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A giant among minnows

2 years ago

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Writer:

Dan Prosser | Ti co-founder

Date:

1 December 2022

‘Intrigued to see how you get on in that,’ he says, pointing at the Kia. I’m just as curious to see how he fares in his tiny, ancient Fiat 126, which seems to cower in the shadow of my much bigger machine. Between us we run some calculations: his entire car weighs less than the Kia’s battery with me sitting on top of it. The EV6 GT I’ve borrowed for today is four times heavier than his 126, but it does offset its extra mass somewhat with seventeen times more power.

I wander around the paddock and note that my EV is the only one in the field. It’s also the only brand new car, one of just two with four-wheel drive, the most valuable by an embarrassing margin and around three times more powerful than anything else. But it’s also an enormous electric crossover SUV and twice as heavy as the average car here. And if ever there was a grassroots motorsport discipline that punished size and weight, autosolo must be it.

I weigh it all up, but still I can’t work out if I look like the most shameless kind of pot hunter, bowling up with way more horsepower than everybody else, or like I missed the turning to Aldi. Nor do I know how this is going to play out. I could be on my way to the top step of the podium or the bottom of the timesheets – I have no idea which.

Little, little and extremely large

You mustn’t mistake autosolo for its more bookish roommate, autotest. The similarities between them are obvious, because in both you’re zipping around cones at low speeds against the clock with penalties for clipping a gate or missing one altogether. But an autotest course is much more complicated and you’ll be going backwards rather than forwards at times. Moreover, you have to memorise the way. In autosolo, you’ll only engage reverse gear if something has gone terribly wrong and the cones are clearly numbered in sequence, so in theory you don’t need to memorise a thing – although the reality doesn’t quite stack up.

It’s the difference between me rather fancying a go at autosolo and having no interest whatsoever in autotest. In fact I’ve tried autosolo once before, driving an early Mazda MX-5. But I only managed three runs that day, meaning my total experience of the discipline runs to three or four minutes. I hesitate to call myself an expert.

If knocking about at low speeds around some cones on an old runway or tarmac apron seems a bit daft, know this: there has probably never been a more accessible form of properly licensed, fully sanctioned motorsport. The doors to competitive driving have never been flung so wide open, and many who begin their racing journey here will progress into other forms like sprinting, hillclimbing, rallying and circuit racing.

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"Once I’d flicked the steering wheel to the left, I could kick the car into a big, arcing powerslide, all four Michelins lit up, the whole car swinging around in one sweeping drift"

The barrier to entry really couldn’t be lower. You do need a Motorsport UK licence, but it’s free and takes two minutes to apply for – it’s called RS Clubman and it permits entry into 12 separate disciplines, including autosolo, trials and navigational rallies. For autosolo you can use your daily road car, like most competitors do, and you needn’t modify it in any way. Nor do you need any special equipment like racing boots or a fireproof suit. You don’t even have to wear a helmet. You will need to enter a motor club – I joined Loughborough Motor Club, organisers of today’s event, which cost £20. I then had to pay another £51 entry fee.

Motorsport UK’s new StreetCar initiative is all about encouraging people to participate in grassroots motorsport in their road cars. Some turn up in sports cars and hot hatches, but just as many use very unsporting city cars, like Nissan Micras. One young couple arrived in a diesel Peugeot hatchback and appeared to be having as much fun as anyone. Visit the StreetCar website and you’ll see how easy it is to get started.

The EV6 GT is Kia’s new flagship model and its most powerful car yet. I was rather hoping to fly under the radar and not alert everybody to all my various advantages right away, but this car is a pre-production prototype with stickers on the rear pillars reading ‘AWD’ and ‘577bhp’. The game was up before we’d even started. Thank goodness those stickers didn’t give away the car’s lightning quick 3.5sec 0-62mph time as well.

