Time bandits

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Lotus 23B vs Westfield XTR4

Eras change, but the racer’s urge to shave every tenth doesn’t. Richard Heseltine pits a track-day hero against a sports-racer icon

More than 40 years on from its inception the Lotus 23 still serves as a blueprint of how to make a junior sports-racer: spaceframe beneath glass fibre, low centre of gravity and enough beans to make things interesting. With the exponential growth of track days over the last decade, and machines built specifically for them, the nature of lowering lap times may have changed, but the recipe for doing just that remains much the same.

Fitting, then, that the latest challenger comes from Westfield. Fitting, as for much of its existence the Kingswinford marque’s stock in trade has been Lotus-inspired sportscars, most memorably its lovely (and recently reintroduced) Eleven clone and Seven-esque roadsters. It also made a 23 replica (but just the one, mind). The XTR4 is an altogether different proposition. Derived partly from the Suzuki Hyabusa-powered XTR2 introduced in January 2002, it features significantly reworked styling — all geometric ALMS-style posturing — and turbocharged Audi ‘four’ power and gearbox. Designed by the in-house engineering team (Westfield’s PR people are loath to attribute the car to any one man), it too features a spaceframe and no fancy composites; easy to repair GRP bodywork is ideal for a track-day weapon. One that’s road legal.

So too was this 23, for at least a part of its life. Campaigned by the vastly experienced pairing of Ian Ritchie and Sean McLurg, this multiple hillclimb record holder was built in 1963, a year after the model’s launch and subsequently updated to ‘B’ specification (Lotus Twin-Cam power rather than a Cosworth-Ford 997cc SAE screamer). Raced in Belgium, it came back to the UK during the late ’60s, sprouted a bizarre gullwing-door canopy and was road registered. Now restored, it’s among the few 23s to retain its original, 22 Formula Junior-inspired chassis: “It still has that funny bit of triangulation to the right of the driver’s shin which usually gets removed as it gets in the way,” says a proud Ritchie.

While sharing the same basic architecture, the two cars couldn’t look more diametrically opposed. The Westfield is all slab of side, sharply creased, dramatic with all the contemporary sports-racer reference points. It dwarfs the pretty Lotus which, in true Chapman-style, has an economy of line and a cockpit where, as McLurg puts it: “You get in and you’re virtually lying down with your eyeline not much higher than your toes.” A sense rather less evident in the XTR4, its cabin hosting a full array of gauges, idiot lights and, of course, a tax disc. These and a slightly perched driving position, a by-product of substituting Audi for Suzuki, with the gear lever in boringly road-car fashion to your left.

With the 23 set up for speed events, the amiable Lotus duo is predictably in a bullish mood: the XTR4 should be comfortably vanquished.

Seasoned Westfield man Mick Keeley has other ideas, even if he gets his excuses in early by citing the lack of a proper straight at Curborough as not really suiting the Westfield’s power curve. And all this before even venturing on to the rain-sodden track. Or before receiving their instructions to swap cars.

Veteran set-up ace McLurg is clearly smitten with the XTR4, but has reservations: “The Lotus is lighter, more nimble and able to change direction quickly, whereas the Westfield feels a bit more of a road-going compromise. It’s slightly softer and a lot less harsh, due in part to conventional engine mountings rather than the solidly mounted Twin-Cam in the back of the Lotus. The 23 is more stable under braking and turn-in — it’s very neutral. The Westfield has more initial understeer which can be controlled with the steering or by the throttle and, thanks to the turbocharger, power comes in with a big surge so you have to be very progressive with the throttle. The Lotus has a much more linear power delivery. Gearing is strangely similar, though, at least up to third, although the Lotus’ Hewland change is quicker and much more precise. That said, the Westfield’s Audi ‘box is user-friendly and there’s the advantage of a fifth gear. Oh, and reverse. If anything, with the low weight counteracting the mass of the engine, the gearing seems a bit short in first and second.”

All points backed by Ritchie: “As it’s in road trim there are some compromises, so it would be interesting to try one in full track spec. I initially found the power delivery to be slightly disconcerting. Going into the top semi-circle, I approached in third and the turbo kicked in just as I was hitting the brakes so the back stepped out. The Lotus’s delivery is that much smoother. And, of course, in being fitted with road tyres, the Westfield is disadvantaged straight away. The thing is, once I had adjusted, I really started to enjoy the XTR4. It’s a seriously quick machine.

At high speeds, you can feel the aerodynamics come into play: it feels a lot more stable than the 23 in the long sweeping corners.”

Over to Keeley: “Obviously, it’s a familiarity thing but to me the Westfield is a much more straightforward car to drive quickly. You would need quite a bit of track time to really get the best out of the 23. The sense of speed you get from the Westfield is epic once the turbo kicks in: it’s just a big push in the back. I really enjoyed the Lotus, and it’s amazingly quick for its age despite not being in a particularly high state of tune, although I suppose it’s on more of a knife-edge when you really get going. The 23’s steering is much more nervous than the Westfield’s. With the XTR4 you can brake deeper into corners, but I was impressed with just how quickly you can get back on the throttle in the 23. The gearing is quite short, and you can tell that it’s set up for hillclimbs. It would be interesting to see how they both stacked up at a longer circuit. I would say that the XTR4 is the easier car to drive, and anyone who hadn’t experienced these types of car before might struggle to get on with the Lotus.”

McLurg agrees, if only in part: “You have to remember that the Lotus is a true racing car. The Westfield is aimed at the track day market [although the XTR4 has bloodied its nose in competition: three wins from as many races this year] with drivers of differing levels of skill. I reckon the 23 would be faster around here than the Westfield [Ritchie was willing to put money on it] in this spec but that’s not really what the XTR4 is all about. It can be enjoyed without the high-maintenance hassles of racing cars while behaving itself all day. And you can drive it home afterwards. If I was in the market for this type of car, I would be very tempted.”

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