8 Jul 2018

How The Hell Can A 10 Year Old BMW 320d Be Better Than A New VW Golf R?


My recent car history has been quite interesting. For a few years I spent and lost far too much money on a succession of box ticking cars starting with a V6 Audi TT, a Lotus Elise and a Porsche 996 911. They all cost me money, the 911 especially so when the engine exploded in a cloud of steam - literally. 22 litres of coolant being dumped out of a hole in the engine tends to do that.

So then I decided to be sensible and bought a 2007 BMW 330i and it was good and I thoroughly enjoyed driving it. I even drove 857 miles in one day in it.

But then the engine developed an intermittent fault where it would briefly drop power at low revs which was annoying. So I thought I'd buy a new car because they don't go wrong. I reckoned that I could just afford the payments for a new VW Golf R, so I ordered one.

God it was good. 306bhp from a 2-litre turbocharged engine it would do 0-62mph in 4.6 seconds and it did it in a clinical, precise manner. No histrionics just blam blam blam through its ultra-slick 7 speed dual clutch automated manual gearbox. Passengers new to the car would let out a little shriek as I put my foot down and let the car catapult us forward.

And it was great to drive too. 1505kg and four wheel drive, you could chuck it round corners and put your foot down immediately post apex and it would pick up the pace without a hint of understeer, oversteer or wheelspin. I once drove it all round Europe over the course of a week and it was brilliant on the motorway, on the amazing roads to be found in the Alps and Pyrenees and cruising the Riviera.

Driving the Golf R down the Stelvio pass is something I'll always remember.

But then after a year's ownership and 15,000 miles for reasons beyond my control (a tax bill) I had to sell the Golf. I logged into the VW finance website and got a settlement figure immediately. It was a reasonable sum so I cleaned the car thoroughly, wrote an advert and posted it on Autotrader at 10pm one Saturday.

The first call came in at 7.30am Sunday. The second at 8am. I ignored both. I answered the third at 8.15am. He was from Birmingham and wanted to come and buy the car that day. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought. He said he would call back. Another call at 8.30am. He was from Cardiff and he wanted to buy the car that day. Oh, I thought.

Long story short I received 20 emails and 30 phone calls that morning. I had several offers and at 2pm two young chaps arrived and smoked half a packet of cigarettes in my driveway whilst they inspected the car. They wouldn't go in the house because they were scared of my incredibly friendly border collie.

One of them test drove the car (after showing me his trader's insurance certificate) absolutely terribly and then turned to me and said, "Most people get scared when I drive them cos I drive fast, but it's OK I'm a great driver." He had been doing 15mph around the village then put his foot down on the dead straight A-road which leads out of the village and went up to 88mph. We didn't travel in time but I did know he was going to buy the car so I kept shtum.

At one point he let go of the wheel and it turned slightly left. He told me the steering was broken and that he would have to knock some money off the price. I explained to him that roads have something called camber so that the rain can drain away...

After all sorts of daft tactics they bought the car from me for the price I had asked and drove it away. I settled the finance with VW and that was that.

16 hours after placing the ad, and expecting it to take several weeks to sell, I was carless.

I hadn't even thought about how I was going to pay for a new car. I had no budget, no finance.  Hmmm.

So I surfed the adverts on eBay and Autotrader. After a lot of research I decided that I wanted either a Mk5 Golf GTI or a BMW 3-series. My budget would be up to £3k but I'd rather pay less.

After scouring dozens of ads for each I realised that I could only really get a scruffy GTI for the money. Some had been modified, some had missing histories, some had dents and dings, some had rust.

There was a real variety of 3-series. There were a lot of E46s in varying specs and conditions, but an E46 feels quite old nowadays. I preferred an E90, and a 330i if possible. But 330s in both i and d form were few and far between, and generally a bit too tatty.

On the Monday morning I saw an ad for an E90 320d for sale from a dealer just two miles from home. It was incredibly cheap for a 2008. It had only two owners, a clean MOT history, full service history and new tyres all round but had racked up an incredible 198,400 miles in its ten years.

I went to see it at lunch and saw it had a few minor car park dings and the wheels had been kerbed and some lacquer on the bonnet was peeling but the interior was great and it was generally solid. The dealer had taken it as a trade in for a much newer 525d and just wanted rid so I made him a daft offer. We negotiated a little but not much and I bought it for £2300.

From one year old Golf R to a leggy 10 year old 320d in just one day. But needs must.

The 320d produces 174bhp and 258lb/ft of torque, does 0-60mph in 7.6 seconds and weighs 1430kg.

It is rear wheel drive as opposed to the Golf's four wheel drive and it is a manual rather than DSG.

I've owned the BMW for two weeks and driven it 300 miles and have been taken aback at how good it is. In some areas it is better than the Golf - a car that is worth ten times as much.

The BMW's driving position is better than the Golf's. You sit low in the BM and stretch your legs out. The E90's seats adjust almost too much. It takes forever to find the right position but when you do it feels perfect. In the Golf you're always comprised by a hatchback's shallower pedal box. In the 320d everything feels exactly where it should be but in the Golf you understand the car is designed to fit anyone of any size which suits most people most of the time but no-one all of the time.

Mind you the tech in the Golf is far superior. It has a touch screen with a satnav and digital radio and bluetooth and trip computers and all sorts of gubbins - half of which you don't use or need. It also has adaptive cruise control. The BMW doesn't have a screen at all so you need to plug in a satnav, and then you realise that a £150 TomTom is far superior to the factory VW satnav and that Google Maps on your phone is far superior to both of those.

The BMW also has the ability to play music from your phone, you just need to plug in an aux cable. And it does have cruise control, just not adaptive. And I love adaptive cruise and will miss it.

The 320's interior is ten years old but it is nicer than the Golf's. The materials used are better and the design and execution is superior, as it would be - the 3-series has always been pitched as a premium car. But it's surprising that even a ten year old car, given a thorough clean, can have a better interior than a current model.

In a straight line the R beats the 320d in every way but one. It is faster in every metric. The BM simply does not have the wow factor. It is merely quick as opposed to insanely fast. But the Golf has a much firmer suspension and a more brittle ride. Where the Golf crashes into speed bumps and hits pot holes with such a bang you are amazed the alloys don't crack the BMW soaks these things up without breaking sweat.

At nearly 200,000 miles you'd imagine the BMW would be soggy but it has new shocks at the rear and feels better than I imagined it would.

On a motorway cruise both cars are equal. Where the Golf has adaptive cruise the BMW uses 50% less fuel. Both have similar levels of noise, both have a comfortable ride and both have enough power  to cruise at decent speed.

But turn off the motorway and drive on good roads and the BMW edges ahead. Where the Golf is fast and precise like an F1 car the BMW makes you feel like Peter Brock, moving and sliding over the mountain section of the Bathurst circuit in his touring car.

The Golf feels digital where the BMW feels analogue. The 3-series' fat steering wheel and low slung seat deliver feedback the Golf can only dream of. You can feel it slip and slide just millimetres and fractions of degrees and adjust accordingly. This arguably creates a greater serotonin rush than the Golf's pure speed.

The Golf's DSG gearbox is an awesome piece of automotive engineering but the BMW's fairly average, short throw, manual gearbox delivers a better and more involved experience.

You can throw both cars around. The Golf feels precise and unflustered. It is like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV - it is unyielding in the way it always delivers and never flinches. Meanwhile the 320d, lighter by almost 100kg, with a better front to rear weight distribution, rear wheel drive and hydraulic power steering uses its advantages to greater effect. The rear feels mobile and adjustable - though I do think it would feel too light when pushed hard on track - and the front goes where you ask and when it does slip you adjust accordingly with tangible reward.

The Golf just delivers, expertly. I enjoyed it without reservation. It was great looking and felt great to be in and to drive. The tech was interesting and mostly useful and the doors made a lovely noise when you shut them.

If you avoid speed bumps, potholes and poorly surfaced roads and want to drive at 15mph around town and 90mph on A-roads then the Golf is easily the better car but for most other conditions the BMW is actually the more involving car to drive.

I loved the Golf but in the BMW I have rediscovered the soul of driving, and I hadn't even realised it had gone.

If I could have another Golf R I would but for now I am not at all unhappy with my old, high mileage, diesel BMW.

By Matt Hubbard





9 Jun 2018

My First Ever Motorcycle Track Day


Being a biker means you are part of a community. There are 31.2million registered cars in the UK but only 1.2million motorcycles, and as most bikers I know own more than one there's a good chance there are less than one million active bikers.

