We were streaking across northern France under the light of a full moon, at an altitude of 6 inches, maintaining a steady 90mph. I was remembering the old ‘Dam Busters’ film, huge Lancaster bombers skimming across the countryside of Europe at ground level in the dark, avoiding the Luftwaffe, about to create history. Only we were in the automotive equivalent of a Mosquito fighter, desperately trying to avoid the Gendarmes or anything larger than a rat on the carriageway. The thought of animal impact started to bother me, what type of damage could a fox, badger or worse again deer, inflict upon the front of this plastic projectile masquerading as a car travelling at near enough to a ton? I didn’t want to dwell on this thought, but it kept coming back to haunt me with every random road kill I spotted.
I distracted myself from these thoughts by focusing on ‘The Mission’, a track day at Le Mans the following day, followed by a run up to the Eifel mountains to sample the infamous Nurburgring, before returning home to Blighty, all within a little over 48hrs! What had started out as a simple invitation to ride shotgun with my brother Bodie to the legendary French racetrack had rapidly evolved into a potential orgy of speed! On paper it seemed easy enough, but in reality it was going to prove far more challenging!
After about 150 miles the first challenge was starting to present itself, tiredness was seeping in! This was unusual for me as I’m a habitual creature of the night, but tonight I was suffering the consequences of attending the Brixton urban farmers street fair the previous night. As a result I’d only managed about 3 hours of fumigated sleep before rushing off to collect the Lotus from Back On Track Motorsport. A mixture of excitement and adrenaline had kept me going during daylight hours, but now I was running on empty! So tired, that my vision was starting to grey at the edges!
Bodie had elected to drive the leg from Calais to Le Mans, so I debated a sneaky snooze, but immediately felt guilty for even thinking it, there’s nothing worse than a sleeping co-pilot in the dead of night! There were other factors that prevented me from nodding off too; the first was the autoroute toll booths, in a normal right hand drive car they are only a minor inconvenience, the passenger simply pays from their side, in fact, this can be a bonus as it means the driver doesn’t have to scramble for change while driving. However, when you’re in a Lotus Elise, equipped with a four point harness, high-sided bucket seats and a ride height equivalent to a bobsleigh, you have to perform the kind of yoga routine that a 14 year old Romanian gymnast would balk at, just to reach up to the toll attendant! This whole operation is tedious at best and bloody infuriating the second time you drop your change just short of their outstretched hand!
The second reason I couldn’t sleep was the noise of the engine, the four pot Toyota unit is not the most soothing of powerplants I have ever experienced, even in sixth gear it saws through you eventually! To add insult to injury, Bodie had added a custom manifold and exhaust which had increased the ambient cabin noise to within a few decibels of deafening! Don’t get me wrong, when used in anger the sound is pure race car and has the ability to raise the hairs on the back of your neck, but at a constant 4,500rpm for hours at a time, I was considering undertaking a double ‘van Gogh’! Oh and if that wasn’t enough, Bodie had also removed the sound proofing foam between the engine firewall and seats to ‘add lightness’, to paraphrase Colin Chapman. I would be cursing both Colin and Bodie for this approach within 24 hours, but more about that later!
At around 2am we started to see the first signs for Le Mans itself, which gave me a second wind, my hitherto deathly tiredness abated almost instantly. This was just as well as Bodie was starting to fade rapidly, his change in mood suddenly became apparent when we ran low on fuel about 10 miles from Le Mans itself and while not actually panicking, the atmosphere became very tense as we sought out an open petrol station. We eventually found a 24 hour self-service station and happily ‘added some heaviness’ to a very empty Lotus! Bodie had had enough and gladly handed over the controls to me for the final approach to the hotel. We found the hotel after a couple of missed turns and parked up for the night with a mixture of relief and anticipation. I think it took about 4 minutes for us to enter the bedroom, undress and pass out!
4 Hours later we were up again, wincing at the sound of the multiple alarm clock assaults required to raise us from the dead! We performed the Zombie March into the shower and re-emerged blinking into the bedroom now filled with hazy morning light. We got out of the room and down to the carpark fairly smartly, for fear of falling back onto the bed and certain slumber. The first pleasant surprise to greet us was the weather, sunshine streaming low over a gentle morning mist, it was going to be a perfect day for laying some rubber!
