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Top Gear races the KTM X-Bow RR

  1. There must be more relaxing ways to go racing. This is my first time in a KTM X-Bow RR, and there will be 50,000 spectators at the Red Bull Ring in Austria. Not only that, but we’re a support race for the DTM, which means that the likes of Gary Paffett, David Coulthard and other DTM über-stars will be watching from their vast corporate entertainment units in the paddock. Now, I’ve done a bit of motorsport before (normally the ‘crowd’ consists of approximately three people, two of whom wandered in by mistake), but the very first time that I get to sit in the car is to steer it out of the paddock and onto the track for qualifying. Literally. I didn’t even roll it to scrutineering. I’ve also never raced at the Red Bull Ring before, or even studied footage of the circuit. It’s drizzling, and we’re on dry tyres.

    No pressure, then.

    Words: Piers Ward
    Photography: Joel Kernasenko

    This feature was originally published in the July 2012 issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. First, a bit of background. The KTM Battle championship is a one-make series based entirely on the Continent, with two breeds of X-Bow - the all-new RR with 355bhp and 350lb ft, weighing in at 820kg, is the one I’m driving. The other is the standard X-Bow R, with 237bhp and 229lb ft. Visual differences are slight - there are some minor aero tweaks - but, for both of them, the racing is remarkably reasonable: a weekend’s competition in a standard car costs three grand all-in, with the RR costing an extra £800. Not exactly cheap, but good value.

  3. Out on the circuit, it’s easier to tell the difference. While the standard car can brake just as late, the extra power of the RR punching out of the corners and down the straights is immediately obvious. Good. I’ll take any advantage I can get. The result? This is now a seriously quick car; the DTM guys, with full aero, slick tyres and data analysis, are lapping in 1min 26secs - the guys at the front of the KTM pack, with minimal aero, semi-slick tyres and not a laptop in sight, are doing 1min 40secs. Closer than you’d think.

  4. Needless to say, I’m not at that sort of time. Not only is the tarmac damp, but the circuit is so crowded for qualifying - there are 29 cars on the grid - that it’s difficult to learn the track. The X-Bow is also a surprisingly bulky car: when you’re following one, it’s difficult to see around it to pick up all the little nuances of the track. Racing Driver Excuse Number 1.

    I end up 19th, and realise that the X-Bow is going to require a slightly modified approach. The turbocharged 2.0-litre engine, borrowed from Audi, is seriously quick, but you need to anticipate when you want the power. I’m used to naturally aspirated racers with a bang-the-throttle, get-the-power attitude, but here you need to be asking for acceleration half a second before you require it. Anticipation is key.

  5. The forced induction also means you can be in a higher gear at some corners, because it’s possible to use the turbo torque to drag you out; and fewer gear changes in the X-Bow are a good thing. The gearbox, like the turbo, also takes some getting used to. It’s the same ‘box as the X-Bow road car, but has a much snappier shift on the RR. A good thing, you’d think. Well, sort of - the action itself is much crisper, but because it’s the same gearbox that you’re working, you can’t hurry the changes. Rush the lever across the gate, and the RR simply won’t let you have the next cog. There’s such a delay that it’s a high-risk move trying to get a slipstreaming tow off the car in front - if you’re on the power and he changes gear, you gain so rapidly that a carbon-fibre sandwich becomes worryingly imminent.

  6. Normally, getting used to these nuances at a KTM Battle wouldn’t be a problem because there’s free practice on the Thursday, plus another untimed session on the Friday, then two qualifying stints and two races. But, in all of Top Gear’s wisdom, we’ve come racing on the one weekend when track time is at a bare minimum. It feels like the equivalent of being given a push onto the Cresta Run and told that the first corner is a quick right. Racing Driver Excuse Number 2.

  7. My nerves - understandably - get somewhat fraught in the build-up to the first race. We’re right at the end of the day’s programme, a beautiful day of glorious sunshine, and, half an hour before we’re due out, grey clouds start to form. Brilliant. As I’m pacing up and down, desperately trying to get rid of all my nervous energy and wondering whether anyone would notice if I just upped and left, another driver wanders along with an umbrella over his head. All the other racers start laughing. The banter is flowing - I do love the Germanic sense of humour…

  8. Out onto the grid. The countdown clock is reading five minutes. More waiting. The grid girls are all lined up, but, because of the HANS device restricting my head movement, I can’t get a decent look. More frustration. The crowd is looking on, the DTM equipment in the pit lane adding a sense of professionalism, making it feel special. I’m giving off enough nervous energy to power London for a year, and my right leg has developed a strange twitch. Now it definitely feels Top Gear-ish.

