FOR­MULA WON

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!

Performance Vauxhall - - CONTENTS - WORDS Dan Furr PHO­TOS Dan Sher­wood

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!”

IN DE­MAND

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.”

STRIPPED BACK

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!

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