DRAMA CLASSES RACING FORD CAPRIS
Willie Green teaches Robert Coucher a thing or two. Robert Coucher meets racer Willie Green at Silverstone to learn how to handle some very hairy #Ford
Northamptonshire, England. And it's winter. I'm driving towards Silverstone Motor Circuit, 'The Home of British Motorsport', and feel distinctly ill. It's down to nerves, for two specific reasons. First, heavy black clouds are billowing in and rain is most definitely on the way. Second, I'm due to meet up with race ace Willie Green, who has promised to show me the way around Silverstone in his trackday car. I feel the strong need for a cigarette, even though I gave up smoking years ago.
As you probably know, Willie Green is a racing driver of the first order. He's competed in more than 1500 races and has won about 600 or 700 of them, not that he keeps an accurate tally. Hailing from a wealthy textile family in Derbyshire, Willie has been racing since the 1960s and has driven everything from a Daytona at Le Mans to numerous D-types, #Ferrari
GTOs, GT40s and Maserati 250Fs (he's a maestro in any of those), and he really made his name winning in the JCB 512M Ferrari in the wet at #Silverstone
, besting a #Porsche-917
. He's an extremely competitive racing driver, who, no doubt, does not suffer fools. At all. Maybe I shouldn't mention the fact that the last time I raced at Silverstone, I crashed at Becketts Comer...
I arrive at the old pits and the circuit is bustling and busy. This is an RMA Trackday and the garages are full of exciting cars, ranging from Porsche 911s and a bunch of Audi R8s to track-focussed Radicals and Ariel Atoms as well as pure racers. I'm looking out for Peter Whelan and his brace of racing Capris: the Hermetite Group 1 car and a Group 2 RS2600. Peter has also invited me to join the shakedown of his Capris with Willie. How generous.
‘I LOVE CAPRIS AND HAVE HAD PLENTY OF THEM. THEY ARE BRILLIANT ON A CIRCUIT’
- WILLIE GREEN
Above and right. Racer Willie Green has long been a Capri advocate. This one is lighter, lower, more stiffly sprung and features twin-cam 24-valve Cosworth V6 in place of the old 2.8 OHV. Oversteer aplenty for those who can handle it.
In the 1960s, the only vaguely sporting Ford on sale in Britain was the #Cortina
. Affectionately known as the Dagenham Dustbin, it was very popular but Ford realised that a more stylish, money-spinning sidekick was due. In America the Ford Mustang was launched in April #1964
. It was a hit with younger drivers thanks to its sporting appeal and went on to sell two million examples in two years and set a sales record that stood for 20 years. In #1965
Project Colt was initiated for the British market: the #Ford-Capri
Led by John Hitchman, a team of British engineers had prototypes running by #1966
in Boreham, Essex, using prosaic 1.3- and 1.6-litre engines and gearboxes from the Cortina. Launched on 24 January 1969, the #Capri
was billed as 'The car you always promised yourself'. And it proved to be an immediate sensation. Over the next 18 years nearly two million Capris were sold in the UK, Europe and America, and it remained in the top ten best-selling cars 11 years after launch.
It was even popular in Germany, where it became known as the #Maurer-Porsche
: the 'bricklayer's Porsche'. In Britain it became infamous for its habit of leaving the road at speed thanks to its supposedly wayward live rear axle, though that reputation was likely due more to over-enthusiastic young drivers.
'I love Capris and have had plenty of them. They are brilliant on a circuit,' says a slightly prickly Willie Green when I mention the oversteer issue. 'The idea that they don't handle is nonsense. This one is a #1982
2.8 and is fantastic. I have fitted a 2.9-litre 24-valve Granada Cosworth engine, which puts out more than 200bhp, and dropped it all-round on stiffer springs at the front with shorter dampers and de-cambered rear leaf springs. I've fitted uprated front discs, a limited-slip diff, cage and safety fuel cell, and that's about it. It's done 27,0 miles of trackdays and all I have done is change the plugs. Oh good, it's started raining. Put on a helmet and let's go!'
With me strapped firmly into the suicide seat, Willie fires up his standard-looking British Racing Green - or should that be BRDC Green - Capri and we head out onto the circuit. He winds the car up for a sighting lap, then switches into full tuition mode over the headphones.
'Silverstone is a great circuit but it is fast and technical,' he says. Going extremely swiftly indeed, Willie then says: 'I tend to enter corners more slowly. If you go in too fast you can end up coming out too slow. Historic cars with limited brakes and unsophisticated chassis need to be sorted out before the corner... You want to get the car turned in and then feed in as much power as it will transmit at the apex... Don't forget, if you make a fast exit you carry the speed all the way up the next straight.'
