Dirt cheap

A three-hour marathon in a field? No sweat for our tough lit­tle bud­get banger. Dan Prosser scaled the mo­tor rac­ing heights to give it a per­fect send-off

Autocar - - THIS WEEK - PHOTOGR APHY OLGUN KORDAL

Our £200 Nis­san Mi­cra goes dirt rac­ing

I soon re­alised sec­ond gear would be per­fectly ad­e­quate for the en­tire lap

As long as I live, I may never ex­e­cute a more suc­cess­ful open­ing lap in a mo­tor­sport event.

Hav­ing picked my team’s grid po­si­tion by pulling a num­ber out of a hat, I started the three-hour grass-track event sev­enth out of 19 cars. The train of tired old hatch­backs and the odd knack­ered coupé com­pleted two slow laps be­hind the safety car be­fore the green f lag was waved. Im­me­di­ately af­ter cross­ing the start/fin­ish line, we squeezed one by one through the sin­gle-file chi­cane, then in the long right-han­der that fol­lowed I was able to drive around the out­side of the car ahead of me to climb into sixth po­si­tion. A cor­ner or two later, the BMW 3 Se­ries coupé that had started from fifth po­si­tion spun, al­low­ing me to slip past. And then, to­wards the end of the open­ing lap, one of the lead­ing cars pulled over with steam pour­ing from its bon­net. And so, for a brief but oh-so-sweet mo­ment, car 17 was fly­ing high in fourth po­si­tion. Fourth! Eat my dust, Lewis.

Al­low me to bring you up to speed. A few weeks ear­lier I’d bought the cheap­est used car I could find, which turned out to be this tatty 22-yearold, K11-gen­er­a­tion Nis­san Mi­cra, to see if it was at all pos­si­ble to buy a ve­hi­cle for peanuts and ac­tu­ally use the thing. By driv­ing 500 miles in a sin­gle day and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing not one prob­lem, I like to think we an­swered that ques­tion in em­phatic fash­ion. Which rather begged the ques­tion: ex­actly how tough is a 1996 Nis­san Mi­cra? If it could sur­vive three hours of be­ing thrashed around a bumpy field, we would have our an­swer.

The Hearst Chal­lenge, or­gan­ised by Glouces­ter­shire rally driver Dan Moss, is an an­nual en­durance event that raises money for the lo­cal air am­bu­lance. Over the years, it has do­nated tens of thou­sands of pounds to a very good cause. The only sig­nif­i­cant rules are each team must buy and pre­pare its car for no more than £500, and it must be two-wheel drive. Oth­er­wise, it’s all fair game.

What started as a grass-track cir­cuit quickly be­came a dust-bowl as the cars churned up the hard, dry ground.

Each team must be made up of three driv­ers. By sim­ply re­cruit­ing two of my best mates, I in­ad­ver­tently formed a kind of grass-track su­per-team. Rob Shipp is an am­a­teur rally driver and by a clear mar­gin the most gifted car me­chanic I know, mak­ing him eas­ily the most im­por­tant mem­ber of the team. Adam Gould, mean­while, is pretty handy on the tools him­self and was for a while one of this coun­try’s most promis­ing young rally driv­ers. He has led rounds of the Bri­tish Rally Cham­pi­onship and won many stages, and is able to do things in a car that peo­ple like me can only dream of.

Ah yes, and so we come to yours truly. I am no more handy with a span­ner than I am with a clar­inet, while my ex­pe­ri­ence of driv­ing com­pet­i­tively on the loose amounts to pre­cisely noth­ing at all. But I would at least be sup­ply­ing the car.

Rob, Adam and I spent the day be­fore the event pre­par­ing the Mi­cra, which ba­si­cally meant rip­ping out ev­ery un­nec­es­sary item, ap­par­ently to re­duce weight. All the glass, other than the wind­screen, came out (Rob del­i­cately re­moved the rear screen by throw­ing a span­ner through it: ‘Ah, so that’s what those things are for’, I thought). I made my­self use­ful by ap­ply­ing our race num­bers us­ing duct tape. Clev­erly, Rob also fit­ted an aux­il­iary ra­di­a­tor into the cabin be­cause he knew the car’s orig­i­nal ra­di­a­tor would get filled with muck and quickly cease to func­tion. He also re­placed a cou­ple of drive belts and fit­ted a proper rac­ing seat, al­beit a very old one, while Adam passed him tools and I help­fully checked Twit­ter.

