Racing stripes

The full version of the interview with alfa 4c owner and paralympic cyclist jon-allan butterworth which originally appeared in aroc driver

4y ago

Jon-Allan Butterworth joined the RAF in 2002 and served in Afghanistan in 2005 and Iraq in 2007 as a weapons technician. On 4 August 2007 he was caught up in an insurgent rocket attack on Basra Air Station, Iraq. He was operated on by doctors in a battlefield hospital who carried out an above the elbow amputation of his left arm.

While recovering at the Defence Medical Rehabilitation Centre Headley Court in Surrey, Jon-Allan took part in a ParalympicsGB talent ID day and - after completing his rehabilitation - was accepted onto the British Paracycling Programme in January 2009. He was selected to represent ParalympicsGB at the London 2012 Games where he went onto win three silver medals – adding a third World Champion’s jersey to his collection in the Team Sprint earlier this year, as well as a Silver in the Kilometre Time Trial.

Not one to shy away from a new challenge, Jon-Allan also competed as a contestant on Channel 4's The Jump in 2015 – finishing 6th of the 16 starters – and returned to the Olympic Park in December, joining Chris Hoy at last year’s Race of Champions. And, to keep himself busy – and to he also co-owns a bike ship in Gatley, near Stockport.

Pic: SWPix

Pic: SWPix

I feel uncomfortable when people say I inspire them. I’m a bloke who has an injury, who got better and got on a bike. I don’t see myself as a hero, I see myself as someone who is getting on with life.

Jon-Allan Butterworth

“I feel uncomfortable when people say I inspire them. I’m a bloke who has an injury, who got better and got on a bike. I don’t see myself as a hero, I see myself as someone who is getting on with life.” he told the Daily Mail.

He’s always loved cars, but the 4C is his first Alfa. “I first became aware of the 4C around around a week before the track nationals at the end of September last year. I not like the typical ‘Alfa nut’ – I’ve not grown up with Alfas or had pictures on the walls or anything like that. I just kind of fell in to it because I like fast cars.”
He was driving a Porsche at the time and it was finance, rather than performance, that prompted the decision to change. His current car was coming up to the end of its three year deal and it was going to be cheaper to buy a new one than to refinance and keep the one he had.

But Porsche was changing from 6 cylinder to four cylinder turbos and not only was there little information on the new car there were none to be had – with four or six cylinders.

A friend suggested that he looked at the 4C. “I’d never heard of them and I looked at them on the computer and on the screen, on the images on the dealer website – not the press releases but the configurator – it looked rubbish. The pictures that they use on the website… it’s not like a proper picture, it looks squashed… It just didn’t look that appealing.”

“And at that point I was thinking – of all the performance cars I’ve driven, the Porsche is the best. It’s really well balanced and I’ve driven a lot of cars and there’s something about Porsches – the heritage as well – which I knew a little bit about and got into – and I was a bit grumpy. It was Porsche or nothing.”

“So I did a day of dealer visits. I went to Aston Martin, I went to the Nissan garage to look at the GT-R but I got clobbered by a really bad salesman who wasn’t interested – the only dealership in Manchester that had one to look at and it was ‘offsite at the moment’ – he just didn’t really seem like he wanted to sell me a car.”

The World Championship Gold Medal

The World Championship Gold Medal

“The Alfa was at the last place I went to – just by chance I went into the dealership (Mangoletsi) and said ‘Have you got one?’ – I couldn’t see one in the showroom – and he said ‘Yeah – we’ve got one over there’ and it was behind ropes…”

“I first saw it and I looked at the front of the car and the pictures just didn’t do it justice. It’s crazy – in the flesh it’s just so different and I thought ‘That’s quite tasty’.”

“They did the usual ‘Do you want to sit in the car?’ to get you to like the car before you talk numbers. I don’t like doing that because if I can’t afford it – if you fall in love with it and you can’t afford it – you try and work the numbers…”

“And then I sat in it and - compared to the Porsche - it’s more low-down, it’s a lot firmer – a lot more racy – and it made the Porsche seem like a really comfy, relaxed car. The Porsche’s really a sports tourer, rather than a full-on race car for the track… it’s designed for comfort and since I’ve owned the Alfa, the Porsche was so much more comfortable – more an every day driver’s car – and a lot easier to drive than the Alfa.”

