From the archives: TG brings a Le Mans winner to the VW Fun Cup | Top Gear
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Friday 22nd September
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From the archives: TG brings a Le Mans winner to the VW Fun Cup

A throwback to 2004, when TG entered a 25 hour race at Spa… with a little extra help

Two months ago, Guy Smith was racing for the lead of the Le Mans 24 Hours. A year before he blasted the winning Bentley across the line in France. Last month Guy was racing for us. In a Beetle. In Belgium. Why? ‘It might be a long way from the Mulsanne in an Audi R8... but it’s loads more bloody fun.’

This feature was first published in Issue 132 of Top Gear magazine (2004)

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Words: Alister Weaver / Images: Lee Brimble

Guy Smith TopGear

The huge Breitling is instantly familiar as Guy Smith leans from his motorhome and offers me a handshake. He’s just arrived at the Spa paddock having driven himself down from Leeds in his motorhome. It’s an unlikely entrance for a Le Mans-winning, Bentley-piloting racing driver. But this is no ordinary event. Smith isn’t here to race an Audi R8, he’s here to join Top Gear Team Uniroyal’s bid for glory in the world’s longest motor race, the 25 Heures VW Fun Cup à Francorchamps.

He looks every inch a professional racer, which is in sharp contrast to yours truly and the third member of the Top Gear team, staffer Fergus Campbell. Ferg and I have both raced before, but we fall into the drawer marked ‘competent’ rather than ‘inspired’. Neither of us ever thought we’d end up teamed with a bloke who matched Montoya’s pace in Formula 3 and now races beside an Essex boy called Johnny Herbert.

We park the motorhome and make our way into the McLaren Mercedes pit, where our chariot awaits. The VW Fun Cup cars are designed to look like original Beetles but only the windscreen is shared with Hitler’s favourite. Bespoke GRP panels hide a tubular chassis that’s built by Dubois Racing in Belgium. The mid-mounted, 1.8-litre engine is from VW and mated to a five- speed gearbox from an Audi A4. They’re used in national series across Europe and are designed to provide fun, safe and cost-effective racing.

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Subtle mechanical tweaks, including the introduction of carburettors, increase the power to 130bhp, but with a kerb weight of 760kg and brick-wall aerodynamics, the Beetles could never be described as rapid. They’re marginally quicker than a Honda Civic Type-R, but a far cry from the 610bhp/900kg Audi R8 that Smith drove at Le Mans just a few weeks ago. Coincidentally, our race number is 88, the same as his Audi’s.

Top Gear Magazine Spa 25 VW Fun Cup

They might not be quick, but we should at least enjoy some frenetic racing. At 4pm on Saturday, 130 identical cars will leave the starting grid and, all being well, they’ll still be racing 5pm on Sunday. It sounds daunting.

We return to the motorhome to change into our spanking Top Gear race suits. “It’s best to remove your underwear,” says Smith. “Your pants aren’t fireproof so if the car catches fire, they tend to stick.” Er, commando it is then.

He’s also encouraging us to drinks gallons of water in the build-up to the race. “You need to hydrate yourself,” he explains. “You should be going to the toilet all the time and it’s not until you are peeing clear that you’re hydrated. It stops you cramping during the race.”

It sounds sensible, but what happens if I need the toilet during a stint? “You don’t want to crash with a full bladder because it can explode,” says Smith. “If you need to go, just pee in the car. Johnny [Herbert] does it all the time.” Suddenly Le Mans sounds a lot less glamorous in light of Johnny’s dirty little secret.

Testing starts at 3pm and it’s the first time that any of us has driven our race car. You sit centrally in the Beetle, ensconced in a roll cage and confronted by a black slab of a dashboard. A centrally mounted rev counter is joined by a plethora of secondary gauges and an array of toggle switches that control everything from the headlamps to the (pathetic) windscreen wipers. The cockpit is surprisingly roomy but the letterbox windscreen offers a restricted view. These cars are not for the claustrophobic.

And Spa is certainly not for the faint hearted. It’s shorter than it once was, but it’s still one of Europe’s longest circuits and home to one of the world’s most challenging corners. Eau Rouge is a daunting inverted ‘S’ that plunges down then up hill, while posing the question: ‘Are you sure you want to be a racing driver? Eh, sonny?’

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At the end of the session, Team Top Gear debriefs. While Fergus and I are getting to grips with how the car handles, Guy already has a game plan for going quickly. “You need to let it take a set,” he explains. “You brake, turn in and then wait for it to roll and for the outside rear wheel to take up load. Then you can get on the power. It’s like driving a low-powered kart. You need to be smooth with inputs and not lose momentum.

“It might sound absurd but in some ways it’s harder to drive than the Bentley or the Audi. On those cars everything works exceptionally well and they’ll do exactly what you want. I’m not saying they are easy to drive, but the Beetle represents a different kind of challenge. And I can’t remember the last time that I had to heel- and-toe a downchange.”

