Ever driven round Coventry's ring road at full pelt in a racing car? I have...
Will cut his teeth as a designer on Evo magazine, before slinging a U-ey and writing for them instead. So if it has four wheels and an engine then there's a chance he's drifted it in front of a camera, driven it incredibly hard and then written about it. When he's not writing he's can be found fettling his 1971 BMW 2002 and trying to stop Wagtails defecating on his old Range Rover.
If you’d said to an eight-year-old me that I’d once drive competitively on the streets of Coventry, the city where we’d go to rent VHS copies of Herbie films, I’d have told you to ‘get stuffed’. Or, whatever the eight-year-old version of that level of disbelief is.
If you’d told me that I’d be doing it in a Beetle – a white one no less – I might have said something more outrageous than ‘get stuffed’, eight years old or not.
Still, on this warm day in June, that's what I am about to do. Well not exactly, as the car in question isn’t a real Beetle, the car that GT Radial has invited me to drive at Coventry's Motofest is much better than that.
It might look like a Beetle, but it is, in fact, a Fun Cup car: a purpose-built space-framed race car with fibreglass panels in the vague shape of a VW Beetle. Underneath that round composite roof is mid-mounted 1800cc Volkswagen engine, not the flat-four you’d find in a real Beetle, but an in-line four-cylinder used in Golfs and Sciroccos in the 1980s. The motor might only be fitted with just a single carburettor but it has a stainless steel tubular manifold and an aggressive cam (which is clear from the lumpy way it idles) so it produces around 130bhp. Perhaps not the most exceptional power output, but the whole car does only weigh 760kg.
If a power-to-weight ratio of over 170bhp-per-ton isn't enough to impress, perhaps it's race-spec six-speed Sadev sequential gearbox with wheel-mounted paddle shifters and GTR2 race tyres from Giti, GT Radial’s sister brand, might be enough to bolster its reputation.
Fun Cup cars have been designed as endurance racers, to hammer around long circuits for hours on end. Two, three and four-hour races take part in a handful of European championships before all the series combine for a huge end-of-season 25-hour race at Spa. So, it’s clear that this car is absolutely not made for driving on a 1.14mile-short sprint course in the centre of Coventry on a Saturday morning.
This is the second year that there has been a timed sprint at the Coventry MotoFest, despite the show now being in its fifth year. In 2017 the laws around closing roads for competitive events changed, granting Motorsport UK (then the MSA) the right to issue the relevant permits rather than parliament. The MotoFest's ring road-cum-sprint course starts on the left-hand-side of the carriageway going anti-clockwise and goes under a tunnel, through four chicanes around plastic barriers and down to a sequence of corners made from roundabouts and slip roads. It then returns to the same tunnel on the other side of the ring to the finish line via three more chicanes.
I’ve driven on Coventry’s ring road before, many times, but never without speed restrictions, the whole carriageway to myself or some carefully placed obstacles to avoid. I’ve also never driven a Fun Cup car before, so I am a little apprehensive. It’s not made any better by the angry-sounding engine shaking, burbling and popping behind my head.
But as I roll through the crowds to the collection area and start line, the spectators are drawn to the car’s happy Beetle shape and are taking pictures of it and smiling. Such affectionate attention gives me consolation that, even if I am slow and unspectacular, the crowds will still enjoy seeing this little bundle of Beetle-shaped joy weaving in and out of the red and white barriers.
I’ve also never done a sprint before, and as I approach the start, I realise that I don’t know the protocol at all. I’m ushered forward by a marshal to where the timing beam must be, but I over shoot slightly. Instead of just letting the marshals move me into position, which I'm unaware they're trying to do, I perform a Street-Fighter-special-move like sequence with levers and paddles to get the car into reverse. A quick tap on the plexiglas window alerts me to what's happening and I relinquish control to the marshals. Then, with no warning, the lights go green and I make a pathetic stumble forward at low revs. Sorry crowds.
