Sweating metaphorical bullets we joined the motorway. My driver tried desperately to accelerate without actually touching the throttle pedal while I scanned the road ahead for any potential lorries to draft behind. A speed of 80km/h had been set as a notional maximum but to be honest, we were often well below. Night had fallen and the rest of the fast-flowing traffic was whipping past our right wing mirror, carrying big motorway speeds and oblivious entirely of our desperate mission. Suddenly a whoop of joy went up from the right-hand seat and in the dim glow of the dash lights I could see a triumphant figure jabbing at the trip computer. Our average consumption had fallen from 4.0- to 3.9 litres per 100km...
It's never a good idea to organise an event and split journalists up into rival teams, all bidding for glory. Quite apart from the fact that there was a top prize of €1,000 charitable donation at stake, there was also professional pride and bragging rights on the table. After all, we all deep down secretly know that few of us could seriously challenge for race-track supremacy, but going slow? Saving fuel? Stand aside; this is our chance for victory!
Skoda it was then, the brave company willing to turn us loose in a fleet of four cars (four teams of four journalists swapping between them) to see who could be the most economical on a jaunt from the Gibson Hotel in Dublin's docklands out to Longford and back. That's a journey which, under normal circumstances, should take no more than 90 minutes or so. We were going to be doing things rather differently.
There was also the major wrinkle that all four cars were petrol powered. Skoda was keen to emphasise that, so efficient have its petrol engined models become, that they are actually potentially cheaper to run than a diesel car. Tax costs have converged and according to some very convincing figures we were shown, you could be as long as 10 years waiting to claw back the extra purchase price of a diesel by reaping its fuel economy benefits.
That of course assumes that you can match the claimed economy put down on paper by the car maker. That's a tough enough call in a frugal diesel, but harder again in a petrol car. Nonetheless, armed with metaphorical eggs and delicate kittens to place beneath our throttle pedals, our odyssey began in the Octavia 1.2 TSI 105hp. Now, this is a car that, not so long ago, I casually mistook for a diesel, averaging a blissful 6.0 litres/100km on a motorway run to Galway, so its overall economy is not in doubt. But in the hands of none other than the fearless Shane O' Donoghue (of this parish, you may have noticed) we managed to record an astonishing 4.9 litres per 100km from central Dublin out to Virginia in County Cavan, our first stop over. That's 57mpg from a turbocharged petrol engine in a large, comfy family hatch stuffed to the gills with four well fed journalists.
And then it was my turn. In we piled to the Skoda Citigo 1.0-litre 60hp. It's a diminutive car, the Citigo, but in fairness we all fitted in quite comfortably. Less comfortable was the engine, which hauled our combined mass manfully along but was showing clear signs of strain. The fuel consumption kept climbing as I agonised over a balance between economy and actually making forward progress. Phone calls were made to loved ones urging them not to wait up, that daddy would be home soon as I inched my way along the Cavan-Longford border. Only on the occasional downhill stretches, freewheeling in neutral, could we allow the speed to creep up, to a heady 80km/h at one point. The thrill! But then it was back down to crawling speed as I desperately tried to save fuel.
And it worked. Sort of. We rolled into the next changeover car park with 3.9 litres per 100km showing on the dash readout. That's 72mpg and every millilitre of it showed in the extra lines on my face, the new grey hairs flecking my temples and the agonising cramps in my right leg. Yes, you can get a petrol car to match diesel economy, but good grief, it's an effort. Still, the final result tasted sweet, at least until our next changeover when a rival team revealed they'd gotten 3.6 litres/100km out of the same car...
The next leg was aboard the rather impressive new Rapid Spaceback 1.2 TSI, which looked rather snappy with its extra Style kit bolted on (big glass roof, stylish alloys etc.) and which, in the hands of CompleteCar.ie's indomitable Dave Humphreys, recorded an average of 4.5 litres per 100km, or 62mpg. This was getting better and better. Yes, we were having to go to occasionally dramatic lengths to achieve these figures, and yes, incredible amounts of restraint was being shown to avoid unnecessary acceleration, but hey; the figures don't lie. Actually, as an aside, perhaps this is the secret to the next big road safety campaign; offer a big prize for the best fuel consumption at the end of each month. No one would ever exceed 65km/h...