We are the strange ones at work who aren't so interested in football but sit with helmet and gloves on our desk and a bulky leather jacket on our chair. We are the weird ones who, in the age of ever more stringent health and safety, sit astride 15 litres of petrol and ride a missile at silly speeds protected by nothing more than 1.5mm of leather and a helmet.

But even though there aren't many of us bikers there are many different types of bikers. I tend to ride my bike most days, to get to the office, meetings and whenever I need to get to London I'll ride the bike rather than sit in a train.

Some motorcyclists keep their bike locked away in a garage or shed, own a trailer or van (any van as long as it's a Volkswagen Transporter) to transport it whilst on the road, fit it with slick tyres and wouldn't dream of riding it to work. These are the track day enthusiasts.

I'd say I'm a dyed in the wool motorcyclist but until last Friday I wasn't in the track day tribe. I had never ridden a bike on track. 

During the winter a friend who is a moderator of a forum called South West Bikers told me they hold an annual track day and asked if I'd be interested.

Yep. I was definitely interested.

The thing that has held me back from attending track days before now is the fact I knew absolutely nothing about the culture. The prices aren't unreasonable but the whole thing seemed impenetrable. Would I be dead slow? Would I crash? Would someone else crash into me? Would everyone look at me as I entered the paddock? Would I feel daft the entire time? Would I remember any of the rules? Would my plain black leathers look out of place in a field of Power Rangers in colourful one piece leather suits? Would I be made to feel like I knew nothing?

The SWB day, as I was told, was a friendly track day. It takes place at Llandow in south Wales which is a short and tight little circuit and suited to novice and advanced riders alike. In the paddock would be everything from pure track bikes to people, like me, who would ride home from the circuit. Also, crucially, most people in the paddock would know each other. The track is hired by SWB for the day so the only attendees are forum members.

So I found myself at 7am outside the gates at Llandow Circuit in my friend's van with my 2017 Triumph Street Triple RS strapped down in the back alongside her Kawasaki ZX-6R 636 track bike, which had no MOT, no tax and no number plate. It lives only for track days.

We were second in the queue of Volkswagen T3s, T4s and T5s and when the gates opened headed for a prime spot next to the main circuit building. We parked 10 metres from a friend's VW Transporter, and everyone else adopted this strange spacing.

Then it made sense. As they all got out of their Transporters the first thing they did was erect gazebos to keep the bikes and electrics dry in the rain and for shade from the sun.

I've been in many track paddocks and Llandow's isn't much different, it's just smaller than most. The paddock itself is a few acres of tarmac alongside the track. There's a building which has a briefing room on the ground floor and a view of all the circuit on the top floor (though only staff are allowed upstairs), there's a toilet block and there's a cafe.

Everyone made themselves busy unloading and prepping their bikes and chatting amongst themselves. The cafe did a roaring trade in teas and coffees and breakfast baguettes and the toilet block took a hammering.

Not everyone arrived in a VW van. Some rode in on their bikes and it soon became apparent the variety of machinery on show. There were plenty of sportsbikes but there were also plenty of ordinary road bikes. Someone had brought a £24k 200hp supercharged Kawasaki H2, someone had brought a  BMW R1200GS and there were two supermotos. Gratifyingly there were a handful of Triumph Street Triples and a Daytona 675.

Once the VWs had all been unloaded there were around 50 bikes parked up, waiting for their time on track. Around a third of the paddock put tyre warmers on their bikes and all of us made sure our bikes were fully fuelled and the tyre pressures reduced to approximately 28psi front and rear, which is lower than you'd run on the road. This is partly because of the heat you put in to the tyre on track, which causes the air inside to expand, and because you want a bigger contact patch than you would on the road. Also, mirrors are either removed or taped up. This made me nervous as I like to know what's behind me but apparently it is safer on track to ride for yourself than someone behind you.

The rider's briefing took place at 9.30am and lasted almost half an hour. The chief marshall, John, is both funny and informative. He tells you what you should do and what you shouldn't do. Everyone who wants to ride on track has to attend.

When you sign on to a track day you have to specify what group you will be in. On our day these groups were novice, intermediate and advanced. Obviously I plumped for novice and was given a green wristband to wear. 

Each group would get 15 minutes on track in rotation and there would 17 bikes in each group as well as a travelling marshall/observer who wore a hi-viz vest and who would observe the activity on track and be available for feedback after each session. These marshalls aren't provided by the track but are members of the forum and are generally expert track riders.

The advanced group went first and mainly consisted of superbikes. Next up was the inters and then finally us, the novices.

Not all members of the novice group are actually novice riders. Most have some track experience and are just comfortable in the novice group. I felt nervous as I checked the bike over one last time, sat astride it and started the engine.

We all rode up to the holding area at the end of the paddock and stopped. A marshall checked everyone's wristband and checked our helmet chin straps were properly secured. People talked to friends around them and pulled at gloves, tapped the ground with boots and generally got all the little nervous tics we all have out of the way before the intense focus that awaited on track.

Our hi-viz wearing observer rode the BMW GS and in my group was a real variety of bikes, including a bright yellow supermoto, a Suzuki GSX-R 1000 and a couple of other Street Triples.

The red light at the end of the paddock turned green and we were off.

Llandow circuit is 1.5km long and 9 metres wide. The first section is called Bus Stop and is a tight little series of corners that go left, right, right, left. You then head into a long right hander called Devil's Elbow which leads on to the Hanger Straight at the end of which is a very tight chicane which leads on to a long right hander called Glue Pot. This exits on to the main Runway Straight. The pit entrance is along Runway Straight.

We all followed our observer for two laps and no overtaking was allowed. This is done to allow tyres to warm up (mine were stone cold when we started out) and for the riders to get an idea of the track condition.

Unlike a road the track was dead flat and smooth, no-one was coming the other way and there were no junctions. There was also no speed limit.

My nerves faded as soon as I headed into the tight and technical Bus Stop section. My focus was entirely on what I was doing. The observer set a decent speed but not one at which I felt uncomfortable. I had made sure I was the last rider on track, not wanting to hold anyone up so I could ride easily, knowing I could go as fast or slow as I liked.

I watched the rider in front and thought about track position, apexes, braking points. We rode pretty fast and I leaned further in the corners than I ever have, even at this cruising speed. After two laps the marshall let everyone off the leash and the fastest sped off.

With every lap I felt more and more comfortable. My speed was dictated by my bravery rather than the limits of my bike and was reasonably good. I wasn't too slow and I wasn't too fast.

After a few laps I was overtaken by one of the litre sportsbikes. A couple of laps later I started to get stuck behind a superbike which was slower than me in corners and faster than me on the straights.

After a few more laps the chequered flag was waved and it was time to come in. We filed into the paddock and I headed for my spot. I parked up, turned the engine off and grinned. My first session on track had been hugely enjoyable. I loved the speed and the demands on the bike and me. Nobody had been silly and no-one had intimated me on track.

I grabbed a cup of tea and drank some water - hydration is important on a track day - and chatted with my fellow riders. People asked me how it had been and gave helpful tips and comments. There was none of the intimidating culture I had perhaps expected.

I spoke with another Street Triple RS rider and discussed engine modes. I realised I had had mine set on Road mode so set it to Track. I looked at my tyres and realised the rear looked like a proper race tyre with tiny balls of rubber stuck to it and there was only a centimetre tyre left at the edge which I hadn't used.

Half an hour later and it was time for the next session. This time I wasn't nervous at all as we lined up ready to head out. I felt calm and watched what was going on around me. I wasn't at the back as I was happy I wouldn't hold people up.

We filed out and I concentrated on improving my track position, braking, speed and all the little things that would make me go faster. Because the faster I could go the happier I would be. I like speed, I like being on the edge, I like being in control of a machine that can elevate me way beyond the everyday mundanity of life

As the session progressed I became more confident. I thought about speed and about what would happen if I dared go faster in the long flowing corners. I thought about how expensive the bill would be if I crashed and I thought about how annoyed I would be with myself if I didn't push as hard as I could.

At the end of that session I drank more tea and water and chatted with friends some more. My tyres showed me I had leaned over further and I felt great.

As the day progressed I went incrementally faster. I settled into our group and overtook a few and was overtaken by a few. I got stuck behind the superbike some more and overtook some others. At one point the marshall on the GS flew past me! I thought about lines and braking points and tyres. I could feel the tyres moving around as I braked or put the power down exiting a corner.

