24 Mar 2019

Driving Around the Cotswolds in Classic British Cars


I recently had the opportunity to drive a handful of classic cars. It was organised by Great Escape Cars as a day for journalists and bloggers and replicated their Cotswolds Highlights Tour.

I arrived at 9.30am at Great Escape's unit in Redditch - right at the south end of the Midlands and almost touching the Cotswolds. They're located down a road full of industrial units. You drive past the usual light industrial stuff...and then you see it.

Where most units' car parks are full of Transits and pickups and Corsa vans Great Escapes' is full of cars from the 80s, 70s and even 60s. This is automotive heaven.

If you book a tour with Great escapes you'll likely meet Graham Eason. I've known him for a few years as we hired an E-Type from him for my 40th (an eternity ago. And a jolly 24 hours we had.)

After we had introduced ourselves to each other and grabbed a drink Graham explained their recent change in philosophy. The business used to hire a classic car out for a day or so but now they've realised that what most customers want is a taster of each car. An hour or so in the car of their dreams.

This might sound odd but, trust me, it isn't. When we drove the E-Type it was awesome for the first couple of hours. And then it rained so we had to put the hood up. And that wasn't entirely draft-proof, which old cars aren't. And it was cold, and steamed up a bit. And after a while the whole experience started to become slightly less awesome because classic cars are also old cars and old cars don't have the dynamics of modern cars.

Anyway, back to the present. Graham promised us we'd enjoy this format. We would drive five cars over the course of a day. If you're a paying customer you get to choose which cars but our cars were chosen for us. A few people took the trouble to check out the current fleet (it does change) and put requests in.

You share a car with someone. You can swap around as much as you want but stay with your partner over the course of the day. Happily an old friend had suggested we partner up.

Our first car was a Jaguar XJS V6 in red. Knowing we'd be in another XJS later in the day my friend did all the driving for the for first leg. It was an 80s Jag and as such was clad in leather and wood (none of your modern veneer either but actual chunks of wood) and was smooth and refined as you'd expect. What I had totally forgotten about old cars is quite how small the interiors are.  The cabin was snug and everything much closer than you'd get in a modern car. There was also no storage space.  Like, none. I had a bottle of water which I had to put in the footwell and everything else went on the back seat. Each stage is around 45 minutes and 20 miles and I thoroughly enjoyed navigating using the Great Escapes amazingly comprehensive instructions.

After a tea break (literally, at Broadway Tower) it was my turn to drive and the next car was one of the jewels in the Great Escapes' crown.
HMC

The car was the mighty HMC. This is essentially an Austin Healey 3000 MkIII. You would imagine it's from the 1960s or 70s but in reality this car was built in 1999. You'd never know it though as it's a faithful replica of the original car.

You climb in to the cramped cockpit, all tan leather and wood and the steering wheel is in your lap. You move the chair back little but the wheel is still in your lap. The A-pillar is also far closer to your face than you're comfortably used to in modern cars.

Everything is at hand. Behold! There is a small recess in which you can dump your mobile but that's it. Insert the key and fire up the engine and...WOAH!
HMC interior

This HMC isn't fitted with the original Healey 2.6 or 3.0 inline-6. Instead it has a modern(ish) Rover 3.9 V8.

Fabulous.

Blip the throttle. More fabulous. Engage 1st and ease the clutch and feel the grunt. I used to own a Discovery 2 with this exact same engine and it was far quieter and more refined in the Landie. In the HMC you feel it, you hear it and you engage with it.

The gearbox is remarkably good. The throw of the gearbox is short. It's nothing like as smooth as, say a modern Fiesta or Golf, but it is comfortably mechanical.

The HMC is great fun to drive. There is no room for your right arm so it sits atop the door. The sound and grunt of the engine carries you along on a wave of enthusiasm. You laugh with your passenger at the experience of barreling along in the thing. People look at you, you acknowledge them with the briefest nod of the head. You enjoy.

After a decent drive in the HMC we stopped for lunch at the relatively new Caffeine and Machine cafe and gawped at the machinery coming and going in the car park. They've really found a niche and have located their premises perfectly. Engineers from JLR and Aston Martin turned up in amazing machinery and someone turned up in Ferrari Daytona to go get a coffee and watch people gawp at his car.