All sounds bleedin' obvious but Willie's idea of 'slow in' is somewhat different to mine. Yet I'm amazed at his smoothness and how he then absolutely powers the Capri through on the exits. 'I like to get the car onto the edge and keep it there so I know where I am. In that way there are no surprises.'
Suddenly we are into Copse Comer, which he says is 'interesting. You want to turn in early... the apex is on the way to the corner at the end of the pitlane and then it opens out. Now we are coming into Becketts, where you can do a Scandinavian flick [at this point I forget what happens next: think there was a rumble strip involved, sideways], then down the Hangar Straight to Stowe, which is fast and enjoyable. Take a late entry and don't turn until you have run completely out of road. Club Corner has changed... be careful... the concrete wall is magnetic! Abbey is great, I love it... really fast. Now, get the silly hairpins out of the way and coming into Brooklands you don't want to be too far right, you have to get it back for Luffield which has twice as much grip on the outside in the wet. OK, flat out through Woodcote, which can be a bit bumpy...'
With apologies to Willie Green, this is an approximation of Silverstone from the passenger seat of his Ford Capri at racing speed. Well, what I remember with my eyes wide shut. But it's not entirely what I'm expecting. Searing speed, yes. Perfect car control, sure. But a good degree of gentleness and patience, some waiting time to allow the car to gather itself up, with light, minutely judged fingertip inputs? No. And the sheer mechanical grip from the Capri's Toyo 888 tyres and communicative balance from that simple, leaf-sprung chassis? Definitely not.
This is a lesson in dancing a car around a wet circuit in total control, on the edge, but never over the ragged edge. Certainly Willie is the master of the controlled slide but he does not showboat just for the sake of it, because that's never the fastest way.
Willie has retired from top-line single-seater racing but he is still on-it. I forgot to mention how we went past a track-missile Atom on the outside of one of the wet corners, hovered up numerous M-badged BMWs and other fast racing cars, and were about to lunch a 6.3 #AMG #Mercedes
until the red flag came out because someone had gone off (again) in the rain.
'What I really enjoy these days is teaching. I love to see people improve. Right: now it's your turn,' says Willie. I strap into the firm driver's bucket seat; the Capri starts with a growl, but it is not noisy. The clutch is light and the five-speed gearshift is pleasant, even though the earlier four-speed is supposed to be better. As the rain abates, I'm out on the circuit with Willie telling me what to do over the headphones. I start tentatively, feeling like a kid learning to ride a bicycle as he eggs me on.
'Come on, it will take it. Turn in and now add the power on the apex. Now more speed. Keep it flat here, good, now brake gently. Wait, wait, wait, now throttle and let it run wide, it can take more; come on, more speed, that's it...'
Still going less-than-quickly, a few laps with Willie improve my overall performance significantly. He doesn't bully or harass but remains calm and encouraging all the way. He's patient and gets more excited than me when I get a few of the comers just right. Issuing terse but accurate instructions, the man is an excellent teacher. 'You need to learn the circuit but at least you listen and you've improved a good deal,' he says.
I'm more than happy with that.
Back in the garage, it's time to recover and let the pulse rate subside. I pull up a chair for coffee with owner Peter Whelan, racer Mark Waghom and author/historian Peter Darley. Mark raced Peter's Group 1 Capri at last year's Goodwood Member's Meeting, where the tin-tops proved a real hit. 'The Hermetite Recreation Group 1 car is a #1978
model driven in period by Holman Blackburn, who was the sponsor,' says Peter.
It, too, looks pretty stock apart from the nicely presented racing colours. It has a 3.0-litre Essex V6 engine, uprated to 200bhp thanks to a huge twin-choke Weber carburettor and better breathing. The black alloys are shod with slightly wider 205/15 tyres and the interior is fully stripped, but equipped with a cage and large fire extinguisher.
Peter suggests I take it out next. The racing bucket is set low and doesn't adjust. The Weber carb needs a bit of a tickle before the engine will start but as soon as it fires the Essex V6 is abundantly rev-happy, which is unusual because they are normally somewhat short of breath. Again the clutch is light but the gearshift is not particularly precise. Get past the carb's fluffiness and the recalcitrance of the high-lift cam and the engine properly ignites. On the track it is noisier than Willie's track car, with sharper reactions thanks to its full race set-up. And the handling is a delight.
