David Coulthard Tests a Renault Laguna

During his time with Williams, David Coulthard had two opportunities to try out the British Touring Car Championship Renault Laguna. Here he describes the experience and the differences between a modern touring car and F1 racer.

The following was adapted from articles that originally appeared in Autosport (14/4/94) and BBC Grand Prix 95 Magazine (British GP Special), Summer 1995.

The last time I was in a touring car I wanted to throw up. It was 1990 and I was driving a Vauxhall Cavalier: a hoping, bounding, smoked-filled thing that had me retching after just 15 laps of the Grand Prix circuit at Brands Hatch. With memories of 1990 Class B-spec still in my mind, I arrived at Brand nervous. For about half a lap, that is. My instant impression was that this is a lot closer to single-seater racing than I was expecting, a lot more fun and a lot more refined than I remember Touring Cars.

I had been told to expect a torque curve so flat that the engine could seem all noise and no power, such is the gradual progression with which the 2-litre four-cylinder unleashes its 285bhp when the light on the electronic rev-counter heads for the 8500rpm limit. It is also as big as a house inside, and has the driving position of a double-decker.

There is enough of the road car left inside the stripped, lightened and massively-re-enforced body to tell you of the car’s origins. I even felt quite at home, as driver of one of the first production Lagunas in the country.

There are lots of little buttons – I haven’t a clue what most of them do – including a couple on the steering wheel for headlight flash and radio communications. Down on the left side are the adjusters for front and read anti-roll bars. To the right at the height of my knees is a tall gear lever that connects with the sequential change, six-speed Hewland gearbox: push forward for first, then back for second, third and the rest. In front of me is a small information panel providing all the import stuff from the Magneti-Marelli electronic engine management system, revs of course, and a light to tell me exactly when to change up.

I know pretty well what Renault can do with a V10, so it was always going to fascinate me to see how much the engineers could extract from a measly 2-litre four. The answer is an impressive amount, with a good pull throughout the range up to the soft-cut limiter at 8500 rpm. The torque curve is so flat you aren’t really aware of the horsepower, it all happens with so little peakiness. And what a gearchange! Fantastic. It’s a sequential change like the one I’m used to in Formula 3000, but this has six instead of five ratios and , I reckon, is slightly quicker. The action is very direct and precise with nice little push/pull movements, and it’s light enough to operate with one finger. The result is that changes go through super-fast, the upchanges needing no clutch – although you do have to lift off: you can’t power change this car.

The Brakes? Yep, it’s got brakes too and I am sure they are good, but I find it difficult to judge because Formula 1 and F3000 have opened up such a huge gap in braking performance. Even the best touring car doesn’t shed speed anywhere near the way an F1/F3000 car can.

This Renault changed my opinion of touring cars. It’s a fantastic machine. I also loved the whole BTCC atmosphere. It would be great to see the same sort of friendly rivalry in a F1 or F3000 pit lane. BTTC racing is proper racing for sure, but by my terms, any racing car with four doors and a boot is carrying extra baggage. I’m afraid I have been spoilt driving so many good single-seaters. Long may it continue!

A year later Coulthard got the opportunity to try the first Williams Touring Car Engineering Renault Laguna

 You sit bolt upright and you almost feel as if your head and your chest are in front of your arse, basically, which is a weird sensation. And the steering wheel is up there [indicating chin height] – it’s so high. You wonder why it has this weird driving position, but it’s purely to get the driver as low as possible to get the roll centre down as far as possible. It’s a weird sensation to sit like that, but once you’re out on the track you don’t notice it.

The touring car is very soft on the circuit, so it feels like a limousine in comparison [to F1] except for the gearbox. The gearchange is very sweet, but when you’re driving into a corner, the actual transmission is very jerky on and off the power. And of course it doesn’t handle like a Grand Prix car. It rolls a lot more and so, therefore, on the fast corners it always feels as if it’s wanting to go on its roof rather than turn the corner. I have to say though that they did quite a lot of work with the car since I drove last year’s Laguna. It’s much better under braking and in slow-speed corners now. In its approach to the corner and the way it turns in, it feels like a racing car, which, of course, is what it is, but coming out of a single-seater, it is still more like a road car than a racer.

The power curve of the engine is like somebody’s drawn it with a ruler. It’s non-existent – very, very, flat – compared with an F1 engine, where the power curve goes like that [draws almost vertical curve in the air with his finger]. It feels like it gets to 7000 rpm [1500 revs short of the mandated maximum] and just levels off. And compared with the F1 engine, it feels totally gutless. It feels like a car towing a caravan. The F1 car, even with a smaller 3-litre engine this year, is still the quickest racing car there is around a racetrack. So it’s a tremendous thrill to drive a car like that and it makes anything else seem really quite tame by comparison.

It’s very hot in there and the touring car drivers work very hard. It’s a different kind of hard work. An F1 car is very physical, very heavy, whereas in a touring car it’s more of a balancing act. It’s more like F3 – you have to keep the speed up when you make for the apex. In a Grand Prix car you tend to be the last of the late brakers and then use all the power coming out of the corner. It’s a different driving style in touring cars, very skilled in it’s own right but very different from the way you driver a Grand Prix car. And unless you’re used to it, it’s very difficult to driver a touring car properly. It’s a unique style of driving, unlike any other. Front wheel driver is very tricky.

Coulthard is a big fan of the BTCC: It’s very entertaining racing, especially on television, where they can edit in all the good bits. And even at the track, where the reality is not as exciting as what you see on television, it’s still more exciting than in a Grand Prix.

See how a Williams FW17 compares against a Williams BTTC Laguna on a lap of the Silverstone circuit