Initially he was told that no test drives were possible. He insisted that he wasn’t buying a car without test driving it and was about to walk out. He got a test drive - but a very sedate one, restricted to Normal mode.

But the numbers worked and, while there’s normally a long waiting list for a 4C, Mangoletsi has a cancelled order at the back of the dealership – the customer had changed his mind and ordered a Spider.

“They had a car delivered from Maserati, just sitting there waiting. Obviously, at that point with a new car you normally spec it and there are a lot of factory options that you have to choose at the time of order. So on one level, it’s not like a new car anymore - it’s not a used car, but it’s not quite ‘new’ either – but the deal they offered was a no-brainer – on paper it’s a pretty quick car, it looks great and if I keep it a couple of years I could almost break even.”

JAB at the Race of Champions at the Olympic Stadium

JAB at the Race of Champions at the Olympic Stadium

“In that class – the performance you get for that amount of money – there’s nothing that could beat it. And since I’ve twiddled it as well and it’s got that bit more grunt.”

“I think the way to go is a smaller engine and turbos – even though it changes the way it accelerates – it’s not as smooth – purely because, when you are cruising on the motorway I can get 50-60mpg – which is ridiculous.”

“And then, when you put your foot down and it’s on boost it drains it quite a lot – but I’m averaging 27mpg and most of that is either exhilaration driving or town driving – it’s very rarely pootling along the motorways, and I still get 27, 28mpg and the Porsche was getting 21 with the same driving style, so it just makes sense.”

Butterworth’s car history is eclectic, but has always had a performance edge a Ford Fiesta Zetec S which “back then I thought was a pretty rapid car. It handled like a go kart, it was 120-130bhp in something that weighs just over a ton – it probably did 0-60 in about 8 seconds which, going from a 1.1 Fiesta was pretty nippy.” In fact, he had two – the first for two days “and then I wrote it off – probably less than 48 hours – from a 1.1 60hp Fiesta to that, it was quite a big jump. It’s like me going into a Bugatti Veyron now – and you think you’ll put your foot down and then you’re Senna.”

An MG ZS 180 saloon followed “that was quite good, with a nice big V6 – quite torquey – but a lot of understeer. A big car, but quite quick. And then I lost my arm and went towards the bike route – it’s actually easier to convert a bike, because of the gears, than it is to convert a car.”

“It’s something I’d always wanted to do – get in to bikes –before my injury – and then I basically said ‘I’m going to carry on down that route, because I’m not going to let the incident change, in essence, what I wanted to do – and I wanted to do this.”
“So I learned to ride my motorbike – the first bike I got was a CBR600RR and it’s the bike I learned to do my CBT and my test on it – so I was riding round cones on a bike that probably weighs 180 kilos and the power to weight ratio’s incredible and I was trying to go round the cone at 5mph, it’s ridiculous. I look back now and I don’t know how I did it – I don’t know how I passed that test – it’s just crazy. I don’t know how I didn’t crash the bike.”

“I rode for four years – I got a Fireblade, as well. That was just nuts – it was too fast for the roads, it was just crazy. And then – when the cycling really took off I pretty much moved away from bikes and went back towards cars but I needed the adrenaline rush from the speed, so getting rid of the bike meant I had to get a sports car, so I got rid of my modest VW Golf and my sports bike and got the Porsche.”

“Obviously it’s not as fast as the bike, but you can take two people in it, normal clothes, not get wet… and I think my passion lies more in cars than bikes but I’d still love to ride a bike again one day but four wheels is more appealing to me.”
“The 4C’s my only car, so I use it every day. I think it’s fairly practical – I use Sea Suckers for my bike, so when I do have to get a bike to and from the velodrome – which isn’t very often because my bikes are at the velodrome – you just put the Sea Suckers on the roof and the back window and it’s really easy.”

The boot's not big, by any normal definition - but it's big enough for Butterworth

The boot's not big, by any normal definition - but it's big enough for Butterworth

“The boot’s acceptably big for an all-out sports/race car really. Obviously, going from the Porsche – a sports tourer – it’s tiny. You had a front boot that you could fit a person in and obviously the boot at the back with, effectively, parcel shelf over the engine where you could put things flat – like suits – and you can pack things up behind the driver’s seats – to then lose all that to one boot, which is small-ish… but you can fit quite a lot in. You can fit a couple of weeks’ shopping in – I go to do my weekly food shopping in it – four or five carrier bags quite easily.”