It’s an insight born of experience, talent and intelligence. Anyone who thinks that modern racers are brainless dunderheads is wide of the mark. Smith started driving a kart at the age of five and was runner-up in the World Championship before progressing to cars. He’s been a professional for over 10 years and it’s reflected in everything he does. Slick in front of the TV cameras, charming to the sponsors and instantly rapid in the car, he’s the epitome of a contemporary pro.

And he’s ferociously fit. In the build-up to Le Mans, his morning jog would stretch for more than 13 miles. I, too, have been running in preparation for this race, but Tooting Common is no more than three miles in circumference and I struggle to make it round. While Smith’s physique wouldn’t look out of place on a plinth in Rome, mine has been moulded by a penchant for chicken curries. My arms are already aching.

VW Fun Cup Top Gear

We awake early next morning to find that the circuit is being subjected to a torrent of cloud abuse. It’s the sort of rain that permeates everything and the cockpit of our car leaks like a government department. In qualifying, we send Smith out last in the hope that the circuit will have dried, but this proves to be a mistake. The conditions get worse throughout the session and in the circumstances, we do well to qualify 35th. At least we’ll see the start come race day – those at the back will be literally a mile away.

Race preparation requires a trip to the local hypermarché. “Buy lots of fruit and water,” says Smith as he pushes the trolley. “Don’t bother with Red Bull, it just makes you sick. And don’t drink Coke after a stint – I tried that once and I felt terrible for hours.” I can’t help smiling at the image. Bentley’s favourite son is, on race day, desperately searching for the Belgian equivalent of Jaffa Cakes. “I can honestly say that I didn’t do this at Le Mans,” he says with a grin.

During the race, each driver will be required to refuel their own car at one of seven petrol pumps located at the entrance to the pits. A full tank is good for an hour-and-a-half, or more if there’s a safety car period. We divvy up and decide to double stint the night. In theory, this will allow us all to get at least a couple of hours sleep.

Fergus starts the first race and hands over to me after an hour, which is when the trouble starts. I’ve scarcely left the pits when my race harness snaps open and I’m forced to make an unscheduled stop. Then at the end of the stint, the fuel filler cap sticks – I lose five minutes trying to wrench it off and then a further 10 having a new one fitted. An hour later Smith returns to the pits with no fourth gear and we lose an hour having a new gearbox fitted.

The early laps in the night were a leap of faith, but by the second hour my eyes had adjusted and my times improved to the point where I was matching my daytime pace. Around this time I also remembered Smith’s tip. “Just flash your lights at them,” he’d said. “It’s a trick we learnt in the R8. Drivers get intimidated and miss their braking point.” It worked a real treat and at a little after 3am, as I clambered into my sleeping bag in Smith’s motorhome, I felt confident that I’d learnt a rather useful trick of the trade.

I had woken at 6.30 to find the mechanics eulogising over Smith’s performance. For the past three hours, he’d been lapping faster than anyone else, despite a broken front splitter and the dual handicap of worn front brake pads and old tyres. “I kept telling Fergus that he’d have to bring him in because he’d have no brakes left,” said our overworked mechanic, Roy Downing. “But I guess he just didn’t use them. He was like a man on a mission, it was amazing.” A few hours later, in the pouring rain, Smith was lapping five seconds faster than the leaders.

Fears that the Bentley Boy would find the whole event excruciatingly dull were thankfully allayed. “The racing was just brilliant,” he declared at the end of one stint. “At Le Mans you just blast past people but here, because of the slipstreaming, you can always find somebody to dice with. I’ve done more racing in the past few hours that I have in the last four years. I went off the road at Blanchimont, but I kept going and still managed to overtake two cars.”

There was plenty of pit action too. The gearbox turned out to be just the first of three swaps, to which can be added a broken driveshaft, a misfire, a steering ball-joint problem, three broken splitters, two accidents and a faulty starter motor. In total we spend three hours and 29 minutes stuck in the pits. We finish in 86th place, 67 laps behind the leaders.

Top Gear Fun Cup

On the face of it, the last 25 hours have been a bit of a disaster, but it somehow doesn’t feel like it. What had begun as a simple motor race had turned into an adventure with a series of ‘Kodak moments’. I will never forget, for example, leaving the pits at midnight to begin a three-hour stint. For the first 20 minutes I had been swamped by Belgian and Italian cars as their full beam headlights singed my eyes. Judging the proximity of each car proved almost impossible and the circuit was, for that period, just a hazy blur. The feeling is still tattooed into my brain.

As we pack our race suits, the three of us reflect on what might have been. We had the outright pace to run in the top 10, but our determination to have as much fun as possible had undoubtedly cost us. “It probably was a case of too fast, too furious,” says a reflective Smith. “We gave it 11/10ths and paid the price.”

Maybe he’s right, but we don’t regret our attitude. Ferg and I had been offered a unique opportunity – it had been like turning up for a pub football match to find Steven Gerrard playing in midfield. In such a situation, you make the most of it and hang the consequences.

We knew that Smith would be quick in the car, but it was his intelligent insights that made the experience so engaging. And his personality made it all the more enjoyable. While other pros would have shied away from such an encounter, he simply got on with it with a perma-smile and without a trace of ego. It wouldn’t have been half as much of a Fun Cup without him.

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