To some casual observers, starting out in motorsport is a case of having more money than sense. Well, in my case it involves having a paucity of either. I like to think that doing motorsport, competitively, on a shoestring is the opportunity to use a little bit of imagination – to channel the spirit of the great British ‘garagistes’ Colin Chapman and John Cooper. At least that is the logic I used as I was halfway through my second pint in the paddock bar at Shelsley Walsh and the world was bathed in the golden glow that somehow makes everything a good idea at the time.
Hill-climbing is the obvious answer to the first part of the cash problem – you are on your own, you only need a license you can basically send off for in the post and more importantly you are out there on your own – no one to hit, no one to hit you and no one to make you do something maybe you don’t have the capability of. Well, that’s the theory. Of course what will actually happen is that enthusiasm will overtake talent fairly quickly and an itchy right foot will probably end up seeing you in a bank wondering why you bothered – but you can’t think too hard about these things.
Because I am doing this on the cheap (REALLY cheap), a road going class is sort of Hobson’s choice. Buy car, fit timing strut – go. No need to cage it; no cut offs; no HANS device. Cheap, cheerful and cheeky. By now, the second pint is nearly empty and I am accepting the offer of a third, and without really knowing it, this is now something I am doing rather than a nice idea.
A motoring column shouldn’t really have the need to reference Ernest Hemmingway at all, let along twice in three editions, but he did once say ‘always do sober what you said you’d do drunk, that way it will teach you to keep your mouth shut’. But what does he know? This is by now the best idea I have ever had.
My first (fun) problem was what car? The days of a chap heading to the smallest room with a copy of auto-trader are fading in reality. However, there was a lot of reasonably excited scouring of the internet – followed by a large degree of overthinking, second guessing and generally suffering paralysis by analysis.
With a car budget of £2000 though, and the certainty that I didn’t want to get myself into the above 2 litre class and just spend a year having my arse kicked by 911s, I decided that buying Japanese would be the move of an intelligent man. The elephant in the room here is the Renault Clio 182 – but I just couldn’t get excited about buying a hatchback. I don’t want one and there is an end to the issue.
I kept having my head turned by Mazda RX8s. A manufacturer headline figure of 231 bhp is attractive for the money. However, there is the traditional rotary engine reliability issue….those graphite tipped rotors are an achilles heel. Every single thread on every single forum you visit has a post saying ‘oooh I hope you are ready to replace the engine’. Now some will argue that these issues are either a myth (they’re not!) or that they only impact the examples that haven’t been loved (that may be, but if you think this isn’t an issue I will refer you back to my budget and ask you to reflect on your opinion).
So I took the easy way out. BHP and success be damned. I was a moral coward and decided that I am just not in a place where I can treat the engine as a consumable item, like the brakes for example – which may actually outlast the engine.
I stuck with what I know. I never thought this would happen to me, and this is possibly not a sentence that any petrol head should ever say, but I am a Toyota man (by accident). My old Mk3 MR2 was a jinxed car, it never went wrong (stuff sort of just happened to it – it was never its fault) and the Celica I replaced it with just won’t die.
So it was time to embrace a grey oblivion and choose a Mk2 MR2 in British Racing Green as my weapon of choice for the coming season.
At 175 bhp (…when new) it’s not too far off the Clio – however it is a heavy old hector if I am brutally honest – and this isn’t great for gravity defying motor racing. However, this goes back to what I said about ‘Garagistes’ earlier – the opportunity for the application of imagination and creative engineering in the art of the automotive crash diet has appeal. Simplify and add lightness!
The one thing I was absolutely convinced of however is that my car would…not…break. I would not be the mug that bought a Mazda and had a car that wouldn’t start because of crap compression. I was wise.
I was also very smug. I spent £1400 on that car (I knocked some money off due to some parts of the sub-frame that were corroded to the point of actually doing nothing) and I had £600 of budget left to spend on overalls, gloves, a nice set of tyres. This was just getting better and better. It even had had its alternator belt replaced recently…and yes, I am going somewhere with that.
I even took it to Shelsley Walsh’s driving school. However, the fact that they recommend putting 5 psi more pressure in the tyres than normal for fast runs and I actually had to take air OUT of the tyres should really have given me hints about the previous owner’s level of mechanical sympathy.
Anyway – you all know where I am going with this one. The car goes well, it really does. I very much enjoyed my morning crawling around under it replacing the rotting sub-frame as well (the rest of which is fine incidentally).
But, it’s not the component failure itself that bothers me, it just seems so unheroic. A man is delivering a sofa to HQ, so I move the car off the drive to be helpful. Hell of a screech on starting the car, but it subsides and so I move. Its only when I park it back on the drive the screech reaches a crescendo and then abruptly halts and suddenly I’m in a cloud of smoke coming from the engine bay. I am not extracting myself from some mangled wreckage at the top of Eau Rouge, I haven’t blown and engine in pursuit of a bitter rival. I am on my drive, at home. Having moved for a delivery van. It’s not a swashbuckling story.
The smell of burning rubber now coming from the engine is no longer a tedious sporting cliché, just the dismal bringer of bad tidings and a reminder that sooner or later (in this case sooner) motor sport will find where you keep your wallet.
(Problem, and short term solution)
New alternator belt my arse. I should have bought the Mazda.