I hardly ever looked at my bike's instruments but forced a quick peek just before the braking point at the end of the back straight and saw 106mph - my friend with the 636 did 117mph at the same point.

By the end of the day I was super happy with my riding and beaming with the whole experience. I enjoyed the track, the company, the bikes. My rear tyre was now fully worn right to the edge and I couldn't help but be filled with pride at the fact I had managed to ride fast enough to do this. 

At 5pm the day was over. We were all exhausted. The Volkswagen Transporters were loaded and the road bikes like mine had the mirrors put back and the tyres pumped up some more. There had been a couple of break downs and just one crash, when someone low sided in a fast corner. He was OK and the bike didn't look too bad.

The ride home was pretty arduous - track time really wears you out. I had ridden five sessions of 15 minutes each so that was 75 minutes of hard stopping, accelerating and full concentration.

The next day I felt tired and a bit weary but otherwise OK. 

I really enjoyed my first ever track day. My initial fears were mainly unfounded, although it helped that the day had been organised by South West Bikers who were supportive and friendly.

Next year's track day has already been booked with the circuit. If you want a spot you need to join the forum.

By Matt Hubbard


25 Jan 2018

Are we really ready to make the change from petrol and diesel to hybrid cars?

We are at an automotive crossroads. How we power our cars, and the nature of cars themselves is all set to change. Even the design of our cars is changing. But do we, the consumers, really want what our legislators and manufacturers tell us we will have?
I’m not convinced we do.

When I was very small, back in the 70s, my Dad drove a petrol car – an E21 BMW 320. My mate lived on a farm and his Dad drove a tractor which ran on diesel. Our milkman drove an electric milk float. If you woke up at 5am you might catch a glimpse of him trundling along at 5mph. It was perfect for short journeys at low speed and, crucially, it was quiet.

This situation carried on into the 80s and 90s – except by this point Dad had swapped the BMW for a series of Jaguars (he only broke the chain with a Lexus CT200h which was crap so he sold it and bought a new XE).

And still, in this era, petrol was for cars, diesel was for tractors and trucks and electric was for milk floats.

When I started driving in 1988 the only thought was of a petrol car. Diesel was not even an option. So I bought a Nova Merit 1.0. I started my first job later that same year, for an engineering company in Manchester, and 90% of the staff had a company car. Every single one was petrol, and the size of the engine dictated your position in the company – Orion 1.3LX (minion), Sierra 1.6GL (lower management), Sierra 2.0 Ghia (middle management), Granada 2.8 Ghia X (the boss).

I drove that Granada once and it was much slower than expected, and the leather creaked. Not a patch on Dad’s XJ6.

Fast forward to 2002 and the birth of my son. Thinking I ought to save some money and buy a practical motor I purchased a VW Passat estate 1.9TDi 110 SE. It was the first diesel I had ever driven. 110 meant it had 110 bhp and this was not enough. It was the slowest, most boring car I had ever experienced. I hated it, even though it returned 50mpg no matter how hard I drove it. I sold it and bought a Subaru Outback.

So that was my diesel experience until 2015 when I leased a Volvo XC60 D4 for two years. It was a lovely car and the engine was great but I much prefer the 306bhp petrol engine in my current Golf R.

And there we are – 2018. The car was invented in 1886 and became a transport solution for the masses just twenty years later. For over a hundred years the most popular engine has involved a mix of petrol and air being exploded to push pistons up and down. Nowadays diesel as a fuel is just as popular as diesel engines have almost caught up with petrol in terms of power and refinement.

For the vast majority of motorists the choice is still between petrol or diesel. For a small percent it also includes a hybrid. For a yet smaller group who don’t drive very much or very far the choice also includes electric cars.

Over the past decade or so the popularity of diesels crept ahead of petrol but when Volkswagen were found to have cheated emissions tests the UK press and government massively overreacted. Diesel was bad, taxes went up and people wanted petrol cars again.

But still nobody really wants a hybrid car. Hybrid cars have two power units – one petrol or diesel and one electric – and two energy storage systems – a fuel tank and a bank of batteries. This makes hybrid cars heavy and extra weight is inefficient.

According to SMMT in 2017 2,540,617 cars were registered in the UK. Of these 13,597 were electric and 106,189 were hybrids. So 4% of all cars registered were hybrids and 0.5% were electrically powered.

The most efficient hybrid car is a PHEV – Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle. But to use one of these you need access to an electrical point, which a great many households don’t.

Yet the government continues to steamroller us towards using them.

We have a massive network of fuel stations which deliver a tank of petrol or diesel in around two minutes. That’s between 300 and 800 miles of motoring. We do not have any kind of network of electrical chargers. Those that do exist often do not work.

My car is quite inefficient – if you consider fuel used for distance covered inefficient. It’s actually mighty efficient at converting fuel used to achieve incredible speed in a very short amount of time. Anyway, it does around 33mpg on a long run and last week I drove 380 miles in a single day. I left home at 8am, drove to a meeting 190 miles away, sat in the meeting for four hours and drove home. On the way home I stopped for fuel and carried on until I arrived into the welcoming paws of my dog, Kes, at 7pm.

If I had used an electric car I would have been 3 hours late for the meeting and poor Kes would have had to wait - alone, hungry and sad – until 11pm for me to arrive home.

This is why I (and many, many others) consider electric cars to be totally impractical and the weight penalty and requirement to charge them means hybrid cars are also impractical in 2018.

Oh and then there’s the issue of second hand cars. Hybrid and electric used car values are lower than the equivalent petrol or diesel cars. Servicing of hybrids by non dealers is almost impossible. Batteries reduce in efficiency over time and cannot be serviced. People on low incomes buy old cars and need to be able to service them cheaply.

But the government and manufacturers think we’ll all be buying hybrid and electric cars exclusively by 2040. This is daft.

Current battery technology means they do not store enough electricity, cost too much, weigh too much, take too long to charge and use rare earth metals (of which there is an impending crisis in terms of supply and cost).

Until there is a step change improvement in battery technology then battery cars will be silly and impractical – and so will hybrids.

So, bearing this in mind, how are we to reduce the impact of our cars on the environment?

The answer seems to be in a mix of things. For a start petrol and diesel engined cars need to become more and more and more efficient. Not just the engine but the whole car.

A fast, comfortable car can be built and designed to weigh 800kg yet the market dictates that our cars are becoming bigger and heavier. People now want SUVs and crossovers and they want all sorts of technological gubbins that they don’t need. SUVs require more height and more height means more weight in all areas. More height also means more drag. All of this means more fuel is used.

We should really be driving small, light, aerodynamically efficient hatchbacks and coupes instead of big, fat SUVs.

Electricity isn’t the only future fuel. Hydrogen is a really interesting one. It can be used to fuel an internal combustion engine, is the single most abundant element in the universe (around 75% of all mass that ever has or will exist) and the only emission from the exhaust pipe is water. Hydrogen engines currently cost about 50% more than petrol but with a few years R&D this cost will reduce. The biggest problem is fuel storage. As a gas it needs to be stored at 5,000 psi and as a liquid…well, it boils at -253°C.

Battery technology will eventually become the dominant force. This will come about through solid state technology but this is years away.

For now the only real solution that suits us ordinary people is petrol and diesel. Change will be needed as emissions regulations are tightened up – and these will become impossible to achieve if we all drive fat, heavy SUVs.

The government and manufacturers still reckon they will push us all into hybrids and EVs whilst we, the public are not ready for this.

The public have been pushed around by governments for years but this time I think the legislators will have a real fight on their hands. The public has a recent history of not doing what they are told to do by governments and bureaucrats.

How will this all end up? Who knows…

By Matt Hubbard


25 Oct 2017

Will Lewis Hamilton Clinch the 2017 Formula 1 Title?


The race to be crowned 2017’s Formula 1 champion is heating up, and with only four races left on the calendar, everything is still to play for. Currently, the front-runner is Lewis Hamilton. Having driven supremely well throughout the year, he’s managed his races like a true professional while taking advantage of his opponents’ poor luck and technical difficulties. However, he hasn’t had it all his own way, as several drivers are close behind him in the standings, ready to pounce on any bad starts or questionable pit stops. So, to judge whether the British driver – who’s been an inspiration to young drivers across the world – has a chance of claiming his fourth world championship, we’ll examine the performance of his car, the other drivers who could challenge him, and the remaining races that are still to be decided – buckle up folks!

