Vauxhall Corsa VXR Nurburging
At Doune Hillclimb
Since I first drove it in November last year, I've considered the Vauxhall Corsa VXR Nürburgring to be the best hot hatch on the market. I admit this is a less than universal view, largely because of the financial aspect. There are those who direct my attention to rival cars costing far less than this one's £22,000-and-a-bit and say, "See? See?" Okay, but I never said the Nürburgring was the cheapest car of its type. I just said it was the best.
Within Vauxhall there's quite a lot of enthusiasm for the sport of hillclimbing, so I was hoping for a positive response when I suggested that we should do some of that with the Nürburgring. And indeed I got it. "Oh! You mean Doune? Yes, let's do that."
I didn't specifically mean Doune. An hour or so north of Glasgow, it's a long way from Vauxhall HQ, and I would have been happy to suggest somewhere closer. But I wasn't going to start complaining. Of all the hillclimbs on the British mainland, this is the one most often spoken of in hushed tones. Fast, flowing, frightening and unforgiving of even minor errors, Doune is, in the strictest sense, an awesome venue.
Lothian Car Club organises events there every April, June and September. In the latter months they are two-day affairs, and you generally get six runs, of which your better time over the last two counts towards the result. In April there is one event on the Saturday and one on the Sunday, each with two practice and two competition runs, so if you enter for both of them you get eight opportunities to tackle the hill - a wonderful opportunity or an intimidating one, depending on how you feel about the place.
Vauxhall entered both me and fellow journalist Alisdair Suttie for both days (you can share a car in hillclimbs) but Alisdair was called away to a last-minute meeting and spent most of Saturday driving up from London. That left me to field the many enquiries about the Corsa, often answering the same sequence of questions in the same way: "No, it isn't mine. No, it isn't hers either - it's Vauxhall's. Yes, they do know I'm doing this - that's why they lent it to me." Many people admired the specification. Nobody, as far as I can remember, complained about the price.
Alisdair and I were entered in the class for road-going saloon cars over 2000cc (that may seem odd for a 1598cc Corsa, but according to hillclimb regulations the fact that it's turbocharged means that you have to multiply the engine's actual capacity by 1.4, giving in this case a notional 2237cc). The same class also featured Edward Young in a standard Audi Coupé quattro and John Roddick in a Subaru Impreza.
Edward proved to be capable of conjuring incredibly good times out of an unsuitable car on a hill he'd never driven before, but of the two, John was clearly going to be the real enemy, though it was difficult to think of him in that way for long because once I got talking to him he turned out to be a charming and pleasant man. I hate it when that happens.
It's not my place to tell you how much John spent on his car, but I can safely say that he has found a remarkably cost-effective way of going hillclimbing. The Impreza is fairly standard apart from a big intercooler which was already fitted when he bought it and boosted the engine's output to around 240bhp. All he then did to it was fit racey wheels and road-legal but competition-oriented Dunlop tyres.
For an amount of money which is probably too small for the Red Bull F1 team to believe exists, he therefore came to Doune with a car that had 40% more power than the Corsa, 40kg less weight, twice as many driven wheels and much stickier rubber. None of which would have mattered too much if he wasn't also a very good driver. Unfortunately, he is.
There was a severe weather warning for the area on Saturday which fortunately didn't lead to much, but there were enough rain showers to make every run a new adventure. The one constant was that, no matter what the conditions, I couldn't keep up with John, and a quick look at the slip times showed why. As well as the one at the finish line there were two other timing points, one 64 feet after the start line and one on the entry to the steep righthander at Garden Gate, about two-fifths of the way up the hill. The first of these showed that John had already pulled out half a second on me by the first gearchange, and he continued to make up time all the way to Garden Gate.
From then on, the Corsa was quicker, largely I think because it was simply fantastic - perhaps better than any other car I've driven at Doune, standard or modified - at the exit of East Brae and the Esses, the last two corners on the course. Alas, it wasn't enough to claw back the disadvantage further down the hill. My best run took 55.56 seconds, but his took 55.04, and that was that.
