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Autosport International 2017 Show Review

January is never my favourite month of the year. Seriously, it’s cold & dark and everyone has the post Xmas blues – find me a good reason to get excited about it. Well apart from a 10 day surf trip, Autosport International at Birmingham NEC is a pretty good one! While the England is still deep in hibernation & emergency detox diets, the UK’s largest motorsport show never fails to draw petrolheads out of their man caves (and woman caves?) for the sole purpose of gathering around racing cars and discussing the season ahead.

Having missed the show in 2016 I was keener than ever to do as much as possible in the two trade days, and with so much of the motorsport industry gathered under one roof it’s a perfect opportunity to do some networking. As it turned out I was filming a show review with Automotion Productions, so Thursday was a very busy day, we worked non stop and I had the chance to interview a lot of interesting people including the MSA’s CEO Rob Jones, Schroth Racing’s Tom Myers, Mark Hallam from NGK, and ITV’s BTCC commentator Paul O’Neil.

One thing I’ve always wanted to try is a genuine racing simulator, not just Gran Turismo with a wheel & pedals but something nearer to the type of setup that pro drivers train on with realistic cornering forces applied through the wheel and a wrap around screen. Step in Richardson Racing who are based at Rockingham near Corby, aside from racing in a number of championships from top level karting to British F4 and Ginetta Juniors they also offer professional tuition on their state-of-the-art simulator.

I spoke with team principal Gwyn Richardson about the benefits of simulators versus track time (see the interview above) before trying it for myself in F4 setup on the twists & turns of Donington. The tub has actuators built in that subtly give you the sensation of the car loading up in corners, and the wheel is a XAP GP2 just like the one in the Norma so I quickly felt at home, albeit you do need some time to get used to the ‘feel’ of a simulator compared to the real thing. Gwyn had mentioned that you really need to stand on the brake pedal and sure enough I found myself putting a huge amount of force down with my left leg. After 15 minutes I was starting to get a feel for the entry and corner speeds, although someway off the laptime shootout (another 5 mins…), I was a little too keen to get back on the throttle mid corner, a necessity in hillclimbing. I can really see the attraction for drivers of all levels, to be honest I just wish someone would accurately map all the CFM & EHC courses as Corby is only down the road from me.

The only draw back, and something I’ve read about a number of times, was motion sickness. It takes a lot to make me feel queasy, in fact the last time I had this sensation was age 6 on a choppy Italian ferry.

When I emerged from the darkness of the simulator into the NEC’s never ending dayglow, I felt as if I’d got off a boat (you know the feeling when you get off the treadmill in the gym for the first time in a while) and went almost straight into an interview British F4’s press officer Alex Battipaglia, thankfully I quickly regained my composure! 

So what were the best bits of Autosport 2017? It’s hard to be choosey but if I had to take three cars home with me then it would be the ones above, starting with Ligier’s LMP3 car in red, white & blue (sound familiar…?). Norma have also released an LMP3 car to run in the recently launched junior sports-prototype class, with all five constructors running the 420Bhp Nissan V8 mated to Xtrac box’ and 900kg minimum weight. It produces a little less power to weight than the car I’ll be running this season (with more downforce), but even so it looks awesome just stood still, and it’s the kind of thing I dream of driving on a circuit one day…

Next up was a classic Porsche 911 RSR with Martini stripes, just the right amount of race car in a road car, über cool and fast for a classic too. Heck knows what it costs in the current climate of stratospheric prices for cars from Stuttgart, but it’s something that will never date and I wished I could have driven in home (even though it was snowing when I left).

Finally the car that started it all for me, albeit in Time Attack spec with over 300Bhp through it’s insanely wide front wheels – the Peugeot 205. This car caught my eye from a mile away and I must have spent a good quarter of an hour looking round it. Built by Spoox Components who hail from Leicestershire (they actually did some work on my old car), the picture doesn’t really do it justice. It had vented arches, a bigger diffuser than my FR, possibly wider tyres and it was super tidy for a race car. It’s true to say that I never developed my 205 anywhere near the ‘dream spec’ I had in mind and it’s left me with an itch I need to scratch one day. I want to build one.

So there you have it – dream race car, everyday car (ish), and project car.

Mick HowlettAs always I saw a lot of friends and familiar faces, as well as whole a crowd of European drivers – Seb Petit, Simone Faggioli, Fabien Bouduban, Fausto & Andrea Bormolini & Fulvio Giuliani as well as engine builder & top mechanic François Tosoni. By far my fondest looking back over this year’s show was sat chatting with Mick Howlett & Sue Fletcher on the Pilbeam stand. One of British Hillclimbing’s true characters with an infectious sense of humour and someone who was always very kind to me, Mick worked on every car to leave Pilbeam’s factory for decades. That moment feels very poignant now after hearing that Mick passed away suddenly last week, for me he epitomised the spirit of English hillclimbing and will be greatly missed. My thoughts & prayers go out to his wife Sue, and family & friends at this sad time.

As February draws to a close and the evenings gradually become lighter, it can mean only only thing – the season is only months away and testing is next week. A couple of weeks ago I had the first glimpse of the Norma in the Team Schatz Competition colours and it looks perfect. I’ve got two days of coaching and driving booked at Circuit de Bourbonnais so I’ll bring you a full run down soon, hopefully one of them will be dry and we’ll get to do a bit of wet driving too… but you never know.

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