Motor Racing: Think you're Frank Biela? Think again
Nick Duxbury swaps fantasy on the M6 for reality at Brands Hatch
Friday 28 March 1997
Wrong. The family saloon, even if it boasts two litres and an "Si" badge, is about as near to the souped-up, low-slung tin tops that champion Biela and Co race as Nora Batty is to Claudia Schiffer. The super-models with skirts contesting this year's championship are awesome machines, capable of stomach-churning acceleration as I discovered being flung about Brands Hatch by John Cleland, Paul Radisich and James Thompson.
The cars look like the ones in every High Street showroom, but the resemblance is skin deep. Take off the body shell and it's an alien world of wrist- thick roll bars, window nets and fighter-pilot seat belts with not a speedo in sight.
Then there's the price. A rep's favourite like the Ford Mondeo burns a pounds 15,000 hole in the pocket. These feisty lookalikes cost around pounds 250,000, which was playing on my mind as - bolted into double champion Cleland's Vauxhall Vectra - a breakfast of two figs, sausage, eggs, mushrooms, two tomatoes and four slices of black pudding began to move menacingly upwards as the flying Scot proceeded down Paddock Hill at just under the ton.
Concern for the interior decor was replaced by another sensation. A lump in the throat heralded Druids Bend approaching far too fast. This was going to be the news story. Reporter totalled in demo-day disaster. Cleland then hit the brakes, which have a stopping power that would send granny whizzing past your ears if fitted as standard. Upset stomach replaced by crushed chest, the Druids hairpin was taken at 60 in second gear. Back up to fourth sweeping down to the Graham Hill left-hander and then along Cooper Straight at 120mph. Fantastic.
It couldn't get any better. Wrong. The bends at Surtees and McLaren are a white-knuckle, left-right combination, then foot down round Clark and on to Brabham Straight. This was serious speed of the 130-140mph variety, which brought us back to Paddock Bend.
Nerves stretched but not snapped, and thankful that I hadn't had my Touring Car introduction conducted by Derek Warwick - "he's the mad one", said team-mate Cleland - the next trip was in Radisich's Mondeo. This time I took notes, which resembled not so much a scribble as the printout trace of a major earthquake.
Seven times round Brands and I was ready for the Honda hot-shot James Thompson, aged 22 and the youngest works driver in the championship. At the launch dinner the previous evening, Thompson had revealed his appreciation of outstanding women and it certainly seemed that Melinda Messenger was waiting for him in the pits. The ribbed kerbs at Surtees and McLaren had the Accord's tyres thudding against the wheel arches. Seat of the pants driving by an expert, but not something to try round that right-hander on the M6.
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