After lunch we were given the keys to a Mk2 Jaguar. Now this would be a far different experience to the HMC. The Mk2 was manufactured in 1965 and was powered by a 3.8 litre inline-6 engine.
Jaguar Mk2 3.8

The Mk2 was designed in the 1950s and it feels it. You climb in and it feels like you're sitting in a museum. It's relatively spacious but there's still no cubby space to put a phone or drink.

Leather and wood abound. Great planks of wood, hewn from logs and planed, sanded and varnished by craftsmen. The colours are beiges and tans, natural in look, feel and smell.

The driving position is OK. The chair is comfortable but a bit too upright. Adjustment is minimal. The steering wheel is large, wooden and thin. The engine fires up from a Bakelite button in the middle of the dash and is incredibly smooth.

The getaway is anything but smooth. It takes quite some time to get used to but you kangaroo away from the off the first few times you try. On my first ever drive - from a fuel station on a main road - I hadn't shut the door properly so as we lurched down the road the door flew open and I cursed and almost fell out of the car as I grabbed the door to pull it closed. My passenger and I laughed so much it hurt our ribs.

Having driven one before I know the Mk2 has pretty vague steering but this one was quite good. You don't want to drive too fast in it but it surprised.  I enjoyed our spin in the old girl.

Next up was my turn in an XJS. In 1985 I was 14 and that year a film called The Supergrass was released. It was a Comic Strip film with the usual Comic Strip cast and featured Adrian Edmonson and Jennifer Saunders driving down to Cornwall in an XJS. Ever since then I've loved the XJS. It was cool then and it is cool now.
Jaguar XHS V12

Only now it is an old car. 'Our' XJS was a blue 5.3 V12 built in 1988. Back then it was rivalled only by the 911 as the ultimate sports coupe.

They say that you shouldn't meet your heros. In this case I was glad I did.

The XJS' cabin is cramped. Once in the comfortable seat you could touch the windscreen with the palm of your hand (please don't, I have a thing about fingerprints on windows). The pedals and wheel are perfectly placed.

The controls are pretty basic and are formed by big switches and dials. Each side of the cockpit has their own ashtray and the glovebox opens down to form a perfectly flat surface with a mirror which I cannot for the life of me imagine would be useful to a yuppie in 1988...

Fire up the engine and... Is it on? Yes you can feel it. Blip the throttle and you can feel it twist. This is an engine with modesty. It has power and it has torque but it does not feel the need to shout about them. They can be accessed when necessary but it prefers smoothness and effortlessness.

Slip it into drive and and the steering feels oily smooth. The Jaguar virgin might think this is simply too much lightness but it is a feature that dictates the feel of a true Jag right up to the present day.

Slip and slide along at speed and the V12 XJS simply glides with your steering inputs minimal.

The bonnet is as massive as the windscreen is close. All in all this was one hero I was glad to meet. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the XJS.

Our final drive of the day was a Triumph Herald. This was a stand in for the Morris Minor Traveller who's dynamo gave upon the ghost.
Triumph Herald

People who knew about these things did not give us good feedback on the lowly Herald.

With some trepidation we clambered aboard. It was tiny and open. The day was overcast but dry. If it had started raining I'm sure we could have pulled up the hood but I'm not sure how.

We pulled away and were surprised. Sure the tiny Herald is a tiny car with virtually no room for anything in the cabin, but the engine was sprightly. It's the 1400cc from the Spitfire and sounded great, especially as you cruise along on a trailing throttle.

The steering was pretty vague and the gears were...not always easy to engage. Third was a particular challenge. But my co-driver and I found the whole experience charming.

We found that the top speed of the Herald was around 50mph, after which the engine and gearbox felt stressed enough, and the brakes' capacity to come to a safe stop was about as much as was safe.

But stay under 50 and it was a hoot.

We'd set off from Redditch at 10am and at 3.30pm eased back in to the road leading to the unit occupied by Great Escapes.

