"Why me?", sang Linda Martin, but I seriously doubt that the slim-hipped Linda has ever had to wedge her ample buttocks into a too-tight racing bucket seat like I have to today, pinching my right thigh in the manner of a medieval torture device every time I flex my right foot.
Sweating and panting like a badly packed Nomex ham, I finally manage to cram enough of my too-ample frame into the seat, and the five-point harness snaps shut with a breathe-in-now click.
The inside of the Peugeot 308 Racing Cup is, like most racing cars, basically a pile of scaffold with some digital clocks. The constrictive bucket seat is set low down and far back and there’s a nylon net to prevent my helmeted head from protruding past the bodywork in the event of a rollover. That potential for a rollover is greater still because the last time I drove a car on slick tyres I had to give up and go home because my pitiful attempt at driving wouldn’t get enough heat into the rubber.
My garrulous French instructor seems happy enough though. The ambient temperature at the Ascari race track, near Ronda in Spain, is enough to melt iron, so hopefully there's enough warmth in the air alone to give it some grip. “At first,” says Mr French Instructor, “the rear tyres will be cold and the front tyres will warm up very quickly, so the car will move around." This is not filling me with confidence. “But as we drive, the grip will come.” OK, that’s a little better...
You have to press a yellow button marked Power to wake the 308 Racing from its pit lane slumber. The fuel pumps whine for a moment, there are some distant rattling sounds and then I’m given the instruction to press the red Start button. The unsilenced 1.6 THP four-cylinder turbo engine fires with a noise that sounds like a squadron of cement mixers being rolled down a long flight of stairs. It’s not the melodic sound of a V12 or the rumble of a V8, but the bastard-hard grumble of a four-pot. Closely related to the 1.6-litre engine in the production spec 308 GTi, it has rather wonderfully been given a 38hp upgrade from tarmac spec for a total of 308hp. Cute.
Less cute, but certainly purposeful, is the bodywork, which has been stretched and distended by Peugeot Sport’s designers, to keep enough of the production shape intact for marketing purposes, but also to generate actual downforce and keep the thing pinned to the track. Hopefully.
“The design of our latest racing car took into account all the observations that were expressed by our customers and we hope to win over even more buyers. Its performance credentials and the enjoyment it delivers mark a real step forward and we have paid very close attention to running costs,” explains Laurent Guyot, Manager of Peugeot Sport’s Customer Competition department. “The 308 Racing Cup is a particularly interesting investment for teams because it is eligible to compete in a variety of championships, so its resale value will be high, which in turn contributes to bringing down running costs.”
Yeah. Running costs are exactly what’s on my mind as I’m further instructed to hold down the green Neutral button, put the clutch pedal down (you only need it for stopping and starting) and tug the right hand gearshift paddle (made of carbon-fibre, natch) and there is a sharp, gunshot, ‘clunk’ as first gear is selected. Now just pull away and head down the pit lane.
Right. Rev it like a learner in a Micra and let the clutch out sharpish. It works, the 308 gathers momentum and I manage not to stall it in front of an on-looking crowd of fellow motoring writers, all of whom are currently deciding who will take possession of my computer and my headphones should this all end in a ball of fire.
Pit lane exit. Le Mans-style green warning light flashing to let me know the track is clear. My French companion (his hips fit the seat perfectly, of course) telling me to pull for second, then third. Accelerate.
The cement mixers gather speed, their concussive sounds coalescing into a rising mixture of engine growl and gearbox howl as we approach the first corner, a downhill left where you have to aim blind at an apex that’s about five metres below you. Pull for second and the car shunts and vibrates. I’m going too slowly here, the tyres are still cool, the engine’s tuning simply not happy with me. A bit more power so...
The 308 Cup doesn’t exactly leap ahead - in spite of 308hp and a 1,100kg weight, straight-line speed isn’t its forte. There’s no turbo lag though, so you can be Jackie-Stewart-smooth with the throttle and still add big chunks of speed. Which I do. And the 308 responds, gathering pace and easing up to at least a happy lope.
I brake (the brakes are strong, but have no assistance so you have to mash them hard) and turn left again, then immediate right, the 308 making short work of the short straight before another right-hand turn. The back is skittish and I can feel it moving about, even though the front wheels are clearly welded to the track, but the secret is to go harder, faster and let the downforce do its stuff. I’m not used to this. It’s alien. Accelerating into a corner that looks tight and nasty, but the 308 is up to the task and the invisible hand pressing the car to the track keeps me on the black bit and away from the grass, with reasonable success.
A few circuits and we’re back, thumbing the pit lane speed limiter to hold us at a steady 50km/h as we roll into the baked and broiling garage area. A few clunks and the engine whirrs to a stop and I now have to go and find a spatula to get me out of the seat.
What have I learned here? Other than that I’m too fat to be a racing driver? Well, the 308 Racing Cup, which is eligible for such events as the VLN Nürburgring 24hrs, or the French FFSA series, is surprisingly easy and friendly to drive, by racing car standards. Even when the rear does break loose, it does so progressively and with easy recovery options (steer and accelerate basically), the steering is unerringly accurate and, while heavy, easy to find your line with.
God it’s hot. I’m sweating from fear, adrenaline and excitement, as well as the incredible ambient heat. The 308 Racing Cup is bloody quick, bloody good fun. Well worth €74,000 (pre-tax) of some gentleman driver’s money. They should probably just get someone else to drive it next time, is all...