There is a scurry of activity as a new motorhome picks its way through the cars, bikes and scooters that litter the Spa paddock. Then it stops beside me and Guy Smith leans out of the driver's window to proffer a hand. It is an unlikely entrance for a Le Mans-winning racing driver, but then this is no ordinary event. Smith isn't here to race an Bentley Speed Eight, he's here to join our bid for glory in the world's longest motor race, the 25 Heures VW Fun Cup a Francochamps.
The huge Breitling is instantly familiar and so are the personalized clothes. He looks every inch a professional racer, which is in sharp contrast to yours truly and the third member of Top Gear Team Uniroyal, club racer Fergus Campbell. "Ferg" and I have both raced and won 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 Juan Pablo Montoya's pace in junior formulae and now races beside a guy 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 favorite. Bespoke, GRP panels hide a tubular steel chassis that's built by Dubois Racing in Belgium. The mid-mounted, 1.8-liter engine is sourced from VW and mated to a five-speed transmission that's normally found in an Audi A4. They're used in national series across Europe and are designed to provide fun, safe and cost-effective racing.
Subtle mechanical tweaks, including the introduction of carburetors, increase the power to 130 bhp, but with a curbweight of 1,676 lb and brick wall aerodynamics, the Beetle's could never be described as rapid. They're certainly a far cry from the 610-bhp, 1,984-lb 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.
They might not be quick, but we should at least enjoy some close and frenetic racing. At 4 p.m. on Saturday, 130 identical cars will leave the starting grid and, all being well, they'll still be dicing come 5 p.m. on Sunday. It sounds terribly daunting and my nervousness is compounded by the news that half the drivers in the field are filled with Latin blood.
Practice will start soon, so we return to the motorhome to change into our new race suits, which are a "tasteful" shade of yellow. "It's best to remove your underwear," says Smith, alarmingly. "Your boxer shorts aren't fireproof so if the car catches fire, they tend to stick." 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're peeing clear water that you know you're properly hydrated. It stops you getting cramps during the race."
It sounds sensible but what happens if I need the toilet during a race 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.
Testing starts at 3 p.m. and it's the first time that any of us will have driven our race car. You sit centrally in the Beetle, ensconced in a rollcage 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 at 4.3 miles, 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 race driver?"I've been told that it's taken flat out in the dry, but it takes me a few laps to build up some confidence. The Beetle uses conventional road tires and they take a while to come up to temperature. Even then, the car moves around a fair bit and the unassisted steering loads up considerably during hard cornering. It's clear that exacting the most from it will not be easy.
At the end of the session, we debrief. While Fergus and I can describe the car's behavior, 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 the load. Then you can get on the power. It's a bit like driving a low-powered kart. You need to be really smooth with the inputs and not lose any 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're easy to drive, but the Beetle represents a different kind of challenge. I can't remember the last time that I had to heel-and-toe a downchange."
It's a fascinating insight born of experience, talent and keen intelligence. Anyone who thinks that modern racers are brainless dunderheads is wide of the mark. Smith started driving a kart at the age of 5 and was runner-up in the World Championship before progressing to cars. He's been a de facto professional for more than 20 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 my local park is no more than 3 miles in circumference and I struggle to make it round. While Smith's physique would befit a sculpture park, mine bares the scars of too much curry, as my girlfriend is wont to point out. My arms are already aching from the strain of driving the car.We awake early next morning to find 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 is leaking 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 significantly worse throughout the session and in the circumstances, we do well to qualify 35th. At least we'll be able to see the startline come race day--those at the back will be literally a mile away.
Race preparation requires a trip to the local grocery store. "Buy lots of fruit and water," says Smith as he pushes the trolley. "Don't bother with Red Bull, it just makes you feel sick. And don't drink Coke(R) after a stint--I tried that once and I felt terrible for hours." I can't help smiling at the image before me. Bentley's favorite son is, on race day, desperately searching for his favorite cupcakes. "I can honestly say 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 1 1/2 hours of racing, or more if there's a safety-car period. We divvy up the time and decide to double stint through the night. In theory, this will allow us all to get at least a couple hours of sleep.
Campbell 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 5 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 'box fitted.
This turns out to be just the first of three gearbox changes, to which can be added a broken driveshaft, a misfire, a steering-ball-joint problem, three broken front splitters, two accidents (both caused by back markers) and a faulty starter motor. In total we spend 3 hours and 29 minutes stuck in the pits and finish in 86th place, 67 laps behind the leaders.
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 exciting adventure with a series of seminal moments. I will never forget, for example, leaving the pits at midnight to begin a 3-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 just a hazy blur.
Those 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 learned in the R8. Driver's get intimidated and miss their braking point." It worked a treat and at a little after 3 a.m., as I clambered into my sleeping bag in Smith's motorhome, I felt confident that I'd gone some way towards mastering the art of night racing.
I had woken at 6:30 a.m. to find the mechanics eulogizing over Smith's performance. For the past 3 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 tires. "I kept telling Fergus 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 lapped 5-sec.-a-lap faster than the leaders.
Fears that the Bentley Boy would find the whole event excruciating 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 4 or 5 years. I went right off the road at Blanchimont but I kept going and still managed to overtake two cars."
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 in the words of the song, "Je ne regrette rien." Campbell and I had been offered a unique opportunity--it had been like turning up for a golf match to find yourself partnering Phil Mickelson. In such a situation, you make the most of it and hang the consequences.
We knew 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 a Fun Cup without him.
Fancy a Go?
An American team took part in this year's event, racing alongside the UK entries. Anyone with a racing license can enter the race, and you can hire an arrive-and-drive package for #12,750 ($23,287). This includes fuel and entry fees, but you'll pay extra for accident damage and mechanical breakages--a new gearbox costs #995 ($1,817). Most teams use three to five drivers, but you're allowed up to eight.
For more information, visit www.uniroyalteamchallenge.co.uk.