The day had been fabulous fun. The cars were brilliant to drive and I'd met my hero, the XJS, and had not been disappointed.

Graham had been right to restructure the business towards shorter drives in lots of cars. More than an hour or so in most would be a little too much. Although I could quite happily steer the XJS all day.

By Matt Hubbard



30 Jan 2019

2008 BMW 320d M Sport E90 Video Review

I've owned my BMW 320d M Sport E90 since last June which for me is an eternity! So I thought I'd better get around to filming a video about it.

I've previously written about the car which you can read here and here.

28 Sep 2018

Why I Hated My BMW 320d And Wanted To Sell It - And Then Fell In Love With It Again


I'd bought the 320d. I'd justified it to myself. I was going to keep it. I owned it outright and I didn't want to make any monthly payments. I liked it. So what if it had 200,000 miles on the clock. It ran well and it was comfy and fast and drove well. I'd made my peace with it.

But it had started getting slower. It had started to feel a bit clogged up. All was not well. But I put it out of my mind. I continued using it day to day, short trips and long trips.

Until...

Until a light came on the dashboard, between the speedo and the rev counter. And it was accompanied by a bong. Or maybe a chime. Whatever it was it was not good.

I could have Googled it but I took a photo and put it on Twitter.  The answers came back straight away. All the same.

DPF. Diesel Particulate Filter. Uh? What the hell was a DPF? So I Googled that. It was not good. To cut a long story short a DPF is a filter somewhere in the exhaust system that filters out all the diesel particulates (that as a motorcyclist I can feel in my eyes when following an older bus or taxi in London).

This terrified me. What had I done by buying a diesel? Maybe I should sell the car and buy a petrol. This was a sorry state of affairs.

I went online. Halfords promised to clear out your DPF for a mere £85. Phew! I booked an appointment and a mechanic friend took it there to see if he could learn anything. Sadly not, they said it would take 4 hours so he went for a very long and boring coffee. 4 hours later it was done. £85 poorer but the DPF light had gone out. Job done, scare over.

The next day the DPF light came on again.

I did some more investigation. I consulted many forums where many ill-informed people gave many opinions on what to do, or not. Sell it they said. It's knackered they said. Don't buy a diesel they said. A new one would be £1500 they said.

Not helpful. I did my own investigations. I could buy a new one off eBay for £800. Or alternatively there was a company in Maidenhead who would clear it through for £250. This looked a good and sensible solution, but would it work?

I asked my mechanic friend to call them and book an appointment. We agreed that he would remove the DPF - even though we had no idea where it was or what it looked like - and take it there, get it cleaned and then reinstall it. Great theory but would it work out?

Meantime I had started to hate the car. It let me down and I don't like being let down by mechanical machinery. I like reliability. I talked myself into buying a Mk5 Golf GTI. I spent every waking hour searching Autotrader and eBay.

The BMW started driving terribly. It went into limp mode a few times and would only drive at 25% power.

I discounted 95% of GTIs on sale. Wrong colour, too many miles, not enough history, no cruise control, no heated seats, the dealer sounded like a cowboy (80% of them), too far away, weird stains on seats, not clean enough, mods I didn't like.

But I found one. It was 80 miles from home. The seller sold it really hard. I wanted a discount but he wouldn't give one. I pushed, he pushed back. OK I agreed, I'll come see it and will probably buy it. It looked amazing. So one evening after work my mechanic friend and I travelled 2 hours and met the seller and his car.

Rewind...

Earlier that day my friend had jacked the BMW up and removed the DPF in under 2 hours. It was much easier than expected. He drove it to Maidenhead and it was thoroughly cleaned. It had been blocked almost solid. No amount of recharging by Halfords would have fixed it. Only a deep bath and jet clean with detergents could fix it, and fix it they did. It cost £180 (trade rates) and my friend reinstalled it in an hour.
The Diesel Particulate Filter

The Golf looked fabulous. But a little too shiny. A little too clean. I drove it. It was nice but not as spectacular as I'd been led to believe. The timing belt hadn't been changed for 50,000 miles. This was a concern. I actually preferred the BMW's driving experience. I asked that if I bought it would he consider not cancelling the tax until the next day. He refused.

