I’m not quite sure what to do with myself. A swarm of butterflies is creating a nauseous storm in the pit of my stomach. Leaning against the back wall of the pit garage I can actually hear the adrenaline swirling around my body. In fact, with radio plugs stuffed in my ears and a Nomex balaclava and helmet clamped on my profusely sweating bonce, the vivace beat of a heart working overtime is the only thing I can listen to. And I’m wondering if I should have gone to the lav one more time before getting fully togged up… It’s not nerves that are causing all this internal mayhem, though; this endorphin cocktail is the result of excitement and naked fear. I can’t quite believe I’m about to do this.
There have been many golden periods of Sports Car racing, but for me, possibly because I was a teenager at the time, Group C was the ultimate. The heady mix of ground effect cars with mighty engines driven at massive speeds by heroic legends drew huge crowds wherever they raced. Large multi-manufacturer grids wearing big-time sponsors’ logos added further colour – and cash that attracted the world’s best teams, engineers and drivers. In the mid-’80s the Sports Car scene was expensive, dangerous and glamorous in equal measures, and in my book produced quite simply the most spectacular racing this planet has ever seen.
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Coming down the pit lane out front right now is one of the most iconic and successful Group C machines of all, a Porsche 962. Together with the 956 (the only difference between the two being that the 962 had a slightly longer wheelbase) this family of Porsches won Le Mans an astonishing seven times – not to mention the six Daytona and four Sebring triumphs – and smashed just about every endurance record along the way. With that short nose, bubble cockpit and huge integrated rear wing it looks utterly fabulous. Forget the GT40, 917 or 512; to my eyes this is the most beautiful and dramatic racer from the long, glorious history of Le Mans. And with pinch-yourself unreality this particular one has my name on the side. Not only am I going to drive one of these incredible machines, I’m actually going to race it. Things don’t get better than this.
Or perhaps they do, for this is no ordinary 962 (if there ever was such a thing). The car I’m about to clamber into is wearing the no.1 plate because it won more Group C races than any other, claiming the Japanese championship in 1985, 1986 and 1987, driven by the (unrelated) Japanese superstars of the day, Kunimitsu and Kenji Takahashi. Apparently this is the first time the car has raced since then and to say the drive I’ve been given is both a huge privilege and an enormous responsibility is something of an understatement. Because of its extraordinary provenance this 962 is worth around a million quid. It’s insured, but history and provenance can’t be repaired as easily as steel and aluminium and that’s a thought that never strays far from my mind. There’s a temptation to just drive it slowly and wave to the crowd but, c’mon, that’s not what we’re here for.
The famous Advan livery covering chassis 111 comes to a halt outside the garage. The door arcs skywards and my driving partner and the man who generously invited me to share this fantastic car, Steve Jones, clambers out. He looks hot. Very hot. The 962’s cockpit is notoriously warm. Derek Bell once described it as ‘a debilitating place to work’, and I’m going to be in it for an hour. I’ve been consuming vast quantities of water all day (and subsequently paying regular visits), as everyone has been stressing the need to be fully hydrated. Hoping I’ve prepared myself well enough I watch on as the refuellers go to work. I’m not allowed in the car until they’ve finished and, anyway, today there’s no rush, for this is the brilliant Silverstone Classic meeting – three days of historic motor racing covering everything from Formula Junior racers from the 1950s to F1 cars from the ’80s – and for safety reasons all refuelling stops must be a minimum of four minutes long.
The hose is off. I step forward and over the wide sill, twist my body through the door cut-out in the roof and drop into the seat. Mechanics fasten the belts, connect up the radio and feed the water-bottle pipe through my helmet before the door is closed. I tighten the shoulder straps and I’m ready. Team manager Ian Dawson stands in front of the 962’s nose (which seems to end just past my feet), stopwatch in one hand, two fingers held up on the other. I’ve got another 120 seconds before I can leave. A chance to compose my thoughts…
THE REASON WE’RE HERE is to celebrate the life of David Leslie, who, along with former 962 team owner Richard Lloyd and three others, lost his life in a plane crash earlier this year. Leslie was one of the good guys of motorsport, and Steve and I were due to race with him in the Britcar Silverstone 24-hour race this year, so as soon as this Group C race was renamed The David Leslie Memorial Trophy, Steve was determined that we should be part of it. Hopefully, as well as raising money for David’s wife’s chosen charity, the Oxford Kidney Unit Trust Fund, we’ll do him proud today.
Once given the rotating index finger signal to fire-up the engine I turn the ignition key clockwise (yes, it really does start on a key) and blip the throttle as the 650bhp turbocharged 2.9-litre flat-six barks easily into life. The angry bellow is muted by all my ear protection, but thankfully the loud, all-encompassing gritty snarl still filters its way through. The five-speed gearbox has a dog-leg first and the lever by my right hand requires a hefty tug across the gate and towards me to select it, but it’s in, and as Dawson moves aside I dial in a few revs, ease out the clutch and roll away towards the pit-lane exit. This is it, then. No one can stop me now. I’m racing a Porsche 962! And as I join the track congratulating myself things become yet more surreal as 1988 Le Mans winner Andy Wallace blasts past towards Becketts in a Jaguar XJR8. evo’s ‘thrill of driving’ tagline has never been more appropriate. I can’t help but let out a childish whoop of delight.
