Since my first race some sixteen years ago I’ve never launched myself so completely and utterly into the unknown as I’m doing now. I’ve sat on the grid waiting for the red lights to go out 132 times, but never have I done so without ever having driven the car before – even the layout of Siverstone’s GP track has changed since I last drove on it! No testing, no qualifying, just a huge leap straight into deepest of deep ends. Of course it wasn’t meant to be quite like this. When I was invited to take part in the second round of the Abarth 500 Trofeo GB I knew is was always going to be on the back foot, as there’d be no time for testing and I’d be pitting myself against some of the quickest young talent in the country. The likes of Ben Winrow, Stefan Hodgetts, Charlie Butler-Henderson and Fiona Leggate have all competed in the BTCC, and all remain determined to catch the eye and get themselves back into the UK’s premier saloon series. I even heard a rumour that Winrow had completed more than 3000km of testing before the start of the season. There’s no doubt about it - despite the cute looks of the cars – this is serious stuff. Back in November I briefly drove an Abarth 500 racer at Bedford (you can watch the video here), and while that gave me a taster, the car was new and far from properly set up. What I did learn was that with 190bhp, slick tyres and a weight of just 920kgs it was a quick and feisty little thing, and unless the brakes were correctly set it was tricky to stop. The road car’s ABS had been removed, and a front-wheel-drive car running with anti-lock brakes usually has a heavily reward bias - fine if you’ve got electronics to lean on, a nightmare if you haven’t. I spun on the approach to Hangar Hairpin… This wasn’t going to happen at Silverstone though. Well that was the plan anyhow, with 30 minutes of qualifying I’d bed myself in, pop into the pits and make any required adjustments and then give it my best shot. What could go wrong? A lack of a gearbox attached to the engine, that’s what. I arrived at the track in good time to find my car had three blokes underneath it desperately trying to fit a gearbox that was lying on the floor beside them. Turns out the car was returned to them by another team with broken ratios and a new one in the boot. To cut a long story short they weren’t able to get it fixed in time for qualifying, in fact with some other associated problems it was only finally ready five minutes before the race itself. I jumped in for the first time, adjusted the belts as best I could and headed off to the collecting area. Only when I got there did I discover the rest of the field had already left and were forming up on the grid, so I overtook the doctor’s car and lined up at the back. The green flag lap was the first chance I had to get a feel for the car whilst warming brakes and tyres and unsurprisingly I learnt precious little before taking my position for the start. It was then that I began to question my sanity. The day had been such a rush up to that point there had been no time to think about anything. Now though, the scale of the task hit me squarely between the eyes. What the hell was I doing heading into battle with this bunch of hardened racers who take no prisoners and know every nut and bolt on their machines? The red lights blinked on, I dialed in around 2500rpm. The lights went out, I dumped the clutch and to my utter astonishment nailed a decent start and crept past a couple of cars. Beginner’s luck for sure, but then as we hurtled towards Copse I had no idea of the braking point or what’s going to happen next. The only thing I could do was copy the cars in front, and somehow it worked and I scrambled through the corner unscathed. For a lap or two I played this game of follow-my-leader, just about keeping pace with the cars just ahead. The trick I quickly realised with the 500 is to nail the throttle as early as possible at the start of the turn; the tiny wheelbase can’t cope with hesitation and indecision. Also kerbs are best avoided as they tend to tip it onto two wheels and one-wheel drive isn’t the most effective way to make progress. They do have limited-slip diffs, but they’re quite open, so it’s easy to spin up the inside Michelin slick tyre. Lap three and I once again approach Abbey corner in sixth gear and hit the brakes at the same point I did on the previous lap, only this time the car doesn’t slow. I pump the pedal and it makes no difference, so I resort to burying the pedal as hard as I possibly can. It only has a marginal effect on my speed, which rapidly becomes an issue as I arrive at the turn-in at an almost undiminished pace. It’s not an ideal situation. If we were at any circuit other than Siverstone there would be a fair chance that I’d have been buried deep into a tyre wall, but this being the home of the British Grand Prix means it’s thankfully festooned with run-off areas and I used all of this one, before scrabbling back onto the track via a small rough patch of earth. At the next corner the brakes have retuned, so I pressed on thinking this might be brake fade - new pads had been fitted and there had been no time to bed them in. On the next lap I noticed an ominous trail of smoke out the back of my car and the same thing happened at Abbey. I least I know the escape route this time. On the following tour one of the cars in the gaggle ahead rolled at Stowe, and being a round shape it seemed to gather speed as it tumbled. The accident went on for ages and saw the deployment of the safety car. Good news for me as it gave me an opportunity to rush into the pits where the team discovered that in all the chaos the engine had been over filled with oil and the resultant pressure had fired the dipstick out of its housing. This had coated the engine bay in lubricant, and during the long right-hander of Club corner that precedes Abbey, some of that oil must have dripped onto the front left brake disk. Game over. Well, part one of this particular game was over, there was a second race the following day, which gave us a chance to get things right. In those limited, frenetic laps I still didn’t have a full idea of what was required of the set up, but with a little more fettling it should at least go and stop this time. And it did to a fashion. The brake balance still had an overly rearward bias, so I often arrived at the corners at an interesting angle, but I finished seventh and considering the scale of the task I was pretty pleased. It’s a strong championship this, the cars are all equal, the racing’s close and the driving standards high. It may be new and the cars may be small but I reckon the Abarth 500 Trofeo GB has a big future. But let me give you a word of advice - if you fancy giving it a go, make sure you do some testing first...
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