“I think it’s quite practical. Obviously there are some aspects – like you haven’t got a glove box, which was a bit bizarre when I first got it, but it’s not too bad as an everyday car.”

But what’s it like to drive? “When it’s cold it’s a bit of a bitch – it’s a bit jerky and the gearbox takes a little while to get warmed up – but I use it every day – that’s why I’ve done six thousand miles or so since I got it.”

“I think it’s a shame if you don’t drive it. I remember hearing – when I was talking to one of the guys at the dealership about a serial Alfa owner who has got the 4C and only drives in the dry – he doesn’t drive it in the rain, at all – never brings it out – it’s garaged all the time – but I don’t think anyone drives it like I do. I need some new back tyres already – they’re pretty much on the limit now.”

“I’ll be changing tyres because the Pirellis are rubbish – they’re not really designed for UK weather. They’re great for 20 degrees plus in Italy, but when it gets below 10 degrees, the soft compound is rock hard. Not very good. I don’t rate them at all. I want to go back to my Michelins which is what Germans put on their cars because they’re designed for a little bit more variable conditions.”

“My car’s full of stone chips because the paint’s so thin but that’s what you get from driving it, I suppose – and I think it’s a shame if you don’t. I’ve tried to get it on a track day but Team Sprint practice for the Worlds got in the way of that, but it will be going on the track. I might just bide my time and do more things to it – like fitting a bucket seat with a five-point harness. Turn it in to a track day car.”

“I’ve seen what the guys in Germany – Pogea Racing – have done a body kit and spoiler for it that looks pretty cool –it’s how far you want to go, because if you go down that route – the full-on race car route – it looks great, but you lose a little bit of subtleness and you lose the curves of the car. You make it more square – sharper and more aggressive looking.”

“After the re-map mine’s close to 300bhp – it’s a Stage 1 ECU re-map, but I had a straight exhaust put in and got rid of the silencers, so it’s freer flowing – nothing slowing down the exhaust fumes – and saved a little bit of weight as well.”

The Cheshire countryside is a great place to enjoy the 4C

The Cheshire countryside is a great place to enjoy the 4C

“It doesn’t need any more torque, it needs a bit more power – I wouldn’t even say ‘needs’; you’re being picky. I went on the dyno with it and it topped out at 277 but the guy that dyno’d it didn’t have the right fans for a mid-engined car and it over heated. On the graph it basically – at 4500-5000 revs – the graph drops straight down – but when you drive the car you know that red line’s at 6700-6800 and you start losing that sensation of the surge at about 6500 – so it’s one and a half thousand revs before it would normally tail off – it wouldn’t stay flat – so my prediction is that it’ll go up a little bit more. If you follow the normal shape of the curve you might lose a bit in the last 500 revs, but you would expect it to drop off any sooner than that – so I’ve estimate it about 305. But I’d like to get it on a proper dyno with the proper cooling.”

Was there anything he would have changed if he’d been able to order the car from new. “It’s probably not that much different [from what I would have ordered] – it’s fairly stock – it hasn’t got the performance exhaust or the performance suspension – the Performance Pack. But I drove the Performance Pack - the Launch Edition - and I think it’s too harsh for British roads – I think it was too jittery – the suspension’s too hard. So I think the stock suspension’s probably better for an everyday car – maybe not for a track car. A few of the carbon fibre finishes might have been nice – and there’s no company that really does 4C parts properly yet – the door mirrors are fine colour coded, but the headlight surrounds in carbon would have been nice.”

“Apart from that I think the 18/17 is a better combination than the 19/18 – it’s a better ride. It’s bizarre how road cars go for bigger alloy wheels and smaller sidewalls, while race cars have smaller wheels and larger sidewalls because the tyre needs to be able to deform to grip. You get more grip from a bigger sidewalls and with road cars they’re all low profile and you feel every pothole and your braking and acceleration aren’t as good because the tyres don’t deform. When you ride motorbikes, you understand how a tyre works – you realise you’ve got to load the tyre progressively – you can’t just jam it on because you lose traction – the front wheels will slip if you put the brakes on too hard, too quickly so you learn how a tyres meant to work and road cars go the opposite way.”

