My stomach doesn’t normally churn like this when I’m racing, especially not for a practice session. Even if the circuit and car are new to me there’s always time to work everything out, to gradually build up the pace, hone the set-up and generally ease into the weekend. Anxiety and stress are rarely on the agenda. But this is different. This is the Rechbergrennen, the first round of the 2009 FIA European Hill Climb Championship, and today I will get just three practice runs in the KTM X-Bow I’ll be competing in to prepare me for the two competitive blasts up the five-kilometre course tomorrow, when to add further pressure there’ll be more than 35,000 people watching my every move. I feel like an actor about to step onto the stage of a packed theatre with no script. This is ad-lib motorsport and I’m well outside my comfort zone.
Since the loss of the Austrian Grand Prix, the Große Bergpreis von Österreich (Austrian Hill Climb Grand Prix) has been the country’s largest motorsport event. Even for today’s practice runs there are apparently some 15,000 fans crammed onto the side of the Rechberg mountain on the eastern end of the Alps. All those eyes are soon to be fixed on the only UK competitor out of 200 entries as he drives up a road he saw for the first time only yesterday.Then it was known as the B64 and traffic flowed slowly in both directions as the Polizei, armed with pistols and speed guns, watched on. Thankfully I avoided getting shot or zapped but I’m still not exactly sure on the sequence of corners. Just about the only things I did discover yesterday were that there is absolutely no margin for error and the course is absolutely terrifying.
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Imagine taking on Silverstone’s Grand Prix circuit for the first time but first screwing it up, throwing it at the side of a mountain and narrowing it to about a third of the width. Now remove all the run-off areas and gravel traps and randomly replace them with trees, Armco barriers, sheer drops, hotels and ditches, then swap the smooth, grippy tarmac with a broken, bumpy mix of surfaces. That should give you just some idea of the challenge ahead. No tyre warming is allowed either, so I’m about to charge flat out at the first series of turns with cold rubber (and brakes) and no idea of the grip level on offer. I’m starting to wonder why I volunteered to do this.
At least I’m familiar with the car. Two days ago I was at the Panoniaring in Hungary for a KTM trackday, which gave me time to get comfortable with the X-Bow I’m now strapped into. This is the Clubsport version, which means it has the advantage of adjustable roll bars and dampers, but it’s completely standard and road legal, just like the other eleven X-Bows competing this weekend. The drivers are a mix of owners, KTM staff and professional drivers. Red Bull-backed WRC star Andreas Aigner and Austrian rally champion Kris Rosenberger revel on this terrain, while, like me, Catharina Felser, currently campaigning a X-Bow in the FIA GT championship, has reservations about the close proximity of all that road furniture.
The countdown clock on my right clicks to zero, the start marshal raises the Austrian flag and I dump the clutch with 3000rpm dialled in. It’s a guess but it feels about right, so we’re off and charging towards the only artificial chicane on the course: two rows of tyres you have to slow for and zigzag through. As the non-ABS four-pot Brembo calipers squeeze the discs the front-left locks slightly and for one hideous moment I fear I might clout the edge of the wall. Nothing could be more embarrassing than crashing at the very first corner, still in sight of the start line. I just about scramble through, having discovered that the Toyo 888s need a couple of corners to warm up, which is a trifle concerning as the following section includes a flat-out fifth-gear right though a small wood. After a deep breath I pass through and burst out the other side into a natural amphitheatre, the grassy slopes of which are covered with a mass of people, a large percentage of whom I’d earlier noticed enjoying strong lager for breakfast.
There are three corners here: a fifth-gear left into a fourth-gear right and finally a long third-gear left-hander that arcs steeply uphill in front of the merry throng. The first two corners are dispatched with no problem, but I’m too hot into the left. The tail swings wide and I drift my way through the turn with an armful of opposite lock, adding to the drama by kicking up a load of cement dust. It must have looked good to the spectators, who responded to my lairiness with cheers and air horns that I can hear inside my helmet. It doesn’t help my time though. Make a mistake like this on the flat and you may lose a tenth or two, do it on a steep slope and whole seconds slip away.
I fumble my way to the top of the hill, reaching the summit in 2min 37sec, and to be honest I’m just relieved to get there. I’ve still got a lot to learn about this hill climbing lark. You have to be fully on it from the start but equally you have to be precise – mistakes cannot be corrected on the next lap, making it a more technical exercise than racing. It’s more focused, requires controlled aggression, and although there’s no wheel-to-wheel combat it’s a big challenge. It’s just you, the hill and the stopwatch.