Following Willie's advice I go into corners none-too-quickly but power though the apexes. The Capri is on-side and benign. Through the hairpins the track is very wet and at one point the car begins to slide, so I just lift off, let it come together, then ease on the power again, gently. This is the obedient sort of front-engined, rear-wheel-drive car we would all like to race because of its friendly nature.
Above and top left This is the real deal, a full-on racebred Capri rather than a road car adapted for track use: one of Ford’s own homologation replicas of the 1972 works Le Manscar.
The rain is coming down hard now so really it's pros only for Peter Whelan's ferocious-looking #RS2600
- 319bhp on slick tyres! It is an original 1972 RS2600, built as an exact replica of the 1972 works Le Mans car, number 53, that was raced by Jochen Mass and Hans Stuck. It has an original, authenticated, fuel-injected Weslake engine, which was found in Spain, as bought by its then-owner as a spare, directly from Ford via Peter Ashcroft, Ford's competitions manager.
The ever-energetic Willie dashes over and instructs me to get into the passenger seat of the Weslake monster, never mind the bucketing rain. He jumps in and guns the ferocious- sounding V6. Then the 900kg lightweight is off and attacking Silverstone. Willie's arms are whirling around at speed and his foot is playing the reactive throttle pedal as he tries to throw all 319bhp at the greasy track. The racer is flying even though the angle of attack into some of the comers is a full 45° to the direction of travel, but he's careful to keep off the painted and slippery rumble strips.
As the line dries, Willie applies the horses ever more firmly and the thoroughbred racer hooks up and comes on song. The stonking Weslake engine is on an entirely different level to the two previous Capri V6s. And yes, it's shod with (gradually warming) fat slicks, but it's obvious that the multi-link rear suspension offers so much more grip than a standard live axle can muster, and the high- revving engine allows a top speed of 170mph. Silverstone disappears below us at an astonishing rate of glorious speed.
No wonder that, in 1972, the RS2600 won eight of the nine rounds of the European Championships, with Jochen Mass taking the European Drivers' title and Hans Stuck the German Championship. With a proper racing driver at the wheel, I now understand exactly how it was done.
Above and below Pukka RS2600 flanked by 3.0-litre (on left) and Willie Green’s own 2.9-litre-engined Capri Injection; the man himself, in his element in tuition mode.
THANKS TO owner Peter Whelan, RMA Trackdays, www. rmatrackdays. com; Peter Darley, historian; Willie Green, racer/instructor, tel: +UU (0)1773 550339, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Car #1972 #Ford-Capri-RS2600
ENGINE 2995cc V6, OHV, alloy Weslake cylinder head, #Kugelfischer
POWER 319bhp @ 7000rpm
TRANSMISSION Five-speed #ZF
manual, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
STEERING Rack and pinion
Front: MacPherson struts, coil springs, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.
Rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, radius arms, anti-roll bar.
PERFORMANCE Top speed 170mph. 0-60mph 4.6sec (depending on gearing)
‘WILLIE’S FOOT IS PLAYING THE THROTTLE PEDAL AS HE TRIES TO THROW ALL 319BHP AT THE GREASY TRACK’
Above and left. Even a big, old, simple engine like Ford’s 3.0-litre Essex V6 can be coaxed into producing gobfuls of trackday power: witness 200bhp at fully 6500rpm, as here; livery makes it look purposeful outside while interior is, er, functional.
Car #1978 #Ford-Capri-3000
ENGINE 2994cc V6, 0HV, #Weber
POWER 200bhp @ 6500rpm
TORQUE 180ft lb @ 3800rpm
TRANSMISSION Four-speed manual. rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
STEERING Rack and pinion
Front: MacPherson struts, coilsprings, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.
Rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, telescopic dampers, radius rods.
PERFORMANCE Top speed 135mph. 0-60mph 6.5sec (est)
‘THIS IS A LESSON IN DANCING A CAR AROUND A WET CIRCUIT IN TOTAL CONTROL, ON THE EDGE BUT NEVER OVER IT’
Car #1982 #Ford-Capri-Injection-2.9
ENGINE 2935cc V6, DOHC, 24-valve, #Bosch
POWER 206bhp @ 5800rpm
TORQUE 203lb ft @ 4500rpm
TRANSMISSION Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, limited-slip differential
STEERING Rack and pinion
Front: MacPherson struts, coilsprings, telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar.
Rear: live axle, semi- elliptic leaf springs, telescopic dampers, radius rods.
PERFORMANCE Top speed 130mph. 0-60mph 7sec (est)