One Of Those Weekends...

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The traditional track test feature used to be safely rooted in a private test day, at which risks were low. Any mechanical failure, or pilot error, could be quietly brushed away and forgotten. The vehicle owners could be pretty sure an article would appear, whatever had occurred, and the journalist driver could concentrate on simply driving a demanding vehicle, rather than the absorbing task of beating fellow competitors, which tends to highlight any real or imagined shortcomings in the loaned mount.

Today, test track time is so expensive that it is only usually a manufacturer, or a wealthy club seeking publicity, which can afford exclusive circuit hire. Public sessions tend to be less satisfactory for journalistic purposes, as action pictures are shrouded by an unwanted forest of alternative track occupants. Some of the circuits admit so many cars, of such mixed abilities, that the hapless hack is simply left to survive in a maelstrom of crashing Formula Fords, buzzing Renault Clios and 500 bhp specials. There are less popular circuits that are perfectly satisfactory on public test days, yet the pattern of recent years has been to offer journalists a taste of racing life at higher rpm, entering them in championship events. Such an approach has obvious hazards for those lending a vehicle to a stranger: the recipient may simply blow it up, crash heavily or be so soured by his lack of competitive ability that nothing ever appears in print or is broadcast.

From the hot seat the most obvious problem is doing justice in a one-off run to a car that has (probably, hence the offer of a test) been a winner in the regular driver’s hands. We had cause to debate this after AFN, in the person of former Porsche champion Steve Kevlin, had offered us a run in the winning Carrera 2 normally campaigned by Tony Dron. The idea was to share a non-championship appearance with David Warnock, the 1991 Frank Shorter Porsche Supercup champion. The venue would be the full circuit at Donington Park and the one-hour event would offer us a fine chance to sample the qualities that AFN personnel Mike Shipp and Peter Corfield had engineered into a winning newcomer.

According to Kevlin, who now manages the AFN racing team, rather than winning titles at the wheel: “This Carrera 2 was one of the first RHD batch of 1989/90. We ordered it without a sunroof and minus a catalytic converter.” This, together with an RS specification electronic control unit (ECU) allowed 266.5 bhp instead of the standard 250.

“However,” continued Steve, “you will not feel that much difference over road car performance as the kerb weight is 1265 kg under British regulations.” By way of comparison, the 3.6-litre Carrera Cup racers weigh in at 1060/1080 kg with similar power. “Such a power to weight ratio would obviously make a big difference, if it were allowed in Britain,” felt Kevlin, who is Porsche Cars GB’s technical expert during the day and racing manager in any leisure time. “This Carrera 2 was originally built to less radical regulations, those of the 1990 BF Goodrich series, and used their RI tyre products. For 1991 the regulations were changed and we were able to use Dunlop racing covers. That meant quite a big difference in setting up the suspension, especially as the category permits any spring or damper rate to be installed. We settled on 680 lb in the rear, 480 lb in front.”

The limited slip differential has been set with a 40 per cent preload figure. There are a variety of antiroll bars for the Carrera 2 and its 4wd brother, so we had a good selection to choose from. We drove it on an 18mm rear bar, 21 mm front and the dampers were also mixed — Bilstein fronts, Koni rears. Similarly wheels and tyres differ front to rear; we used a 944-sourced 16in alloy, seven inches wide at the front and eight at the rear.

I had a look at the Dunlop slicks and hoped for grip standards long lost in a season on road rubber. I was not disappointed. Then Steve Soper came past in the factory-backed Bigazzi M3, flowing through the Craner Curves in close communion with miraculous forces. I realised that there are slicks… and then there are factory funded and developed slicks, even in the tin-top classes. That 2.5-litre/360 bhp BMW lapped over 10s faster than the record for Supercup Porsches!

Listen to Kevlin for more than a minute and you believe that nothing in Porsche life is much of a problem. His positive attitude omits all the handling grief the team suffered in that earlier season. The erratic cornering performance was finally traced to a body slightly twisted during the Safety Devices roll cage installation. The same bubbling enthusiasm to get on with the job proved a managerial necessity to Kevlin all weekend…

The worth of the cage, with its front brace extensions and rear suspension load pick-up points, had been tested in a ferocious 1991 Brands encounter, and so the rebuilt 911 drove was particularly cleanly presented. Within, there were the desirable Luke safety belts, a Recaro seat and standard steering wheel. The driver’s viewpoint was modified by extensive banner advertising across the screen top, which you only really notice as you wriggle into position and take stock of the slight pedal offsets and the use of a standard (albeit rebuilt) five-speed gearbox. AFN was determined that myself and Warnock — who also had his championship-winning 944 on hand to drive after his hand-over to me — would not lack for track time before our 60-minute event.

A dry Friday session, with another Porsche champion (Mike Jordan) also trying the Carrera 2, allowed me 18 laps. The times were not terrific for either driver. Our target should have been a little below 1m 50s, but we were stuck firmly above that barrier. By the time Jordan drove the car, the standard disc braking (with ABS) had wilted and the AFN boys had a long Friday night procuring replacement parts and installing them: pads, pistons, all were damaged. It really did look as though our race was in jeopardy. Magnificent work from Messrs Shipp, Corfield and Kevlin ensured that we did get to official practice.

A nine o’clock start for the 45-minute official session was accompanied by worsening rainfall and the absence of my co-driver. Sitting like a lone turkey in the assembly hangar I watched my 80 playmates in 40 assorted Porsches roar out. Some — like Justin Bell — were in fearsomely modified Class 1 cars. More were in production-based machines, many a lot older and less powerful than the AFN Carrera. Warnock did arrive to practice, but not with the Bentley Turbo R he had originally procured for the journey. That had a lurid off, but it was not a terminal problem to Warnock’s racing team. They have an identical T-car for their Bentley road running requirements!

Wet conditions proved a blessing for us. Instead of dry humiliation and no brakes, I found entertainment scrabbling around in the company of Gerry Marshall, in an ancient 2.7 RS, and Pirelli marketing maestro/dedicated racer Peter Tyson, in a 911E. As the circuit showed evidence of drying, times dropped. David ensured we finished 15th, appropriately sandwiched between the Marshall and Tyson.

You could tell how bad the conditions were from the fact that the heavily modified Porsches were well down the lists, behind Craig Simmiss/Brian Robinson in their less powerful 2.7 911 RS. Even Barrie Williams and his considerable wet weather talent produced no more than seventh overall in a modified 911. Erik Henriksen/Justin Bell (Carrera) and the Mike Holland/Norman McRoberts pairing (modified RSR) were ninth and 10th, little more than two seconds quicker than our production model. A dry race saw these two heavily modified 911s romp away from the field, Holland/McRoberts taking the spoils.

Our race? I thought you would never ask…

Let me talk about David Warnock’s race, for that is all I saw of the car on Saturday afternoon. The white 911 did five competitive laps, lying 13th when the brakes apparently went awol again. This time it was at 120 mph toward the end of the longest straight. Warnock’s second wild ride of the day ended there and then. The car did not look that bad, but the shell had taken a hefty thump to its underside, and there was no way it would continue. I had enjoyed wet practice and did not feel sorry for myself for very long — after all I was not paying the bills.

The car was later sold to present owner Demon Tweeks, and AFN revealed that it would race a new 968, substituting the outgoing Tony Dron with another journalist-racer. Mark Hales. Politics do not end in Formula 1. J W