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[NEWS] Return to racing: Shelsley Walsh in a Lotus Elan

Return to racing: Shelsley Walsh in a Lotus Elan

98 CropleyElanShelsley
Image: Stuart Wing

Why it felt good to be back at the West Midlands hillclimb, even if we didn't break any records

Given that I started my undistinguished motorsport career more than 30 years ago, there really wasn’t much cause to feel apprehensive when I turned up at Shelsley Walsh hillclimb a couple of weekends ago to run my Lotus Elan at an event called Classic Nostalgia.

Just the same, apprehensive is exactly how I did feel. It was a few years since I’d competed in anything requiring a helmet, race licence, numbers and driving suit, and this ramped up the significance of the occasion. So did the fact that 30-odd regular entrants in Paul Matty’s Lotus Hillclimb Championship were there, too. I’d never previously entered a competition in this car (a front-drive 1990s Lotus Elan; the cheapest of the breed money can buy), or even subjected it to a full-noise, wheel-spinning start, so there was much to learn.

Thankfully, the Lotus bunch are about the most welcoming there is. Many have kept right on competing for all the years since my son and I stopped being regulars seven or eight years ago. Our sub-plot on this occasion, as well as having fun, was to help our pal Paul celebrate the 30th anniversary of his much-loved championship, which for those decades has kept a cheerful light burning in the window of the oft-beleaguered Lotus marque. There was a Friday dinner, happy and well attended the way Matty events always are, then everyone headed to bed to prepare for the next day’s racing.

I knew I was going to be the slowest in the field. There are some beautiful, well-driven single-seaters in the Matty line-up, traditionally run as a handicap, plus some extremely well-developed Lotus road cars that also have expert drivers. My standard car, the only M100, was the biggest and heaviest in the field, although even by today’s standards its 0-60mph time of just below seven seconds isn’t exactly sluggardly.

Early practice runs were conducted early on, with the ambient temperature around 20deg C. On my sighting run, a shamefully slow ascent in 47sec area, I established that unless you departed the start line with plenty of revs and wheelspin, the engine would bog disastrously. The M100 engine is healthy, durable, smooth and refined but it’s also old-school in that it suffers lower-end turbo lag. Keep it percolating or you’re lost.

On the second run, I compensated for this, popping the clutch at around 5000rpm, wheel-spinning all the way to the 7000 redline before discovering the M100’s other big hillclimbing drawback – a canyon-like gap to second gear. It’s critical to grab second as quickly as you can (a smooth throw but very long) and still the best you can hope for is 3500rpm and a bit of a wait for honest-to-God urge to start beyond 4500. Even so, my reward for a better performance was a time in the 44sec bracket – still dog slow but not arthritic old mutt slow. Perhaps I might even do a bit better.

Shelsley is steep and short, with a technical S-bend in the middle of what (in an Elan M100) is otherwise an exercise in deploying every shred and ounce of traction and torque you can find. There’s a very steep approach to the esses that many of us find intimidating (you have to brake in a place that on the flat would seem impossibly late) and there’s a clever and none too obvious late-apexing line, between steep banks, that allows you to carry as much speed as possible and get on the noise early to tackle a long, steep finishing straight.

Mind-picturing all this during lunch did me no good: I didn’t improve on the second run, but neither did most of my friends. Only later did we twig that between the practice and 'proper' runs, the temperature had risen from 20deg C to more than 30, a change that would have sapped our engine power, perhaps to the tune of 4% or 5%. It’s an excuse but it’s also real.

My last run combined the good with the hopelessly ham-fisted. I got nowhere near the 42sec level Matty’s handicappers had now decided would be my winning time, merely matching the Lotus’s practice best of 44sec. But this one featured a best-yet departure from the start line and a decently swift change to second. At the next gearchange, I briefly selected fifth instead of third, a piece of true dimwittery. Under the circs, the fact that I still turned 44 – in the heat – gave me shreds of hope. I did seem to get the rest of the course about right. However, I reckon it’s fair to say my perfect ascent of Shelsley Walsh remains very much a work in progress.

Still, I did experience again every other advantage of this excellent form of amateur motorsport: the fact that you can compete respectably in an unlikely car, the breathtaking beauty of the venue, the camaraderie (people ask how you fared and care about your answer) and the fact that you can drive your car absolutely flat, if for a short period, usually without dire consequences. At the end of the day, I drove the Lotus home top down through Worcestershire, smelling the new-mown fields, enjoying the sunshine and the lengthening shadows, and summoning up a mind-calendar to calculate when I could do it again.


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