Friday, 19 October 2007

Swindon Screamers

The second day of the conference above was an old fashioned jolly. It involved heading off to what I think was once called the Armoured Vehicles Research Establishment at Longcross, Surrey; a group of large grey buildings next to the M3 that didn’t used appear on the OS maps of the area. Nowadays they’ve been privatised as QinetiQ Chobham, but it is still a group of large gray buildings next to the M3. In addition to a lot of large tank-testing obstacles they also have a 2.6mile road circuit and acres of rough heathland. It makes a great playground for anything powered by internal combustion engine!

Honda are using the facility as part of their strategy to stop grey haired coffin dodgers from buying all of their cars, and as young(-ish) thrusting marketing types we’re ripe for conversion to the Honda way.

Laid on were most of Honda’s toys; from bikes, scooters and quadbikes to the Rrrrr’d Civics, S2000 and HR-V soft-roaders. The 35 or so of us in the group were split into groups. Mine started with quad bikes, and after a quick presentation we were off. To a very slow start as one of my group was the nervous type and didn’t fancy much beyond a walking pace. Noticeable was the soft ride of the quad on its balloon tyres even over ferocious surfaces. I also discovered while 2wd was more fun, with 4wd engaged the little beast would climb a wall, and full noise in 5th gave you 50kph. All research completed while loitering at the back out of eyesight of the instructor.

Next were bikes, and while the others rode around in circles in a scooter, I put my hand up when ex-bikers were asked to identify themselves. Its been 12 years since I’ve been on a bike, so my re-introduction was 10 mins on a 125 Varedo before the main event, a CBR1100XX Blackbird/Widowmaker. With 150bhp, it was by far the fastest thing I’d ever ridden. The only space available for my test-flight was a ¼ mile section of wide runway, good enough for a wrung out 45mph on the Varedo.

After refreshing myself on the hand-eye co-ordination needed to ride a bike, and taking my brave-pill, I managed 95mph on the Blackbird in the same space before hitting the brakes as hard as I dare. One obvious difference with big bikes, is that whereas any keen throttle jockey can floor the pedal in the lower gears of a 150bhp car, try that in a 150bhp bike and it’ll just spit you off the back. Time was called after 20mins, and after parking up and removing the borrowed helmet, gloves and jacket I climbed into a CR-V for some very gentle off-roading a bit weak at the knees.

After lunch in the sunshine it was onto the high-speed stuff. The Chobham circuit is broadly oval shaped; a long banked left hander, a short straight, then a fast right and fast left, another short straight past the speed police (“70mph please gents”), and then a banked left hander down to a very long fast left hander and down a 1/2mile long shute to the first corner. There was also the option of a route across the oval, which had some entertaining slower corners and some steep drops and climbs. The Chobham circuit is also different to a race track, in that there are no run-off’s or Armco, just trees and this supposed 70mph limit.

Without much ceremony I introduced myself to Caroline, one of the instructors, and dropped into the passenger seat of an S2000 for a ride around the circuit, first the outer oval and then the cut through. She was very neat and tidy, didn’t try and frighten me, and talked through the car’s abilities. Then it was my turn, and I tried to follow the same lines and just gently flowed the car at first, pushing once I was a little more dialled in.

I was impressed by the car; its age shows (no ESP, legroom or adjustable steering column for example), but the little 2l engine belting away at 8000rpm like an F3 car was great fun. The snappy gear-change, light flywheel and pedal positions really leant themselves to some racy h&t downchanges.. After 4 or so laps we pulled in - Caroline was nicely complementary of my driving – and found myself a Civic Type-R accompanied by Instructor Slow. Two laps of being asked to slow down left me with no impression of the car, and a desire to land one on Instructor Slow, so I bailed out and found another S2000. The additional lappery had helped the track learning, so the next few laps went better, I was enjoying the car more; steering and general control response were excellent and there was no sign of the twitchy car of web-jockey reputation, even leaving the fast left-hander flat chat in 4th at 8000rpm.

After that I found a Civic without the additional brake, and took that out. The contrast in steering response after the rwd S2000 was immediately noticeable; there is a wooliness when you need feedback, and the additional weight of the car blunted performance too. Pushing harder, the initial understeer on turn-in changed into a neutral stance as the back wheels came into play. It was great fun, and impressive for a quick hatch. Downsides are the higher driving position, a digital speedo that sat exactly behind the steering wheel rim for me, and a relative lack of guts in the mid-range. But if you need grocery and child carrying ability in a rewarding to drive performance car with similar ‘go’ to a 968, its got to be on the shortlist. I also understand that fwd motors don’t swop ends the same alacrity as old-skool rwd motors!

The final session was billed a bit of wet skidpan tomfoolery. Unfortunately, the morning’s soaking of the skid pan wasn’t repeated, so the thing was bone dry. The tomfoolery was replaced by some blindfold driving nonsense. Shame. I made my excuses and headed down to south coast in the Cayman. Which was stil the best thing I’d driven all day.

PS: I slept like a baby, and woke up on Saturday aching in my arms and thighs. I guess it was either levering the quad around, or hanging onto the Blackbird for grim death!

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