TWR Bastos Team

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TWR Bastos Racing Team.

The deep-throated growl of the modified V8 makes you wince, and all around are a host of unfamiliar switches and instruments. But the really daunting thing, when you sit behind the wheel of a racing Rover and prepare for your first high speed miles around Silverstone, is the sheer size of the car. Big cars may be fine for running up and down the M1, and, with acclimatisation, they normally do an adequate job around town.
But, once you're strapped into the racing seat of a car of Rover 3500 Vitesse proportions prior to throwing it around a racing circuit with track car abandon, there's reason to feel apprehensive.

You tend to sit low in the driver's seat of one of Tom Walkinshaw's racing Rovers, as you do in the normal road car. The bonnet is so long and wide it seems the view would be more familiar to the captain of the Ark Royal than to a racing driver. The passenger's door looks a long way away. Rover Vitesses are almost 6.0 ft wide, and this Walkinshaw beast feels every inch of it.

German racing driver Armin Hahne leans across and tries to explain the host of lights, switches and instruments which stare back blankly from the matt black aluminium facia, and also explains the contents of a supplementary instrument panel mounted on the passenger's side of the cabin. The starter motor button and ignition switch are located on it. With the full Williams harness restraining you in your Recaro, it's only just possible to reach the starter.

In front of you, begins Hahne, a small swarthy chap who looks more French than German, 'is the tachometer. We don't like to use more than 7000 rpm in a race, although, if we're in a real hurry we may go up to seven-five. Around it are the main warning lights. If they come on, pull in.' What are they for? 'One is for oil pressure, one is for ignition.

Pause. I'm not sure about the other two - I don t think they matter.'
In the panel on the passenger's side, which is accented towards the driver, are extra instruments for oil pressure, oil temperature, differential temperature and coolant temperature. A mass of flick switches lie under the main ignition and starter motor button. 'Don't worry about most of them,' says Hahne, matter-of-factly. Walkinshaw's regular co-driver, Win Percy, joins the little huddle of people outside the driver's door. 'When I start the car,' says Percy in his thick Dorset accent, 'I normally touch the starter button and then flick the ignition. I find it works better. And this here,' he continues, pointing to a round-headed knob to the right of the TWR four-spoke steering wheel, 'is the brake balance lever, for front to rear balance. It was Tom's idea. I've never used it in my life.' The position of the race seat - far too close to the steering wheel for my 6.0ft frame - is also set up for Walkinshaw, who is a short man.

The briefing's over.
The door, still with most of its standard interior trim in place - in contrast to the rest of the gutted, lightened cabin - is firmly shut. You are surrounded by the spartan black cabin, without carpet or rear seat or any of the switchgear for sybarites that normally fills a big Rover's interior. Tug against the full harness, press the starter button with outstretched finger, and flick on the ignition.
The V8 breaks into a deep, uneven snarl which bounces around the cabin and, no doubt, can be heard on the other side of the circuit. People nearby cup hands over ears, or turn their head away. Experienced pit crew - such as the team manager-wear muffs. The noise is particularly savage on the driver's side, which is where the thick oval-shaped exhaust orifice links the blast from the V8's belly with the ears of the outside world.

Despite the insulation provided by the full-face crash helmet, your ears are savagely assaulted by the din. It's a rich, mellow growl, that music of the racing Rover, and it reeks of muscle and fire.
Your left leg will soon need to show some muscle, too, as you depress the heavy clutch pedal for the first time, and bring the five-speed Getrag gearbox's lever back, off the H-pattern, into first.
You need to keep Herculean pressure on the pedal to engage the clutch smoothly. By that stage the car will probably have stalled. The Rover, that day, was fitted with the longest possible differential ratio - not normally used around Silverstone - and its tall first gear, allied to a motor which pulls poorly at low revs, makes it a difficult car to move away. Eventually, though, with the engine growling angrily (at least 3000 rpm are needed), the car stammers forward. Floor the accelerator pedal, and the big red and white Rover staggers forward a few yards more, before starting to run smoothly. The bucking bronco becomes a racehorse.

The Silverstone circuit is fast, flat and featureless, its high lap speed providing the only entertainment. Today it is almost deserted apart from a few small class saloon cars practising for a forthcoming meeting.
Even at higher speeds, the steering is quite heavy-that much becomes clear after you join the main track, and negotiate the first (and only) tight corner on the Northamptonshire circuit: Becketts. The gearchange, however, is light and direct, and every bit as easy as a pleasant road car shift.

