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.
The beauty of it is that, after the finish, cars and bikes roll back to the paddock without having to retrace their steps, so competitors get three runs per day on Saturday and Sunday, after practice on Friday. With displays on water and in the air, too, the pageant is a decent spectacle. I recommend it.
Castle king Robbie Kerr's track guide
Robbie Kerr set the course record at last year’s Cholmondeley Pageant of Power in a Radical SR8 and is back this year for another go. But it’s not easy. “You have to be pinpoint accurate the whole way around,” he says, “because it’s so tight.”
From the start, he’s flat out across the bridge (“You’re trying to get square on to it, but you can’t because it’s so narrow”) before continuing at full chat down a long, curved avenue. “The camber pulls you left and right a bit, so you’re busy,” says Kerr. He’ll exceed 140mph here.
Under braking, he keeps the car as far left as possible, sacrificing a bit of speed into the corner to get a clean exit.
Between the first-gear lefts of T1 and T2, Kerr finds time for a squeeze of throttle before “getting a clean, late apex to get a good exit”, although “a lot of other competitors bring dirt onto the track” at the exit of T2.
Then you’d get a heck of a speed up were it not for a chicane halfway along the next straight. “Last year they made it tighter,” says Kerr, “but you never quite know how tight it is because other competitors could have given the bales a whack. The risk is braking too early and not getting enough weight onto the nose to help the car turn.”
From there, the course gets more technical still. Chapel is an awkward, off-camber left over a crest. “You go so tight to the left that you scrub the grass on the way up the slope,” says Kerr. “As you come up the rise, you can get good turn-in, but it’s too early. You have to wait, be a bit patient.”
Kerr turns in later, using what looks like a massively imposing tree as an apex. Run wide after it and you’re in trouble, because “it’s very slippery by the barrier”.
On our track walk, we can see why: it’s where a year’s worth of sap and mulch congregates and there’s little opportunity for the surface to be scrubbed clean over the weekend.
“Then you’re trying to straighten the next kink,” says Kerr, adding that the front of the Radical scrapes the road on its way through. “The right-hand tyres are warm now,” he says, “but the front left isn’t.” This makes braking an issue.
Then it’s over a table top (“where the rear steps out”), into and out of a first-gear left and flat out, airborne, over the bridge to finish.
The event this year is running under the theme of 'power on land, water and in the air'.
As well being able to watch numerous high-powered cars making their way up the famous timed racecourse, visitors to this year's show can also see a special 1000bhp-plus class take part in the action, alongside famous Group B rally cars, 200bhp motorbikes and Formula 1 racers from the 1980s.
Each of the event's three days has been given its own theme. Friday will be dedicated to celebrating Lotus and will feature a special concours event for the British marque, while Saturday will have American muscle cars on the track. Sunday features a host of 1980s supercars, including the Lamborghini Countach 5000QV and Ferrari Testarossa.
Event director James Hall said: "This is the eighth year that CPOP has been running and we have a lot of exciting elements in the pipeline to make this year's line-up bigger and better than ever." Around 67,000 people attended the event in 2014, a record number.
Autocar will be reporting from the event and you can see more pictures of 2014's Pageant of Power in our gallery.
The Cholmondeley Pageant of Power takes place from 12-14 June at Cholmondeley Castle Garden, Malpas, Cheshire SY14 8AH.
Tickets cost from £30 for adults and £5 for children. Buy them at cpop.co.uk
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