“I’m not planning to do much more - apart from the easy things – like a new air filter. You hear different things – you’ve got the claims from the manufacturers – of how many horsepower it’s meant to increase and it’ll breathe a little bit easier, but then you read that’s not the case – you’ve got to be a little cagey about it because car manufacturers design a performance car with a massive R&D budget and then some small company that makes performance parts for cars – you start to wonder how much research and development has one into their products.”

“The exhaust, silencer and air filter probably has some compromises to get it into a certain emissions class, definitely, and the ECU’s an easy upgrade – even though most cars now have fuel injection and you can’t do as much to them as a car with carburettors – there are still restrictions there – the computer telling the car what to do to meet the emissions standards – and all you’re doing is getting rid of those restrictions. The engine ‘naturally’ produces whatever horsepower and they detune it to put it into the right emissions category.”

“I’d quite like to get a data logger that you can use for track because it gives you realistic data the times I’ve had on a couple of stop watches and doing repeated tests to get an idea – and it’s definitely not four and a half seconds now. And it’s definitely not 4.2 seconds with launch control – it’s a lot quicker than that. Even with human error – in cycling, with sprinting the human error could be a tenth of a second on the stopwatch over 200m [at 65-70kph] – or even a tenth of a second over 100m, which takes around 5 seconds. So a tenth of a second over a 0-60 test – you might get a tenth human error – two tenths maybe – but it’s not going to be more than that. And the times I’ve got are close to three and a half seconds – so I wouldn’t be a second out on the hand timing. It definitely feels quicker with what I’ve had done to it.”

The car is completely unadapted - but it has been tweaked elsewhere

The car is completely unadapted - but it has been tweaked elsewhere

“Apart from bucket seats – because the car is so jittery, you need to be locked in it a bit more. For the first few months I thought ‘What have I done?’ – anything over 100 on private roads, it’s lethal, if you’re not on it. I think Porsche make fast cars for everyday people that are normally fat bankers that can’t drive – and you can drive their cars very quickly and the driver aids they put on it – even the Cayman with no traction control – it’s underpowered for the size of car it is.”

“But they purposely underpowered it so even with no traction control, in the dry, it’s a very planted car – almost boring – because nothing really happens. It’s an amazing car to drive fast because you don’t need any skill.”

Butterworth’s heritage is always there – an engineer by trade and now part of the ultra-scientific, numbers driven world of British Cycling – there’s an analytical angle to everything – finance, performance, handling. But then, at last, he starts to talk about actually driving the 4C and his eyes light up. As he describes the experience he can’t help pausing and smiling while he reflects on another characteristic of the car’s behaviour.

“The Alfa – you’re definitely driving it. I think the electronics on the Alfa aren’t as advanced as the German cars, so the traction control is overactive in the sense that any sort of slip at all, it just kills the power. You need to drive it in Race mode for it to come alive properly.”

“And, obviously, if you put your foot down mid-corner in Race mode – even in the dry – especially with more horsepower now … You don’t put your throttle down mid-corner - you unwind properly, like a race car – you make sure you’re almost straight before you put full throttle in. You put 60% throttle in mid-corner and unwind the steering before you go on it. You have to be alert – definitely.”

“If you’re too tense, you can be in the outside lane and then the next thing you know, you’re in the middle lane. It changes lanes that quickly –it’ll follow divots and bumps in the road because of the hardness of it.”

“Country roads are really hard to drive down fast –every single bump it goes down, it just goes down and follows it. It’s so wide, as well, it tracks ruts – so it’ll just stay in the ruts and you won’t be able to get out of it. It kind of bounces in and out of the ruts – but, apart from that… Once you get used to it – and once you relax – it is better.”

“That’s why I think I’m going to get the race seat put in, because once you’re in it – once you want to drive it fast, with the five-point harness, then if you’ve got the seat holding you in you can be even lighter on the steering – you’re not relying on the steering to almost hold you in a little bit – which means the inputs will be a lot better. But it’s definitely a driver’s car.”