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Open the throttle fully for the first time, down Hangar Straight, and exercise all the 300 bhp that the 3.5 litre V8 produces (an extra 110 bhp over standard, thanks to modifications to the camshafts, pistons and fuel injection) and the Rover surges towards Stowe Corner, the empty grandstand on that bend getting larger and larger, and the grass verges either side of the wide straight racing by in a blur of bright green.
The engine revs to the 7000 rpm race limit with great smoothness. And the unit sounds incredibly muscular as, at high revs, its note changes from a noisy grumble into a deafening, thunderous roar. All the high-speed messages are there. But, even at this early stage in the drive, it's obvious that this Rover is not one of those supercars fast enough to leave your stomach at the previous corner while the rest of you accelerates down the straight. It's quick- no doubt (although Austin Rover's motorsport wing have not worked out exactly how quick its acceleration is). But it doesn't feel as fast, say, as the quickest road-going supercars, such as the Countach, Testarossa or GTO. Nor should it be: with 300 bhp propelling a 1200 kg machine, it's power-to-weight ratio is inferior. Even so, it is still impressive, and its acceleration, when you explore the limits, is fast enough to make normal Rover Vitesse drivers feel like their own car's a large Mini. With the highest possible gearing - as fitted to the Rover that day - Tom Walkinshaw's team say 168 mph is possible.

It takes you a while to familiarise yourself with the sheer bulk of the Rover, especially on corners. Unlike a Golf GTi or Peugeot 205 GTi, which you can drive to within an inch of their life almost as soon as you get into them, the bulky Rover demands circumspection. The fact that, says Walkinshaw, each racing Rover is worth about 50,000, is also cause enough for concern.. But once you've familiarised yourself with the amount of metal that surrounds you, you can start to corner the Rover at very high speed. The Kevlar Dunlop tyres - specially developed for the Rovers, and mounted on 17 in diameter wheels - are wide enough to roll a newly surfaced road, and with their featureless, slick 'pattern', have enormous grip.
The power is impressive, but it's the way that such a 15.5 ft long, 6.0 ft wide car can be hustled through the corners that surprises most. Although you do need considerable strength to manhandle the Rover through the turns, the car has a pleasing, delicate balance when pushed near to its limit; it feels responsive and, even when it starts to drift, there is a sensitivity about the messages. Body roll is negligible, because of the much stiffer suspension, part of which employs competition Bilstein gas dampers, and drastically lowered body, which sits 3.O in closer to the tarmac than normal.

Through Stowe, a high speed right-hander, and on to Club, and then flat out, changing up through the gears, to hit the high-speed Abbey kink which, at well over 100 mph, sends the Rover drifting to the outside of the circuit and racing on to the Daily Express bridge. Walkinshaw says you're doing close on 150 mph here during a race, and then, as you flash by underneath the bridge, you're aware that the circuit- supposedly flat, because it's an airfield - suddenly disappears over a slight brow. Running blind - at well over two miles a minute - you hit the brakes (which, like the clutch pedal, require great strength to operate and never feel particularly strong, even though they pull the car up quickly enough), and suddenly Silverstone's most famous corner, the chicane-scarred Woodcote, rushes into view.
You have braked far too early. The Rover trundles up to the first part of the chicane like a BSM Metro approaching Hyde Park Corner; you select third then power through the corner, feeling a bit silly. Select fourth just before racing by the pits. End of lap one.

No one is waving you in. Brake for Copse, back into third, feel the car slide more as your confidence builds, through the following sweep, hard on the brakes for Becketts, accelerate through Chapel, and up through the gears again towards Stowe and those big, daunting, empty grandstands. Too slow through Stowe - it's easy to underestimate what a fast corner it is - but you're better through Club, and this time the Abbey kink is negotiated with real pace: you're into fifth just before you steer the car through the bend. The Daily Express bridge surges over the roof of the car, the circuit disappears, you wait a few moments, then tread hard on those seemingly lifeless but effective brakes ... and dawdle, again, through the Woodcote chicane. Visions of storming through Woodcote, with the inside front wheel bouncing over the kerb, and the Rover getting nicely tweaked, are a long way from reality.

Unfortunately, the end of the practice session isn't far off. Ten laps later, the Rover heads for the pits. Slow down, and select first just as you enter the pit lane, and the big car stutters and grumbles its way forward as it runs hopelessly off-cam.
The roar of the exhaust warns those folk meandering along the pit road to high-tail it. Park the Rover under a big metal arch that carries the pneumatic lines for the wheel spanners, and turn oft the ignition switch. Silence never sounded more beautiful. Open the door and heat build-up on the inside of the car gushes out, like an impatient dog. You follow it, and talk to a few of the drivers who are curious to see how a journalist does their job. 'What did you think?' asks Win Percy. 'It felt very good,' you reply, 'even if it did feel very big.' 'You get used to it. I rate this as a very good saloon racing car,' says the man who should know best. As if to prove it, a week after my drive he stands on the victory podium, with team-mate Tom Walkinshaw, to collect first prize for the Silverstone TT.

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Part II
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© Rwp july. 2004