Bioethanol Touring Car: The lean, green, racing machine
Is it possible to keep racing car performance and still save the planet? Warren Pole joins touring driver Fiona Leggate at Silverstone to find out
With petrolheads fast becoming pariahs as society becomes ever greener, you could be forgiven for thinking that the internal combustion engine will soon be legislated off the planet, leaving us all humming about in dolphin-friendly, battery-powered bubble cars packing the excitement of an afternoon at the local rest home. And this is understandable. After all, oil is running out, the planet is heating up and something's got to give. But what if you could save the planet and keep the performance?
Well, you can because with a little judicious tweaking it turns out that bioethanol can make a car go like absolute stink.
The car in question is Fiona Leggate's MG ZS British Touring Car Championship (BTCC) racer. Weighing in at 1,200kgs and packing a weighty 300bhp in its two-litre loins, this stripped-out machine packs a punch. Fire it up and the clattering, banging din is immense. The garage shakes, small children fall over, and the sweet smell of race fuel fills the air.
But this is no ordinary race fuel, because this vicious firebreather runs on E85 bioethanol, and although this isn't new – worldwide bioethanol use has been gaining momentum for years – this is the first time that genuinely outrageous performance has been fashioned from such green ingredients. "We gained five brake horsepower just by switching to biofuel," the team's chief mechanic, Mark Atkinson, yells at me from under the bonnet as he warms up the car. "The inlet manifold sludges up because of the fuel so we have to clean it regularly, but other than that we've had no problems".
At this point Leggate wanders in. She's petite and easygoing but there's a tough, determined streak in there, too.
"Racing's my dream," she tells me, "and I've come a long way in a short time – five years ago was the first time I was ever on a circuit. The next time I saw a track I was racing on it.
"This year was my first full year in the BTCC but it's been the worst season possible. I've been taken out three times alone and had some massive crashes, but I know I can do this. This isn't about making a point because I'm a girl, I'm doing this for myself."
I shoehorn myself into the passenger seat for some flat-out laps with Leggate. Negotiating a baffling array of switches and levers where the centre console once was, she fires the car up and we head on to the track.
She's not hanging about. Foot on the floor, she hammers through the sequential box as we head indecently fast into the tricky left/right that is Maggots curve and Becketts corner. My mind's yelling "brake!" as Fiona takes another gear but just as I'm absolutely, positively certain that we're heading for the hay bales, she slams on the anchors, somehow death is averted and instead we're drifting hard out of Becketts in a cacophony of squealing tyres, bucking chassis and screaming revs.
My thoughts on the rest of the session are pretty jumbled, although I distinctly remember laughing my socks off – what this car is capable of is ridiculous and quite possibly outside the realms of physics. The grip generated by the chassis for the slick tyres is immense, the brakes, when used in anger, are much like running into a wall, and the motor howls like a banshee as all hell breaks loose around you.
Before I had time to make sense of it all we were back in the pits and it was time for me to take the driving seat. Just fitting in was a struggle and, thanks to everything being set up for Fiona, my 6ft 3in frame ended up folded around the steering column with the wheel in my chest and the pedals somewhere around my knees. Breathing was tricky enough, let alone driving. But minutes later I was kangarooing down the pit lane as the MG's motor made its displeasure at being forced to travel so slowly very apparent.
Not only had I not been round Silverstone in years, but I'd also never sampled the delights of a flatshift sequential gearbox so there was the clutch to forget about unless I wanted to burn it out, as well as the added fear of wrecking a gear. These gearboxes demand firm changes. Get one wrong and you'll terminally damage a gear. At £500 apiece I really didn't want to be doing that.
I'd like to say that all this was justification for my pathetically slow pace, but it wasn't. I was just useless. But once, just once, heading out of Woodcote and on to the start/finish straight again, I got it right and the car gave me a glimpse of what it was really like. It wasn't much, but in that fleeting moment I knew two things: first, I will never be a racing driver, and second, if bioethanol can make a car shift like this, I can't wait to see a lot more of it.
Thanks to Circuit Days ( www.circuit-days.co.uk ) for the track time at Silverstone