UPDATE: Spa F1
Huh ! Just to get things into perspective here here are two little movies comparing the little SLR with a 2002 qualifying lap from David Coultard ! The real time movie shows both cars in real time and you can see that the F1 car laps me roughly every three laps.... bear in mind that a 400/ton caterham is pretty damm quick for a road car on track and you begin to get an idea of the mindboggling speed and ability of the modern day F1 car. Knowing the track as I do, i find it simply earth-shattering watching the speed with which the F1 car takes the track. The braking points are also unbelievable, especially for Les Coombes which is HALFWAY down the rumble strip !!! If you ever drive Spa, make a mental note of that as you go round and also appreciate that the F1 car is braking from almost 200mph... not 120/130mph !
In the "Stretch" movie I have elongated the F1 lap to match the exact length of my own. The main thing is that this allows to compare lines with Mr Coultard as we go through bends at roughly the same time. Car placement on track at any one time is obviously not 100% the same between the two though and I'm not sure what that indicates...?
Certainly, its a reflection of the balance of straight line speed/cornering speed/ and braking.... and you could argue that the closer we are on the movie, then the closer the match betwwen our cars accel/braking/cornering equation. In the middle of the circuit we are quite close and maybe this means that the equation is similar in both cars... i.e. the acceleration/braking & cornering ability of the F1 car is greater than the SLR in equal measure. It may also indicate that I'm exploting all three in the SLR to a balanced level and not overly deficient in my braking or corner speed for example, when compared to my acceleration. But on the 2 large straights, you will notice that Coultard arrives at the next corner way before me... and I would guess this to mean that out of all the performance factors (braking, accel, top speed, cornering speed) it is speed and acceleration that is the biggest difference between SLR and F1. If you have any insights yourself then let me know.
Francorchamps 16th July
Without doubt Spa is the very best circuit I have ever driven. Its hugely fast, carves up and down breathtakingly steep gradients, is long and epic, lies in a stunningly beautiful setting and is full of some of the most famous and thrilling bends in Motor Racing; the steep downhill run from La Source then through Eau Rouge is somtheing you will never forget when taken at speed, and the massively quick Pouhon and Blanchimont are nothing short of seminal. Add to all that all the history that this place holds and you can begin to understand why, with the possible exception of the Nordschleife, its considered by many to be planet Earth's best racing circuit.
The journey to Spa is very straightforward on the E42 from Dunkirk, and although 210 odd miles and around 4 hours with a few stop, the time passes surprisingly quickly, even in an aeroscreened seven and following a trailer at 60mph ! As you approach the vicinity, the motorway climbs and seems to be heading straight into the clouds; no wonder the weather here is so unpredictable. On the Tuesday morning however, the sky was clear for us and prospects for a dry day were looking good.
Driving up toward the tunnel that takes you to the pits there's not much to see but then suddenley you look to your left and Eau Rouge looms huge in the distance. Forget your copy of Grand Prix Legends, instantly recognisable and mouthwateringly inviting but it looks very long and so very steep, a far bigger gradient than you ever imagined. Its a hugely impressive sight and daunting to say the least.
The wheeltorque day was host to around 140 or so cars and the array of machinery in attendance really was on another level to any that I had previously encountered. Amongst the usual armies of caterhams, westfields, BMW's and elises etc. there seemed to be a mammoth contingent of 911's, everything from race prepped 964's to GT3s, GT2s and heavily modified race GT2s. Beyond the Radicals and the Ultimas there was also a very large number of full blown race cars, Formula Fords, Formula Renaults, old F3 cars and even a couple of Group C ex-Le Mans Porsches ! So one very epic circuit and some of the worlds heftiest equipment. With such large numbers and so much horsepower I was initially a little apprehensive of what the day might hold but as it turned out the standard of driving was pretty good and although it was rare to get a completely clean lap, the circuit was never crowded and it was often possible to go a third of the 4.35 mile distance without seeing any other cars.
On my first session out it became clear that despite some recent work on the SLR the problem with the shaking steering still had not be solved. Also, the engine appeared to be intermittently misfiring around 5000rpm (turned out to be a bad downpipe/collecter connection causing backpressure) and was sounding abnormally raspy. I hurried back to the pits and tried to find some help, taking a look at the tracking, cleaning spark plugs and going over the engine bay with a fine tooth comb. The truth is that the car never got any better and whilst it was more than driveable, it was well down on acceleration and throttle response and certainly wasn't at its most pleasant and most confidence-inspiring.
I was naturally disappointed and although I eventually elected to end my tracktime prematurely in the afternoon, I did manage to get a reasonable number of laps in, learn my way around Spa and get a feel and an initial rapport with most of the bends. Shame then that I never really had time to investigate different/better lines and work on the speed in some of the more technical corners. To be fair though, you really need a good 2 days on this track first out and having track insurance would also help.
