5s Go Mad Leicester

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How much does it cost to acquire a championship-winning racing car? The answer might have fewer noughts on the end of it than you think. Spend millions, and you can have something with Renault power that’s capable of taking Nigel Mansell to the World Championship. Spend £30, and you can have something with the same name stamped on the cam covers that will mop up in the BRSCC’s Renault 5TS series.

That’s how much Carl Kilbey paid for his 1991 title-winning 5TS, an MOT failure that he’s patched up, straightened and somehow transformed into a front-running racer in one of Britain’s most curious, yet enduringly popular, racing championships. Renault was one of the first car makers to launch a manufacturer-backed one-make series in the UK, when it initiated the 5 challenge back in 1974. The UK arm of the French giant has remained more or less loyal to the concept ever since. When the original 5 was dropped, along came the SGT Turbo. That in turn, ceded to the S’s successor, the Clio, the 137 bhp, 16-valve derivative of which enjoys official Renault UK blessing on British racetracks today, and which was track tested by MOTOR SPORT in December 1991.

But throughout 18 years of continuous product development, the original 5 has been ever-present on British circuits. And if you are surprised that there are any left in raceworthy condition after all this time, think again. The Renault STS Challenge is one of this country’s best-supported championships, with almost 40 race-prepared cars dotted around the land. With grids at Mallory Park, venue for this particular exercise, restricted to 24, the organiser was having to turn away entrants. The French are vastly amused that what they regard as a national antique should still be used for racing in Britain. Couldn’t happen anywhere else, they suggest, and they’re probably right.

In modern Britain, racing cars no longer have a sell-by date. When the time comes that a model is replaced in a manufacturer’s range, or a new way of thinking renders contemporary single-seater technology obsolete, it doesn’t take long before a series is instigated for the older machinery (just look at the array of championships for Formula Ford and Formula Three cars, eligibility for which is governed by the age of competing vehicles).

The 5TS is slightly different, in that it never went away, but its longevity (only Mini racing can boast greater continuity) is both astonishing and admirable.

It is also quite easy to explain. Even with Renault bonuses, Clio racers cite annual running costs of around £30,000, and in the present economic climate that kind of disposable income is not easy to find. As a result, Clio fields are hovering around the 15 – 17 mark. A decent 5TS, substantially slower than the Clio but source of equally close racing, could cost between £2000-2500, and seasonal expenses according to Kilbey are about the same, possibly less if you know what you’re doing with a toolkit and you own a Haynes Renault 5 manual. Inevitably, some folk will throw more cash at it, but the point is that it can be done cheaply.

Preparation standards vary, in terms of finish, but the whole field is colourfully turned out, if a little rumpled in places. Look under the bonnet of most cars and you’ll find evidence of the worst excesses of Renault’s 1972 paint catalogue. Remember the pastel blue that used to fade with the years, and which was usually accompanied by rusty blisters around the fuel filler cap? On the rear body panels, evidence of close encounters of the guardrail kind are usually tucked away beneath riveted metal panels which offer a simple, and cost-effective, solution to the inevitable wear-and-tear of one-make racing.

The opportunity to try the 5TS came through Playscape, two of whose chief employees Martin Howell and Ray Ledwith are regular front-runners in the category. Ledwith, indeed, is a former champion. They acquired the usual car of Roger White, absent from Mallory on account of a clashing kart commitment, and left the running of the operation to Floyd Moody, an active participant who also prepares a handful of 5s.

One immediately striking thing about any racing 5TS is its rusticity: it is utterly bereft of any motorsporting pretensions, inside or out. It is several cosmoses away from the world of bewinged homologation specials in the Ford Cosworth/Mercedes 190/BMW M3 mould and it does not cosset its occupant with the remotest sophistication. A steering wheel, four-speed gearbox, three pedals (one of which, the throttle, required urgent remedial attention from Moody when the return spring collapsed after just one press, more of which anon), and that’s your lot.

Brown’s car has a second overbearing quality, one of all-pervading lime-greenness about certain sections of its body. As mentioned earlier, Renault listed several colours which were distinctive for the wrong reasons in the ’70s, but it never had anything quite like this. The key to a quick time at Mallory is Gerards, a long, long right-hander leading onto the Stebbe Straight. The key to getting the 5 through Gerards quickly is to resort to extreme violence.

