How rally cars are shaken down be­fore com­pe­ti­tion de­buts has changed. MN sent David Evans to in­ves­ti­gate

Motor Sport News - - Prodrive Launch -

Prodrive en­gi­neer Richard Thomp­son guides me through the start pro­ce­dure. Then stops. Takes a breath and looks deeply un­sure.

Thomp­son has spent the last few months over­see­ing the build of this Volk­swa­gen Golf SCRC. Just last night, he put the fin­ish­ing touches to it: seats and belts in, last lit­tle bit of body­work done. In just a cou­ple of days, it’s down the M40 to Heathrow, where it’ll be flown to China for the first rally of its new life.

To­day, it’s be­ing born. And I’m the mid­wife. Sort of.

With 2017 and the next gen­er­a­tion of World Rally Cars around the cor­ner, every­body’s talk­ing about their cars in terms of roll-outs and shake­downs. So we de­cided to get in on the act to find out ex­actly what those pro­cesses in­volve.

Which is how I’ve found my­self sit­ting in Prodrive’s new­est of new mo­tors: Chris Atkinson’s 2016-spec­i­fi­ca­tion Chi­nese Rally Cham­pi­onship Golf.

I’m go­ing to shake it down for the Queens­lan­der.

Thomp­son’s taken a breath and looks me right in the eye. “This is a brand new car…” Mes­sage re­ceived. We’re at an as­phalt test track just out­side Bices­ter and the plan is to run for around 20 min­utes, bed­ding brakes, get­ting a feel for the car and gath­er­ing data to fill Tomo’s spread­sheets.

“We’re go­ing to make sure ev­ery­thing is op­er­at­ing as it should be,” says Tomo. “We’ll check turbo tar­gets, fuel pres­sure, oil pres­sure, make sure there’s no surge. Ob­vi­ously we’ve run the en­gine on the dyno, but you can’t check the baf­fles… you can’t check that ev­ery­thing is ab­so­lutely as it should be. You go out and set­tle the whole car.”

Ex­cel­lent. But first, I’ll move the pa­per mats from be­neath my feet, take the elas­tic bands off the out-the-box belts and re­move the pa­per cover from the gor­geous al­can­tara-cov­ered wheel.

Ev­ery­thing in here’s lovely, shiny and glo­ri­ously new. It even smells new.

Sud­denly, there’s a slightly more se­ri­ous side to pro­ceed­ings. This re­ally is Atko’s en­try car and one wrong move from me now could ruin the job for the Aussie. And for Prodrive. And for Volk­swa­gen China – sell­ers of 1.3 mil­lion mo­tors last year. Time to fo­cus the mind.

With that, Prodrive tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor David Lap­worth slides into the co-driv­ers’ seat and in­stantly I feel more re­laxed. Lap­worth has a knack of keep­ing ev­ery­thing com­pletely calm. There’s noth­ing he hasn’t seen in his time in the world cham­pi­onship and we’re both acutely aware that’s not about to change in the next half-hour.

“Don’t worry about the smoke…” says Lappy with a smile.

He’s right. The rear of the car has been en­gulfed by smoke. All I did was start it.

“That’s com­pletely nor­mal,” he says, “this re­ally is the first time this thing has run. It was wheeled out of the fac­tory and onto the trailer last night. That smoke’s just the lag­ging on the ex­haust burn­ing off.” Smoke gone, we’re in the clear. The or­der is for some sen­si­ble run­ning, no anti-lag and then back in.

There’s no car­bon clutch or any­thing like that to catch me out, so we’re away first time and do­ing as I’ve been told.

There are pe­ri­ods of brak­ing at var­i­ous pres­sures and go­ing up and down the gear­box while Lap­worth keeps an eye on the data. In no time, the call comes: part one’s done.

Noth­ing has fallen off. My sug­ges­tion that bits fall­ing off might have been part of the process amuses Lap­worth.

“That’s not what to­day’s about at all,” he says. “The shake­down or roll-out at this level of ral­ly­ing is the in­stal­la­tion lap of a For­mula 1 race. If you come here think­ing of this as a safety net to catch prob­lems then you’re never go­ing to be on top of the thing. I can’t re­mem­ber the last time I had a prob­lem with one of our cars on a day like this.

“Some of that def­i­nitely comes with ex­pe­ri­ence; if you were to go back to the early Nineties, there was an el­e­ment of the safety net in what we were do­ing at shake­down – es­pe­cially when we were run­ning semi­au­to­matic gear­boxes and things like that. But not any more.” Tomo’s happy as well. “The sen­sors are all talk­ing to each other,” he says, “the gear shift is beau­ti­ful un­der load, ev­ery­thing is per­fect. You can use the anti-lag and go a bit harder if you like.”

Dengfeng, the first round of the Chi­nese Rally Cham­pi­onship, is on gravel, so the car’s run­ning higher and softer than if it was in as­phalt trim. And we’re on gravel rub­ber, so the car’s lovely and pro­gres­sive when it breaks away and starts to slide.

In­side the Golf, the sim­i­lar­i­ties to Prodrive’s last World Rally Car are marked and easy to spot. The the­ory here is sim­ple, the Mini John Cooper Works WRC was never bro­ken, so there’s no need for the Golf SCRC to fix it.

There’s a change of damper sup­plier, but the phi­los­o­phy’s the same. The Lehmann en­gine is ba­si­cally the same one which pow­ers Mat­tias Ek­strom’s Audi S1 in World Ral­ly­cross, so the team know just how strong the base is.

“We do the in­stal­la­tion and cal­i­bra­tion on the en­gine,” says Thomp­son, “but it’s a very good en­gine. We have a big­ger re­stric­tor here, so we’ve got a bit more power than a World Rally Car, but we know we could push this one fur­ther and get more out of it. A lot more.”

As well as the ex­tra power, there’s a heap more torque. Even in the tighter cor­ners, you can leave the car in fourth gear and hold it in a drift. Ev­ery­thing is so con­trol­lable – and that’s what Lap­worth wanted from this car.

“We’re send­ing this car to China for Chris [Atkinson] and his team-mates to drive,” says Lap­worth. “We all know what Chris is ca­pa­ble of, but some of the other guys don’t have his level of ex­pe­ri­ence and his abil­ity. What we wanted was a car they could get in and drive with­out wor­ry­ing too much about the set-up. This car gives them con­fi­dence and plenty of pace straight away.”

It cer­tainly does. Just a cou­ple of weeks af­ter MN com­pleted the roll-out of Prodrive’s fourth Golf SCRC, Atkinson fin­ished the job we started with a dom­i­nant win on the Chi­nese opener.

Glad to have been of ser­vice… ■

Pho­tos: Prodrive

David Lap­worth (left) was a brave man along­side our man Evans

Atkinson built on Evans’s work and won in the Chi­nese rally se­ries

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