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Blind Faith

Audi have been responsible for many innovations in motorsport, the Quattro, the R10 diesel and now allowing our scribe out in a 2007 DTM monster…..a leap of faith indeed………well at least this time he kept it on the black stuff.

John Brooks, December 2007

Many years ago I decided to take part in the Malin Head Raft Race in Ireland. The idea was that we would build our own craft, put to sea against others, and finish our race under the stunning bridge of Malin town. The purpose was to raise money for the life boats around the Inishowen peninsula on the north coast. Our team rented a craft, put to sea by way of practice, and sank. This may have been the reason for the depletion of our team on race day; one was too drunk to go anywhere near a boat, another agreed to fund the entry fee as long as we released him from his contract and allowed him to stay in the pub. One surprise was that Damien Faulkner, second in this year’s Porsche Supercup behind Richard Westbrook and then resident of nearby village of Moville, did turn up to join our team. With a hastily convened crew we paddled like fury and made it to the finish proving a point, if only to ourselves; nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Up to a point, Lord Copper
The application of that theory was applied the instant I opened a letter from Audi inviting me to drive their 2007 Championship-winning DTM car at Vallelunga in November. Having peeled myself off the ceiling, there was a reality check. The child in me was tucked up in bed waiting for Santa to deliver the ultimate present as the adult looked glumly over the figures. This was the track on which I first drove a racing car, the four-litre V8-powered M3 GTR. Since then, I next peddled a Formula Renault V6 for a lap and a half at Estoril before spinning…and that is it. No racing licence, no real experience of a down force car, and the keys to a 470bhp, 1070kg machine that has no traction control, no rev limiter, no stability control, no ABS…you get the picture.

At dinner prior to the test, Audi’s PR lady Eva-Marie Veith wore shoes that could only be described as Rosa Klebb; pointy toes and meaning business. Muck this up, and those shoes would make friends with the delicate parts of my anatomy. And it would hurt. Audi’s head of motorsport Dr Wolfgang Ullrich, was also there spreading sweetness and light. He had asked his engineers whether or not it was possible to turn the engine 90 degrees in the chassis, so that if we accidentally pushed the gearlever instead of pulling it, the valves would pounce out of the engine, into the cockpit, and extreme pain for the driver, and even worse?

School Run
Next morning at the track, Ullrich made a point of riding shotgun as his tame racing driver Martyn Tomczyk showed us the racing line in a road going A6, and then we had to drive both professional and boss around the track to prove that we had indeed been listening. Ullrich then explained that he would be in the control tower and would be able to see about 70% of the track. The message was clear; there is nowhere to hide. One journo hack took one look at the programme and backed out completely. It took some persuasion to get him to drive the A6. He was only interested in riding alongside Tomczyk in the two-seater. His shortened schedule meant that meant that I got to go on to the track before lunch.

Sitting in the Back Seat of My Car……….
Attempting entry through the carbon door made me regret that last month on the Guinness in Ireland. Having put on a stone in weight, my climbing through the roll cage resembled a spider going down the plug hole. Various limbs were accidentally left outside the car at first attempt which was not the start I had hoped for.

The seating position is roughly in the rear footwell of a road going A4. Not only are you far back and almost central, but you are also sitting on the floor, which means that you can’t see much. The front right corner was, er, over there somewhere, and the bodywork was just below the level of my fore-head. Guessing where the apex was would be a matter of luck rather than applying the carefully explained judgement from Tomczyk.

Moment of Truth
The car was pushed out into the pit lane, the engine fired, and I was told to rev a little, just to get the sensitivity of the throttle. My effort had the finesse of a baby elephant. Ease out the clutch and…whey-hey! We are moving! Tomczyk was ahead in the A6 and I followed him for two laps, just to get the hang of driving and to confirm the line. The carbon brakes were cold but would warm up in time. The Dunlop tyres were warm and would cool down quickly which is why I was given a warm, fresh set of boots for my four-lap run.

“Are you OK?” asked the mechanic while the tyres were changed. I was hardly about to say no, but in reality I was terrified, needed a pee, couldn’t see what I thought I needed to see, noticed that Ms Veith had left her office in the bus and was in the pit lane (though I couldn’t see whether or not she had changed shoes), and Dr Ullrich was last seen running towards the control tower, possibly to ask them to please warm up the rescue truck.

