What helps many of the world’s most successful racing drivers improve their lap times? Expert tuition from veteran coach, Rob Wilson, coupled with time spent in an Astra SRi, that’s what!
The driving instructor and Astra SRi helping Formula One stars reduce their lap times.
Vauxhall has a long and fruitful history of motorsport success, not least of all in rallying and the modern BTCC, where our favourite car maker reigns as the most successful manufacturer thanks to a dizzying number of race wins and an impressively high number of constructor titles. These achievements are well known, but take a closer look at the influence Vauxhall has on the racing world and you’ll find many of today’s top drivers and engineers use an Astra SRi when it comes to perfecting technique and understanding vehicle dynamics. Yes, you read that correctly. An Astra SRi.
Surprised? Admittedly, Kimi Räikkönen is unlikely to be the first person you bring to mind when prompted to picture the driver of a 1.4-litre five-door hatchback wearing a Griffin badge, but the Ferrari F1 star known to his mates as Iceman regularly exits Maranello on his way to Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground, where an Astra and driving instructor, Rob Wilson, wait to greet him.
“I enjoy spending time with Kimi,” says Rob, a racing Kiwi who has spent more than forty years competing in some of the world’s most exciting motorsport events, including Formula Three, NASCAR and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. His experience – and success – across a range of different competitions sees high profile teams regularly ask him to take the controls of their cars, but he tells us his passion is imparting knowledge to younger drivers, be they from the current crop of F1 or up-and-comings carving their way through the lower formulas, rallying or touring car championships.
“I wouldn’t want to use any other car than a standard Astra when coaching racing drivers,” he tells us. “The latest generation of the model has such a brilliantly balanced chassis, supreme driveability and is capable of great speed thanks to punchy turbocharged engines,” he says. “Importantly, they’re extremely reliable too!”
He’s not wrong. Almost every day of the week, he’s at Bruntingthorpe teaching some of the world’s bestknown drivers how to reduce their lap times. The Astras he uses for the task (both turbocharged diesel and petrol variants) are in factory specification and are driven hard. Very hard. They get through a set of tyres a day, brake discs and pads every forty-eight hours. Then again, when you look at the roll call of aspiring drivers Rob teaches, it seems blindingly obvious the SRis are going to get some stick; Esteban Ocon, Callum Ilott, David Coulthard, Marco Andretti, Juan Pablo Montoya and Valentino Rossi are among the drivers Rob has trained over the years. In fact, we could fill this entire issue of Performance
Vauxhall with the list of famous racers he’s helped to victory. “Despite being hammered hard on a daily basis, the cars have never failed me. They’re nothing short of brilliant!”
Rob’s phone rings. It’s Ken Block. He wants to know when there’s a slot available for one-to-one tuition. The self-styled Hoonigan is planning a return to the World Rally Championship and wants to be
quicker across rally stages. Rob’s phone rings again. It’s the head of Porsche’s engineering department in Germany. He wants to know if the solid week of tuition he’s booked for his team is still going ahead at the end of the month. Rob’s phone rings again and again. F1 team bosses, drivers across all disciplines of motorsport, car designers. They all want to secure a date with Rob and his Astras. “Why do they choose you over all other coaches?” we ask. “It’s simple,” he replies. “The results I get are instantly measureable. You can time yourself around a lap before and after my input and you’ll see positive results. This is why I’m kept so busy.”
Using an Astra is a way of returning drivers back to basics after they’ve experienced seat time in some of the world’s most exotic racing machinery. Plus, each driver using the same car and test course gives Rob a solid benchmark which he can use to measure individual performances. Talking of which, Ken Block is going to have to wait. We’ve got a track session booked with a certain racing mentor and his petrol-powered SRi!
We first met Rob when he took us out for a fast lap of Bruntingthorpe in the Insignia GSi on the occasion of the model’s launch (read about it by ordering a back issue copy of our June/July issue at bit.ly/issuespv). The time we spent together was fun, although it became immediately apparent there was work to be done when our own lap times left a lot to be desired. Deciding there and then we needed to find out what a driver is subjected to under Rob’s rule, we arranged to meet him back at the track with a view to experiencing seat time in an Astra just as a Formula One driver would.
TRICKS OF THE TRADE
We start by learning what Rob says is his main piece of advice to anyone lucky enough to ride with him in the passenger seat. “Learn how to warn your car of what’s coming next,” he says. “Use your feet and hands to add slight braking or steering input before you slow or turn. Doing so will radically change the way the car behaves by encouraging preaction weight transfer from one part of the car to the other. Trust me, you’ll be a hell of a lot quicker.” He pulls out a pen and draws diagrams of his preferred route around corners. He tells us how relying on computer readings alone fails to take ‘feel’ into consideration, which is why the drivers he teaches become so much quicker when acting on his advice rather than trying to interpret diagnostic data in isolation. The information he feeds us ranges from basic to technical, but we lap up every word. And now it’s time to put what he’s talking about to the test.
“ADD SLIGHT BRAKING OR STEERING INPUT BEFORE YOU SLOW OR TURN”
We dive into the SRi and head out for warm-up laps along the same course Rob laid out with cones for the Insignia launch. Quickly, we’re thrust into a high-speed, hard braking affair, but the SRi seems to love the throttle being planted, the chassis thrown into corners. The brakes aren’t as responsive as the AP Racing six-piston stoppers we’re used to tapping in order to bring our Vectra VXR to a halt, but they’re certainly up to the job, even if we fail to treat them as such. “You need to learn how to slow down!” says Rob (a phrase he will repeat many times throughout the day). “Stomp on the brakes harder when approaching corners. That’s your biggest obstacle to quicker lap times!” he grimaces, unimpressed by claims we’re conditioned into only needing to glide a foot over the VXR’s brake pedal in order to come to a sudden stop. Nevertheless, his instruction rings loud and clear, and though Kimi doesn’t yet need to worry about the editor of Performance Vauxhall magazine nicking his seat at Ferrari, we’re quietly pleased with our lap times being reduced to the point we’re within four seconds of current F1 stars. If only we had another day or two to play with!
Sadly, we’re out of time. Besides, we’ve punished the Astra quite enough for one day, as proved by its need for a new set of tyres. “I’ve enjoyed today,” smiles Rob, safe in the knowledge the huge expanse of runway we’ve been flying along for hours has more than helped prove why the SRi is such a capable car. We can only hope we get to do it all again sometime soon!
“stomp on the brakes harder when approaching corners. that’s your biggest obstacle!”
The Ferrari Driver Academy is a short track session away, right?!
1.4-litre turbocharged petrol engine makes the SRi surprisingly energetic
Rob wouldn’t want to use any other car when coaching the stars of tomorrow (not pictured!)
Kimi’s seat is safe... for now!