It’s half ten in the evening on Wednesday the 12th of August and I get a WhatsApp from John McGuinness. Anyone who receives WhatsApp messages from John knows to open them with one eye closed. You never know if it’s going to be a regular message, or a video of something that would give Ron Jeremy nightmares.
Mercifully it’s the former, an invite down to Lydden Hill circuit the following morning to catch up and see John doing “something to do with car racing and that guy that rides a pushbike”. By eleven PM I’m on the media list, leaving me barely enough time to get some sleep, let alone arrange a photographer or a video crew. Apologies for the images, they’re a mix of the good stuff from the event organisers and a few I took on my phone.
Anyway, the cycling guy turned out to be Sir Chris Hoy. Aside from all the cycling (where he’s won more Gold medals than pretty much everyone ever and is a multiple world champion), he’s a handy racing driver. Sir Chris has raced at Le Mans, has won races in the British GT championship and the European Le Mans series. He knows what he’s doing.
The day would be a test day, ahead of John and Chris competing in a round each of the British Rallycross championship. If you don’t already know, Rallycross is to cars what Supermoto is to bikes. There’s tarmac and gravel and lunatics. Perfect.
I blast down to the circuit on my (shameless plug) Ducati Multistrada 1260 GTS, it crucifies the journey and you should go and test ride one immediately. It’s the media day for the British Rallycross championship, so there’s lots of photography and video happening, Chris and John have to wait their turn to slot onto the track and get a feel for the car.
I find John and he’s in good spirits but has no idea what’s going on. All he knows about the car is that it makes 600bhp and does 60 in less than two seconds. True story.
We chat about Lydden, remembering a race that John did there on his Kawasaki KR1S back in 1990. Turns out the race results weren’t as memorable as John’s mother cooking the head gasket on the poor little 1.4 litre Renault that had towed their caravan from Morecambe. A hasty AA membership and some lying got them home and you should definitely buy John’s book to read the full story, along with a stack of other (incredibly) well written insights into the life of Mr TT. Before today, John’s only real experience in a race car was a drive in a Honda British Touring car a few years ago, have a look here
I sit and watch the crew that are prepping the car that’ll be used for the day. It’s a Citroen C4 of sorts, makes around 600bhp and is worth about £180k. The block is from a two-litre diesel Citroen, the heads are a version of those found on a Peugeot 306 GTi-6. It looks like neither and goes like the clappers. SuperBike has raced a similar version of this car a few years ago, have a look at what happened here.
The boys pull the gearbox to replace the carbon clutch, in seconds legs are sticking out from underneath and tools are being thrown around with expert precision. It takes about 28 minutes to do the job the first time and about 28 minutes to do the job a second time when they’re not happy with the result. The crew clearly know what they’re doing, fingers crossed John does too…
Sir Chris is the first to get a shot. I know he knows what he’s doing as I saw him on the telly racing in a round of the World Rallycross Championships. He’s smooth and fast, pitching the car into corners with commitment and boosting out of them with the kind of confidence that talent and experience allows. His low 46 second laps are impressive and before long John is being strapped in and given a brief. He looks a little bit lost to me. Wearing an unfamiliar helmet fitted with the HANS device and ship to shore comms, in a suit not made of leather and strapped into a car rather than perched on a bike. He could be anyone.
I catch his eyes, the only giveaway that it’s him and he looks happy. He doesn’t stall the car pulling away and heads out for his four laps. They’re trouble free, smooth and exploratory. It looks like the car is on boost in places it shouldn’t be, not that John seems to mind. Four laps later and he’s back in the pits with a beaming smile. He couldn’t see over the steering wheel and the helmet turned out to be three sizes too big. Bizarrely, the lap time I’d found on the internet for a Kawasaki KR1S at Lydden matches John’s 47.8 second time in the car. For some context, Chris Hoy has been racing cars for years and was at Lydden a few weeks earlier for a test day. John was within a second and a half of Chris after just four laps and was clearly hungry for more.
I’ve spent a lot of time with John and know he’s up for pretty much anything if engines are involved. He’s relaxed in the pits, joking around with his sidekick son Ewan while he watches the cars go round. We note braking markers and there’s some talk of left foot braking. If you didn’t know him, you’d never in a million years guess that he’s road racing royalty.
Chris is also a top guy to chat to. I show him a picture on my phone of me driving his old racing car in my under crackers from years ago and we laugh. He talks with genuine passion about racing and I believe him. This might sound like the most obvious thing in the world to say here, but champions from any discipline have an approach to competition that just isn’t the same as normal people. Chris is humble, he doesn’t mention the fact that earlier in the day when he was putting a few laps of the track in on a pushbike, someone snapped their chain trying to keep pace with him up the hill out of the Devil’s Elbow. In short, he’s a nice guy.
John and Chris aren’t saying the same thing, they don’t look anything like each other and yet when strapped into an alien car that is ridiculously fast, they get their different sized heads down and get on with the job.
John stalls his way out the door for his second and final four lap session. This time wearing his own helmet and sitting on a rolled up jumper to help him see over the steering wheel. He’s straight into it and is visibly faster everywhere. On his second flying lap he spins the car on the way into the left hander that is the Devil’s Elbow. If the first session was a bowl of porridge that was too cold, this one was the bowl that would be too hot, if he could find the one that was just right, we’d all be happy. Especially the crew who are smoking fags nervously from trackside.
The car pops and bangs back into life, John slings a stolen car grade U-turn in and is off again. According to my lap timer, his next lap takes 46.14 seconds. The crew and the few people left around the track have stopped talking among themselves and started paying attention to the little black Citroen out on track. There’s an old dog in it clearly teaching himself a few new tricks.
Afterwards John looks happy. He still has no idea what half the buttons in the dash do and has yet to try a race start but is clearly up for it. “You don’t drive all this way and hang around all day to go slowly do you! I came off the far corner faster than I had the lap before and managed to get top gear on the run down to the next corner. I was going way faster than I expected and it came round on me.” John and Chris share a few lines about lines and wish each other well for their upcoming races. Chris will be back at Lydden at the end of August and John will line up to race at Knockhill on the 26/27 September. Getting them involved in the sport is a smooth move and both will be worth a watch.