I thought this was mean spirited but I did agree to buy the car. Some part of my mind was saying no but another part said yes. We agreed the price - the price he had asked - he was so confident he could sell it for the full price. I used my banking app and it didn't work. Hmmm? I phoned my bank. The funds wouldn't clear until the next day.

Snap. That was it. There and then I realised I had done the wrong thing. Fate showed me what I should have seen already. I walked away.

We drove home and only then did I start to realise quite what a difference there was in the BMW. It pulled stronger than it had ever done. The DPF had obviously been quite blocked when I bought it and this had only got worse until it got to the point it started to produce warnings.

By the time we were home I decided I would keep the BMW. I actually loved it and I should never have gone to see the Golf.

But actually I should have. It had been a cathartic experience and I learned lessons. I know I have some kind of syndrome. I call it impulsiveness and I've always had it and it's cost me a fortune in cars I've bought and sold and lost money on. Whatever it is and whatever trendy name might be applied to it matters not.

As soon as something went wrong I wanted rid of the BMW. It took the experience of realising the grass wasn't greener with the Golf to realise I preferred the BMW in the first place and that I shouldn't have gone looking for something else. I should have just fixed it and been done but I couldn't help it. It's for this reason I bought a Yamaha R1 and crashed it and it's for this reason I bought a Porsche 911 and lost £5,000 when the engine blew almost immediately. Sometimes I just cannot help myself - no matter what anyone says.

But, whatever. Lessons learned. I had the BMW and I liked it again.

But there were a few things that needed fixing if I was to keep it. It had satnav via a TomTom but it needed Bluetooth. CDs are too 2000s for me. I need to be able to play music from my phone. I had been using the aux-in cable but saw on the Honest John website a review of Bluetooth units. They recommended the Anker Roav Bluetooth Adapter. They gave it 9/10 so I ordered one.

It arrived the next day and was a plug and play affair. It just needed a USB connection for power and an aux-in port and both are under the armrest. Once plugged in I connected my phone and, honestly, I was amazed. The sound quality is fantastic. I get in, start the engine and press the button on the unit and music plays from my phone. Perfect.
The Bluetooth Adapter

The next job was to fix the headlights. They were pathetic. I had replaced the bulbs with upgraded xenon bulbs but they were still pathetic. The lights only lit a short amount of road ahead of the car. I investigated the mechanical adjustment but it seemed to do nothing. It was obviously broken.

Mechanic friend was booked to take the front end of the car apart so he could remove the headlight units and hopefully bodge a repair. This he did earlier today. It took two hours to get the headlights out. Once off the car we could see the adjuster on both lights had been sheered off the actual light unit at some point in the past so that the light's default setting was to point at the floor.

He fixed them by using Q-Bond adhesive. An amazing engineering bodge that has worked. It took an hour to put it all back together and once it had gone dark I took it for a test drive.

Instantly I knew things were better. The road ahead was lit - a little too much. I was headed for a quiet country lane but had to follow a Citroen Xsara Picasso doing 25mph and weaving around the place. He beeped me a few times as my lights were illuminating the inside of his car.

I stopped and adjusted the lights and drove on. A few cars flashed their lights at me so I stopped and adjusted some more. I repeated this a few times and finally was happy I had a setup that worked and no other drivers flashed their lights at me.
Fixing the headlights

And that was it. I finally had a car that did everything I wanted. The DPF had been fixed and thereafter it was reliable. It had a sound system that worked to my liking and headlights that would light the road ahead.

And so we are. I like my car. It may not have cost much and it had a few faults and they have been fixed. It has been made good and how I like it.

So now I love it and I don't want another car.

I hope it stays this way. I cannot say my impulsive nature won't cause me to want to sell it and buy something newer and faster and perhaps not as good but I will do my best not to do so.

By Matt Hubbard






3 Sep 2018

My First Experience Riding A Motorcycle Off Road


My brother had said he fancied doing a motorcycle off road day. I think at the time I said something like "Yeah OK" and promptly forgot about it whilst he organised the whole thing. He did some research, decided the best one was the Yamaha Off Road Experience in mid-Wales and booked two places on the one day experience. Along the way he booked a hotel and sent me emails with all the information.

