“There’s a stag on the track,” says Tim, our instructor.
I’m at the Loton park hillclimb about to tackle the steep run to the top in the all-new Vauxhall Astra GTC – and deer has stopped play.
Out here in the rural Midlands cars share roadspace not with reps, but with badgers, deer, squirrels and pheasants; lots of pheasants.
“If you see a pheasant and you have a choice of hitting it and not hitting it – hit it!,” says Stuart, our instructor at Shelsley Walsh (incredibly, the world’s oldest motorsport venue still in use), later. This may sound brutal, but what is the death of a pheasant – surely one of nature’s stupidest creatures – compared to the fenders of a new hatch?
The two historic hillclimbs are quaint, in the best possible way. Staffed by volunteers they run in the Summer months for Midlands Automobile Club members, keen amateurs and pro racers to belt up the short tracks as fast as they possibly can in a collection of light racers, classics and curios.
Scanning a list of previous entrants at a recent competition day I was heartened to see that a Ford Racing Puma had screamed up Shelsley Walsh in around 33 second, winning its category. Supercars struggle. “They’re too heavy – it’s like watching paint dry,” says one of the volunteers.
Apparently the best car-and-powertrain combination is a Formula Two car with a Formula One engine; a power-to-weight ratio that’s probably more impressive than Bernie Ecclestone’s. Methanol is the best fuel to use, apparently, although it poses problems of its own. You can’t see it burning, so the stewards’ only clue that something is amiss is when car or driver themselves catch fire.
Driving up either Shelsley Walsh or Loton Park is all about apexes, braking points and correct gearing. The 1,000 yards at Shelsley Walsh can be cleared in around 23 seconds in the right car – and with the right driver.
I’m in a Vauxhall Astra GTC 2.0 165PS turbodiesel – Vauxhall’s new warm hatch that’s squaring off against the Scirocco. Both tracks allow for a good appraisal of the engine, unique suspension set-up and steering; perhaps not the brakes.
Loton is longer – perhaps more demanding – but there are more twists and turns where it’s conceivably possible to make up time; including one wicked blind summit that hides the most fiendish corner of the lot.
Shelsley Walsh is more simple – there are about three bends of note on a gradient that sometime reaches one in six. Get any of them wrong and you lose a lot of time, well relatively speaking. Lose a second and you’re well out of the game here. If you lose it at the first S bend a grass bank beckons; and has welcomes many cars to their doom.
The GTC’s revised suspension set-up – HiPer strut at the front and Watts linkage at the rear – tightens everything up over the five-door. There’s remarkably little body roll; far more traction than I ever use in the corners (I was much too conservative on the slightly slipper surfaces) and precise steering – even with a ton of revs pulling the front tyres.
There’s noticeably little torque steer off the line – something the new suspension directly combats – meaning no-one attending the first ever GTC Media Hillclimb Championship drives straight into a hedge.
It was not an event I won. My first official motorsport competition did not end up with champagne and a signed Mark Adams concept sketch, but with the knowledge that I wasn’t last and I didn’t write off one of Vauxhall’s finest – that was enough.
On both runs I messed up gearing; too quick to change up without sufficient revs under the belt. I later learned that this was due to a number of reasons. As I was among the first out the Astra was carrying a lot of extra fuel – perhaps as much as half a litre. Not only that but the tyres weren’t warmed up – and the ground was still a little greasy. So, not my fault at all really.
Vauxhall alluded to the fact that taking the GTC up the hills in anger had been something of a ‘will-we-wont-we?’ affair – and that’s understandable. But it gave a great overview of the hatch’s abilities and exposed me to the simple pleasures of hillclimbing – a fast car, a small stretch of road, a few enthusiastic car buffs and a great day in the British countryside.