Mercedes Dominance


It’s no secret that Team Mercedes has dominated the drivers’ and constructors’ championship for the past few years, with Lewis Hamilton winning from 2013 to 2015 and the now retired Nico Rosberg clinching the title in 2016. Mercedes’ raw power, straight-line speed advantage, and terrifying efficiency made them the team to beat, emulating the sheer dominance that teams such as Red Bull and Ferrari have enjoyed in the past.

While it might be considered boring to see one team outclass the competition so effectively, it’s important to remember that Mercedes haven’t had it all their own way this season. Indeed, changes to car designs – including engines, front wings, and tyres – mean that the German manufacturer has had its performance pegged back, resulting in the competition gaining ground. While some Mercedes fans will have been looking over their shoulder at the progress of other teams, who can seriously bemoan more exciting races? Apart from Toto Wolff, maybe.

Regardless of the changes from last season, there’s no denying that Hamilton has adapted well to the new cars. The raw power of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas PU106 Hybrid engine may have helped Hamilton stay ahead of the majority of the pack, earning him the most pole positions of any other driver. But it’s Hamilton’s natural driving talent and race management skills that have kept Team Mercedes in pole position as we come to the end of the racing year.

Enter the Challengers


The clear leader with 306 points on the board, some fans will be thinking that it’s a foregone conclusion that with only four races left, Lewis Hamilton is on course to clinch his fourth world title. They may well be right, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other drivers hot on his heels, and with a maximum of 100 points on offer, it’s all still to play for!

The closest, and most obvious, challenger that could derail Hamilton’s title hopes is Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. Having led the championship for large parts of the calendar, the four-time world champion is only 59 points behind the current leader, meaning that a couple of wins and a healthy dose of luck could see him back at the top. Not only is Vettel an extremely talented driver, his years of experience on the track make him a dangerous opponent to race against, especially when the margins for error are so small. Equally, Vettel is backed by a powerful Ferrari engine, which has consistently dwarfed other cars with its straight-line speed. If you want to know how just close the final four races could get, check out the latest Formula 1 betting tips.

Another driver that could upset Hamilton’s victory is his own teammate, Valtteri Bottas. He is only 13 points behind Sebastian Vettel, putting him firmly in the race for the world championship, and with a near-identical car to Hamilton’s, he’ll certainly have the pace and power to compete. However, while Mercedes do not operate a first and second driver policy, it’s a little farfetched to think that the team would risk handing the title to Ferrari just so the teammates can race it out.

Remaining Races


How the rest of the season plays out could be determined by the remaining circuits. The United States, Mexican, Brazilian, and Abu Dhabi Grand Prix are all that stand between Lewis Hamilton and glory, but are they the best tracks for his driving style and car?

The Circuit of the Americas has always been kind to Hamilton, having won four out of the last five races that were held there. However, Sebastian Vettel still holds the all-time fastest lap for this circuit, and in the improved Ferrari, it’s not difficult to imagine that Vettel will produce a serious challenge. Additionally, the relatively flat circuit, which has two very long straights, will give Ferrari an extra boost.

On the other hand, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the final race of the season, is a personal favourite of Hamilton. With it’s almost unbearable conditions, fast straights, and tricky corners, this is a circuit that requires no small amount of skill and focus – and Hamilton has won here twice in the past three seasons! If it all comes down the last race, he’s sure to feel confident about his chances.

Verdict


While there are many obstacles that could trip Hamilton up, it’s hard to look past his dominance this season, and unless something goes spectacularly wrong in the final four races, he’s the clear favourite to win the championship. However, Formula 1 is nothing if not unpredictable, so there could be some surprises in store further down the track for everyone to enjoy!


23 Jul 2017

2017 Classic Nostalgia at Shelsley Walsh Review

Shelsley Walsh hillclimb in Worcestershire is the world's oldest motorsport venue in continual use. It's a 1000 yard long ribbon of tarmac which twists and turns uphill from the paddock to the finish line at the top. It opened in 1905 and the record for the fastest run was set in 2008 by Martin Groves in a Gould single seater.

The record run time is 22.58 seconds, which is barely believable when you stand trackside. The track is narrow and has no run off areas, and it's steep - it rises 328 feet over it's course.

Classic Nostalgia is a weekend of four wheeled fun where the paddock is expanded from the usual single seater and classic hill climb fare to encompass other cars, in this case rally cars and a tribute to Donald Campbell and his Napier Bluebird land speed record car from 1929.

If you've never been before you'll be surprised by the size of the place. A hillclimb is necessarily compact but Shelsley Walsh feels particularly bijou. The car parks are right next to the bottom of the track and then it's just a short walk to the track and paddock.

But before you even get there you'll gawp at the lines and lines of classics, sports and super cars, polished and cleaned and prepared by their owners who gather together in an eclectic mix of owner's clubs.

After you've walked up and down and enjoyed the club owner's cars you're at the track. You walk the gauntlet of a dozen food stands - quality fayre here, no typical motorsport grey tea and undefined meat burger - and you're there, trackside. You can hear, but not see quite yet, a car pull away from the line every twenty seconds or so.

Turn left and head to the paddock. If you're lucky, as we were, you'll have access to the Stratstone village with its own grandstand and marquees (with a live acoustic band!) and toilets (and a static display of a lightweight E-Type and Ferrari F40). As it turns out this is a nice to have rather than a have to have because, unlike the majority of UK motorsport venues, Shelsley Walsh is a rather civilised place with first rate facilities.

As mentioned previously the food stalls are a cut above. But then you notice the lack of litter, the closely cut grass, the cleanliness of the loos, the politeness of everyone...

The paddock is a collection of tin roofed, wooden framed, open sided garages which are open to anyone to walk around, inspect the cars, chat to the drivers and generally soak up the atmosphere. Cars are fired up and revved, men and women in overalls and race suits amble around and cars will come and go as they enter or exit the collection area at the bottom of the hill.

And then when they line up and it is their turn to go they drive up to the line and are placed precisely by an orange suited marshal whilst another sticks a chock behind the right, rear wheel. Even the start line is steep.

And then they go, leaving behind the sight, sound and smell of a race car - petrol, fumes, rubber. Automotive nectar.

The first 300 yards looks straight but it bends subtly left and right before the first off-camber left-hand corner - Kennel. The track here is visible by those further up the hill and those who stand or sit in the public or Stratstone grandstands, but there is a hedge preventing those from the car parks seeing in.

Therefore once you've left the paddock you'll want to sprint up the hill to avoid missing any of the action.

You don't have to go far. By the time you reach the second corner, a shallow left called Crossing, you can see more than two thirds of the entire track - left all the way down almost to the start and right to the sharp left Bottom S which leads on to the sharp right Top S and then the finish line.

You can, and should, walk up and down the track, soaking up the atmosphere and watching the cars fly by.

For a 113 year old circuit the tech in use is up to date. Each car hits three timing beams and this data is displayed in real time on a large digital display which is visible to most spectators. There's no need for large TV screens because you can see almost the entire track from most places.

The cars climbing the hill at the Classic Nostalgia event ranged from Group A rally cars with serious pedigree to classic hillclimb machinery. Cars rallied by Carlos Sainz, Colin McRae and a host of  other top flight drivers wowed the crowds as they ran up the hill several times.

You stand or sit and watch as cars come and go and time flies by. You don't need to elbow your way through four deep crowds just to catch a glimpse. You'll generally find a bit of clear fence where you can see up and down the hill. You feel close to the action almost anywhere and, as a motorsport fan, you'll be absorbed by the sight and sound of race cars being driven to the limit for just a few dozen seconds - and then the next car comes along.

Shelsley Walsh exists as a modern reminder of a bygone age, which celebrates fast and glamorous and glorious race cars from the 1920s to the 2000s. It feels elegant and genteel and friendly whilst never being a pastiche. Rather it is just about the most genuine grassroots celebration of motorsport I've encountered in the UK.

With thanks to Stratstone who provided me with a pair of tickets for the day.

Matt Hubbard
@speedmonkeycouk







14 Feb 2017

30 Years In the Past - The Porsche 924S Experience


Go to find the keys in the key drawer. Fingers scrabble around and find the BMW key - big, chunky, buttons, no actual key. Nope. Volvo key - sleek, chunky, buttons, no actual key. Nope. There's only one left. Round, slim plastic bow out of which sticks an actual steel shank with teeth cut out. Yep.

