It was one of those semi-rainy English winter days when it never really pours but it never really dries out, either. The temperature didn't rise above slowly-bone-chilling, and the Silverstone track was basically slimy right the way through.
With all the remodelling going on to satisfy the F1 establishment, there was inevitably an adequate supply of mud and yuck for the coachwork and windscreen, as well. In short, it was probably the perfect venue to test drive Morgan's newest offering, the Aero Racing 4/4 Sport Competition. What better way to judge a car aimed squarely at the dual-use road and race market and the first-time competitor than to try it out in the most Real of Real World conditions?
And in typically Morgan fashion, the people who got to try it first were their clientele. The Morgan Motor Company officially debuted the car on 25 February at the customer track day annually hosted by Morgan dealer Richard Thorne Classic Cars; anyone interested could have a go, and Richard Thorne Motorsport drivers Tom Shrimpton and Tom Jones were available for driver tuition.
Veteran Morgan fans will recognize the model name immediately, and of course the concept is as old as the brand itself: Morgan has never actually sold dedicated racing-only cars but they've always sold cars suited to racing. The original 4/4 Competition was the definitive entry level amateur racing Morgan of the '60s (Richard's own personal example 'Pearl' was on hand for the launch), and company Managing Director Charles Morgan says the idea behind this car is exactly the same.
'We want to bring back the "race it on Sunday, drive it to work on Monday" kind of car, at a cost-effective price; in the current economic climate, we feel it's the right car at the right time.'
Developed by Richard Thorne Motorsport in conjunction with Aero Racing, the sporting arm of MMC founded to run the 2004 Le Mans effort, the Competition is essentially an uprated version of the traditional 4/4 Sport outfitted with full race trim. Power from the 1600 Ford is increased from the standard 115 to 150bhp, with 115 foot-pounds of torque; chassis improvements include negative-camber plates, a Panhard rod, competition brake pads, Avon CR6 ZZ tyres and a lowered final drive ratio.
A full package of safety equipment is fitted, and the car is completely turn-key race ready; a 4/4 Sport Competition championship class is already in place with the Morgan Challenge series for the 2010 season. The weather gear and heater have been retained, and the cars remain road-legal.
Also in the typical Morgan fashion, user-friendly at track speeds was a high design priority. Tim Whitworth, head of Aero Racing and Finance Director of the MMC (and owner of one of the two black Sport Competitions pictured) said the intention was to produce 'a balanced car, one you can drive on the limit and still be in control.'
Drivers familiar with the Roadster Lightweight, the Ford V6-engined Morgan also adapted for racing with Richard Thorne input, will be comfortable with the car straightaway; it shares the same philosophy of 'stiff but not too stiff' that makes the Lightweight eminently drivable under track conditions. There's a gradual and progressive turn-in on the corners, with a discernible amount of chassis roll that builds driver confidence tremendously in those of us with more enthusiasm than talent, leading to a nicely predictable steady-state understeer.
The big difference from the 230bhp Lightweight is the power-on handling. Where the Lightweight can be steered very much with the throttle, the little 4/4 has to be flogged truly hard indeed for the tail end to get happy, even on a greasy surface like this. The downside is you'll rarely win drag races out of the turns with the Big Cars, and that can get frustrating, but racing in class, it hardly matters.
Tom Shrimpton, a fine young driver with an uncommonly good head on his shoulders, says you drive the rear of the Lightweight, but you drive the front of the Competition, running it deeper and deeper into the corners as you gain experience and skill, and for the average racer that's not a bad thing at all. It is, in fact, how you get better at your craft.
The 4/4 Sport Competition is initially priced at ￡31,995 plus VAT and is available race ready from Richard Thorne Classic Cars at 0118 983 1200, or email email@example.com.