It provided a sharp contrast to the Caterham which I was racing on the same programme (and which will be subject of a separate feature in the near future). Whereas the little sports car requires finger-tip control and opposite lock steering corrections can be measured in fractions of a millimetre (ish), the 5 demands that you hurl it into corners and worry about it later. It is possible to turn into Gerards far, far later than you would guess. The build-up starts the moment you exit Shaws Hairpin, a tight second gear right-hander about one-third of a mile away. From there, it’s hard acceleration all the way to Gerards, which is taken in either third or fourth, according to a) how much traffic there is around you and b) how many cans of Irn Bru you’ve supped that morning.

Once committed, the 5 slides as progressively as you would expect of something that laps at a relatively gentle average of just under 80 mph (Howell holds the circuit record, at 61.14s, 79.48 mph), and the chassis is quite tolerant of novice abuse. Although spinning 5s are not exactly a rarity, they will slide for a long, long time before tiring of the driver’s excesses and pitching him or her into the nearest gravel bed (or lake, if you go far enough at Mallory).

In single seaters, or stiffly sprung one-make racers such as Minis and Caterhams, Gerards feels a bit like a concrete trampoline. In the substantially soggier 5, the bumps are not so obvious. As it slides, the 5 does pitch fore and aft (a trait which was substantially improved post-practice by the fitment of an extra couple of bump rubbers all round), but the worst of the surface undulations are absorbed.

That’s not to say that you get a comfortable ride, however: it may only have around 90 bhp, delivered at just over 7000 rpm, but by the time the tacho needle is that far round the dial the 5 is well into a merciless aural assault.

It’s like having the local pub band practising (badly) in one car, and the Portsmouth Symphonia (on an off-day) in t’other.

With qualifying only minutes away, Moody is still in civvies, calmly putting the finishing touches to his flock. By the time the problem with the throttle pedal on ‘my’ car is discovered, he has got as far as slipping into his overalls, and rolling them up to his waist. The paddock PA has already crackled something about 5 drivers making their way to the assembly area, but still there is no panic. Repairs take only a couple of minutes, and Floyd ambles back in the general direction of his own racer, still not in any particular hurry.

When he, Kilbey and Howell towed past in the final moments of the 15-minute (roughly enough time for 12 or 13 laps) session, it was the first time he’d looked fired up all day. Having the chance to follow the experienced trio proved extremely beneficial; only then do you realise just how late it is possible to turn into Gerards without winding up in Nuneaton.

A grid position of 16th is evidence that there are a few other tricks to learn, although as you would expect of such a combative series only a couple of seconds cover the field. Off the line, around 4500 rpm keeps wheelspin to a minimum, and a couple of places were gained before the inevitable scramble at Gerards… and promptly lost again as a biff up the rear sends you skittering wide. Taking the outside line at Gerards can be profitable as the majority of the field seeks room on the inside in the first-lap dash, but not when you are this far to the left of normality, where the circuit has been peppered with rubber pellets and the (usual) absence of passing cars has failed to shift the muck.

The race settles into a three-way fight for approximately 12th place, but you’d never know you were chasing such a modest prize from the ferocity of the defence of those ahead. The race field that runs behind the Stebbe Straight presents an extra problem; it makes it near impossible to spot yellow flags waving on the approach to the Esses, particularly when you are virtually alongside your sparring partner.

At half-distance, the dispute ends when a rival brakes at the usual place for Shaws Hairpin… and you don’t. Damage is minimal, but the graunching noises made by the mildly deranged front spoiler, as it snags the front left tyre, are enough to persuade you to stop.

As for Moody and co, Floyd now very animated stops on the last lap after a collision with his temporary driver’s sponsor at Shaw… from which Howell escapes with a minimum of delay on his way to fourth place. Kilbey, meanwhile, takes his £30 worth to third place in another triumph for minimalism. The 5TS Challenge may be an anachronism, but you don’t need the latest suspension geometry and fancy, fuel-injected, 16-valve engines to produce close, entertaining racing. You can have just as much fun on the cheap. In the current recession, there seems little chance that the series will wane in popularity, which is a relief. If nothing else, Britain’s position at the forefront of eccentric motor sport looks to be secure. S A