The idea was simple. Drive a standard family hatch flat out, non-stop for 24 hours, set a host of speed records and prove the durability, pace and economy of the car.
But the reality of the challenge was far more daunting than it sounds – as we found out when we went behind the scenes and took part in Vauxhall’s attempt to achieve 12 world and six national speed endurance records with a British-built Astra 2.0 CDTi.
As with any record attempt, sticking to the regulations is crucial. For cars, the complexities of the rules are mind-boggling. Forget the cheery adjudicators on classic kids’ TV show Record Breakers; if you want to claim records in the automotive world, then you deal with the regulatory bodies controlling motorsport. On a global scale, that means the Federation De L’Automobile (the FIA), and in the UK it’s the Motor Sports Association (the MSA).
Their prime concern is ensuring the cars that set a production record are 100 per cent standard, with no sneaky modifications. And that’s why, a month before the record attempt, we were offered access to a locked building at Vauxhall’s Ellesmere Port factory in Cheshire, along with MSA scrutineer Mike Harris. As the lights flicker on, the sight of six identical red 163bhp 2.0 CDTi SRi five-door Astras greets us. Mike explains that he’s watched them being built, following them down the line for 19 hours apiece, before weighing and sealing them.
He’s also sat in the passenger seat as the first four are driven around Cheshire, completing 60 miles of running in. We run in the last two, then Mike randomly selects two cars to go for the record. As we leave, Mike applies tamper-proof stickers to the doors, bonnet and boot, and checks the numerous seals on engine components. While the four rejected Astras return to Vauxhall’s demonstrator fleet, the wannabe record breakers head off to have their only permitted modification fitted – a safety cage and racing seat.
Even here, they can’t escape Mike’s watchful eye, as he follows the open-bed truck carrying them to the specialist fitter in Wales, then to a locked compound at the venue for the record attempt.
On the other side of the Channel, at the Opel HQ in Germany, GM’s engineering team has studied simulated data to ensure the Astra will be up to the job, while Michelin has rig-tested the Pilot Sport tyre that’s set to be used.
If this sounds like overkill, it’s worth mentioning that the FIA’s 24-hour 1,600-2,000cc forced-induction diesel endurance speed record is unclaimed, as nobody has yet managed to complete an attempt, while the MSA’s 1,500-2,000cc mark has stood since the late nineties. So success is far from guaranteed.
This might be why there’s a sense of trepidation on the faces of the Vauxhall crew when we arrive at Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire. This is home to Britain’s only high-speed banked test track, and the two-mile bowl will allow the Astras to run at top speed for 24 hours, stopping only for driver changes and fuel.
Joining us on the team will be 11 other drivers, with each of us taking the wheel for four hours, split between the two cars. In charge of strategy and fuel stops is legendary racer and Opel’s motorsport boss Volker Strycek. He and his team will ensure the Astras are stationery for just three minutes at each pitstop. And they’re not alone. Around 80 people are inside the secret Millbrook venue – safety crews, time keepers and MSA officials are joined by an enthusiastic army of volunteers from the Speed Record Club, whose job it is to sit and observe the attempt – ensuring fair play and safety.
After all the preparation, at 4pm on Saturday afternoon the two Astras start up and accelerate to maximum speed in the top lane of Millbrook’s five-lane bowl. They buzz past us every 38 seconds. After two hours, the first car is out of fuel. It pits, and I jump in.
I’m waved on to the track as quickly as possible. Accelerating as smoothly as I can, I’m up into the top lane and sixth gear in seconds, and by the end of the first lap I’m already doing 130mph. This is where I stay for the next two hours.
The speed creeps up as I come within a few hundred metres of the other car, but a quick crackle on the two-way radio informs me I must lift the accelerator for a couple of seconds to maintain a gap – no slipstreaming allowed.
The bowl’s constant radius means you’re in a never-ending gentle turn. The sensation of speed is numbed, but it’s amazing how stable and unflustered a normal family hatch feels at nearly twice the national speed limit.
Yet it’s still crucial to maintain concentration – something that’s far harder as I drive into darkness. At night, you lose the visual reference of being on a bowl. With your lights illuminating only a patch of turning tarmac in front of the car, it’s easy to be hypnotised by repetition – but knowing just a moment’s nod into sleep could end the record helps keep you alert.
After 116 laps, I hand over to the next driver. I head off for some sleep, but there’s no rest for the Astras. Another stint at 5.30am comes and goes with the cars running like clockwork.
At 4pm on Sunday, with the exhausted pit crew receiving a well earned cheer, the Astras come to a halt, having completed nearly 1,500 laps. One car was slowed by a driveshaft change, but the other stopped for less than 22 minutes, needing just one precautionary tyre change, fuel and new drivers.
The ‘winning’ car is cordoned off and Mike applies his seals again. His work isn’t done – on Monday he strips the engine, takes fuel samples and makes sure everything is standard.
But subject to final ratification by the FIA and MSA, it’s mission accomplished. The fastest Astra has covered nearly 3,000 miles at an average of 125mph – potentially breaking the UK 24-hour record by over 20mph – and, if confirmed, setting 12 FIA markers, the most important being the 24-hour record.
The humble Vauxhall Astra unquestionably proved its reliability, speed and quality.