At the top the adrenaline barely subsides as the final runners rocket to the finish. The guys following us are the true nutters, piloting big-power single seaters. There are F3000 cars, Formula Nippons and eccentric specials like an E30 BMW fitted with a V8 Judd Formula 1 engine, and they’re all on slicks so soft that if you push your thumb into them it leaves an imprint. These cars take little more than two minutes to get to the top from the start village of Tulwitz, which from here is just a small speck far away in the distance, and they sound extraordinary up here. The scream of unsilenced racing engines is amplified by the mountains so you can hear them when they’re still several miles down the valley. And as they come into view it’s like you’re watching a film on fast-forward, the incredible speed intensified by this alien environment for a race car.
On the journey back down the crowd breaks rank and swarms onto the road, clapping, waving and cheering us all the way, and I seem to have made some Austrian friends in that amphitheatre. They’re shouting stuff I don’t understand but by the way they’re all waving and giving me the thumbs up I guess they enjoyed my sideways antics.
Back at the bottom the KTM awning is also proving popular. The cars have shown themselves to be very quick, faster in fact than the slick-shod Group A rally cars, and as the crowd wanders freely around the paddock many of them have come to take a closer look. The paddock, incidentally, is basically the village itself, every small piece of grass has an awning or tent pegged into it. I’m sure that for the other 51 weeks of the year Tulwitz is a sleepy place nestled in the middle of some stunning countryside, but I can’t be sure as today there are cars, people and beer tents everywhere. Can’t quite imagine this happening in Chipping Norton somehow…
By the end of the day I’ve knocked five seconds off the time I set on my first run and I know there’s still plenty more to come. The two rally drivers are the only ones to have dipped below the 2min 30sec barrier, with Aigner down in the 2:27s. Of course, they are used to this madness. Aigner reckons he’s right on the limit, which is encouraging as I’m still learning the course and I know I can find at least two seconds on my next run. In fact I’m so confident that at dinner I refuse desert, announcing that I won’t eat ice cream again until I’ve scored a 2:29. Why do I say these things?
Next morning I’m more focused than ever, constantly rehearsing the course in my mind, where the corners are now flowing together. I know my braking points, I know when to be patient and I’m ready for the quick stuff. I’m not bothered by the times the other drivers might be doing, or where I might finish, I just want to dip below 150 seconds. Nothing else matters.
Approaching the line I’m remarkably calm. I know what to do now. The huge crowd barely registers; this is something I’m going to prove to myself. Ten seconds. Select first, deep breath. Five seconds. Bring the revs up. Three, two, one, go! Out with the clutch but the rear wheels don’t chirrup as they should and I trundle forwards with what feels like less than half the 240bhp I should have. An ‘EPC error’ blinks up on the console display. Arggh! I can’t believe it. Why now? I pull over at the first chicane and clamber out wishing the crowd now surrounding me would back off. All I can do is stomp off in a huff.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt so angry. All that mental preparation for nothing! The feeling of deflation is so massive all I want to do is go home. Ironic, then, that a diagnostics test would later reveal that a faulty throttle sensor had dropped the ECU into get-you-home mode on the start line. The team is equally frustrated. It’s not a fault they’ve seen before. If it had happened during the previous days it would have been nothing more than mildly irritating, but right here, right now, it’s sickening. All I can do is give it everything on the final run. I have to build myself up again, go through the same mental preparation and ensure I push without overstepping the mark; I need to regain focus and control.
Four hours later I’m back on the start line feeling more determined than ever. I’ve decided I’m going to sacrifice some aggression to keep it smooth. A mistake now – after all this – would be unbearable. Go! It’s a good launch this time. The 2-litre turbocharged Audi engine is back on song. I brake slightly early for the tyre chicane and am rewarded with good drive up to the amphitheatre, where this time I disappoint my fans by keeping it tidy.Through a fast fourth-gear right-hander the car slides on entry and I feel half a second slip away as crucial momentum is lost. It also takes me uncomfortably close to the Armco on the outside, but I have to forget that and concentrate on the next sequence where the tight, 180-degree hairpins begin.
It keeps on flowing. One more tight left with a blind approach and then the run to the line. I crest the summit and look for the clock placed just after the finish. It reads 2:29.982! Ice cream has never tasted so good…
In the run up to the hill climb we joined KTM at the Panoniaring in Hungary, a technical bike track that suits the X-Bow perfectly. Along with hospitality, the price for the day included instruction, technical back up, advice on set-up and as much track time as you could handle.
Out on track we were surprised to find former Ferrari F1 driver Mika Salo in one of the 30 X-Bows. He had come for a fun day out and obviously enjoyed himself as the following day we bumped into him again at the factory in Graz, Austria, placing an order and working out how he was going to the car back to Finland!
For more information on KTM’s X-Bow events visit www.ktm-x-bow.com