Walk out of the house and see the lines of the 924S. Slim, low, lithe, aerodynamic, rubber spoiler, no headlights, small wheels, big tyres, huge glazed hatchback, copper colour in need of a good clean. Dirt straked behind the rear wheels. No excessive size or weight.

Use the real key to unlock the passenger door. The driver's door lock is irritable and won't open from the outside, only in. Open the impossibly thin and light door. A modern door has heft and weight and noise and certainty. The old Porsche's door has daintiness and narrowness, hope and a light mechanical noise when opened or closed.

Lean in and across and survey the overwhelming brown-ness of the interior. The seats saved only by white pinstripes. Pull the clasp on the driver's door and push it open.

Close the passenger door and walk around to the driver's side and slide in. A modern car is built for everyone. A Porsche 924S is built for the median. Too tall and you won't have headroom. Too fat and your legs won't fit between the unadjustable steering wheel and mildly adjustable seat. Too short and you won't reach the pedals.

Fit it and you sit in the best driving position in the world of motoring.

Take in your surroundings. Three dials in front. Speed, revs, engine temperature, fuel and just three warning lights - low fuel, low oil, low battery.

In the centre are three more dials. Time (analogue), oil pressure, alternator output. Nothing digital, nothing unnecessary, nothing that makes a noise. Except the engine and indicators.

Put the real key in the real ignition barrel and turn it. The engine makes half a turn and barks into life. Strong and real it isn't enhanced by electronic sorcery and flaps, instead it transmits what it is - exploding fuel and metal parts rubbing together, helped by oil. You hear the tappety sounding engine and the waffle of the exhaust note over anything else.

Modern cars alienate you to sensations other than those prescribed by their makers. The 924S fails to mask noise, smell and sights. The glazed area is huge. The mirrors are tiny but you just need to turn your head to check the blind spots. You see the white smoke of the cold engine exhaust billowing up and around the hatch window. You smell the exhaust. You hear everything going on outside.

The gear stick is firm and its action precise and mechanical. It vibrates in tune with the engine. Release the handbrake - its position down between the door and the seat. Select first gear and ease the clutch up and the throttle out and pull away.

Easy does it whilst the engine is cold. It feels bulletproof but it is 30 years old after all. It's never been rebuilt, subject only to regular servicing. You hear the engine from the front and the exhaust from the rear. A strange sensation to those used to modern machines.

The ride is relatively soft - the big tyres ironing out pot holes and speed bumps - but it doesn't roll in corners. The balance of the car is fabulous. A product of lack of weight and clever distribution of that weight.

Engine is warmed up, check dials and see everything is well and carry on.

The throttle pedal has a false limit. Once you feel you've reached the end of its travel push a little harder and access another inch.

In second gear when you press the accelerator hard the car will lurch forward. It's not fast but it feels swift and will spin the rear wheels in first or second. It has no traction control and no ABS but it doesn't really need it. Lightness has many advantages one of which is a lack of inertia compared to heavier modern cars.

Push on and enjoy the mechanical symphony of driving the machine, pushing it to its easy to find limits. There's a real sense that you control the car - which is often missing in modern cars.

At speed and the noise increases. The exhaust noise overwhelms the engine noise. In short doses it's a good, boomy, large bore, 4-cylinder racket. On enthusiastic drives you use it instead of a rev counter to precisely place engine revs. On longer journeys you turn up the tinny stereo to mask its roar.

In corners the car pivots around a point just rear of the front wheels. You respect the power and the balance and use your controls to adjust everything accordingly. To do so well is both easy (because of the car's inherent abilities) and satisfying.

It's at its best on smoothly twisting back roads but is fun on faster A-roads. Overtaking needs to be anticipated and brings another level of satisfaction when accomplished. See the gap, drop down a gear, hear the engine scream as the revs rise, mash the accelerator, make the move.

Open a window and exhaust fumes make their way into the cabin. They all do that - something to do with the shape of the rear end. Open the sunroof as well and the fumes come in and then out again so you breath sweet fresh air instead of carbon monoxide and nitrogen.

Barreling along in the 1986 Porsche 924S is a fabulous, fun experience. It brings the elements to you. It gives you experiences modern cars hide from you. There's nothing false or fake about the car - only raw reality.

By Matt Hubbard


4 Feb 2017

Porsche 924S - An Old Friend Returns

Porsche 924S

Would you like to buy back one of your favourite cars? Do you regret selling any of your old favourites? I sold my 1986 Porsche 924S three years ago. Today I bought it back.

The chap selling it had bought it from the bloke I'd sold it to as a project car but due to work pressures he felt he wasn't spending enough time with it to justify keeping it. It'd been off road for several months. After he placed the ad on eBay someone pointed it out to me via twitter. I got in touch and we agreed a deal.

When I sold in early 2014 it it was my daily driver. Basically it was in good condition but there were many small things that weren't working or were malfunctioning. I sold it in order to buy something modern, something reliable (although the 924S had never broken down) and something I could open the driver's door on.

Of all the inconveniences on the 924S the driver's door handle mechanism was the biggest pain. The clasp broke the day after I bought it and a replacement Porsche handle and mechanism was around £200. I couldn't afford that so bought a Mk2 Golf handle for a fiver which was almost, but not quite, the same.

When I went to pick the car up this morning the handle was still knackered. The seller had tried his best to fix it but you still have to leave the window open to open the door - or lean in from the passenger side.

Aside from that it felt great. The journey home was 110 miles. I'd forgotten how loud it is on the motorway. At 80mph in fifth gear it's ticking over at nearly 4,000rpm and the stainless steel exhaust booms constantly. You have to raise your voice to talk over it.

At that speed the car used to feel quite floaty, as if its aerodynamics were working against it and pushing the front up, but this seems not to have been the case. The seller has had the tracking fixed and now it feels planted at any speed.

When I sold it the car the sunroof leaked but the seller has replaced the seals, and all the seals around the windows. As well as that he's replaced the seats with lovely body hugging ones - in spectacularly brown pinstriped velour. In fact he's replaced or updated an absolute ton of stuff. The full list is below.

As I drove the Porsche 924S home the one thing that reminded me of why I loved it was the gear change. Porsche always makes a great gearbox and in the 924S the feel of the gear change communicates the brute nature of the car's mechanicals into the cabin. If you place your hand on the lever whilst at speed you can feel the rotational force of the engine buzzing away in your hand.

The 924S will now be my second car rather than my only car. I'll be able to spend time on it doing such things as fixing the dent it has acquired whilst out of my hands as well as trying to finally get the driver's door to open properly.

I'll report back on progress every now and again.

By Matt Hubbard
Porsche 924S

Porsche 924S

Full list of work completed by the chap who sold the Porsche 924S back to me (I have no idea what FPR means!):

Renew gear lever inner sealing gaitor
Service kit + 10w40
2x engine mounts (Meyle)
Fixed horn not working (corroded earth)
Minor oil leak (damp, no drips) on diff (output shaft seal)
Fixed headlight washers (just clogged)
Fixed power steering (new radiator)
Paint work + rust removal
New radio (bluetooth + handsfree kit)
Adjust handbrake
Fix rocker cover oil leak
Renew gear shift lever + bushing
Renew wipers
Clean all along clutch linkage (gear change is nice now)
Change transaxle oil with GL4 + renew plug
New PS fluid
Flush and renew coolant
Fit 2x transaxle output seals
Fit better steering wheel (old one worn around rim)
New pins for rear hatch
New distributor and rotor
Renew P/S wing mirror gasket
Fix heater control (new HCV needed)
Re-seal tail lights
Fix short / bad earth with interior lights + restore hbrake light
Fix power windows (new switches)
Fit new injector seals / filters
Renew dashboard lights with LEDs
Fit sound deadening (bonnet and boot)
New battery
New Distributor cap and rotor arm
New door handles
2x new tyres (front). All tyres have loads of tread and are Goodyear EfficientGrip
Tracking / 4-w alignment, fit 2x tyres
MOT
New seats
FPR
New ICV
New windscreen (old one was milky around edges)
New aerial
Porsche parts (misc - manif. gaskets + pipes)
New bonnet insulation


1 Jan 2017

Trip of a Lifetime: John O'Groats to Land's End in One Day

Before Christmas I was wondering what on earth I was going to do in the black hole that is the few days between Christmas and New Year apart from drink and eat to excess. I'm really not a fan of winter and short, cold, rainy days make me feel quite miserable. I needed something to take my mind off it all. I needed a challenge!

