It’s like a scene from Days of Thunder. Only with 100 per cent less Scientology and 100 per cent more French-ness. Ahead of me in the far distance, a trio of small Renault hatchbacks is shaping-up to go three-abreast through Turn 1 of Rockingham Motor Speedway’s International Circuit. And as anyone who knows their Rusty Wallace from their Dick Trickle could tell you, this kind of manoeuvre is officially Not A Good Idea.
Raising an ominous cloud of dust on the outside of the track is Jethro Bovingdon, his boxy Renault 5 GT Turbo being hung out to dry by the wily duo of Andy Wallace and Marino Franchitti in a brace of blue Clio Cups. As all three disappear out of sight, I’m not expecting things to end well for any of them. Perfect!
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In case you were wondering what’s going on, I’ve dropped you into the midst of the second in an occasional series of races in which evo pays homage to cult Japanese video phenomenon Best Motoring by pitting four members of the magazine team against one another in a mildly scientific (but mostly chaotic) pursuit race and a smorgasbord of racing driver excuses.
Last time we did battle in an assortment of Minis, mixing the super-hot GP and GP2 road cars with a pair of first- and second-generation Mini Challenge race cars (evo 206). The result was predictably controversial and completely hilarious. Oh, and a glorious victory for yours truly. Search ‘evo Best Motoring’ on YouTube and take a look. But I digress.
This time round, we’ve elected to slug it out in a rather wonderful array of Renaults to celebrate no fewer than 40 years of continuous one-make racing by the French marque in the UK. That’s quite a landmark – and an awful lot of revenue in spare parts – but the true scale of it only hits home when we saunter into Rockingham’s paddock to see the assortment of race-prepped Renault 5s and Clios being readied and warmed-up for us.
From a 5 TS stretching back to 1976 to the very latest 2015 Clio Cup, via a 1985 5 GT Turbo and a pair of earlier Clio Cups dating from 1991 and 1999, these terrific little cars represent a commitment to paint-trading, door-handle-scraping, talent-nurturing, one-make rough-and-tumble that’s second to none.
If you’re a hot hatch fan, it’s a sight from your wildest dreams. Seeing them all lined up reminds me of that image depicting the seven ages of man, the evolution from early 5 to current Clio graphically depicted before our eyes, each successive generation larger and more powerful than the last.
I don’t know which one you’d pick, but I’m desperate to race the 5 TS. It just looks so cool and unassuming, yet hard as nails, its upright body slammed to the deck and sporting steel wheels shod with generous rubber.
Just along the pitlane are Team Dynamics, shooting a video for Honda. The be-winged Civic Type R might be the hot hatch of the moment, but this elderly Renault 5 effortlessly outpoints it with a perfect combination of stance and no-nonsense simplicity. I’d love one with this mechanical spec, but road-legal with a proper interior.
This particular car was still racing – and winning – in the mid-’80s, but it goes right back to the root of Renault’s enduring obsession with one-make racing. It takes a few laps to know I’ve made the right choice. The 5 has a hair-raising propensity for three-wheeling and mouth-parching lift-off oversteer, but it’s massively entertaining and quicker than a 40-year-old hatchback with 90bhp has any right to be. Unfortunately it takes just a few more laps to dislodge some ancient piece of crud in the fuel system, the ailing 5 TS eventually backfiring in protest before spluttering to a halt. It’s a great shame, but goes with the territory with old and now infrequently driven race cars.