Now is probably a good time to talk about our weapon of choice for the mission! Bodie’s Elise 111R! I often grumble about certain choices he has made with regard to styling and performance modifications, but it is without doubt one of the most entertaining cars I’ve ever had the privilege of driving! I say privilege because I don’t know many people who would hand over the keys to their pride and joy at a racetrack and simply sit back and let you push as hard as you dare. Obviously this becomes an exercise in restraint for me, as I cannot afford to destroy my brothers wheeled obsession from either a personal relationship or fiscal perspective! In practice this means I always get out of the car with a slight sense of regret, the regret that it’s not mine! In truth I’ve never gone beyond 90% of my self-perceived ability in it, but this still requires 100% concentration! Nonetheless, I am extremely grateful to have a brother willing to trust me to this level!
Back to the car itself though, Bodie bought it as a standard 111R with about 6000 miles on it, I think it had the factory touring pack too, but most of that trimming was gone within months. The car had been put on a diet as mentioned earlier, along with the firewall soundproofing, a chunk of rear valence had been cut out and replaced by a skeletal numberplate holder, the doorcards had been replaced in favour of some nice carbon sheets and the standard seats were now fixed carbon buckets. The seats were surprisingly comfy considering they had no cushioning whatsoever, even after 3hrs strapped in! They did have one major drawback though, even when bolted down at the furthest rearward position I didn’t have enough legroom around the pedal box, this meant no heel and toeing and occasional difficultly in being smooth across the pedals! One of the drawbacks of being 6’2” in a car obviously designed to be driven by Elves!.
Thankfully, Bodie had the wisdom to fit a removable, flat bottomed, suede Sparco steering wheel which was not only superb to hold but also aided entry to the cockpit considerably! Once you were seated there was a Willans 4 point harness to pin you in place, an essential piece of kit for track work, but an infuriating nuisance at any other time!
On the exterior, a chin splitter had been fitted, which subjectively improves the looks of the car and probably enhances the aero package to some degree, but I’m not qualified to gauge that! Behind the newly fitted Lotus Sport alloys which had been shod with some very sticky Yokohama AO48’s, the car had been upgraded to Exige specification shocks, which gave a little less roll and bounce than the standard Elise units.
Which brings us to the exhaust system, actually, this is a story on it’s own, but for the sake of brevity let’s just say that Bodie had volunteered to be the guinea pig for a new system that Larini wanted to develop, he had hoped to gain a few horses over the standard 190bhp in the process, unfortunately it didn’t quite work out like that and the result was fantastic noise but a slight decrease in overall power output! (This has been remedied since with the addition of a new manifold from the U.S.). Anyway, the upshot of all these modifications was an 800Kg track toy par excellence!
Upon approaching the main entrance to the circuit itself I started to feel a little giddy, not an uncommon feeling for me, it always seems to happen just before any major motoring event in my life, but this time it was tinged with awe and nostalgia! I was going to get to drive one of ‘the greats’, a track so steeped in motorsport history that you cannot count the stories surrounding it. Admittedly we would not be driving the full open road course of 24hr fame, but we would be getting a little taste of its hallowed tarmac.
Today we would be experiencing the ‘Bugatti’ circuit, named after Ettore Bugatti himself! Just under 2.6 miles and 11 turns. Bodie and I exchanged grins, these are the days that matter! As we pulled into the paddock my grin evaporated, I’m not sure what replaced it, as I was too busy having a mini panic attack! The cause of this minor attack was the sight of two black Radicals being unloaded from the back of a very professional looking truck! They wore full race livery and although I couldn’t quite make out the drivers name printed below the cockpit, I’m pretty sure it read ‘D.Vader’! A quick glance around the rest of the paddock revealed an assortment of race prepared Lotus’s (Loti?), Opel Speedsters (VX 220’s), a couple of Porsches and a gaggle of Caterhams! This was my first ‘official’ track day and I was surrounded by clubracers and seasoned semi-pros in very quick machinery! No pressure then!
The drivers briefing was surprisingly short and informal and when we were dismissed, good natured exchanges were made between many of the drivers. I avoided this situation quickly as I didn’t want to make eye contact, let alone speak with anyone who might realise I was a complete novice with the potential to destroy their beloved racecar! I strolled back to the paddock doing my best Steve McQueen impression, though I’m not sure if Steve McQueen ever felt like shitting himself in these type of situations!