One disgustingly dark and horrible December morning I was sitting on the 7.25am from Theale to Paddington reading the latest Guy Martin book. Guy is a human dynamo with boundless energy and a need to fill every hour of the day with danger and excitement. I'm not in the same league as him in terms of activity but I had had a pretty action packed 2016 as far as I was concerned and why not finish it with another road trip?

Inspired by Mr Martin and the fact my new car, a 2007 BMW 330i M Sport, was both fast and comfortable I decided to undertake a trip I'd always wanted to do. Land's End to John O'Groats.

That evening I studied the map. I live in the south east of England and the distance from home to Land's End is 276 miles. Land's End to John O'Groats is 837 miles and John O'Groats to home is 675 miles.  The most I'd ever driven in one day was from Dallas, Texas, to Santa Fe, New Mexico via Roswell and that was 704 miles. 704 miles on straight, open, traffic free, speed camera free American highways. In daylight.

Land's End to John O'Groats would be 837 miles on British roads with average speed cameras, road works and festooned with ignorant drivers in MPVs. The trip would take around 14 hours (without any stops), half of which would be in the dark.

Sounded good. I set a date and booked the hotels. My plan was to do the trip backwards and take two days to get to John O'Groats so I would be feeling fresh and unweary for the big day.

Christmas came and went and on boxing day morning I set off for Dunblane in Scotland. The car was freshly serviced and fully fuelled and I had a cardboard box strapped to the passenger seat which contained all the essentials I'd need for the trip.

Day 1 was an enjoyable blast along familiar roads - the A34, M40, M42, M6 and M74. I was surprised at how much traffic was on the road but nonetheless didn't get stuck in any traffic jams.  The hotel was comfortable and the next day I breakfasted well and headed to John O'Groats. This day was much different. The vast majority of the trip was on the A9 which would be a fabulous road but is neutered by average speed cameras along the majority of its length.

Still, there is a certain enjoyment to be found setting the cruse control to 74mph and doing everything in your power to maintain that speed no matter what - including overtaking those doing 68mph (everyone).

The A9 flows through the Cairngorms where the view changes from forest to mountains. It's an achingly lovely place spoiled only by having to constantly overtake other drivers whilst making sure you don't speed. At one point I stopped in a quiet lay-by. There seemed to be no-one else for miles around and was the perfect place for a comfort break. Then a cyclist clad in lycra arrived and stood ten yards away from me, unmoving. It felt like he'd done it on purpose. Still needing a pee I got back in the car and carried on.

The road situation vastly improves north of Inverness where the road gets quieter and twistier and the speed cameras disappear. I would argue this promotes safer driving as one needs to focus on what is going on and one's driving. The further north you get the more corners and elevation changes there are. The sea is to one side and craggy hills to the other. Towns and villages are sprinkled infrequently and traffic is extremely light. Even when you do come up behind someone there are plenty of opportunities to overtake safely.

At a place called Golspie I pulled over and went for a walk along a quite spectacular beach. At Wick I stopped for fuel and some healthy snacks for the journey - carrots, nuts, grapes.

At a shade before 4pm I pulled into John O'Groats. The village is nothing more than a collection of touristy type buildings surrounding a harbour. Shops, cafe, pub. I walked along the harbour and was for that moment the most northerly person on the British mainland.

My hotel was 200 yards away. It was simple and quite cold. Darkness descended totally at 4.15pm and suddenly what had been a welcoming kind of place seemed harsh and unforgiving.

I had arrived early so I could be as ready as possible for the big day ahead. In terms of overall preparation I was as ready as possible. I was travelling alone. I could have dragged someone along but I'm happy with my own company, and often prefer it to inane chattering for the sake of it. I'd also prepared a very long playlist of my favourite music - around 25 hours worth.

I'd been considering audiobooks but couldn't make my mind up - I prefer to read actual books. However when I learned of the sad death of Carrie Fisher I downloaded her new book, The Princess Diarist.

I'd also altered my sleeping pattern. I'm normally a bed late, up late person - a night owl. But I'd been going to bed earlier and earlier and been waking up earlier too. My alarm was set for 5.30am for a 6am start.

At 7pm I ate dinner in the hotel bar, surrounded by drunk Scottish people. I showered and went to bed at 9pm and fell asleep immediately.

At 3.48am I woke up. There was no point going back to sleep. I made a cup of tea, packed my stuff and hit the road at exactly 4.33am. The satnav said it would take 14 hours 26 minutes. I felt fresh and ready for the trip. Heated seat on, climate set to 20°C. Head off into the dark.

The first couple of hours were fantastic fun. Winding, twisting, single carriageway roads. Hands on the wheel, eyes fixed on the road or the next apex. I was carrying a good speed. Manoeuvres were not conducted like I was in a race car - I was in this for the long haul - but I was braking late, hitting apexes, accelerating hard.

I saw lots of wildlife. Deer, foxes, rabbits and the odd something small, furry and fast, scurrying across the road.

The sky was pitch black but the wind was low and there wasn't a hint of mist, even though fog was forecast over parts of the country.

The further south I headed the more traffic I encountered. I continued driving hard. I came across the sections of the A9 with average speed cameras. Cruise control on, overtake slowly, insane politicking affecting safety. Still, at night you can see headlights approaching - or not.

I passed through the Cairngorms in darkness and didn't see the snow spattered mountains

At 7.41am the sun started appearing above the horizon. Then it came suddenly and the day arrived, albeit gloomily.

By Glasgow I had been driving for 4 hours 30 minutes without a break. We had done 280 miles and there was was still a quarter of a tank of fuel left. My average speed had been 64.6mph and fuel consumption had averaged 27.1mpg.

I was ready for a break (busting for a pee) but the electronic sign said the services I had planned to stop at had no fuel. Instead I asked the satnav to find another fuel station. I stopped at Morrisons, Glasgow to fill up with petrol and windscreen washer fluid and a run to the loo. After less than ten minutes we were on the road again.

The next few hundred miles were going to be my opportunity to increase my average speed before hitting the midlands. South of Glasgow and into northern England and the interfering busybodies in government leave the poor motorist alone for a while. There are no fixed cameras and little other traffic. Those hours were glorious. If you've ever driven across Europe you'll know the feeling of driving mile after mile on straight, quiet roads at high speed. This is what the M74 and M6 through the Lakes and Lancashire is like. Pure pleasure.

And then I hit the traffic.

My average speed over 450 miles had been 69.9mph. I was now just over half way there and feeling good. But the M6 had other thoughts. We ground to a halt north of Warrington and my average never reached 70mph. I was using Google maps on my phone for more accurate traffic data and it said the area north of the Thelwall viaduct was totally blocked and that we should turn off and travel 2 miles east down the M62 then head south through Birchwood and back on to the M6 just ahead of the viaduct. Google reckoned this hugely out of the way route would save 20 minutes. I took the diversion.

We continued to crawl and Google came up with another suggestion to avoid 45 minutes worth of queues. This time it involved the M56 west then the A559 south until Crewe. I took this too.

Coincidentally this route passed within half a mile of my brother's house so I called in for a quick pit stop but the house was empty. They were out shopping. It was 12.45pm. I watered his hedge and carried on.

Back on the M6 and I didn't take any more diversions. The traffic shuffled along in fits and starts and ruined my average speed even more. At Birmingham we took the M5 and carried on inexorably south.

Patches of mist came and went. The traffic didn't improve. At several points the fast lane went from 75mph to 0mph whilst the other lanes carried on at 60-70mph. I was surrounded by ignoramuses who refused to drive according to conditions, to any code of conduct, to simple common sense or courtesy.

I regularly dipped into the middle lane if it became free but would then be blocked from getting back into lane three. People would drive close to the car ahead and constantly brake. Others sat for miles in lane three at 65mph, ignoring the massive queue behind and acres of free motorway ahead. Random panic braking would occur frequently. People only seemed to look at the car ahead rather than to the traffic all around and ahead. I was, as I often am, quite appalled at the driving standards on our roads, something that becomes quite dangerous on a busy motorway.

Time and miles wore on. I had stopped again at Hilton Park services in Birmingham. The sun sat low in the sky at Bristol and everyone slammed on their brakes every time the road aligned with it so it sat right on the horizon at 12 o'clock.

The sun set at 4.30pm at Avonmouth. I took stock. I was feeling fine. I'd been driving for 12 hours straight and did not feel weary. The BMW was doing a fine job. I had finished my audiobook and moved on to music. I would open the window occasionally for a blast of cold, fresh air.