I know I need to settle down, though. Driving these things is a serious business and there are over 30 Group C cars charging around the historic version of the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit, including an Aston Martin AMR1, several monstrous Nissans, a rotary Mazda, numerous Spices, a brace of Jaguars and three more 962s. Adding to the pressure, two days ago qualifying had been something of a disaster for us. After a short run Steve reported that our car had started jumping out of gear, and on my first lap gear selection was such a hit and miss affair I feared our race may have been over before it had even started. Spare parts are not exactly commonplace, and even if you can find the bits they won’t be cheap (a 962 windscreen wiper, for example, is so rare it commands £1000 – our car goes without). Thankfully the problem with the gearshift turned out to be a selector fork that had worked loose rather than broken, so it could be fixed, although for the race each shift would need precision and care.
The engine, however, feels massively strong. With the boost wound to around 1.4bar it hits its sweet spot between 6000 and 7400rpm, a zone where acceleration is nothing short of explosive, pinning your internal organs uncomfortably hard into the back of the seat. Barely 30 seconds after setting off I’m hitting around 190mph at the end of the Hangar Straight – when you join a race halfway through there’s no warm up, no acclimatisation, you just get in and go.
But it’s not the straight-line pace that unnerves, it’s the high-speed corners, which present the kind of physical and mental challenge that pushes your resolve, commitment and stamina to the limit and beyond. Group C regulations stated that the floor between the axles had to remain flat, but there were no restrictions to what could be done beyond that. Porsche packaged the 962’s rear suspension to ensure it could fit enormous venturis at the rear that virtually painted the car to the track, and when you combine the subsequent g-loadings with unassisted steering it’s almost unbearably intense.
For the first 20 minutes I stick to my plan of taking things steady, leaving a little in hand. As strange as it sounds, I try to concentrate on relaxing too. The environment is so hostile through the high-speed sections that you have to ignore the speed and try to chill for a few seconds every lap, think about your breathing and relax your arms. The car can cope with more than I can, so I’m pacing myself, and it turns out to be a wise move – another driver who came in for his pit stop soon after ours collapsed after being hauled from his car.
Other than being a little warm I’m doing OK, so much so I’m keen to press on. Being one of the earliest Group C cars in this race means our car isn’t as competitive as some of the other machinery out here – the Nissan RC90-CKs are running well over 900bhp, for example – and our fragile gearbox isn’t helping the cause. Nonetheless, when I request my position and lap time on the radio I find we’ve climbed from 21st to 14th, with my last lap a 1:56. I remove the distracting drink pipe from my mouth and focus completely on upping the pace.
Next time around, as the radio crackles deep inside my ears above the flat-out flat-six, I hear ‘1:54’. I’m pushing as hard as I dare. It takes dogged, single-minded, forget-the-consequences commitment to brake deep into Copse. The approach is a fifth-gear blast along the start/finish straight before a deep breath and a short, firm squeeze of the brakes that only just gives you enough time to dip the clutch, blip the throttle and slide the lever forwards into fourth. Brace yourself, turn in and feel the immense forces at work keeping the 962’s huge slicks nailed to the track. The minimum speed through here is over 125mph, the steering’s loaded, and by the time you get to the apex you couldn’t see at the turn-in point, you’re back hard on the throttle and correcting a small oversteer slide right on the exit. The corner itself is over in the blink of an eye, but it knocks the stuffing out of you – your neck, hands, heart and stomach take a serious beating – and there’s little respite on this part of the lap as you’re instantly back into fifth and charging towards the Becketts complex.
Turn left and dare yourself not to brake until you’re almost on top of the right-hander that follows. Drop into fourth and carry the speed through the left before another dab of the brakes and an awkward downshift across the gate to third for the final right in this complicated sequence. There are plenty of opportunities to cock this up, but when it all comes together it’s a stunning demonstration of what these cars are all about – brutal cornering ability allied to unrelenting power – and the buzz is unsurpassable.
As well as providing an opportunity to catch my breath, the Hangar Straight is an opportunity to check the vast array of temperature and pressure gauges that sweep across the dash (it’s a relief each time to find them sitting at the correct marks). I also have time to think how well this lap is going.
Pick your braking point for Stowe at 190mph, stand on the rock-firm middle pedal and the Porsche sheds speed like a giant parachute has been thrown out the back – totally stable, massively effective and with all the feel you could ever wish for. In short, the brakes are simply brilliant. Carefully select third gear and it’s through Stowe and on to Club, which today has the faster, historic entry. It’s effectively a 180-degree corner that begins tight and opens out towards the exit and it’s here that you get a true understanding of the seemingly implausible aero effect. Apex early to get the throttle on the floor and the speed build rapidly. As it does so the level of grip climbs at the same rate, so you never need to lift, even when on full boost towards the corner’s exit.