"I am surprised at how nimble it seemed, how eagerly it flicked from one direction to another. It wasn’t the lumbering old bus I feared it might be. Four-wheel drive traction certainly helped at times, but if I used full power for more than a couple of seconds per run, I’d be surprised. There simply wasn’t the space"

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All that power is produced by two electric motors, one on either axle, and put to the road by a set of Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres – one step down from Michelin’s Cup 2 track day tyre. The most powerful Kia it may be, but at £62,595 the EV6 GT is also the most expensive by far.

We’re on the vast Tarmac Lake alongside Donington Park’s Redgate corner. It rained heavily overnight and the sun shows no sign of emerging to dry the lake – indeed it stays wet and greasy all day, which means I needn’t worry about this very heavy, very powerful car shredding its Michelins as it might on a dry surface. But I’m nervous the brakes are going to cook themselves as they fight to contain the Kia’s portly 2200kg kerb weight.

There is no testing or practice, so it can be helpful to walk the course before getting started. You see drivers calling out the numbers as they amble along, others clutching a clipboard and pen, some swinging their arms in big looping arcs to describe the line they intend to take. My plan is to go steady on my first run and count the gates off as I go, then push harder on runs two and three. Only my fastest two runs will count, meaning I can afford to sacrifice my first as I find my way. After lunch we’ll repeat the course backwards, meaning I have six runs to look forward to with four counting towards my overall time.

So I sit on the start line, waiting to be waved away, knowing all I have to do is drive sensibly and count the gates off as I go. But, inevitably, I can’t help myself. I weave around the first few cones as planned, then give in to temptation and flatten the accelerator pedal, feeling the car rush forward. I look up, expecting to see the next gate somewhere in front of me, but it’s nowhere. I panic. I turn hard left, then hard right, and realise I am hopelessly lost. I drive around in a circle until I spot a gate a little later in the sequence, then set off after that. A moment later I’m lost again. Same problem – a squirt of acceleration expecting the next gate to present itself to me, only to find it’s not where I thought it would be. I think I got lost four times on that first run, which I’m hoping is some sort of record.

Hitting a cone earns you a five second penalty so it’s not necessarily ruinous. But going the wrong way even once, a ‘wrong test’ as it’s known, means you’re done for. So that first run goes straight in the bin.

Run two. I calm down a little, resist the temptation to deploy all that power beneath my right foot, earnestly counting off the gates as I go…and still I get lost. But this time, by luck rather than judgement, I find my way back to where I need to be without incurring a wrong test, then cross the finish line with a sigh of relief. It’s better, but still pretty lamentable.

My final run of the morning is scarcely better than the first. I get lost again, go the wrong way at least once and impress nobody with my speed through the cones. And I’ve lost any hope of a decent result before lunch: to do well in the final reckoning you have to post two good times in each session, meaning you can afford to go wrong only once in the morning and again in the afternoon. With two bungled attempts against my name already, I’m consigned to the bottom of the overall standings for good.

What was I getting so badly wrong? I should have figured this out on my track walk earlier in the morning, but there are a handful of gates that are seemingly designed to trip you up. Most flow nicely from one to the next, each subsequent gate clearly visible as you go. But just a few will be well out of your line of sight – perhaps even directly behind you. It’s like a slalom skier having to turn back up the piste once every seven or eight gates. If you aren’t aware which the tricky ones are, you’ll get lost. Like I did, endlessly.

During lunch, I devise a new tactic. I walk the reversed course twice. The numbers are left as they are, which means we’ll be counting down from 32 rather than up. That might complicate matters. The key difference this time around is that I force myself to remember the handful of unsighted gates, searing their numbers into my mind by repeating them over and over again. There are four that could be especially challenging – the others all flow easily into one another.

Getting lost is massively frustrating, but after each of my morning runs I drove away from the final gate twitching with adrenaline. At less than two minutes apiece the runs are short and sharp, and I found my heart raced with the excitement of it all. Everything happens so quickly, the gates firing themselves at you at a relentless pace. The road speeds may be modest, but with the clock ticking and some little exercised competitive instinct consuming me, this strange motor racing discipline gave me a right old rush.

