Team HARD BTCC Experience
As a life-long fan of the BTCC, it’s always been a dream, a pipe dream almost, to get behind the wheel of a touring car and take to the track in it. With the cost of a season’s drive (I’m reliably informed) requiring a budget in the hundreds of thousands, there hasn’t really been an opportunity for anyone other than a fully paid up race driver to get behind the wheel – until now. Because, thanks to an inspired new initiative set up by BTCC stalwarts Team HARD, I recently visited Brands Hatch to do exactly that.
The opportunity to take on a state-of-the-art BTCC warrior is something quite special indeed. The car in question, the Toyota Avensis, was driven by Team HARD driver Jake Hill in 2016. Despite being Jake’s first full season in the BTCC he managed to notch up an impressive 6 top 10 finishes in this car, with a best result of 5th place at Silverstone in September. With the announcement that Team HARD are switching to the VW CC for 2017 (a car they introduced to the championship in 2013), Jake’s Avensis is now redundant. Instead of placing it up for sale, the team have taken the pioneering step of allowing fans to purchase some driving time in this incredible machine.
Speaking to some of the team personnel before the day begins, I’m surprised and delighted to learn that the car is in race-ready spec, completely unchanged from how it finished the 2016 season. The team discussed the possibility of de-tuning the engine for these experience days but the supplier, Swindon Engines, advised that they perform best in race spec. To underline this fact, team boss Tony Gilham tells me that two days prior to my drive, new recruit Will Burns was driving the car at Donington and matched Andrew Jordan’s lap times in the West Surrey Racing BMW. No pressure then.
As the talking dies down, the time comes for me to be strapped in to the car and given a quick demonstration of the controls. Naturally, I’m provided with an expert instructor to help keep me on the track. Letting a complete novice like me loose in one of these cars without any instruction would surely have consequences that even an election polling company could successfully predict. My guide could hardly be better qualified; filling the left-hand seat is Mike Epps, one of Team HARD’s BTCC drivers and rising star to boot
After a quick pep talk, we’re off. Mike fires the car up, and before I know it I’m rolling down the pit lane in first gear. The feeling is surreal – here I am driving a 2016 BTCC car about to leave the pit lane at Brands Hatch, the exit light is green, it’s into second and I’m on track! I tip-toe gingerly around Paddock Hill Bend, take third and cruise up to Druids. The gears are incredibly positive, it’s a firm pull back on the lever to go up through the ‘box and a good shove forwards to go back down. As I hit the brakes for the first time I’m simply staggered at the stopping power of the Avensis, quite unlike anything I’ve ever driven. Through the corners the grip is outstanding, not even a damp track can unsettle us, and we’re gathering momentum nicely. After a couple of laps my confidence is growing and my speed increasing. I’m relishing the exit of Clark Curve, building the car up to full throttle then flashing over the start/finish line flat out, all the while the car’s 2.0 NGTC engine on full song.
Further into my run I notice the empty Hailwoods grandstand and take a moment to consider that just a few weeks ago I was sat there watching Jake Hill drive this very car on finals day. I later realise that Jake Hill is present and instructing for Motrsport Vision, I wonder if he’s been watching my drive? The irony.
I’m on my final flying lap. Exiting Druids I’m onto the rumble strip, and again after Graham Hill bend. I’m beginning to edge that little bit closer to the limits, but this also means it’s time to stop, as I want Tony to have his car back in one piece, and of course let the other guests have their own dreams fulfilled.
Later in the day, there’s a further track session in one of the team’s VW Golf race cars (a fabulous experience in itself), followed by some thrilling passenger laps in the BTCC car with Mike Epps at the wheel. It was at this point I realised just how far from the limits I actually was! The commitment and effort required to drive anywhere close to race speeds is beyond belief. Getting the best out of one of these cars has very little to do with driving, in the accepted sense of the word. This is full-on sport requiring dedication, exceptional skill and more than a little bravery.
At the end of the day, Tony tells me that up this point, only around 50 people have driven a current BTCC car during 2016. With 36 of those having actually competed in the championship during the course of the year, that puts into perspective just what a special and unique experience this has been. I’ve realised a boyhood dream, but I won’t be unique in this distinction. Team HARD are arranging more such experience days, with the next being at Brands Hatch on December 17th. For anyone unsure if this is for them, let me assure you – this is the real deal, and you won’t be disappointed. If, like me, this is your dream, then grasp it while it’s there for the taking.
Written by Steve Martin, photo by Ian Cutting