As the helicopter hovered, as helicopters do, over the Doune hillclimb course, I briefly wondered if a laser beam would zap down from it and cure the ill from which the Mercedes-AMG A 45 was currently suffering. Just a few hours in to an event that would last the whole weekend, this was already the sort of thing that might have been expected.
The problem currently occupying my attention – and, I understand, not unknown to Mercedes owners – was the fact that the A 45 had somehow locked itself with the key visible, but at this point unreachable, on the centre console.
Retrieving it required the services of a very nice man from Mercedes-Benz Roadside Assistance, who got the doors open within a couple of minutes. Since he couldn’t tell me how he had done this, I paid as much attention to keeping the keys about my person at all times from then on as I did to competing in the event.
(What? Oh, the helicopter was a police one. It had been scrambled as part of a search for an escaped prisoner, who was seen wandering around the fields near the finish line. The third practice run was delayed when three carloads of policemen went up the hill to chase him, or at least so most of us assumed. Another story went round to the effect that the helicopter pilot had misidentified the timing hut in the top paddock as a doughnut shop, and his colleagues went to investigate this. I’m sure this can’t be true, but I’d like to think it is.)
Another difficulty just as serious as the impromptu door locking but less easy to fix was the recalcitrance of the A 45’s launch control system. It’s called Race Start, and it’s extremely good when it works, but at Doune it didn’t work. Ten miles or more away it sometimes worked, but never at Doune itself, even when every requirement stated in the handbook had been met. (Gearbox oil temperature was one of them, but in a range from 62 to 89 degrees, according to the digital display, it didn’t seem to be particularly important.)
Even without Race Start, the A 45 is a very potent car. I competed in one at Prescott last April, and it was very quick. Since then it has had an upgrade and is considerably quicker, with more power, lower gear ratios and upgraded suspension, so a good time at Doune might be expected.
Unfortunately it was the only car in its class, so there was nothing to compare it against directly. However, three months before I’d set an unofficial record for the fastest standard production model at Doune in a Ford Focus RS at 50.50 seconds. The target for this round of the Primo plc Multi Vehicle Insurance / Nationwide Association of Blood Bikes Hillclimb Challenge was therefore to go up in 50.49 seconds, or preferably less, or even more preferably much less.
There seemed little chance of this on Saturday. The A 45 got from the start line to the tricky righthander at Garden Gate three tenths quicker than the Focus had done, despite losing nearly two tenths in the first 64 feet, but it then lost two seconds from there to the finish line. There were, admittedly, extenuating factors. One was that the track was still damp from rain earlier in the week. Another was that there was mud on the track at the entry to the Esses following recent work on a nearby tree. Call me daft, but I wasn’t going to risk smashing a borrowed £40,000 car against a barrier by going too fast on mud.
Conditions were much better for the final practice run on Sunday morning. This took 51.62 seconds, a significant improvement over Saturday’s best of 52.20, especially considering the low track temperature at that time of day. Even more encouraging was the 50.81 set on the first competition run. The Focus RS time was now less than a third of a second away, and I knew there were several more tenths to come. During the lunch break I convinced myself that a new standard production car record, while not exactly in the bag, was at the very least a strong possibility.
Then came light rain. More of a mist, really. Possibly nothing to worry about if it didn’t become more serious. Which it did. I was still trying to believe that the track surface wouldn’t be affected, but as soon as I turned in to the first corner I could see that it was. The rain hadn’t made much difference to parts of the track covered by trees, but the unsheltered sections were seriously greasy. Although I did my best, a 54.23 was all I could manage, and while nothing else that went up the hill on road tyres in the same period came close to it I couldn’t help feeling disappointed about not achieving my pre-event goal.
It was such a shame, because I think the A 45 could have done it. With 375bhp and an amazingly fast-acting twin-clutch semi-automatic gearbox, it’s a mightily rapid hot hatch, and although the handling isn’t as impressive as the performance (at least when you’re driving at competition speeds) it’s good enough to make the car very competitive. The weather prevented it from realising its full potential, but motorsport has always had such moments of disappointment, and you can be sure it always will.