At the stroke of ten o’clock the pit lane opened and it was time to get some sighting laps in. Bodie’s approach to any new track is common sense, always get tuition from an expert early on! This means you’re driving the correct lines and have the braking and turning points immediately, it’s far quicker than wasting half a day looking for them yourself! You can then focus on turning this knowledge into speed. The problem with this method is that sometimes Bodie omits vital little pieces of information when passing on what he has learnt to me! This would become apparent a little over an hour into the session, when I got to experience first hand the joy of lift-off oversteer when I performed a pirouette onto the start/finish straight!
We did a few laps each before Bodie went out for instruction and I went on a quest for caffeine. Caffeine and nicotine, the 2 essential stimulants required for the sleep deprived driver, nicotine was in plentiful supply, but caffeine was to prove elusive that morning! After 15 minutes I managed to find a dirty drinks dispenser hidden under a set of stairs in the bowels of the race control building. I drink tea because I have enough other addictions to deal with without adding coffee to the list, but in a typically French way, this machine said ‘Non!’ to my tea selection and would only vend coffee! I told myself to ‘Man Up’ and settled for a black coffee in a puny plastic cup. I wandered over to the pit wall and necked it in one go! Nasty but effective! 10 minutes later I had my first ever coffee high. Mildly amused by the jittery lift I was experiencing, I mentally prepared for my second hand lesson from Bodie.
I never enjoy the first lap out with Bodie post tuition, his new found speed is always disconcerting and I have to recalibrate my own limits based on his experience. The second lap is fine, I’ve got the new lines and braking points, but already I’m working out what extra margins I’ll have to build into my own laps. This usually means slightly different turn in points and braking earlier than I would really like, it’s a compromise, but one my bank manager insists upon!
A few laps later and it was my turn to play! The track was getting busier now and the Radicals were starting to stretch their legs in an awesome fashion, swallowing up and spitting everything out of their way! Undeterred I started to wind up the speed and did my best to avoid getting in their way. At this juncture I should probably mention that my experience of driving a Lotus Elise was limited to a few laps of the Hethel test track and maybe 75 miles of normal road driving, along with a few sighting laps earlier that morning, so this was a journey into the unknown for me!
Now if you’re expecting a polished review of the handling characteristics of a 111R, I’d suggest you go read one of the many glowing reports that just about every motoring publication has churned out over the years, all I can contribute is this;
I’ve never watched a full episode of ‘Dancing with a Z list celebrity’ or whatever it’s called, but it’s a very simple format, take one professional dancer and one fame hungry monkey and make them do something vaguely resembling a Tangonova. It doesn’t matter how appallingly uncoordinated the monkey is, the professional will make them look good. The Elise is a professional dancer!
In an effort to gain even more speed, Bodie decided he wanted to jettison 83 Kilos of ballast, so I got out. I decided to go take some pictures while he flew solo. The morning haze was starting to lift and so was my earlier apprehension, time for me to make some new friends and scope out their toys!
Twenty minutes later I was back in the driving seat for my first solo stint. The first couple of laps went well, the car was a little sharper without a passenger on board, so I gradually ramped up my pace. Then I had my moment! Exiting the corner onto the start/finish straight I decided to adjust my line by coming off the throttle, expecting the nose to tuck in a fraction before getting back on the gas, this was a silly mistake to make in a mid-engined car, I felt the rear break away instantly and knew there was no way to save it. I was on the brakes and clutch immediately and spun 180 degrees within a car length! No damage done except to my pride, still, a valuable lesson learned! I finished my lap and pitted! Bodie had a half smile on his face, ‘Did I mention that Elise’s are notorious for lift-off oversteer?’ he quipped! The words had scarcely left his mouth when someone else spun in exactly the same spot as I had, only they ended up in the kitty litter forcing a track closure for 10 minutes. I felt better then, at least I hadn’t cost anyone track time!
The rest of the day passed without incident, the Lotus was a revelation, pounding out faster and faster laps. Around 5 o’clock everyone started to pack up and head home, this was surprising as we had the track til 6pm. This was an opportunity to savour, early evening sunshine on a deserted racetrack! Some freestyle hooliganism ensued until Bodie missed a turn completely and declared he’d had enough. We returned to the paddock and debated our next plan of action.