Abbey leads to Bridge, which despite what your head is telling you must be taken flat in fourth, then it’s on to the very slow final section of Priory, Brooklands and Luffield. These corners create the type of sequence that rarely existed on major race tracks 20 years ago – a time when the Mulsanne Straight was still free of chicanes – and it shows: the 962 doesn’t work here, being both off-boost and understeering horribly. It’s a consequence of the locked rear diff and low speeds that give the underfloor venturis nothing to work with. I’ve already discovered that the best way to deal with these second-gear turns is to get positive with the throttle and drive through them, the opposite of how you’d normally react to understeer.
From here it’s flat-out through Woodcote to start another lap and the radio wakes once more: ‘1:52. Good lap.’ I’m hitting my stride, working the car hard but remaining within its enormous limits to ensure I don’t overstep mine. Back in the day Le Mans teams would run with just two drivers, not three. Right now my respect and admiration for men like Bell, Stuck, Bellof, Ickx and, of course, David Leslie has climbed to yet another level. How is it possible to keep your mind and body going for so long?For the next 20 minutes I keep to a similar pace, but the lap times fluctuate because I’m either passing slower traffic or being passed by the front runners. Calum Lockie, leading in his Nissan, buzzes by, then I re-pass Wallace as he limps back to the pits with a puncture. With around a third of the race left I decide to back off for a couple of laps. Increased understeer through the quick stuff is a sure sign that the tyres are feeling the pressure and it’s amazing how much less demanding it is when you run a second or two off your ultimate pace.
My plan to wind up for a final push is thrown out with a horrible 190mph panic-attack, though. As my right foot hammers the brake pedal at top speed on the run to Stowe Corner the 962’s huge rear end instantly steps sideways. Reacting on instinct alone I ease the pedal a little, grab a quarter-turn of counter-steer and pray. Thank the Lord! The car comes back into line and we scramble around the turn, but I can’t relax – there’s oil on the track. In the late-afternoon sun it’s all-but impossible to see, but it’s everywhere. Someone has completed a lap on the racing line while liberally coating it with lubricant.
The consequences of sliding off at big speeds send a shiver to my core. I have to back right off, keep away from the racing line and bring the car home in the one same beautiful piece it was in when it won all those championships. Everyone else eases off too, but as we start to understand where the grip is, the pace begins to pick up again, and with five minutes to go I’m up in eleventh place and closing fast on the Argo in tenth. The racer in me wants to chase the top-ten spot, but the mature part of my brain is still nagging away about not taking any unnecessary risks. Maturity wins, and so does the Argo, by two seconds. But do you know what? It doesn’t matter a jot. Today I did something extraordinary, and completed a race beyond my wildest dreams. For an hour I had a privileged insight into the lives and experiences of those drivers I watched and admired two decades ago and I learned they were even more heroic than I ever imagined. David Leslie, I salute you.
A million thanks to those who made this possible: Steve Jones, Simon Wright, and Ian Dawson and his team.
Every time a dangerous job comes along it seems to be me who gets nominated for it. I was the one sent to discover how fast a Carrera GT could be fired down an autobahn (202mph, issue 80), and it was me who got to set the highest ever speed for a road car in the UK (221.9mph in a 9ff GT9, issue 116). But it was when I was flown to Germany to drive a tweaked Opel Omega at the Papenburg test track (issue 109) that I really started to wonder if the team were trying to bump me off.
You see, despite looking pretty standard on the surface, underskin modifications on this particular Omega meant it packed a Veyron-matching 1005bhp, but rather than undergoing a multi-million pound development programme it had been built by an amiable but obviously insane farmer from Norway called Ole Ringstad. My brief was to find out how fast it could go…
We’d soon recorded 214.1mph, but more was possible. I just needed to carry more speed through the banked corner before the straight. A couple of laps later, with gritted teeth, I came off the banking at 190mph – only to find an SLK attempting a few emergency lane changes further down the straight. I had to back off, which as it turned out was a lucky escape. The oil temperature in the diff was off the gauge – and the gauge went up to 300 degrees! Roger Green
|Engine||Flat-six, KKK K36 turbocharger|
|Cylinder block||Aluminium alloy|
|Cylinder head||Aluminium alloy, dohc, two valves per cylinder|
|Max power||650bhp @ 7600rpm|
|Max torque||487lb ft @ 5800rpm|
|Transmission||Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive|
|Chassis||Aluminium sheet monocoque, steel roll-over bar, seven-piece Kevlar body reinforced with carbonfibre|
|Front suspension||Unequal length wishbones, titanium rising-rate coil springs over Bilstein gas dampers|
|Rear suspension||Lower wishbones, parallel upper links, titanium rising-rate coil springs over Bilstein gas dampers|
|Steering||Rack and pinion|
|Brakes||Ventilated 325mm steel discs, four-piston alloy calipers|
|Wheels||13 x 16in front, 14.5 x 16in rears, magnesium alloy|
|Tyres||Dunlop race slicks|