This is just practice, so the fact I don’t improve on my measly start isn’t so much of a problem. Instead, I explore each corner with trepidation trying to get to know the track and the car. As I cross the finish line, however, I don’t feel much more informed about the roads. The chicanes made from the plastic barriers all look incredibly similar, but are all ever so slightly different; some are tight and require second gear and others are faster and you can snick between them in third. Trying to remember which is which will not be easy.
At least the car seems friendly. All the race paraphernalia and the threatening noises that make it initially intimidating are forgotten, instead the car is simply open and apparent, articulating every mechanical movement straight to me. Strapped tight to the seat and gripping a steering wheel that’s directly attached to the front wheels – no rubber or dampers to fuzzy the sensations it transmits back to your hands – I am instantly connected to the car.
With a few hours before the timed runs in the afternoon I get time to mill around the rest of the MotoFest. With the sun beating down I walk the tree-lined shady route towards the centre of town to find something to eat. Every direction I take is littered with gleaming examples of all sorts of cars: Italian supercars, modified German hot hatches, French superminis, Japanese coupes, certainly not just the British cars you might expect from a show in what was the heart of the UK’s automotive industry.
Fuelled-up with a sandwich I bought from a normal shop, not an overpriced burger van, and now equipped with some antihistamines (hay fever always kicks-in at the worst times) I bought from a pharmacy, because, you know, I am just in the middle of Coventry, I head back to the Fun Cup car. I take a slightly different route and pass a Land Rover off-road display, a very smoky drift demonstration and it dawns on me that I have never been to a car show with such a varied selection of activities, especially not one that is absolutely free to enter.
With just two runs to set a time in the afternoon, the pressure is certainly on. Well, it would be if I genuinely thought I was going to be competitive in the over 1701cc Sports Libre class that the Fun Cup is eligible for. I’m competing against a couple of DTM-esque Alfa Romeo 155s, a race-prepped Duratec-powered Caterham, an absurdly modified Time Attack Peugeot 205 and an actual GT3 Bentley Continental – not even an old one, the latest and most modern – so I don’t think I stand much chance of a medal.
Still, I am going to try. I attack a little too hard on the first timed run. I lock up into one of the tighter chicanes. I then find the Fun Cup doesn’t have a limited-slip differential in the tight corners and waste a lot of acceleration letting the inside rear wheel spin. Things also get a little squirmy on the exit of the penultimate chicane as I slide on some loose gravel. Not my finest hour, but having overstepped the mark in the car, felt what it was like when the grip runs out and having kept it out of the walls and barriers, I am flooded with a wave of confidence for the last run of the day. I also witnessed another car launch in front of me and realised that I don’t need to react quickly to the green light. In a sprint, when the lights turn from red to green it just signals that I can set off; the clock only starts once I’ve started moving.
With a less frenetic start procedure, greater knowledge of the track and an even better understanding of the car, I make a much cleaner attempt of the course. I carry more speed through the fast chicanes and limit any oversteer to just a small amount. The lock-up on the first run has made me a little too cautious on the brakes and the inside rear wheel still spins, even though I try the tight corners in second rather than first. Still, it’s a relatively mistake-free stint. I’m a good chunk of time behind GT Radial’s pro drivers, but not enough that I need to feel embarrassed.
After dropping the car back with the team I walk back through the festival, as the perfect day is transforming into the perfect summer’s evening; a big screen next to a trio of red, white and blue Mk1 Mini Coopers plays The Italian Job for everyone sipping drinks and relaxing on the green. But the fun’s not over, it all gets repeated on Sunday.
Sadly the good weather doesn’t hold and it rains solidly for the second day. But, the show’s atmosphere is barely any different with plenty of happy faces, especially whenever I roll past in the Fun Cup car. The wet tarmac means my times are slower, but it doesn’t make the Beetle-shaped racer any less fun to drive because, despite being out of its expected comfort zone, the car was far better suited to the wiggly Ring Road course than I had ever expected. So much so that, to my astonishment, by the end of the weekend I finished third in class. I can’t imagine what sort of expletives the childhood me would have come out with if you’d told him that I’d finish with a trophy.