John Morrison’s HARDDRIVERS….

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THE FIRST SHAKEDOWN OF THE NEW NICHOLS N1A PRODUCTION PROTOTYPE

Date was 6th September 2023. Venue, the full Grand Prix circuit at Silverstone. The BRDC Members closed track day; the first day out for John Minett’s beautiful new open two-seater, the Nichols N1a. With chassis design/build man ex McLaren F1 Championship winner Steve Nichols joining John & the car building crew from LCA Bordon (https://lightscarsaction.com/) in attendance, this was going to be no ‘light’ matter. Indeed, with a wet weight of under 900 kg, but a full house Dick Langford Chevrolet 7 litre, 650 brake V8 providing unadulterated Analogue Age horsepower, it was going to be anything but a ‘light’ matter. The specification, modelled  on Bruce McLaren’s original Can-Am precursor, his M1a sports-racer from 1964, continues via a manual 6 speed Graziano gearbox with a traction controlling rear diff, & connects to the rear wheels. Not even power assisted steering is designed in to interfere with the driver’s unbridled connection to the road … (panic not; it is an option).

So, the objective for the last five years, particularly in the face of the current rush to hybrids & EVs with systems which envelop the driver in a net of auto induced cut-offs, interjections, and manipulations, was to take a step back in time to where the driver was the pivotal central performance controller. Open ‘unlimited’ Can Am racing cars were the epitome of 60/70s proper racing firepower. Think ‘big bike’ in terms of power, balance, coordination & technique. Combine that with an open-air blast come rain or shine, aromas & finite temperature appreciation and we have something altogether more challenging & visceral than the mollycoddling of the modern supercar brigade.

Steve & John had combined on an original V8 Concept Prototype built off the back of a kit car for assimilation & road-going proofing around 2018. It was so promising …

Back to the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit on the 6th however. Today’s N1a is the car they intend to make & market. And this was ‘day one’ of the real driving programme. As aesthetic as it is, this production prototype chassis is pretty much devoid of aerodynamic downforce, runs a guesstimated but a definite ‘road going’ setup, treaded performance road tyres 19” x 245 fronts, 20” x 305 sectioned rears. Liveliness was a firm expectation.

The project’s main man JJ had completed a few straight-line safety checks at an airfield near it’s workshop home. All seemed well. No issues, no surprise as the concept prototype which covered over 30,000 miles, hadn’t either, other than being too small. So, date set, circuit booked … first meaningful ‘shakedown’ of the car for customer purchase specification. This was it.

Hot fine summer’s day then, unusually high temperatures at 32 degs C. Designated driver for the day: John Morrison. Old hand but chequered career; had ‘shaken down’ numerous racing prototypes, a few of which went on to be series & championship winning regulars. John had done his time at international single seaters, ‘works’ touring cars, manufacturer sports racers, 24-hour grinds and BRDC winning GT1/2/3 Porsche. To mention only a few & yep, our BRDC Member.

Quite how John J & Steve felt as JM manhandled the N1a gently into the pit lane was anyone’s guess. A slow lap or two were nominated as precursors to any heavy throttle stuff that may come later, if at all. Then gently on clutch take up and up the pit lane … thumbs up to pit exit & away and right to join the circuit on the fast run up to Maggotts …

JOIN JOHN THE IMPRESSIONIST

An early lap or two to check out basics – a sharp reminder of my sports-racing car past. Open air buffeting, direct road contact, thunderous noises, race car control sensitivities, g-forces & heft. Some seriously quick circuit users out there so mirror check & the first pleasant surprise; excellent rear view vision. Check out gear shifting, brake pedal and steering in puts, weights & responses all in order – but they will need to work together without thought later. Later. Reactive responsive harmony. As will instrument settings, throttle actuations, seat belt lengths & driver locations. Also back on this wonderful fast flowing race circuit after a few year’s break; but watch out! Plenty of fast traffic out today.

A 2-lap sighting lap stint. Again no system out of line, no leaks, no damp patches, nothing threatening to depart, all quite solid but, no speed at all. Basic control questions being answered satisfactorily so far. Long long way to go …

Pits. Stop. Catch breath. All in good order … first big impressions – that motor, it’s responses are HUGE even at this slow speed, no matter what gear or speed. Secondly, chassis unfazed – by anything. Most noticeably, we need to keep out the way and corners, apexes, clipping points. Clambering up and down most of the accompanying & unsettling circuit curbing undertaken with some trepidation (to start with) but – relax. NOT an issue … interesting …

So, all clear for 5 – 7 lap stint. We use an accommodating pace with overriding concerns around overheating, breakages, system or control failures ….