  9. There’s loads that I don’t know. What are the tyres like when they’re cold? How do the other drivers actually drive? Will it be complete chaos at the first two corners? Does the open-wheel X-Bow mean there’ll be less contact? Oh shi…

    Green-flag lap. Time to stop worrying. The start goes alright, but I am way too cautious. At least two cars come steaming past into the first corner, but I take to the run-off, because there’s been contact on the inside. Carbon fibre is flying everywhere.

  10. Second corner: I’m still cautious and unsure how closely I can follow. More cars pass me under braking. But already the nerves are starting to dissipate. Being overtaken has got the adrenalin going - red haze rather than full-on red mist - but there’s definitely more aggression needed. Barrel down the next straight, trying to work out where all the other cars are going to go. It’s ridiculously crowded.

  11. Try to brake late for the next corner, which means I’ve still got my foot on the brake pedal as I turn in. Oh, that’s not gone well. Spin. In the middle of the pack. Clutch down. Keep the engine running. Snatch first gear. One car takes avoiding action to the outside; everyone else piles around the inside.

    Fortunately, no one has hit me, but, except for the asthmatic-looking medical car, I’m stock last. And even the blood wagon has to slow right down so that it doesn’t do me the ultimate ignominy of being overtaken by it.

    That’s what happens on cold tyres. Racing Driver Excuse Number 3.

  12. The rest of the race is huge fun, because I manage to overtake a few people and end up 17th out of 27 finishers, but it’s an evening of what-ifs. Still, there’s always tomorrow’s race. Which arrives very quickly…

    All the cars make it through the first corner; I’m still being slightly hesitant. And then, on the entry into the second corner, I see tyre smoke. This doesn’t look good. Hang back. Crunch ahead. Carbon fibre is scattering all over the track, one flying section cracking me on the helmet; there’s so much dust and smoke that it’s difficult to spot where cars are heading. You give up all hope of checking in your mirrors before shifting direction - just go and hope that those behind are moving the same way to avoid the carnage ahead.

  13. One car, happily with a lurid lime-green paint job and therefore easier to spot, emerges from the dust exiting stage left. I’m heading straight for him. Do I brake? Or swerve right to avoid him? Luckily, he’s heading backwards much quicker than I’m going forwards so there isn’t any contact.

    Anyway, crack on. Start to feel a pang of guilt that I’ve made up places more through luck than skill, but sod that - to finish first, first you have to finish. Next corner, and another car runs wide ahead. Thank you very much - one more place gained. I’m now ninth. This is unheard of. Top Gear is actually achieving some of its stated aims. And nothing is on fire.

  14. And then… safety car. Which breaks concentration, and means the tyres start to cool. More unknowns - at safety-car pace, how much does the tyre temperature drop off? What happens at the restart? Racing Driver Excuses Numbers 4 and 5 already lined up.

    The short answer to both questions is that it doesn’t really matter, because I make a hash of it; I got baulked at the restart, and then am way too cautious, and end up getting passed by three cars under braking. Plus, someone decides he’s going to try to pass me by braking 50 yards beyond where he normally does, locks up, clouts my right rear tyre and sends me into a spin. This is getting to be a habit.

  15. Frustrated and angry, finally an aggressive streak arrives, and I start to drive the X-Bow like I should have been doing all along - finding the edge of the tyres’ grip, braking as late as the car has been urging, using all of the natural balance of the KTM to really drive it. I even manage to fiddle with the brake bias; this is a first - thinking technically about something. It does mean having to twiddle the dial mid-corner (because otherwise the steering wheel blocks the view, so you can’t tell how much you’ve moved it by), but, still, TopGear is actually using science rather than a hammer to solve a problem.

    Which means the race doesn’t turn out quite as frustrating as it could have been. I end up 15th - a long way back from my top 10 aim - but things could have been a lot worse. Apart from anything else, the mechanics haven’t got to figure out how to rebuild the car for the next event in three weeks’ time. It’s a mixture of relief and elation.

  16. I’d love to have another go - it’s a feeling of boxes unticked at the moment, of getting nowhere near the potential of the X-Bow. But there’s more to this. There’s another reason I’d like to come back, and it’s because of the KTM atmosphere. After each race, there’s a prize-giving ceremony, and on the Saturday night there’s a barbecue. Everyone who competes gets a medal and a clap from the other drivers (and yes, even I did); there are speeches and jokes. Even the CEO of the company turned up and thanked everyone for supporting KTM and promised even better times ahead. Can you imagine Luca di Montezemolo doing that? All of this was in German, meaning I didn’t understand a word but still felt included. And that’s the real reason I’d like a rematch. Because sometimes it’s not just about the finish. It’s also about the journey.

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