I congratulated him. He was gracious in victory. We looked forward to another day's competition and, like several other competitors, hoped that we would have consistent weather. Four dry runs would be great. Four wet runs would be fine. But please, none of this meteorological chopping and changing.
There was heavy rain overnight, but when I walked the hill at 7am on the Sunday the track seemed only mildly damp, and with plenty of sunshine, a bit of a breeze and practice not due to start for another two hours it seemed that we would have the four dry runs we really wanted.
After the first practice climb, everyone said they had never known the place to have less grip, even when it was actually raining. From the very first corner it was obvious that the track had nothing in it. At that point, Doune didn't care if we drove up it or not.
This wasn't great news for Alisdair, who had now joined the party and was trying to get a feel for the car on what might as well have been an ice rink. And it wasn't a bundle of laughs for me either, since John, who said he had backed off almost immediately after the start and more or less just trundled up the rest of the course in the Impreza, was nevertheless more than a second ahead.
The next run - the last of the weekend which would not count towards anything - was better, but by now a suspicion was forming. We had been allocated certain tyre pressures and they just didn't seem right, which I should really have spotted earlier but didn't because the track hadn't yet offered the same amount of grip for two runs in succession.
I scribbled some thoughts on a notepad and showed it to the renowned hillclimb expert Graeme Wight Jnr, who happened to be at the event. "So that bit there shows what pressures I think we should be running," I said. "If you do that, the car will do this and this," he said. "Good," I said, "because so far it's been doing that and that, and I don't want it to." "This will definitely work," he said. "If you're wrong, can I quote the 2001 and 2002 British Hillclimb Champion as saying that when they're pulling me and the wreckage out of the trees?"
He didn't retract, so we made the changes, using the Corsa's onboard tyre pump. Alisdair, who thought this was wonderful (I moaned and bitched about the extra weight), was scheduled to run next and promptly set his personal best Doune time, reporting afterwards that the car felt much sharper. I thought so too, but my run was messy. I needed two attempts to select third gear early on, and at East Brae I cut across the apex too much, putting a wheel on the grass and setting off the ESP which reduced the engine's power just when I needed as much of it as I could get.
There was just one more chance to get it right, and here's the in-car video of what happened on that final run. (Sorry about the problem with the audio. If you're frustrated by it, multiply that by ten to get an idea of how I feel.) For reference, the car reaches Garden Gate at 0:29, East Brae at 0:49 and the Esses at 0:56.
The start was less than inspiring (all weekend I never got the balance between using too much throttle and suffering wheelspin or using too little and being too slow) but the rest was good. I could not have pushed harder on that run. I'd told myself beforehand that I would go flat-out into sections where I'd lifted before and sort out any problems if they arose, and it worked. The clocks stopped at 54.66, and apart from a better start there wasn't much I could have done to improve on that.
It still wasn't enough. John had been getting quicker too, and in particular a change of technique at the Esses found him an extra few tenths. He recorded a 53.69 for his second well-deserved victory of the weekend.
I could get the Corsa up that hill quicker on another day. Harry Simpson, one of the Doune greats in years gone by, once told me that he already knew after the first practice run if he stood a chance of achieving a certain time by the end of the meeting. You can't just pluck a really good Doune performance out of thin air. You have to build one up from the information and experience you gain during the course of a weekend, and you can't do that if the conditions keep changing.
If I'd had eight dry runs and had sorted the tyre pressures on Saturday, it would not have been a problem to get the Corsa into the 53s. It would have been a time that the car deserved. I complained to some friends about how awkward it was to compete in a standard model - even one as well set-up as this - but in all honesty the Corsa performed very well. It's powerful enough to make Doune interesting, the brakes are great, the turn-in is good and the ability to exit a corner on full throttle on exactly the line the driver has chosen is phenomenal - possibly the single best aspect of this remarkable little car.
My grateful thanks to Vauxhall for supplying it, to Alisdair Suttie for being a great man to have on your side, and to John Roddick for giving me a reason to try my hardest.