But nope, none. And no signs …

Up through the gears more positive this time; instruments could be clearer but I could detect nothing ill, the hands being in the right part of the dial. Except the diddy rev counter – had a mind of its own. No problem. Years of competition around the famous, fast and flowing meant I could drive around here with my eyes closed. Only the open-air buffeting captured my eyes-wide-open sightings & full attention.

Steering, chassis unfazed at this early stage despite clambering around the apex curbing. Some EXTREMLY committed race cars & drivers on heat around our ears; can’t really afford to dawdle …

So each gear shift up or down backed by proper throttle or brake application – found I was going too fast on the straight parts, then too slow into the following bends. WOW, untidy, doesn’t matter what gear, what speed, what lock, what balance, the throttle acted like a speed switch. Press down and you needed either the next gear or to end-of-straight brake NOW. Oh WOW this thing just devours any straight, exploding violent malevolence, monumental torque … just GET RID OF THIS EXCESS SPEED.

The second big surprise is – all that speed just evaporates. Pedal travel a little too long, but no drama, no dive, no locking up, no panic, just simple GIANT retardation – to the point where the corner, any corner, we dawdle through. What? How – the two significant players here are the V8 compression off-throttle gives amazing engine braking AND just as it is with the throttle open, 900 kg is just – featherweight, so it SLOWS SO FAST.

Keeping out the way of fast traffic, bright bright glaring sun and a face full on my untrained neck – I is full employed! But just once or twice I joined in behind some of the fast traffic, pressed on and … where we are staying with their acceleration easy easy, down the Hanger, the Wellington and the two pit straights. Nothing too ambitions so no attempt to live with race cars on race rubber with active race drivers through Stow, Abbey, Brooklands or Copse. Time to retire, regroup to pit lane again. Need to think about all this. Funny, the slow cool down lap … is rough, at this slack returning pace, it was …???

F1 NO, F40 RAW YES

Pit lane coast, Stop. Switch off. Compose; stationary. Contemplate. I had used soft hands and feet and levers and pulleys; what had we got …?

Last time I felt this … caldron of all-action THRILL in a new car wasn’t the racing cars that were made for it, but the would-be road car racers. Was it the McLaren F1? No, too sophisticated. Ah, F40. Ferrari. Was much coarser. Raw. Rawer. Threatening always, rough, hard, uncomfortable, delinquent, explosive Ferrari. The F40, not the F50 (too soft, lovely sound, disappointing chassis imho).

F40. Bikers. Harsh rigid race chassis on the road. You know the sort that starts you reading the road surface carefully. Bumps jar and kick. Cambers, slopes, drain & potholes, holes bounce you offline. Steer around, one eye … Avoid, avoid as many as you can …

 … So, my second pit stop, my mind was sent in the direction of grip … where was it, had the tyres suffered? I detected the rubber starting to peel, heard to too – but all looked well yes. Not too hot but starting in that direction. Acceleration, traction, braking had started some heat but Silverstone’s joys are wrapped in fast long corners where you could feel the tyre slip angle building up part way around; now WE WERE stressing the tyres at this conservative pace even.

But here’s the wrap – always good balance was maintained. It required no jostling. It slipped, I said, but it never let go. It never bit. Supportive. Supportive chassis … more than I expected … Once just the once, I gave it some extra around Stowe and my ill-judged trajectory took me up the circuit curbing on the outside, my left. I tensed up, was hard in fourth, lift off awaiting a bite – none came, no deviation, no undercar graunches, nothing. Just up the curb, down the curb, get on power & back to focus on entry to seriously slow Club …

Team wanted more. Accurate information. I had much more. Basic laptop mapping showed a few basics, allowed a few adjustments – but which you could feel. But I can’t recall stopping talking. Did it do what was bidden of it? Was it difficult, why, what fault? And so, the detail. Analysis. Where, how fast, felt what …? What was in the way? Job list, issues & immediacy, priorities. Note form impressions.

Experienced race car engineers are great with a basic understanding of forces and geometries controlling the car despite unreasonable circuit requests, way beyond. So explain yourself fully. Ever metre of the way (because that’s how you race) … one driver’s toe-in is another’s toe-out …

We continued downloading; strengths, weaknesses, possibilities, adjustments, configurations maybe reconfigurations. Ergonomics, positions, location & travel. Weight weighty weights

CRUCIALITIES

Dealt by adjustment with a couple of suspect inhibitions concerning front geometry, engine response, driver location & (felt like) fuel starvation …

