I would have to describe myself as a lucky man. Not least because, despite a complete lack of planning, funding or ability, I’ve been able to blag drives in Polaris Buggies, Mini Super Two racers and now a Vauxhall Nova.
A meager little Vauxhall Nova might not sound as exciting as a Polaris buggy but let me explain, this is a very special Nova, run by a special team in the best motorsport you’ve probably never heard of.
There is a form of motorsport called Gymkhana, which is nothing to do with Posh kids trotting around on expensive ponies. It’s heavily inspired by the kind of hooligan behaviour you see Ken Block carrying out in his series of YouTube smashing videos.
To make it competitive it’s run side by side and against the clock. Think of it as an autotest with the volume turned up to 11.
The pinnacle of Gymkhana is the annual Gymkhana Grid competition that takes place every year and features the boss man, Block. One route to pitting your motor and wits against the World RX star, is via the UK based Formula G series that runs Gymkhana events across the UK for RWD, AWD and FWD machines.
Like with all motorsport, you can open your wallet, empty the contents and buy yourself a million horsepower beast that will slay all before it. Most use drift cars as they are ideal for the tight technical courses, but where’s the fun in that? Much more fun is taking an old, underpowered war horse, and attempting to take the big boys down. Step forward the Redtop Racing Vauxhall Nova.
Now this is no ordinary Nova, having been used for motorsport for nearly as long as it’s been alive. This awesome little Nova has seen action in Rally, Autotests, and even a bit of Track action. This Nova might not have seen it all but it’s seen more than most! The man behind the Redtop Racing Nova is Carl Harper, a talented driver and unbelievably trusting man, Carl agreed to let me share the Nova despite having never seen me drive!
The venue for my Formula G debut was Rockingham, the spectacular Speedway in Corby. Now, anyone who has followed my previous escapades know I usually start on the back foot due to one calamity or another, and today was to be no exception. Get the book of racing drivers excuses ready this is going to feature most of them…..
We recieved the course map two days before the event, this already had me concerned as it looked much more complicated than my usual turn left or follow the other cars approach. A quick track walk with Carl and fellow Redtop Racing driver Shaun Howorth reassured me that after a few practice runs I’d have it memorised and be able to focus on going fast. The plan was for Redtop Racing’s top man to head out at the start of practice to check the car over, get it running sweet and hand over to me to learn the car, the course and the get my head around the Formula G way of doing things. That was the plan anyway.
Carl headed out and over the first half of the course he was flying. He came to the 720’ spin that was right by our paddock space and it all went wrong with a loss of drive and one broken Nova, half way through it’s first practice run. The team ran out to push the stricken Nova home and it quickly became clear the Nova had popped a CV joint. Obviously, this was of course one of the only parts not packed into the tool box. Bugger.
Now at this point I was shaking hands with Carl saying thanks for having me and heading to the car, but this was to underestimate Carl, his dad Kevin and the Redtop Racing team. What followed showed a level of determination and commitment you don’t often get.
Carl had recently changed the CV joint and thought the old one was probably still in the workshop some 129 miles away. Probably.
On this off chance, Kevin headed off to the Redtop Racing workshop to find a CV joint that may or may not be there. If he could get there, get back and fit the offending joint before Carl’s qualifying run at 1pm, we could still go racing. A big ask.
So began for us at trackside, a waiting game. As the other crews were pounded round the course over and over, getting faster and faster, we sat and waited. 2 painful hours passed before Kevin returned with only 30 minutes before Carl had to qualify, what followed was the quickest CV joint replacement I’ve ever seen and a quick shakedown in the Rockingham paddock. After checking all was well, Carl rapidly handed over to me for my first ever drive in the car, I learnt very quickly that this might be a G reg Nova but it was perfect for the task ahead.
I handed back to Carl, and he headed out for qualifying, praying that the old/new CV joint held together. Qualifying consisted of four groups, with each car in the group completing 4 runs. One run has to be with no faults to qualify for the final. All the different classes run together and the fights between RWD, AWD and FWD are fascinating, with each class excelling at different parts of the course. The heavens opened as Carl was due to go out, which added another fun challenge into the mix! Carl ran well, qualified, and brought the car home safety, which was a relief for all of us. This meant only one thing, it was my turn to run the gauntlet.
Having never driven the course, driven the car in anger or ever attempted to compete in Formula G, I went and joined the queue for my qualifying run. Now you remember me saying that Formula G run side by side? Well that means you have to have someone to run alongside, and fortunately for me I just so happen to be running alongside three time Gymkhana Grid winner Luke Woodham in his epic Monster Energy backed Nissan. There’s nothing quite like jumping straight in at the deep end!
I pulled up to the lights, a drag style staging system that I’d never used before, and we lined up ready for action. I pulled on the hydro handbrake, brought the revs up and waited for the lights to turn from yellow to green……
And then we were off. Tyres spinning on the slick surface, the Nissan to my left shot off into the distance and it was clear from this point my real opponent was the clock and not the Japanese rocketship in the other lane. At corner one I tipped the Nova into the long right hander and the rear decided it wanted to be the front, much arm flailing kept the trusty Vauxhall heading the right way.
Next was a tight figure 8, pulling on the hydro handbrake to jink the Nova left and then right. Diving through the cones that marked the figure 8 and driving round the bollards that marked the edge of the course, the next challenge was a 360’ followed by a 720’. These required liberal use of the throttle and hydro handbrake to create an effect familiar to anyone who has put McDonald’s trays under the rear wheels of a FWD car. The last challenge was a left hander and stop into a stop box, terrifyingly close to the timing team. Now I finished so far behind Woodham he could have had a cuppa whilst he was waiting, but it didn’t matter, I had completed my first Gymkhana run in a car that was in bits 30 minutes earlier.
My next three runs got faster and faster, with mistakes slipping in as I found the limits, too much handbrake here, too much throttle there, resulting in massive smokey burnouts and one or two slightly embarrassing spins. But it didn’t matter, I had completed qualifying and I was in the final.
The finals ran slightly differently. With the classes now running as individual groups, my qualifying time was the slowest from our class, so I had to run against the fastest FWD car, a rapid Micra, piloted by a seasoned autotester who had nearly beaten a Caterham in the qualifying rounds. It was a best of two format, one run in each lane. Off the line I had the match of the Micra and we were neck and neck coming into the first bend. I wasn’t making so many mistakes by now and I’d pretty much mastered the hydro handbrake so felt comfortable in the car. So of course, I had a half spin in the 720’ which resulted in a massively embarrassing need to put it into reverse to get back on track. I had been beaten pretty solidly. On the second run I hooked up the course and was only beaten by half a car length. However, winning’s winning and I was beaten so had to make do with the third place showdown against Carl.
As we were sharing the car we ran one after another, and despite runs that felt the best of the day, I was pipped to third place by Carl, which only seemed fair as I was using his car!!
Despite the mechanical woes, I had an amazing time with the Redtop Racing guys. What the team might lack in financial backing they more than make up for with passion and proper know how to get the job done. There’s a new Nova build in the works for the 2018 season, but before then, there’s the last Formula G round of 2017 at Santa Pod on October 15th. It would be good to give the old warrior a double podium send off.
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