I stopped for fuel somewhere on the M5 but cannot remember where. Then we hit Exeter and turned on to the A30 which is a beautiful road, mainly dual carriageway, that passes through some spectacular scenery as it heads through Devon and Cornwall.

There was plenty of traffic but it was better behaved than on the M6 and M5. We all cruised as fast as we felt comfortable with and people would move over if lane one was free. Very civilised.

At Bodmin we hit 12 miles of roadworks, policed by average speed cameras with a limit of 40mph. I was behind some moron in a Hyundai who could not maintain a constant speed so we wavered from 30 to 40mph for what seemed like forever.

Finally free of the roadworks I mashed the pedal and carried on across Cornwall. I stopped for fuel at some point and felt weary and tired for the first time. The dual carriageway lasts a surprisingly long time. It was only after Penzance - just a few miles from Land's End - that the A30 becomes single carriageway.

Those last few miles were conducted in silence. I turned the music off and opened the window and enjoyed the moment. I followed an old Defender for a few minutes. The driver was caning it so it was quite fun.

And then finally I hit Sennen and saw the sign for Land's End. I passed the Last Pub in England and carried on. Along a quiet lane you see a pair of stone signs either side of the road that simply say Land's End. I stopped for a photo. A deer jumped in front of me and bounced off into the night.

Another hundred yards and I had done it. It was 7.39pm. According to my car's trip computer (not accounting for stops) the average speed had been 62.9mph and the average fuel consumption 28.2mpg. I had covered 857 miles.

The overall trip had taken 15 hours and 6 minutes. I had been driving for 14 hours and 12 minutes. Therefore I had stopped for a total of 54 minutes.

I felt elated. I parked in the Land's End car park and looked upwards. It was a crystal clear night and the sky looked spectacular. I could see three or four times more stars than I normally would in the light polluted south east.

Happy with the day I drove two miles to my hotel in Sennen Cove, ate a light dinner, drank a single pint and went to bed.

The next morning I woke an hour before breakfast so went for a walk along the beautiful beach at Sennen Cove. At 9am I drove back to Land's End and walked down to the craggy area behind the tourist buildings. For that moment I was the most southerly human on the British mainland. Then I headed for home and was able to view Cornwall and Devon in daylight - always a delight. I stopped for lunch with a friend in Somerset and finally arrived home at 4pm.

When I mentioned on Twitter I was doing the trip I had lots of support. When I was headed up north and then on the day of the trip itself I was inundated with questions and well wishes. A few people asked why I had done it, some just said I was crazy. Everyone congratulated me. It felt good to have so much positivity from people.

Driving from John O'Groats to Lands End in a day is an ultimately pointless exercise but so is any kind of rally or competition. I can say I did it and the vast majority of people cannot. I feel good that I did it. I ticked a box that would have always remained unticked - unsatisfactorily so. I enjoyed my time behind the wheel but I also enjoyed the preparation and the time afterwards.

I am writing this on 1 January. This year I will ride my motorcycle with a group of friends across Wales, touching the south, east, north and west boundaries, and I'll drive through most of the capital cities in Western Europe. I've developed a taste for road trips but it is so much more satisfying if that trip has a purpose.

By Matt Hubbard



23 Dec 2016

Take The Trip, Buy The Car, Ride The Bike

Someone recently said to me on Twitter that he'd love to take his Alfa Romeo on a trip to Italy. I said he should and he said it would need to be more mechanically sound than it currently is and that he'd probably never do it.

This reminded me of how I once was when turning dreams into reality. I didn't because I was too scared.

Another conversation, this time with the lady who looks after my dog when I'm away. I bumped into her recently and she said something that sounded funny. She said that when she knows she has to go on a long trip she worries about it beforehand but that when she actually goes on the trip it turns out fine. I thought back to the me of a few years ago and realised that I used to do exactly the same.

I used to travel a lot for work - sometimes 800 miles a week - and before those long journeys I'd fret for days. Then, when I hit the motorway it was absolutely fine. When it came to non-necessary trips, i.e. trips to places I might want to go, this worrying prevented me from going. However if someone else organised and led the trip I did go.

I don't know why. I don't even mind travelling alone. In fact I prefer it. I like my own company and driving time is thinking time which, in my mind, is a good thing. I suppose I just had a fear of the unknown and of taking risks.

What I do know is that I was putting barriers in the way of things I wanted to do.

And I did have dreams and desires. I had trips I wanted to do and I had vehicles I wanted to buy. Scratch that - needed to buy.

I had always wanted to go to Le Mans to watch the 24 hour race, to the Isle of Man for the TT and ride the circuit, to the Nurburgring to drive round the track, to America to drive from coast to coast and to drive from the top to the bottom of the UK. The car I always wanted was a Porsche 911. The bike I always wanted was a Yamaha R1.
Dream bike. My 2000 Yamaha R1 before I crashed it

That was then and this is now. Now I have lost my fear of exploration and of the unknown. I've done all but one of the above trips and I've owned a 911 and an R1. But it has cost me.

The 911 cost the most. Good lord it cost. It was a £10k 1998 Carrera 2. It was the worst spec - tiptronic, convertible - but it was dirt cheap and it had a reconditioned engine fitted. The seller was private but he was selling via Brookspeed Porsche, one of the most respected independent Porsche garages in the south.

I thought I had a bargain and I'd scratched my 911 itch. I'd desperately wanted one for at least 25 years but had never been able to justify one practically or afford one financially.

After I bought it I spent another £600 fitting a decent stereo unit and another £150 fixing the recalcitrant alternator. I took it on a good few trips and told everyone how brilliant it was but in reality it gave me cramp in my right leg and the interior creaked like buggery. It didn't handle any better or go any faster than my current car - a BMW 330i M Sport.

But it was a 911 and it was mine and that was what I always wanted. I was happy.

Then I wasn't happy. At 70mph a chunk of cylinder bore lining came adrift and the engine smashed itself to smithereens. After 6 weeks of ownership I sold it for £5k.

Then there was the Yamaha R1. I didn't just want an R1 - I needed one. I had to have one like I have to breathe air. In my late 30s I finally bought one and it was an absolute beauty. It was a 2000 model in red, white and black. It produced 150bhp and weighed 150kg. It went like a rocket and had no traction control or ABS. I went faster on that R1 than I've ever been on or in any other vehicle - and it still had more to give.

But it didn't half give me leg ache, wrist ache and neck ache. And it was far too much bike for me. I'm a skilled rider in city traffic and cutting a line on country roads but the R1's untamed 1,000bhp per tonne was just too much. Nonetheless I stuck with it.

Then after only three months of ownership I killed it in the most embarrassing way possible. I had taken it to my son's primary school's autumn fayre. After the fayre I turned right out of the school, gave it slightly too much throttle and fishtailed twenty yards before high siding. The bike and I slid 50 yards down the road, absolutely destroying the R1's right hand side and my ego.

I actually got two things out of that. The full value from the insurers and the knowledge that I'd owned the best, most fantastic bike I could imagine.
Dream car. My 1998 Porsche 911 Carrera before the engine exploded

After the experiences with the 911 and the R1 I'm now comfortable with every purchase I make. I don't have to buy something for the sake of it because I've already done that.

As for the trips, well they came about in different ways. The first was the trip to the TT in 2009. The only reason I went was that it was organised by someone else and a big group was going. Someone else did the organisation and booking and I just rode along. It was a fabulous week and made me realise it is possible to take long trips and just enjoy them for the sake of it rather than racing to a destination as fast as possible - something I am wont to do.

Then, in 2010, I decided on impulse to go to the Nurburgring to scratch that itch. I'd always wanted to go but the distance, fact it was in a foreign land and total lack of understanding I had of the place had stopped me. Buoyed by the fact my mate Scottie would be coming with me we booked a ferry and set off after work on a Friday and drove through the night.

We arrived at Nurburg at 5am and slept for two hours in the car then found the entrance to the track and had an unbelievably brilliant time. It was a huge eye opener for me. I could do the things I wanted to do. I didn't need to worry. The video below is of us getting stuck behind a BMW on the Karussell.



So Scottie and I went to Le Mans in 2012 and when I got home I created Speedmonkey. In 2013 my brother organised a trip to Scotland on motorcycles. We did 1,400 miles in 4 days. Earlier this year I drove from Miami to San Fransisco with my son in a convertible Mustang. They were the best two weeks of my life.

I often take road trips now and never fret about them beforehand. I do things I would never have done beforehand because my mindset is much more JFDI than 'can't'.