So wanted to get back out there. Head was on it, in it now. Accelerating on to the circuit into Becketts with renewed vigour but WHAOOO, that explosive breath taking power meant you did nothing by lashing carefree … get back, get down now come off, consider some more … Hanger Hanger Straight DONE that’s as fast … bit more slow Club brute & delicate, on to Hamilton up the gear DEMOLISHED, easy through Abbey right, so easy to run out of Farm CURVE room right, heavy braking, leverage required through Village & Loop no liberties, no no liberties and AWAY, early short shift  Wellington accelerates … nose lifting like a power boat …

When I first unleashed the Veyrons 1000 bhp, I reflected afterwards so people might understand. The 8 litre W16 with throttles wide open, was like carrying your own weather system! Like the power of demolishing a tower block, there was no stopping the POWER UNLEASHED as they fell … so did Dick Langford’s V8 Chevrolet so feel, PRODIGEOUS both in POWER & TORQUE, monumental, untemperamental, remarkable, ACCELERATION, oh what pure joy, exhilaration …

Of note was how little throttle the motor needed to fire you up the next straight. I rarely used full throttle and it was noticeable that the car’s minimal frontal area meant high speed was available instantly, continuously, but till you lifted off, it just … flew on. Speed continued unabated …

Wellington was scary scary fast. When you crested the ridge, you took 140 mph look at an earthen immovable bank coming at you, approaching so rapid. Now good race cars do the next section, Brooklands by the BRDC – Luffield, slowing-down-a-gear-or-two, turning left same time, clipping left hand curb hard, accelerating, immediate braking and unbalancing hard turn right, hard right hold it hold it long again, feed the power on  .. and away, quicker than writing it, in one long streaming flowing smooth on the limit moment.

I wasn’t ready to ask for that for that yet. But once clear of Luffield and up a gear, away through Woodcote (Flat you ask, you must be joking I tell you) and storm down to Copse, easy down a gear and this wonderful drifting climbing long & fast right hander. God, I love Silverstone GP so …

WELL. WELL NOW …

The Team put in some 42 laps that taxingly hot day, not entirely fault free but running raised more setting issues than rethink & rebuild. In fact, none of the latter …

There was a note to say that at this pace though, all was relatively calm, but if real (race car) performance questions were going to be raised, high speed behaviour may reveal further balancing work …

Couple of overall thoughts straight up: The power was immense and at low speed, so violent it threatened to overwhelm – but pure joy on the faster sections. A toy for big boys. Programming of engine settings were required to promote gentler throttle openings on the day which worked well but say again, pure joy around here …

The chassis was a loyal friend at least at this 75% pace although the heat of the tyres and geometric settings front & rear began asking questions of directional stability. Easily experimented with & corrected with a number of external influences to consider. Neither traction or retardation limits were reached either on these tyres at this speed. There’s much more to this chassis performance than meets the eye; it felt remarkably well educated …

Overall, everyone wanted to know what the predominant N1a handling characteristic was, but we refrained for provoking anything over the actual limit, past tyre slippage. Even making mistakes, the chassis handling was pretty bullet proof. Make that ‘neutral’ then.

Steering, argh the steering. Yes it was heavy in the two slow sections Vale-Club and Loop–Village & opposite lock would have been too hard & heavy to apply accurately should the throttle opening be injudicious. Dilemma is that power steering in a car of this weight is pretty unnecessary and soaks up feel but married to the correct ratio, might work better for normal tight street work. Like a number of options, this may come down to driver use & preferences

Otherwise, the gearbox operation needs to be made slicker, perhaps self-improving with ‘running in’ and the other pedal controls better matched, all of which can be completed back in the LCA shop. The Driver location & seat belt use was questionable for heavy or prolonged circuit use and a race seat was always going to be the option considered. But the N1a is surprisingly comfortable in it’s semi reclined position although for one of over 6 foot, the full effect of the slipstream was taken in the face, albeit no problem for a full face helmet.

Worth mentioning the mirrors again, as they were so good no matter how fast the car travelled and catching traffic could be seen some way off. Instrumentation would prove more useful with familiarisation no doubt.

We came away from the 6th with a comprehensive job list. But we repeat, most of this was a question of adjustments and settings minutia. Unless you are considering paddle shift auto change box or late circuit mods optimising downforce which will changes the basic premise of this original build, then this specification offers so much pure driving entertainment & indulgence.

If any further details are required on any of the above, please contact me John Morrison on 07767 277775. We can discuss …

IN SUMMARY

The N1a that day felt like a resurrection of all the things I love about fast cars & their engineering development challenges. We found that day that we have a car, a platform which was without treachery. It now encourages further speed and development and no doubt, heavier issues to work through. As a low speed road going project, now, this is as much about personal preferences which, wearing our sales hat on, is about thorough understandings of cars, environments and potential owners.

But what a great place to start with …

Sincere thanks to Peter Witton who did the photography on such a hot day … peter.witton61@gmail.com