La Source to Eau Rouge
Lets begin up the pit straight where the Caterham SLR is high in 5th. Accelerating through the start/finish line the car is soon the right side of 100mph and firm braking is required down to quite a low speed (2nd) for the hairpin.
Coming out of La Source you can elect to use the extra track width on exit which gradually shears back in as you straighten up. Now you are travelling downhill so acceleration is faster than normal and the Caterham is buzzing up through the gears at a rapid rate. It's seriously thrilling this bit, there is a lot of scenery around you that starts to really rush by and the noise of the exhaust echoes off the pit walls to a firesome level, to an intensity and loudness that I have yet to experience anywhere else. Best bit though is as you round the slight kink in this downward straight; suddenley the car turns ever so slightly and there you are gunning at full pelt steeply down and perfectly aligned with the wall toward the oncoming and menacing looking Eau Rouge. Visually it is without doubt the most stunning approach that I have ever encountered.
Altough 6th was really required down the end of the straight, for the most part I was going through Eau Rouge by steadying the throttle at the bottom of the straight in 5th (and losing a fair bit of speed in the process) and going through at about 100mph. A couple of times I did get the bend wrong and exited well wide (left) of the LHS flat curbing at the crest !!! Good job there some large smooth runoff there. Also, the SLR was sometimes 4 wheel drifting across the track from right to left mid-bend and although this felt quite good it indicated clearly that I hadn't got everything 100% at Eau Rouge. Looking at the video the solution may be lie in the theory that off of the apex the steering should be straight which will find you the correct exit line and avoid any adverse effects on the car from the crest or camber (like 4 wheel drifts !); well my steering was always turning left on exit to make the curb so maybe I was apexing too late ??
I think Eau Rouge has to be taken real fast to feel as good as it looks. In the SLR I never really achieved quite the huge sense of thrill that I was perhaps expecting... although the completely blind crested exit at first takes some real getting used to, the car felt sluggish coming out of the bend onto the straight and piloting through at 100mph wasn't especially challenging. But with things being as they were, being well within the limits and not overstressing the car were paramount.
Kemel Straight, Les Coombes, Malmedy
The straight is very very long and its uphill. The SLR only ever managed 120mph terminal speed... Howard's Formula Ford was teleporting past me here with an effortlessness that was quite astonishing.
Braking for Les Coombes is shorter than you imagine due to the incline. Not sure of the entry speed but its 3rd gear in the Caterham, probably around 60mph. The first right hander is pretty satisfying to carve into and the SLR does a great job of instantaneously diving for the rumble strip. It can be taken quicker than you think especially if you remember to look well ahead through the next bend. This is a left hander which again, you get quicker through as the day wears on but one trick is to sacrifice speed a little and only exit using 2/3 of the track's width so as not to compromise the entry into Malmedy which needs to be fast. Malmedy is a fantastic bend, very quick and there really is so much grip here and with the line being quite long and straight exit speeds can be very high.
After Malmedy there's a short straight that plummets downhill. Braking is therefore earlier than you expect and also the surface is very rough in the last 30 metres or so. Now rivage 1 is a 180 right hander and the track falls away to the outside. The line is to stay wide then apex about 3/4 of the way round but its a funny bend, probably the least natural and most troublesome on the circuit. It looks as if you can take it fast but as you dive in the car just goes all light and floats toward the outside and you just have to sit back and wait for the grip to return. On my video you can see me fighting with the car for grip a bit but once its there you can then head for the apex then apply the gas & come out wide to the LHS. IN retrospect, perhaps a good sideways corner this one.
Immediately afterward, you are crossing the track to the RHS in preparation for Rivage 2. Approaching 2 I was backing off the throttle a little (in 4th) and turning in at the surface change. Rivage 2 is straightforward enough but my rearview mirror( which is mounted on the screenless bodywork) coupled with my short height meant that it completely obscured my view of the left-hand apex and made the corner slightly awkward. Also given the fact that the exit is blind as you approach, there is loads left in the SLR here.
Pouhon down to Les Fanges
Out of Rivage the SLR was flat in 4th for a brief period then it was up to 5th and probably to around 110mph or so before the entry into the very fast Pouhon. The preceeding straight is almost the opposite gradient of Eau Rouge and is possibly the steepest downhill section of the whole circuit. Naturally it makes the car feel a lot quicker than it really is and it adds tremendously to the whole thrill of the track. Another stonking approach and one you'll never forget in a hurry.
Turning into Pouhon is daunting to say the least, but also incredible to drive at speed particularly on the exit. The game is to turn in steady, miss the first LH curb and hold a consistent amount of lock right through the bend. The SLR could go in a lot faster than I was taking it but it requires some pretty strong nerve especially since you can't really sight an apex or aim anywhere until you are into the corner.
Holding the car in 5th for entry (maybe around 90mph) I was exiting flat in 5th and changing up to 6th (so maybe ~115-120mph) before braking for Les Fanges. This is a regular right/left hander and I was taught to sacrifice the first part for the second , exiting the right hander only midway across the circuit to make for a decent entry into the left hander. This also means that you're not flat out in the first part, far from it. The car is kept balanced and the turn is held for some time to achieve good position for the remainder.