“I noticed you weren’t using the clutch on the gearchange. Was that OK for you?” Absolutely, and that was a worry. Other journo hacks had commented that the rear end of the car moved around on the downshift and that it was a bit hairy. As I had noticed no such thing, that meant that either I was a natural, or more likely, my back side has the sensitivity of a rhino. This was not good.

My biggest worry was that with so many aerodynamic bits on the car, at 240km/h it generates its own weight in down force. At what speed, I wondered, do these devices work to allow you round the corner quickly? If you go too slowly, the car will slip and slide, you think you are on the limit and back off, when actually you need to put your foot down hard to enter a zone of safety. I wouldn’t have the first clue about which limit I had reached; mine, or that of the car? I spun the Renault V6 in a first gear chicane because I had over-estimated the performance of the car and didn’t want to make the same mistake here.

Going for Broke
Again, I was wheeled out into the pit lane, the engine was fired, the baby elephant reared its head and we were off at ‘pace’. I had a pre-test plan. Before a race, drivers have a warm up lap where they accelerate hard, brake hard, get some heat into the tyres, the brakes, everything they need to get round the first corner safely. With just four laps, though, and with tyre warmers, I wasn’t in a mood to waste any track time and applied the Malin Head Raft Race theory; nothing ventured, nothing gained.

First corner, brake quite hard, roughly the right place as it happened, through the chicane, onto the straight, time to open the throttle. The car accelerated as biblically as expected, but the really surprising thing was the noise. The vibration through the seat was tingling, but even with ear plugs I could feel my ear drums struggling to cope with the assault. I can still hear it now, and it is nearly Christmas.

We had been told to snatch the next gear at one warning green light on the wheel because it doesn’t take long to reach the second, the third, and then red; the danger area for the engine. It took one blink, actually. Pull the gear lever for up, push for down, follow the shift of weight under acceleration and braking, revel in the power steering and the grip offered by the already hot tyres, and marvel at the experience. There was no way that I was going to find the limits of this car, and to try simply would not be worth it. Perhaps half a day or a full day of testing, proper instruction and a modicum of talent would bring about some kind of bravery but in four laps, I was just going to go for it on the straights and manage the corners as best I could.

The experience was amazing. I actually remembered Tomczyk’s advice on my poor driving in the A6. Don’t turn in too early because you leave yourself with no options on the exit. Andy Priaulx, multiple WTCC Champion, had advised me at a track day years ago to raise my line of vision; the faster you go, the further you have to look ahead. Engineer Andy Miller told me that my lack of full revs in the Renault V6 was survivable, but that in an F3 car I would have blown up the engine. There was nothing for it but to floor it to the first green light, yank the gearlever (with a minimum of 20kg of pressure to change cogs) and watch the horizon arrive with surprising speed at my front bumper. Tomczyk had also advised to “let the car roll” a bit before hitting the brakes; i.e. leave yourself some room, mate, or you will run out of road and it will be messy. I took his advice.

Leave it to a Professional, Sir.
After four laps it was time to pit and it was with a mixture of relief and regret that it was all over. The car was back intact, so mission number One was accomplished. But I wanted more tuition, more laps, and I knew I would have a lot more fun. Then the crew strapped me into the two-seater with Tomczyk. Oh mamma, this fella could drive. Where I was lifting in the middle of the chicane, he was accelerating. Where I had reached fourth gear, just, heading towards the double right hander at the bottom end of the track, he was in fifth and where I had effectively rolled through the corner, he seemed hardly to have lifted. With shocking realisation, I knew why we were limited to four laps. If the tyres needed this abuse to keep warm, mine would have been stone cold after my drive and the crash would have been extraordinary. “We are not allowed to check,” said the tyre engineer over lunch when I asked how cold the tyres were at the end of the run. Oh well.

One thing did surprise me, though. Despite travelling at comparative warp speed to my drive and putting a wheel off track in a well practiced effort to look as though he was ‘pushing very ‘ard’ Tomczyk was well within his own limits, yet spent an alarming amount of time pumping the brake. Apparently having gone slightly wide, the brakes don’t work so well when the time comes to use them. “We didn’t tell you that bit, we didn’t want to worry you,” he said with a smile.

Thank God I didn’t try harder.

Andrew Cotton, December 2007