x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Driving mean green machines in grand prix with a difference

Matt Majendie takes part in a grand prix with a difference - a race to see who is the most energy efficient driver.

Matt Majendie found that racing electric and hybrid cars in the Green Grand Prix made him more conscious of driving efficiently.
Matt Majendie found that racing electric and hybrid cars in the Green Grand Prix made him more conscious of driving efficiently.

I've always wanted to race in a grand prix. Surely it's the wish of every red-blooded male?

It's a Wednesday morning and I'm pulling into the entrance at Silverstone, the home of the British Grand Prix. It's the same route that past champions such as Jim Clark, Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher and this year's winner, Fernando Alonso, would have taken ahead of their race wins here.

There's always a sense of excitement pulling into the venue even without the roar of the 110,000 fans that cram in to the place for race day one Sunday every July.

Today, the stands are completely empty and there's a solitary security guard. "I'm here for the RAC Green Grand Prix," I explain rather proudly. "Over to the right mate, following the signs to Stowe," he mumbles back. I weave my way down a narrow lane with only a tractor for company, which I overtake with relish in preparation for my racing.

Okay, so the grand prix I'm competing in does not quite boast the glamour of the race day enjoyed by my fellow Britons, Jenson Button, Lewis Hamilton and Paul di Resta.

For one, I'm not being let loose on the main track but on the mile-long Stowe Circuit. And then there is the issue of the grand prix itself. It's not your typical race for the chequered flag as it immediately becomes clear in the pre-race briefing.

Lined up in the pit lane at Stowe Circuit are 10 of the greenest cars out there, with 20 drivers in all taking part in the competition, both journalists and members of the public.

We have been randomly allocated three cars to drive in the assessment section of the day and will also have two tests in a green racing simulator, set up in a nearby garage, to show what we have learnt, if anything, during the day.

The rules are simple. It's not about out and out pace. The trick is to be the greenest driver on the day, to use up as little fuel or electricity as possible. The top speed allowed is 70mph (113kph) but this isn't about speed, it's about conservatism, the complete antithesis to a grand prix.

To ensure those with their eyes on the coveted title of Green Grand Prix winner, everyone has to hit at least the 50mph (80kph) twice on any given lap on both the back and the home straight.

For today's exercise I am No 4 and, as I am called out, I am ushered to my first vehicular victim, the latest Toyota Prius.

Waiting for me in the passenger seat is my instructor, Nathan Wright, who is rather more used to speedier outings. He is the current Formula Jedi champion and is hoping to make the move to Formula Renault next season and, when not racing, he works for Mercedes as an instructor.

His tips today are quite simple. "Just touch 50mph twice and then drop down," he says, before talking me through the controls of the Prius. It's worth pointing out that the Prius hybrid is a nice drive. Okay, it might not win your average grand prix but there is some oomph under the throttle, not that I'm looking for that.

We are released at five-second intervals by a rather rotund-looking gentleman holding a chequered flag. The urge to put your foot down as I enter the racetrack is alarmingly strong and I do just that on my out-lap before a "tut, tut" from my sidekick sees me focus on the driving at hand.

The trick is all about using the brake as little as possible, allowing the corners to slow the Prius down. I have five full laps, not including the out and in laps, in which to prove my credentials at the wheel.

On my opening lap, my failings are clear to see. I'm turning in too early, working both the brake and throttle too hard and not allowing the car to do enough of the work.

Steadily, lap by lap I feel the improvement and I'm quietly confident that the other 19 characters either tootling around the track or waiting for their turn in the garages are no match for my marvellously environmentally friendly driving style.

As we peel into the pits, Wright tells me that I was "very impressive" before I point out, perhaps looking for a little more praise: "But you're paid to say that". He smiles before adding, "Not at all, some very green driving, that should put you towards the top".

Buoyed by this news, I jump out of the car and into the simulator feeling ready to take on the world, or at least to diminish my carbon footprint. My next assessment in a word is ... disastrous.

I stall off the line, take a wrong turning, skip a red light and I'm then crashed into by a car I hadn't seen coming from my left-hand side. This is not good. I'm assured others have been worse - one driver ended up driving through a building, another crashed into the sea and another ended up on the 18th hole of a golf course.

Anyway, I can't help but feel like I've fallen down the pecking order after that debacle. But I tell myself it's the track where I'm strongest. Of course, that was before I came face to face with the Mitsubishi i-Miev.

The one in front of me looks like a Smart car that someone's covered in graffiti. As a car to drive it's not particularly nice. It shifts me too readily out of the seat and I have to grip the steering wheel just to stay in the saddle, while my instructor on this occasion, James Rigby, is being shifted all over the place. If I didn't have a bad back before, I do now.

In the i-Miev's defence, it's not a car designed for the racetrack and its green credentials are all too clear from the moment I set off.

There are three modes - brake, where the car has increased braking the moment you lift off; coast, where the braking in such situations is minimal; and drive, which is somewhere in between the two.

I try all three and drive seems the happiest fit. Whatever the mode, I don't have to hit the brake at all during the course of my laps but I am going considerably faster, struggling to hit the 50mph mark on the straights and other cars are overtaking me.

Whether I drove it particularly well or not, I have no idea. Rigby isn't letting on. When I ask him, he sniffs, says "you did okay" and we part ways.

Following a break for lunch - I'm not sure this is what the F1 guys do during their grands prix - I have one last chance to put myself in contention for the trophy, and this time I am allocated the Peugeot 3008, the world's first hybrid diesel, which it proudly proclaims on stickers on its side.

It's worth pointing out that this is the quietest track day I have ever taken part in. There is barely a sound on track but for whistles in the wind as silent cars fly past. But the Peugeot is different. It uses the battery when possible and recharges it where possible, but the engine kicks in when necessary - most notably on the straights when trying to hit that 50mph mark.

There's a greater response to the car, whether in electric or diesel mode, and it feels like I master the track in this better than any car, managing to hit 50 and no higher and staying there as well as getting the most out of the corners.

I get a grunt and a nod of approval from my final instructor, who keeps his name to himself, before he covers up the pad he's writing on as I try to get a sneak peek at the score he has allocated to my driving.

Another go on the simulator follows. I don't crash but I'm not particularly green either and the man in charge tells me as much with a chuckle.

My competitive spirit half wants to shout at him and half wants me to run away. So, I do the latter, get into my car and don't wait around for the awards ceremony.

Okay, I didn't go off in quite as much of a huff as that as the day ends with a free-for-all in the cars, this time not paying attention to the green rules. We thrash around in the cars for a couple of laps on each outing and it's great fun.

So, have I learnt anything from the Green Grand Prix? Well, in the past when I've done track days at Silverstone, I've had to fight the urge to speed on the way home thinking in my head that I'm the next Sebastian Vettel.

But come the two-hour drive home, I've got my fuel consumption gauge on permanently, I coast wherever possible and look ahead to the next moment on my journey, much as my instructors had told me during the race day.

Okay, I wasn't quite crowned grand prix champion as I'd hoped - that went to Scott Penny from Woking - but, for one day at least, I'm driving a little greener.