And then it was time for the anchor leg. Bob Flavin, of friendly rival website thenextgear.com took the wheel of a 1.2 Fabia hatchback and we set off into the gathering gloom. It was utterly agonising. We knew that our rivals were matching us blow-for-blow on economy in each of the other cars, so every tiny drop of fuel used counted towards either victory or defeat and it really was all down to this final run back into the Gibson. We just went very, very slowly and, as luck would have it, found one of the other teams creeping along the M4 motorway in the Octavia we had driven earlier. Using them as an unwitting drafting partner, we slowly, slowly worked our way home. I can only compare it to nursing a shot-up Lancaster home from a night bombing mission over occupied Europe - at any second we expected to hear the rattle of enemy gunfire. Or the beep of the fuel consumption meter ticking upward. Whichever, it amounted to the same thing in our minds.
Finally, the Gibson hove into view, and Squadron Leader Flavin brought the Fabia in for a gentle landing. As he did so, the average consumption readout ticked back up to 4.0 litres per 100km. Still an impressive performance, but had that final tenth cost us victory?
Yes, it had. The winning team, consisting of Stephen Watson from Torque.ie, Cathal Doyle from The Irish Sun, TV3 The Driving Seat presenter Aidan Timmons and Sean Creedon (Dublin People and ) averaged, across four cars and four legs, 4.33 litres/100km (63.2mpg). We were second, separated by just 0.02 litres per 100km. Two centilitres! That tiny bit of Diet Coke you can't quite get out of the can. That's what lost it for us.
Still, at least deserving charity was the actual winner. The Irish Cancer Society will receive €1,000 on behalf of Skoda Ireland and runner-up donations of €750 will also be made to The Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association, €500 to Irish Autism Action and €250 to Dog's Trust.
I have attended the Le Mans 24-hour race. I have myself raced against professional opposition in a four-hour endurance race. I have travelled across Europe, the UK, parts of the US and Canada by car and I have two small children. I have never fallen into my bed as knackered as I did after taking part in this event. The amount concentration needed to maintain that level of economy is colossal, and quite apart from the fuel saving, is a salutary reminder of the fog of carelessness in which most of drive, most of the time.
Don't feel sorry though. It was tremendous fun. Thank you Skoda, congratulations to Cathal, Stephen, Aidan and Sean and well done to the charities. I'll be back next year once I've shed 10 stone and had my right foot filled with helium.
Monday October 21
Early start to the week in the form of a morning flight to Düsseldorf with Audi to drive the updated A8 and S8 models. It's funny how although we tend to refer to these updates as 'facelift' models, the manufacturers always have their own little names for them - in Audi's case it's PI, Product Improvement. The changes to the car have been subtle, but it's a good opportunity to stretch the car's legs on German autobahns - couldn't get the S8 past 267km/h, but it is higher than the claimed 250km/h…
Sunday Oct 13
Once again my working week begins on a Sunday as I make my way to Mondello Park for the end of season 'Fun Races'. As non-championship rounds at the end of a long season these events can usually throw up a few surprises, both in the results and the entry list. Ever see a Toyota Corolla from the mid-nineties race against a Honda-powered Lotus Elise?
As the schedule is not as packed as a normal race weekend my Autosport reports are finished at a remarkably reasonable…
Monday Oct 14
Despite it being the sort of car that shouldn't even be on my radar, I was a little bit sad to be handing back the Citroen C4 Picasso that I'd spent the previous seven days with. I was massively impressed with the car's interior design, which is something that I think many other manufacturers should go and take a look at to see how cool can be done. On the upside, I'm collecting a Volvo V40 T4 Polestar, which has potential to be rather interesting.