Ric Wood looks remarkably relaxed for a man who is about to hand control of a 2003 Opel Astra DTM German touring car to a man he’s never heard of, let alone met.
But here he is, smiling, and here’s his car, which he bought from the works Opel touring car team and which he races mostly in Holland. He won so many races in the UK with it that most series kicked him out.
And from 12-14 June he’ll be driving it around the 1.2-mile sprint course at Cholmondeley Castle during the eighth Cholmondeley Pageant of Power.
You could think of the pageant as the north’s Goodwood Festival of Speed. Except that, situated as it is not far from Crewe, it’s not so far into the north as to be inaccessible from the Midlands or the south. It’s lower of key, too. A touring car at Goodwood would probably be a current race car and arrive with an entourage of engineers.
This Astra is looked after by a couple of Wood’s employees from his engine design business. Don’t think that it’s anything less exciting for that, though. Yes, it looks like an Astra, but no DTM car in recent history has borne any mechanical relationship with its road-going counterpart.
This Astra’s gossamer-thin, carbonfibre-backed skin adorns an ultra-rigid safety cage. When you sit in the near-central driving seat and note that the interior air vent is beautifully constructed from carbonfibre so thin that it’s actually opaque, you know you’re in the presence of a real weapon.
Its naturally aspirated 4.0-litre V8 sits long and low under the hood, driving the rear wheels through a six-speed sequential gearbox. With the restrictors Wood is allowed to put on it, he’s looking at an easy 460bhp. That’s quite a lot in a car that weighs 1150kg including driver.
Cholmondeley’s 1.2-mile course isn’t the first place I’d choose to use all of that power, I think to myself as I sit on the start line. It’s a relatively short course and there are no really fast corners to scare you, but by gum it’s narrow.
The start isn’t the widest bit, but seeing the Astra occupy pretty much all of the road is an intimidating sight. Quite how it feels to go around here in 55.29sec, as Robbie Kerr did last year in a Radical SR8 is a feat that’ll forever remain beyond me.
Still, I’ll pootle around on this preview day as quickly as I dare, given the fact that I’m wearing jeans and no helmet and there’s every chance of meeting a Ford C-Max with a National Trust sticker in the back window coming the other way.
The Astra starts on a button to a gravelly 2000rpm or so idle. It has a foot-operated clutch, a firm, short-travel brake pedal and a long throttle. Engine response is fast but the clutch manageable, if heavy, and getting off the line is simple enough.
From that point on, you can forget the left pedal and pull shifts through on the stiff, long gearlever. Back takes you up with a pop as the ignition cuts for a moment. Down – while you’re firmly on the unassisted brakes – would unsettle the car if you were really on it (I’m not). Racers get most of their braking done first, then punch down the gearbox just as they arrive at the corner, so they can slow as smoothly, and therefore quickly, as possible.
The DTM Astra shares a trait I’ve found in a few racing cars: steering that’s lighter than you’d imagine. It’s exceptionally direct and accurate, mind, with a little feel that I guess would increase massively with higher speeds and downforce. There’s nowhere on the Cholmondeley course that allows that, but even being careful you’ll find yourself going at quite a lick on the straights.
The course is fun. After two fast straights – the second punctuated by a chicane – there are tricky cambers, elevation changes and even a yump. It’d make a good sprint course away from the pageant.