|TWR Bastos Team|
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.
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.'
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.