Watching other competitors from the sidelines is fascinating. Most go wrong once or twice, underlining just what a challenge finding your way through the course really is. But you can see how the quickest drivers know precisely where the course goes, aware not only where the next gate is, but the one after that as well. They memorise the route like an autotest driver would, flowing sweetly between the gates.

Not only do they avoid the calamity of a wrong test by doing so, they also get the lines just right to carry as much speed as possible around the cones, their cars always agitated and balanced, always on edge, charged with energy. You can spot when a driver is lost because as they frantically search around them for the next gate, their car will settle limply on its springs, all that lovely energy lost.

One of my competitors points out how autosolo is the inverse of circuit driving. Being quick on a conventional race track is perhaps 20 per cent knowing where to go – good lines are clearly important but figuring out the direction of the corners is easy – and 80 per cent driving well. Autosolo, he reckons, flips that on its head: it’s 80 per cent knowing where to go, 20 per cent driving skilfully. And he’s absolutely right. An average driver who remembers precisely where the course goes will always beat a very talented one who hasn’t memorised the route at all.

I’m at the front of the queue right after lunch, keen to put my new method to the test. I repeat the numbers of those few devious cones in my head, again and again. Off we go. Gates 32 to 27 are easy enough, but I know 26 is hidden. I shout to myself as I go, remembering to turn hard left at 27 to point myself squarely towards 26. It works perfectly. I power by, seeing 25 and 24 ahead of me, remembering that 23 is another sneaky one, lurking well outside my field of vision. Hard right at 24 sends me back on myself and neatly towards 23.

It goes on like that right the way down to gate one. It’s my first clean run of the day. Finally – I’ve figured it out. Or have I? On the run after that, I get lost yet again and realise I’ve done no such thing.

So it is for my very last run of the day that I pull up to the start line, determined to record not only a clean run, but a quick one. My new method works again and I take a full 10 seconds off my best run from earlier. I’m aware of not pushing too hard, being cautious not to disorientate myself by driving too quickly, but I manage to record a reasonable effort. That 87-second run was the fifth fastest of the day among a field of 35 starters, just a few seconds off the ultimate pace.

I would have been furious with myself all the way home had I not managed to bank at least one respectable time. Nonetheless, I can’t help but reflect on how much faster I could have gone with a seventh, eighth or ninth crack at the course, now that I’ve sussed out a method of navigating the cones properly. I could comfortably take another five seconds off my best time.

And the car? I’m told it looked enormous out there on the lake. It felt big and cumbersome too, and in the very tight sequences when the track was really slippery, I was simply waiting for the understeer to stop. But I am surprised at how nimble it seemed, how eagerly it flicked from one direction to another. It wasn’t the lumbering old bus I feared it might be. Four-wheel drive traction certainly helped at times, but if I used full power for more than a couple of seconds per run, I’d be surprised. There simply wasn’t the space.

The brakes were absolutely fine too, presumably because the runs were so short, and I was using just one per cent of the battery each time I went out. But the Kia was absolutely at its best in the few parts of the track that allowed me to rotate the car on the power, or light up all four tyres by flattening the accelerator. In the afternoon, for instance, gate 21 at the far end of the course fed into gate 20 directly to its left. Once I’d flicked the steering wheel that way, I could kick the car into a big, arcing powerslide, all four Michelins lit up, the whole car swinging around in one sweeping drift. I would crank the corrective lock on then unwind it at just the right moment so we powered through gate 20 without lifting off the throttle, like a budget Ken Block. The EV6 GT behaved exactly like a Ford Focus RS in drift mode in that moment – I never thought I’d experience anything like it in a Kia. It had me howling with laughter.

Autosolo rewards agility in a car, which is why the MX-5s and RenaultSport Clios did so well. But at some point – when you’ve got three times more power than anybody else and seventeen times more than some – a towering horsepower advantage begins to count for something. I’ve no doubt the EV6 GT was the fastest car there that day, despite its enormous size and weight. I just didn’t manage to prove it.

So how did I get on in the Kia? Not brilliantly, I’m afraid. But that was all to do with me, not the car.

Photography by Andy Morgan

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