“Dynamic’s the mode I drive it in when it’s wet… When it’s dry, race mode all the time but Dynamic mode is the lowest one I’d have it in. I’d only put it in Normal mode for if you want to leave it in automatic and you want to drive around town, but otherwise it’s Dynamic or Race. I don’t think you need that many gizmos on it.”
We discuss the rumours of a facelifted 4C with the 280bhp 2 litre engine from the Giulia. Would a bigger engine improve the 4C, or make the extreme aspects of the car too extreme? “A bigger engine, generally, is more efficient at cruising –so you become more fuel efficient having a 2 litre turbo in than a 1.7. It’ll cruise a lot better at 50 or 60 than the 1.7 will.”

“My guess would be that the power that would come out of the 2 litre turbo as standard will probably be close to 300 – 280-300 as standard [the subsequently announced US-Spec Giulia is 280…]. But it doesn’t need any more power before the turbo spins up – the torque on that engine, I mean… you’ve got maximum torque at like 2500 revs – and it kicks in at 1850. The torque’s the thing that gets that car going – it’s not the all out power. I think that car needs more power but less torque – maybe a bigger turbo or a two stage turbo where you’ve got the smaller one to support the bigger one.

“From 0-100 I think it would beat most cars – I think it would even rival the R8 – maybe not the new V10 because that’s pretty rapid and it’s got the Quattro system – but definitely the old R8 – and it would beat everything else off the lights. I was at the lights with an Audi RS3 not so long ago and I actually had it in manual mode, forgot, missed a gear change and it bounced off the rev limiter – and I changed gear and I still caught up before 80, with a really bad gear change – and on paper they’re meant to be equal to the 4C. “

“Obviously, I’ve tweaked it - but then, anything 100 all the way up, that’s where you need horsepower. Horsepower is how fast you hit the wall, torque is far you take the wall with you.”

“And it’s that kind of thing, where torque is like instantaneous, throttle mid corner and it’s a little bit damp and the back end will come out – that’s all the torque. “
“On the dyno the tuned figure’s gone from 258 to 328lb ft of torque in that same rev range – 1850 to 2500. So, I mean, the torque numbers involved in that – especially with the power-to-weight ratio – is more than a 911 GT3 up to 100mph – and that’s when you need a bit more horsepower.”

The World Championship Gold medal comes with cycling's unique 'rainbow' jersey

The World Championship Gold medal comes with cycling's unique 'rainbow' jersey

“If you had up to 360-370bhp, but then the torque stayed similar then it would improve the car. As long as you’re not going increase the weight of the car. I think that’s where it excels, is the weight. Stopping power is incredible. In the dry, you can do 100 down to 0 in like 60 feet – it’s ridiculous.”

And the notoriously tricky mid-engined handling? “If the tyres are cold… damp… or it’s wet it’ll kick out – you pretty much know that if it’s those conditions you don’t put much acceleration on on a corner. It’ll just go – but then you know it’s going to go – so that’s the way you drive it. There’s not much feel before it goes – it’s just SNAP! – but you know it’s going to go if you don’t respect it.”

“It’s all the torque – when you’re over 60mph, the torque’s going to be a lot less. So higher up the rev range, in a bigger gear when you’re on fast A roads, you’re not going to get a problem where it’s going to kick out because you won’t have the torque – but when you’re between 30 to 60 in second or third gear on a slip road, you have to be really careful because it will kick out and it’ll spin you. “

Butterworth where he likes to be - behind the wheel

Butterworth where he likes to be - behind the wheel

As we set up to take the pictures for the article he’s almost apologetic about his lack of knowledge of Alfa heritage. He bought the car to drive – not to immerse himself in the history of the marque and certainly not to polish in a field outside a stately home – an aversion fostered as a child being dragged around car shows. But I tell him about the suspension geometry tweaks Jamie Porter has for the car - and sizeable community building around the 4C Register and the rumours of the facelifted, two litre version of the car and he’s back to the possibilities the 4C offers. Yes, there’s talk of what the car will be worth at the end of the finance term – but in the context of a car that’s driven every day – and driven the way its designers intended. He’s genuinely baffled by owners who have bought 4Cs to use a couple of times a year and then slowly – and only in the dry. And he hasn’t used the ‘P’ word since he got into the driver’s seat.

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Comments (1)

  • I know this isn't about Spiders, it's a relic of an earlier incarnation of the tribe. But I like it, so I'm leaving it.


      4 years ago