Our tyre strat­egy was a very sim­ple one: we would use the tyres that were al­ready on the car. Many other teams would fit knob­bly rally tyres but, apart from the small mat­ter of not hav­ing any of those, we also reck­oned they’d put far too much strain on the hubs and sus­pen­sion. How­ever, we were at least smart enough to take the spare, which was an un­used win­ter tyre and there­fore the best one we had, and fit it on the front left cor­ner, where it would be put to best use around the clock­wise cir­cuit. That left us with a sin­gle spare, mean­ing two punc­tures would put us out of the race. The fi­nal job was to re­place the very worn out clutch with a brand new one. When we ar­rived on the day, we im­me­di­ately felt as though we’d brought a ba­nana to a gun fight. Every­body else had clearly put in rather more prepara­tory work than us. We had no doubt the lit­tle Mi­cra would break down soon enough, or that we’d pick up a cou­ple of punc­tures within the first 30 min­utes, so our pit stop strat­egy called for very short open­ing stints to en­sure all three driv­ers got a go.

As de­scribed, my open­ing lap was a peach. But just as I was eye­ing up

I as­sumed we’d been for­got­ten. Then it emerged we had man­aged 86 laps…

the car in front for third po­si­tion, a whole stream of much quicker cars came fly­ing through from be­hind, drop­ping me right back down the or­der. The course was a lit­tle less than a mile long with a good mix of tight and twisty cor­ners and a cou­ple of much quicker sec­tions. The car was fan­tas­tic to drive in the higher-speed stuff. With so lit­tle grip, you could re­ally bung it in and feel the back end sweep around as you turned in to­wards the apex. I started off us­ing first gear for the chi­cane, sec­ond for most of the lap and third in the quick sec­tions, but I soon re­alised sec­ond gear would be per­fectly ad­e­quate for the en­tire lap, as long as I held the en­gine on the lim­iter for a cou­ple of sec­onds in two spe­cific parts of the cir­cuit.

That open­ing stint was enor­mous fun, but the hard, dry ground was like a wash­board and the car rat­tled vi­o­lently. I pulled in to the pits af­ter 15 min­utes, let Adam jump in and waited for the car to fail.

But it just kept on go­ing. Rob drove a longer stint, then I got back in and carried on. The dust got ev­ery­where. If you fol­lowed an­other car closely, you’d be com­pletely blind for whole sec­onds at a time. We had no idea how we were get­ting on but, while other cars had to pit reg­u­larly with prob­lems, our lit­tle Mi­cra hap­pily

Mi­cra stood up well to the strain of 86 bumpy laps in three hours. But its rac­ing life has come to a cruel and bru­tal demise.

chugged away. This was go­ing okay; maybe we were even in the top 10.

The other guys com­pleted their sec­ond runs and I drove a short fi­nal stint, cross­ing the line af­ter three trou­ble-free hours. The day was wrapped up with a prize-giv­ing cer­e­mony, led by Dan Moss. Start­ing from the bot­tom, each team was called out in or­der, along with their com­pleted num­ber of laps. When Dan reached 10th po­si­tion and car 17 hadn’t yet been men­tioned, I as­sumed we’d been for­got­ten. Then it emerged we had man­aged 86 laps, good enough for… fourth!

Had I walked away then, I would have done so a very happy man. But then we heard the team that fin­ished ahead of us had com­pleted just one more lap. A sin­gle lap. If it wasn’t for the com­pletely un­nec­es­sary fi­nal driver change, we would have nicked a podium. Adam called it his great­est dis­ap­point­ment in mo­tor­sport and that – as any­body out there who is fa­mil­iar with his com­pet­i­tive record will know – is say­ing some­thing.

In the end, then, we con­sid­ered P289 BUX’S mo­tor rac­ing de­but as bit­ter­sweet. But make no mis­take, the K11 Nis­san Mi­cra is a trooper.

So proud. Sorry, that dust must have got in our eyes…

Prosser pays at­ten­tion at driver brief­ing Spares and sup­port were on mea­gre side

Stripped in­te­rior and re­moved glass helped shed pounds

Our man looked the part in bucket race seat and har­ness

Ex­tra ra­di­a­tor meant Mi­cra kept its cool

Prosser’s ex­pert race prep con­tri­bu­tion

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