that the resultant slide can be felt several corners in advance (well, sort of) and can thus be corrected swiftly and easily.

Such observations are relative. Our brief, 10-lap stint allowed us to get within a couple of seconds of a decent lap time on the day. At that pace, the 216 feels placid. It's almost too friendly for a racing car.

Whittling another couple of seconds off lap times would of course demand considerably greater brutality, though Armes confirms that you do not need to be a psychopath. "Everyone says that they are easy to drive quite quickly. That's one of the nice things about them."

Rover Sport's Chris Belton agrees. "We're not trying to pretend the car is something it isn't. It's a road car with subtle alterations, that's all. What you see is what you get."

The result is one of the most professionally organised racing series we have yet encountered, not to mention one of the most combative (even in the low-pressure atmosphere of an off-season test session, there were gaggles of 216s hunting in packs, seldom separated by more than a few millimetres). If you want proof, it'll be available at a racing circuit near you sometime during the year. There are 10 rounds of the series still to go, on May 10 (Silverstone), May 25 (Castle Combe), June 6/7 (Spa-Francorchamps), June 27 (Oulton Park), July 10/11 (Silverstone, British GP meeting), August 1/2 (Knockhill), August 31 (Silverstone), September 6 (Brands Hatch), September 19/20 (Donington Park) and October 3/4 (Silverstone).