“Get in, get in... Oh, you f*****!”, I shouted at the €2 coin as it teetered teasingly on the edge of the receiving bowl at the toll booth, finally dropping to the ground and scurrying somewhere under the car. Couldn’t have done that in a thousand attempts. No time. Grab wallet, fish for another. This one goes in. Come on barrier, come on... GO! Motorway challenges can turn you into a demon.
Why have I just spent €4 to go through a €1.90 toll? And why am I shouting? Average speed, that’s why. You see, motorways can be a bit of a faff, and as part of this job I spend many hours travelling on the M8/M7/MStandstill from Cork to Dublin and back. Depending on the car, it can be a pleasant jaunt filled with Aphex Twin, podcasts and phone calls to friends and family, but this journey was different. More of a mission, in fact. At my disposal was a new Nissan Micra in natty Power Blue metallic. Engine? The 0.9-litre three-cylinder unit, with 70hp and 95Nm of torque. Fine for the city, but probably not first pick for comfortable cruising at motorway pace.
A ‘brisk’ average speed is required on this particular trip, because I have to be in a certain place at a certain time and a prior engagement has resulted in the timing being pretty marginal. No choice but to go for it, then. Passing the 120km/h signs near Glanmire, I stick the cruise control to the speed limit, reset the trip, vow not to touch the pedals unless stopping for tolls and tell myself that I can have a bag of peanut M&Ms if I can keep my average speed within 2km/h of the motorway max between here and the 100km/h limit around Naas. Oh, and just to spice it up a bit more, I have just enough fuel to get to Dublin without a splash and dash along the way. Air conditioning is going to have to stay off.
Where’s the challenge in that? You’d be surprised. Sure, early-morning or late-night journeys can mean long stretches of road all to yourself, with only the odd truck or Aircoach for company. This is a busy Saturday afternoon though, and all manner of wheeled detritus can be seen in both lanes for kilometres ahead. I really don’t want to have to brake, because the little Nissan takes an aeon to get back up to speed once momentum is lost. Luckily, it’s plain sailing up to and past the first toll, the average speed and range looking good.
That’s until the long uphill pull after Fermoy. It goes on forever, the Micra gradually shedding speed the further up we go. I’m not ‘hypermiling’ per se, so I’m not hugely worried about the effect on fuel economy; I just want this hill to be over. Please. Just as I’m regretting not removing all superfluous weight and taping up every panel gap in the quest for speed, we’re back on level ground again. And what’s this? Acceleration! As the Galtee mountains hove into view, a slight downhill gradient means the little Nissan is flying again. I pat the dashboard. We’re in this together.
It’s not especially warm today, but my staunch refusal to turn on the air conditioning or open a window (imagine the drag!) means that my usually minty-fresh armpits are starting to turn sticky. For a full five minutes, I debate the merits of dropping a window a mere crack to try and alleviate the situation, but it’s only when my lower back announces that it, too, is trying to integrate my t-shirt with my skin that I relent. Sorry if any of you were eating while reading this...
Then, something magic happens. An unspoken bond develops between the drivers of a well-driven Octavia, an old 3 Series, a Leon and us. We’re all travelling at the same speed and more or less equidistant to each other front-to-rear. Octavia Man’s anticipation is excellent, pulling out well in advance for overtakes with minimal steering input and gliding back in to the inside lane serenely. We all follow suit, the lead alternating every so often. It feels almost choreographed in nature, and for a few fleeting minutes the Micra and I head the pack. No-one I pass could possibly have the faintest inkling of how happy I am to witness this display of proper driving, concentration and unintended teamwork. It’s the little things.
It can’t last, of course. Halfway up a gradient, one truck pulls out to lumber past another. This is the worst possible scenario for the Micra, and I have no choice but to back well off as Scania laboriously chugs past Volvo to win that particular day’s titanic duel between Swedish truck makers. Predictably, my wingmen hare off into the distance, leaving us to wheeze our way back up to speed. The average velocity readout now shows 117km/h, and I’ll be damned if I’m not going to eat a peanut M&M today, hence my haste at the toll booth.
We’re on our own for the last leg, just the Micra and I. At this stage, I need a wee and coffee, but determination to hit the target spurs me on. I’ve gained a few km of range, but that last km/h of average speed is proving elusive. Within sight of the 100km/h limit, the readout finally clicks over. I can have a peanut M&M after all. I feel a small smile forming, not because of the fact that I can have chocolate, nor even the fact that I’ll be on time, but because I really enjoyed that drive.
So, there you have it. Try something similar the next time you’ve got a long slog to face and you’ll be concentrating so hard that you’ll barely notice time passing, or what was on the radio. The RSA doesn't need to remind us to take breaks; perhaps it should come up with driving challenges instead to help make the road a safer place.