Next summer I'll be taking a huge tour of Europe and in just a few days time I'll undertake the last of my bucket list of trips to take and cars to buy. I'll be driving from John O'Groats to Lands End in one day.

If I can do it so can you. Go on, take that trip, buy that car, ride that bike. You only live once.

By Matt Hubbard


4 Dec 2016

Review - BMW E90 330i M Sport

BMW E90 330i M Sport

This past couple of years have been quite ruinous ones in terms of me and cars. At the start of last year I owned an Audi TT 3.2 V6 coupe but that got sold and I bought an Elise. Now the Elise was a good car but was so ridiculously impractical I quite soon got bored of having to clamber in and out, and having nowhere to put anything in it, and getting 70mph rain in the face whilst on the motorway in a storm.

So I sold that at a four figure loss and bought a 911. The 911 was a 2000 3.2 Carrera 2 with a reconditioned engine. It was everything a 911 shouldn't be - automatic, convertible, 996. The engines in 996s have a habit of exploding but mine had a reconditioned engine fitted two years earlier so was safe.

It lasted 3 weeks before the engine exploded at 60mph and 6,000rpm. 22 litres of coolant and oil were thrown into the air as the engine locked up and we coasted to a halt. In the 3 weeks of ownership I had spent a small fortune on a new battery, alternator and sound system. I sold it for less than half what I had spent on it.

Oh, I bought a new bike too. A brand new Triumph Tiger 800 XCx.

Through all this has been my trusty Volvo XC60 D4 R-Design. It's a car I love for its ride, quality, tech, ease of use and general familiarity and comfort. But it's not exactly a dynamic vehicle. It's not one you'd take for a drive for the sake of it.

The Volvo is leased and the lease comes to an end in early 2017.  I'd been thinking about what to replace it with since...ooh about Easter.

99% of our village owns a new Land Rover Discovery Sport. It's a lovely looking thing, especially in red with black wheels. I've looked at buying and leasing one but the finances just don't stack up for me. I like a discount on a car and Disco Sports are expensive for what they are. Evoques are cheaper but I haven't the urge to start a mobile hairdressing business yet.

So then I started looking at VW Golfs. If lease deals on Golf Rs were dirt cheap I would have signed up for one. But they aren't at the moment. So I started looking at buying a GTi. It's around £27k specced how I'd like it but you can get one discounted to about £23k if you know where to look.

But I had various conversations with my son (who I trust on these kind of things) about buying or leasing new vs buying used. One thing the Volvo has never been is mine. Any new car wouldn't ever be mine. Even if you're buying one it would be on a PCP deal and with that you give it back at the end of the term. And son reckoned owning a car would be better than not. And I agreed with him.

So I started thinking about budgets and monthly payments and decided I would buy a Mk6 Golf GTi. The Mk6 is the best looking Golf, is quick, has all the tech I want - heated seats, cruise control, bluetooth, is practical enough for us and is good to drive.

Decision made I gave myself a couple of months to find and buy the best I could find.

But then one week I thought about BMWs. Now me and BMW don't have the best history. I've had an E36 320i SE, an E36 323i Touring, an E46 318i SE and an E39 525td Touring. I didn't really like any of them. None were quick and the driving position was compromised in all the 3-Series I'd owned. The throttle pedal was too stiff in the 323i. They all annoyed me in some way or other.

The only BMW I ever liked was a 435i M Sport Coupe. That was pretty good.

I need a four or five door car so Kes, my border collie, can ride in the back. I also fancied an auto this time. Given a choice I'd rather have a bigger naturally aspirated engine than a smaller turbocharged one.

I did my research and could afford an early 320i F30 or a later E90 with a higher spec and decent engine. I pored over the online ads. I preferred the shape of the saloon E90 than the F30 which looks big and bloated in comparison.

I narrowed it down to wanting an E90 330i M Sport saloon with the auto gearbox. The M Sport not only offers a higher spec than lower models but looks much better with it's bodykit and 18 inch wheels. I didn't want to buy from a dealer so looked at the private ads only. A few looked good.

One Saturday I was headed to the Motorcycle Live show at the Birmingham NEC. There was a particularly good looking 330i only a few miles away so I went to have a look at it on the way.
BMW E90 330i M Sport

As soon as I saw it I was hooked. Great looking in silver it was a 2007 car with only 53,000 miles on the clock and a full service history. I could have afforded a newer car but this one wanted for nothing and would save me a few quid over a later one. I left a cash deposit and returned the next day with the balance.

I was the owner of a 2007 330i M Sport with auto transmission. Since then I've put a good few miles on it, done some motorway work, driven into London and gone for a couple of drives purely for the sake of it.

I love its looks, its sharp, clean lines and its lack of vulgarity. I also love the fact it feels solid, a quality motor that belies its age. Stick a modern infotainment system in it and it could pass for a much newer car.

The drivetrain is almost perfect. The engine is the N52 3-litre inline 6-cylinder which produces 250hp and 230lb ft of torque. It's a thing of wonder. It sounds fantastic and has a decent spread of torque across the range with none of the lag or low rev weakness of a turbocharged engine. The gearbox is a 6-speed automatic with sport mode for later changes and allies well with the engine.

The car looks good outside and in. Previous BMWs I've owned have had quite slabby and not very supportive seats but the seats in this car are comfortable and supportive, and body figure hugging. They're comfortable on a long drive and sporty when you're pressing on.

The interior is light years ahead of that in older BMWs. With flourishes of aluminium trim and improved design and layout it feels as good as it looks. The steering wheel is chunky and the dials clear - although I would have preferred a digital speed readout.

It has almost all the tech I've got used to in the Volvo and other new cars but falls over in the infotainment area.

My 330i has iDrive. iDrive was an early attempt to remove some functionality from buttons and dials and embed it in a screen based system. Some climate controls, almost all the entertainment and most of the car's dynamic controls are accessed via iDrive. It works from a single rotary knob and a button. It also contains a satnav which, because it's a few years old, is pretty hopeless.

Yes it is easy to use whilst on the move but no it is not intuitive. It does not have DAB radio and it does not have a USB connection (although it was available as an option at the time) or Bluetooth for music, although bizarrely it does have Bluetooth for phone calls.

To play music I either have to play CDs or plug my phone to the Aux in socket, which is OK for longer journeys.
BMW E90 330i M Sport

Those in the front are quite cosseted with plenty of room, a pair of cup holders, decent door pockets, heated seats and individual climate controls. Those in the back have less room but still much more than in older 3-Series. The boot is quite big and the floor surprisingly low for a rear wheel drive car.

Ah yes, rear wheel drive. The 3-Series' dynamic masterstroke. So what is it like to drive?

I've driven everything from a BRZ to a 911 via a Rolls Royce Wraith. I've driven a Lotus Evora around the track at Hethel, I've chucked a Cayman R around the Porsche track at Silverstone and I've wrung the neck of a Radical SR3 RS around the Grand Prix track at Silverstone. I've got to know rear wheel drive cars in front, mid and rear engined forms quite a lot over the years.

The 330i M Sport makes a damn good show of itself. On the motorways and A-roads it's a comfortable cruiser that's quiet and refined. But find somewhere more challenging and it becomes a different beast.

You forget the rear seats and boot. You forget you are in a saloon. You sit low in the car and you drive it like a coupe.  The engine is strong and the gearbox fast moving - as long as you've selected sport.

The front end of the car has slightly less feel than I would have liked but the rear makes up for it. After a bit of practice you can lean on the rear and feel it moving, leaning on the suspension as it powers round a corner.

If the road is slightly unsettled or if you drive it like you have hooves instead of feet the traction control button flashes like a Christmas light. Turn it off and the rear wheels lose grip quickly.

Yet the front never loses grip.

Some cars are more than the sum of their parts and this is one such. When driving you can feel its fluidity, the chassis giving great feedback, allowing you to position it on the road just as you would like.

At high and low speeds and with short and long radius bends it feels superb to drive. And it does this without commotion. Its feathers never feel unruffled. It stays refined even when the driver's eyes are on stalks and his palms sweating.

It does have its faults. The gearbox is a bit hesitant to change down when not in Sport mode and the wheels can follow tracks and ruts in the road.

I set out to buy a car that was both practical and fun to drive, and I succeeded. They say that the sign of a great car is that when you pull into your drive and walk toward your front door you turn and look back at it. I do this every time I drive mine.

By Matt Hubbard