And then a few days before the actual event I thought I'd better look at the paperwork. Blimey! I said. It's a four hour drive from home and it starts at 9am - I'm not getting up at 4am. So I booked a really cheap B&B room in a place called Rhayader in deepest darkest mid Wales, just 15 miles south of Llanidloes.

And then I thought I ought to get in to the spirit and decided I'd ride there on my motorbike. You can see in the picture below that my own motorbike, a Triumph Tiger, is actually a kind of off roader. There's no getting round the fact that it is classified as an adventure bike. I bought it because it's comfortable to sit on and ride (I do 7,000 miles a year on it) and because it has a big aluminium box on the back (called a top box) which can swallow enough stuff for a weekend away.

But, unless you include a brief spin across Salisbury Plain, I'd never ridden it, or any other bike, off road.

The fact I had zero experience off road played on my mind as the day approached. I'd heard riding a motorcycle off road is a brutal, intensive and tiring experience. I'd heard tales of constantly falling off the bike and picking it back up, of getting stuck in mud, of being miserable. Would I enjoy it? Would It hate it? I had no idea.

And so after work on the Friday I checked and rechecked the Tiger. It had new tyres and I'd squeezed everything into the top box. I set the satnav for the hotel and left at 6.15pm.

The journey was pretty epic. An hour of M4, cross the Severn crossing, turn right at Newport on to the A449. After half an hour of dual carriageway the road became smaller and more twisty. And the scenery became more spectacular. I rode through the Brecon Becons, I rode up mountains and down mountains, round lakes, and through villages. It was warm and bright and brilliant.

Darkness descended and the road got even more twisty. My eyes were on stalks as I went this way and that following the snake-like contours of the A470 until finally I arrived in Rhayader at 9.45pm.

The room was spacious and comfortable. I necked a couple of beers and slept well.

At 8.30am I set off for Yamaha Experience Centre. It's so isolated the nearest postcode is half a mile away. It's a few miles west of Llanidloes and you have to set the co-ordinates into your satnav. I'd checked it out on Google Earth and found it easily enough and rode into the farmyard where it's based.

The site is literally a working farm. I was directed to park the Tiger in a massive cow shed and met up with my brother and the rest of the people who were on the course. We all gave our various waist and chest and feet sizes and were given boxes of kit, a pair of huge boots and a helmet.

Once fully togged up in off road gear we assembled in the farmyard and inspected the bikes. There was a long line of hardcore trail bikes which were for another group who arrived just after us. Our row of bikes was a little more eclectic.

My brother, rather sensibly, had elected for the slightly less hardcore option and booked the Ténéré Experience. A Yamaha Ténéré is an adventure bike. It's road legal and has knobbly tires and a low revving, torquey engine. There were two 1200cc Ténérés and four 660cc Ténérés . As well as these there was a smaller, lighter WR 250R and a WR 450F.

There were six riders in our group plus two instructors. The lead instructor was Dylan Jones, a vastly experienced Enduro rider.  Dylan spent 30 minutes talking us through the bikes and their specs and capabilities as well as describing the format of the day and what to expect.

So far so good. My initial worries about off road riding were being to dissipate. The whole set up was professional. The bikes were obviously maintained to a high standard and the instructors knew exactly what they were doing.

Most bikes did bear a few battle scars though - and Dylan duly explained how to pick up a bike if one of us were to drop it.

Eventually we all chose bikes - I went for a 660 Ténéré and my brother a 1200 - and we set off in single file behind Dylan.

The roads around the farm are all single lane. The tarmac is old and dusty. The corners are sharp and often steep. We rode at 20 to 30mph getting used to our bikes and loosening up. My Ténéré felt odd compared to my own bike. The seat was a similar height, which is quite tall compared to most bikes, but the bars felt closer and higher. The engine was strong but vibey and it didn't like revving high. It had a sweet spot of between 1500rpm to 4000rpm and outside of that it complained gruffly.

