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Renaultsport Clio 182: PH Fleet

Rockingham Motor Speedway is almost gone for good. We donned black armbands and took the Clio along for one last go

By Sam Sheehan / Friday, October 5, 2018

There aren't many start/finish straights in Britain that do as fine a job of emphasising the speed you're carrying as Rockingham's. You really get a sense of pace as you hurtle along toward the banked left-hander of the circuit's International layout thanks to that daunting wall of concrete to your right. Invoke racing driver tunnel vision all you like; there's no ignoring the rate at which shadows by the catch fence pylon flash beneath the car. It's daunting stuff.

Shame, then, that this unique banked circuit in Northamptonshire will soon be no more. Rockingham is set to close for good at the end of 2018. Following that, it'll be turned into - according to reports in the Northamptonshire Telegraph - a car storage facility, although rumourville suggests worse: that it could be swallowed up by a new local housing development. Whatever its fate, just 17 years after opening with dreams of becoming a European hub for oval racing, the sound of engines will no longer reverberate off Rockingham's grandstands.

Sad though that thought is, it's hardly front of mind with turn one approaching at more than 120mph - not when you're car three in a line of Renault Sport hatchbacks running within a few lengths of each other. Getting my barely-more-than-a-tonne French hot hatch slowed down and aimed at the very late apex of the International circuit's squared-off hairpin, without ploughing into the 197 ahead, is of primary concern right now. I've fluffed the turn a few times already, but on this attempt, probably lap six, I nail it. The front left squirms under trail braking, and the inside rear cocks up as the steering angle increases, but the front end grips and turns in beautifully, dragging that slightly loose back end around with it to skim the second apex and letting me glance a wheel over the kerb with a totally open throttle. Sure, there's a little wheelspin from the inside right. That's there to remind you that in the absence of a limited-slip diff, nothing's perfect.

A Renault Sport UK track day though, under cloudless skies, comes close enough. This one just so happens to be one of the final public events Rockingham will ever host. In truth, the circuit was never the most spectacular to behold, what with it having no undulations and the surrounding furniture all being a bit, erm, grey - but to drive, even in a hatchback with an unintimidating 186hp (thanks to the remap mentioned in my first report), it's great fun. The infield has fast, long corners with double apexes that require real commitment in a front-driver: go in too slow and you'll not be able to get the back end to move on turn in, so you'll run wide on exit; go in too fast and you'll have a high-speed oversteer moment. Get it right though, and - as my 182 shows - you can ensure the nose clips the apex with a dab of the brakes or quick lift of the accelerator. The car dances on a pivot throughout, which makes for loads of giggles and a few gasps. In fact, I wish the car would do it a little more. An anti-roll bar would probably help, I think to myself inside my helmet.

Some of the quickest cars of the day, many of which are wearing semi-slicks, carry unbelievable speed through the infield's flowing sections. My plucky 182 does it's best to keep up - to my surprise it barely loses a couple of car lengths to the Megane RSs down the straight - but after about three laps the brake pedal begins to soften. I could keep going but, well, this is my own car, so I choose to keep stints short and cool down times regular. If I were to do this more seriously, brake-cooling ducts would no doubt be the first port of call. They sell Clio brake duct kits on eBay, I think to myself inside my helmet.

Ok, yeah, so a successful track day in the Clio leaves me returning home with a shopping list of new parts to fit before I attempt the next one. But it also reminds me of how lucky we are in Britain to have such a fine selection of racing circuits to enjoy, no matter what segment of motoring they may hail from. For a selection of French hot hatches, Rockingham seems like a perfect playground - and for my Clio, it would have been great place to return to test whether the next batch of improvements worked as expected. That this won't be a possibility is probably the saddest thing I've thought to myself inside my helmet all year. RIP Rockingham.

2004 Renault Clio Renaultsport 182
Run by: Sam Sheehan
Bought: May 2011
Mileage at purchase: 74,457
Mileage now: 125,708
Last month at a glance: A track day at Rockingham reveals the car's strengths, but also shows there's plenty of room for improvement before the next one

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