Stavelot 1 & 2
Out of Les Fanges its up to about 105-110mph (sometimes in 5th) before braking moderately for Stavelot. Its a tricky combination this one and so very vital for a good lap. Speed through 1 needs to be good so you can enter 2 flat and keep the throttle nailed to maximise your speed all the way back up to the bus stop. If you watch the video (esp. the GT2 clip) you'll see that I was dead slow through 1 and it was only on my last few laps that I got the hang of the correct turn in point and carried decent speed through... it made a lot of overall difference. Once up to speed, Stavelot 2 needs some nerve as well because the barrier faces you on exit.
Straight, Blanchimont, Bus Stop
Exiting at around 100mph, the SLR goes into 5th and starts the long journey back up the hill. The speed trickles higher in drip-feed fashion and although the first left hand kink is flat out (its not even a bend) by the time I arrived at Blanchimont with a slight confidence lift the car was doing no more than 105mph so as long as you aim the car in smooth it just follows the curve round with plenty of width on exit. I wouldn't like to passenger in an F1 car when it goes through here at 160mph+ !!!
At around the point where you go under the Gantry its braking time. Uphill, plenty of width - its a satisfying place to brake hard and really feel those longtitudinal G's. In fact I got so enthusiastic about it that I locked up/outbraked myself here more than one once and thanks goes to the 911 driver who got out of my way on one occassion (see video).
The bus stop is a regular affair. Turn in late and positive and power out very satisfyingly through the now straightened exit flat to the boards. Onto the pit straight you have to carve left and initially this is quite deceptive; you soon realise that although it hardly looks like a turn, if you don't aim correct you'll end up accelerating straight into the pit wall.
Although I cut my tracktime short, my encounter with Spa was long enough to ensure that it goes straight to number one in my book of circuits. I really hope to return asap, hopefully even this year and with a sorted car and driving more methodically and with more planning. For me, Eau Rouge needs many more mph (another SLR owner there said he was getting 130mph down the back straight) and Stavelot needs sorting in a big way.
If you get the chance to go to Spa then whatever the cost, don't hesitate. Of course the weather can be anything at any time of the year so be prepared... really the best thing is to do 2 days to give you more chance of some dry tracktime and also ample time to learn the bends.
The Formula Ford
Finally a word on Howards 205bhp/450kg Van Diemen Formula Ford. I had the chance to drive this single seater for 4 laps. At first it was quite shocking as to just how raw the thing is... as you find your way around the clunky gearbox you realise the meaning of sound-deadening - this machine transmits every single vibration and every mechanical action straight through your body, your skeleton, your whole being. Not having driven a proper race car before, for me it was just raw and uncompromised in a totally newfangled level, making even a Caterham seem like a Audi Estate with Sat Nav, cruise control and heated leather seats. The whole car has a very mechanical feeling about it and you feel completely in the centre, hardwired to the heart of machine. You sit very oddly in the middle and there is no rear of the car to see but the view ahead just over the nose cone is fabulous and really gives you the genuine racecar feel.
It took me 2 laps to get the confidence to light just a single shift light but come the 3rd lap i lit 3 (out of 4 of them) in 3rd coming up the hill toward Blanchimont. I can only say that nothing I have ever sat in or driven has felt quite so fast. I've gone from 10-120mph in an R500 but this FFord is something else. The long gearing and 4 speed box means that the power band, whilst narrow in rpm terms, actually feels like it never ends and the surge is mindbogglingly powerful... terrifying even ! At the same time, the noise and vibrataion that erupts right behind your head is almost overwhelming at first.
I obivously didn't even get even halfway close to exploring the cars ultimate grip (especially when i saw howards face behind the pitwall at La Source - the longest 13 minutes of his life !) but it dives for corners completely flat and that I just loved. No roll, no flustering, it just goes round without even letting you know that you're in a bend. The very square wheelbase adds to this effect as well and you just know that after getting used to this thing you could go way quicker than any road car money can buy.
Although it requires a good box of spanners and plenty of dedication the FFord makes so much sense as a track toy when you consider the price and running costs. You are limited more to general test days of course but with it being so rapid and with its tendency to hyperspace onto the rear-ends of other cars, you' re probably better off in faster company in any case.
For details on my codecs, required software and filming equipment used click here. If you have the connestion speed, iWMV files are the preffered download.
Please note that my external mic is very temperamental and only a few of the clips have sound.. I have added music in others cos they look bad with complete silence. Also you may see glitches in the video track: no frames have been dropped but corrupt pixel are present due to another fault with the camera. I don't advise using an expensive camera on a Caterham Rollbar - it won't last long !
This time, the Real media movies are smaller and noticeably lowerquality.. if you have the connection, the WMV's are crystal clear.