After ten minutes on the road we turned on to a gravel track. We carried on, through the amazing Welsh countryside and into the Hafren Forest. The tracks got a little rougher and it felt less like farmland and more like wilderness.

Dylan parked up at a junction and we all came to a stop. Engines off and he explained that we would be riding in a loop taking in a few very sharp corners, some seriously rough ground and riding around some debris left by loggers.

He told us how to stand on the pegs and what we should be doing with the engine, clutch and bike in general.

We all felt ready for this as he led us slowly around the route. The bike was suited for standing on the pegs but I had to bend a little too much for comfort so I kind of swapped between standing and sitting. We spaced out and took the route at our own pace. It was undoubtedly tough but within a couple of circuits we all mastered the basics. We carried on round this loop a few more times, exploring different techniques and lines.

Eventually we stopped again and water bottles were handed out. We were all grinning and chattering away about our own experiences, what we found hard and easy. There was one particular section I found hard and it wrenched my arms and shoulders a little as I struggled to keep the bike upright. But I had become better at it each time I arrived at it and this simple incremental improvement felt hugely rewarding.

After the debrief and rest we headed off again on a longer ride at higher speeds round dusty, rough trails. We spun the rear wheels a little and controlled tiny slides and felt amazing.

Then we stopped by a place where a tiny track met the trail - disappearing into the forest. Dylan explained it was downhill, possibly slippery and there were a couple of sharp corners. We headed down one by one.

Standing up where possible it was first gear, very gentle braking, concentrate intensely on the track ahead. Where did it go, where precisely did I need to place the wheel, how would my body position affect the bike? All these things and more. I caught the front brake and slid a little on a very sharp downhill hairpin but let go the brake and reapplied it in an instant - this time more progressively and controlled and saved myself from an embarrassing spill.

At the bottom we were elated. Did we want to do it again? Yes! So we did, only better.

And that's how the morning continued. A decent ride at a fair old lick along some dusty trails followed by a tight and tricky section with some gravel and bumps and logs and rocks and hills and puddles and trees and sweat and concentration and smiles.

For lunch we headed to a small country pub in a small country village and ate a hearty meal and pints of coke and lemonade.

And in the afternoon we did it all again, only this time we did more and faster and harder. We swapped bikes and swapped stories. I had a go on the much smaller and lighter WR 250R. Its power band was smaller but it was more fun, and easier to use, on the rougher sections.

My brother rode the 660 Ténéré and the 1200 Ténéré. He reckoned the 1200 was pretty capable on the rough stuff - its weight and electronics and plush suspension taking care of some of the tougher terrain.

I had one crash, a fairly slow motion affair. I was really chuffed with myself. I'd successfully ridden down the steepest, slipperiest hill of the day. Right at the bottom was a sharp right hander and I kept it in too high a gear on the 250. It stalled and the rear wheel locked and I went down. No damage to me or bike.
I rode two bikes on the day

There were a couple of other spills. In the morning we all went into a forest section one by one. One lad stalled at the top of a slope and the rider behind, already committed to the slope had to avert and they ended up side by side like fallen dominoes. No-one was injured and the bikes were fine.

As the afternoon wore on I started to feel weary. We'd been well looked after by the instructors but the toll of riding all day was starting to make itself felt in my limbs.

After half an hour or so of non stop riding round amazing trails I slid to one side as I stalled again. I was fine but exhausted. I took stock and had a chat with the instructor. We were only a mile from the farm, he said, and would be back to base soon.

At around 4.30 we rode into the farmyard. Filthy, sweaty and exhausted, but happy and with a sense of achievement.

I'd mastered the art of off road riding and I'd had a brilliant day. I was glad my brother had decided to do it and organised it. My initial fears hadn't played out at all.
My own Triumph Tiger 800 XCX

The team at the Yamaha Off Road Experience were fabulous. The bikes were prepared well, the level of instruction was tip top and mid-Wales provided a fantastic playground as well as some amazing views.

That night we stayed in a local hotel. We downed a few cold beers, ate another large meal and swapped off road biking tales.

The next day I rode the four hour journey home on my Tiger. A perfect way to finish a wonderful weekend of biking.

By Matt Hubbard


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