James May

Pint and a motorsport beer mat

My winning formula

Every now and then, over at Top Gear TV, we have something called an ‘ideas meeting’. I suppose other people would call it ‘the pub’, but as far as we’re concerned, we are confronting the white heat at the very kernel of creativity, and if industrial lager is needed to keep it at bay, so be it.

An ideas meeting involves everyone on the team and anyone can, and does, contribute something, even me. The other day, I piped up with ‘How about some classic motorsport?’ Well, it went so quiet that I could hear the producer’s clothes rotting.

And I sort of understand why, really. In the phrase ‘classic motorsport’, I struggle to find a single word that would have caused us to break step in the delirious headlong rush to the discussion about the exploding caravan or the Stig-in-a-Zonda scene. And, indeed, we didn’t.

Apart from anything else, motor racing, at any level, involves a lot of things I don’t really approve of: dressing up, taking it seriously, being on time and oversteer, which is nothing more than a left-wing plot. The beauty of the motor car is that it has liberated the people and allowed them to stray far and wide, so the idea of using it to arrive at the point you started from, two tenths of a second sooner than you did last time, flies in the face of everything I hold dear about cars. The car is the most poignant instrument of progress the world has produced, so using it to go nowhere seems strangely ironic.

Even so, I can’t believe that motor racing is as boring as it often is. Which is why I and Richard Hammond have come up with the 1275cc challenge. The producer obviously isn’t interested and won’t let us talk about it, so I’m going to do it here instead, since this is my column, and he can’t stop me. It will take the form of a hillclimb – a hill in every country is pretty easy to find – and will be an international series with appropriate television coverage. As with all proper motor racing, there is a strict formula to keep the playing field reasonably level. But this time, it does not hamper technical progress or imagination, it simply keeps it all at pocket-money prices. It’s a vision of egalitarian motorsport, and first came to me while I was driving along in my Rolls-Royce.

The car must have been powered, when in production, by the 1275cc variant of the venerable A-Series engine. It must retain this engine, and it must be road-legal, with an MoT. The two obvious contenders are the 1275 MG Midget and one of the later editions of the original Mini. Sound examples of these are available for £1,500 or so and can also be enjoyed on the road when you’re waiting, like Steve McQueen, between races. This ensures that the technical advances forged on the track will translate directly to the car you drive on the road, largely because it will be the same one.

Already, this strikes me as interesting. We have a low, light rear-drive car versus a short, upright front-drive one. For decades, people have been arguing in pubs about which layout is best, so now we’ll find out in the unforgiving arena of cheap competition against the clock. Hammond can be in the Midget, since he already has one, and I’ll take the Mini, as I’ve owned several and still have the Haynes Manual. Providing the car fits in with the simple criteria mentioned above, anything goes.

"The beauty of the motor car is that it has liberated the people and allowed them to stray far and wide" 

Now we arrive at the great stumbling block of motor racing. Make the rules of the formula too vague, as I appear to have done here, and somebody very clever will find a way to gain an insuperable advantage with ground effect or traction control or something like that. The rules are then made ever tighter in the interests of maintaining a good viewing spectacle, but the outcome is predictability and the stifling of inventive talent. So here’s the clever bit.

The second part of the formula, and the only other rule, applies not to the car itself, but to the team’s toolbox. Only manually operated hand tools can be used in the preparation and maintenance of the racing car, and electricity and compressed air are banned.

So you can do what you like, but you can only do it by hand. No one can re-bore the engine to 1500cc, because that requires a machine tool, which is not allowed. Similarly, it will be impossible to trim a few thou off the cylinder head to improve the ‘squish’, unless you’re so brilliant you can do that sort of thing with a file. You can fit a turbo or bigger brake calipers, but only because you can do that with one of those all-in-one toolkits from Halfords.

There is even an incentive here to drive intelligently. Pit stops are obviously to be avoided, because without compressed air, wheel-changing will become an interminably tiresome task, involving wheelbraces and blisters.

You can widen the track and fit fatter wheels if you want, but if the car is to pass an MoT – which it must – it will then need bigger wheelarches. If you can’t do this with a sheet metal bender and a pop rivet gun, you’re stuffed. Excellent. This simple tool rule means a cash-strapped teenager in a lock-up is no worse off than a team entered by Williams. Even Clarkson and his magic hammer has a chance.

Best of all, because electricity is banned under the formula, there can be no laptops and tiresome telemetry. That sort of thing is boring and, more to the point, expensive, which penalises the poor people. Here is a form of racing that rewards artisanal skill and resourcefulness, rather than the big budget stemming from a corporate sponsorship deal. What could you spend the money on anyway? Spanners and Nomex? It won’t help you win.

I can’t help thinking this is all rather brilliant. We’re always looking for the future of motorsport. We’ve tried the MPV challenge and half-car racing, but neither of them quite caught on. This, I believe, will. It will be fun to take part in, fun to watch, instructional, educational and, most importantly, cheap as chips.

By my calculations, we could produce a new world champion for a total outlay of around £2,000.



James May, Column

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