It’s a Rollover!

No, I haven’t won the lottery. But I can report having passed a significant milestone (or kilometerstone, perhaps?) in the toy this morning. Today, the old girl reached the double ton without a murmur, but perhaps the odd rattle and squeak. Treat her to a full valet soon!

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Racing at Yas Marina

Au revoir, Clio

Where better to take Renault’s baby for a final fling than the first ever track day at Yas Marina Circuit?

It may look like your average shopping cart. It even sounds like your average shopping cart, but Renaultsport’s hottest little hatch bears as much resemblance to the standard car as decaff does to a freshly brewed double shot of blue mountain espresso. Beneath the tacky vinyl graphics beats the heart of a true racer, a feisty little car that’s just itching to get out on track, a jack russel on steroids given a fresh scent of rabbit.

It wasn’t always so. First, Volkswagen changed the world with the Golf GTi, a car so deliciously mischievous that it defined a genre. But over subsequent generations, it grew ever fatter and less brilliant, to the point where it has taken VW a full six generations to get back some of that original magic.

Then Peugot upped the ante with their iconic 205 GTi 1.6, and the even more manic 1.9, to show what even smaller hatches could be made to do. But with the exception of occasional flashes of brilliance in the Rallye versions, Peugot too has gained weight and lost sparkle.

Over to Renault, to pick up the torch. Which they did brilliantly with the original Clio Williams, snatching the crown of best handling hot hatch with both hands, a strictly limited edition that was an instant hit. Spoiled only by the subsequent release of the almost identical Williams 2 version…

And so to today. Having seized the title for creating the world’s best hot hatches, Renault have carried on producing ever hotter and more maverick versions of both the Clio and Megane, with Renaultsport editions for road use and Cup versions for track and one-make race series. Nicolas Gondard, head of Renaultsport’s activities in the region, invited me to join him at the very first public track day at Yas Marina Circuit, and to refresh our memories of the stormingly capable 2009 Renaultsport Clio 197 F1 Team Edition. Apparently, the 2010 Clio is already here in the region, but the paperwork is still being processed. Goodness knows what they can do to improve on the current car.

For this first ever public track day, Yas Marina Circuit have opened the full F1 track, and more than 100 drivers have registered. There’s a lot of heavy metal around, several track-based 911s, GT3s and FIA racers. A couple of Vipers, including the ACR version in which Dejan had so much fun. Lots of big Mercedes, mostly AMG versions, a smattering of BMW M-cars and assorted other kit, including 3 KTM X-Bows.

And us. After a few sighting laps with Nicolas at the helm during the first Advanced session, we pitted to swap seats, and in deference to the speed of the pros (I really didn’t want to be a mobile chicane for the fast guys), we went out with the beginners. Nicolas assured me that, apart from harder pads borrowed from the racing Cup version of the Clio and some semi-slick rubber, this car is absolutely stock. Just how much fun can you have for 85k, straight out of the box?

I think the most impressive aspect of the Clio is the chassis. It manages to combine huge amounts of grip with real compliance, and offers a degree of throttle-controlled adjustability that confounds expectations. Turn in sharply, and it tracks without a hint of protest. Go in too fast, and you can scrub off any understeer with a quick lift of throttle pulling it all back in line. Or if you prefer, a Scandinavian flick will bring the back end round and flatter the hooligan in you.  You can ride the kerbs and suspension soaks up the irregularities without spitting you sideways, its long travel design keeping all four wheels on the tarmac.

Reservations? A couple. Yas Marina’s back straight is the longest in F1, and down that vast length we were simply outgunned by the other traffic. The Clio generates a very respectable 197bhp from its normally aspirated 2 litres, but even revving it out to the 7,200rpm change-up point (indicated by a flashing light in the dash) couldn’t match the pace of the big guys. No matter, we’ll catch them in the bends. And we did.

The gearshift felt oddly long, and needs familiarity for really fast cog-swapping. I fluffed a couple of changes, but that’s really more to do with ham-fisted driver than any real fault with the car. And you really don’t want to run into the rev limiter, it cuts in very firmly and kills your momentum. Gotta use that gearbox properly.

Long straight aside, the Clio was more than capable of making a case for itself, especially round the ‘street circuit’ style section through the Marina. This half of the circuit, wrapped around the docks, is tight and technical, with short straights and sharp turns and little margin for error. You have to get all the turns right, carry the speed from one to the next, or lose a lot of time with little chance for acceleration. Absolutely brilliant fun, especially when you have the track to yourself, as we did. In Nicolas’s hands, this was a car that you can really fling around, grabbing it by the scruff of the neck and saying ‘go this way!” with real effect. I was a bit more circumspect, though during the length of the session I managed to get most of the corners more or less right. Not always on the same lap, unfortunately. Oh well.

The Renaultsport Clio was a textbook lesson in why less is more. Sure, the CLK 63s sounded glorious as they thundered past us on the back straight, but they also looked particularly fine out of the side windows as they slithered off the bend at the end. Sure, we couldn’t out drag that pesky 911, but we got past him anyway on braking into the chicane. We may well have been the smallest car on the track, but I defy anyone to say we had less fun as a result. Till we meet again, bon voyage, mon cher.

2009 Clio Renault Sport 197 F1 Team Edition (known as the R27)

Engine:            4 cylinders, 1998 cc, 16 valves

Power:             197 hp @ 7250 rpm, 215 Nm @ 5550 rpm

Braking:            ABS with EBD & ESP (disconnectable), Front Brembo 4 piston                                     calipers.

Kerb weight:            1240 kgs

Gearbox:            Manual, (6 gears)

Front Recaro seats, 17’’ alloy wheels

Performance:            0-100 kph 6.9 secs, Max speed 215 kph

Modifications: Clio Cup brake pads (front & rear), semi-slick Nitto tyres

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