At this year’s Festival of Speed a pair of Pikes Peak cars (Rod Millen’s Toyota Celica and Jean-Phillippe Dayraut’s Mitijet Mini Pikes Peak) were looking favourites to scoop the coveted top spot in the Shootout. The closest they could get to a white Subaru from Hinckley was a sizeable 0.6 seconds…
‘As a kid I grew up thinking that everybody’s dad would go away at the weekends and come back with some silverware’ says Olly Clark of growing up with his celebrated father Roger. ‘I had no reason to think any different. It wasn’t until I got a bit older before I had an appreciation of what he did. Even now some of our customers come in and talk about how they used to watch him. It’s a humbling thing and is still a really important part of the business.’
The business in question is Roger Clark Motorsport which, although forever associated with the great 1976 RAC Rally winner, is now recognised as one of the best places you can take your Subaru if you want it to go really, really fast, or if you just want to upgrade some of its greasy bits.
‘My dad was very direct. He had a very straight train of thought’ Olly says of his father’s influence. ‘Often the answer to things was to keep it simple. He used to say “when the flag drops, the bullshit stops”. I don’t think he ever realised how admired he was though. He’d rather let his driving do the talking and I think that’s the right way to do it.’
880bhp Imprezas are a long way though from the screaming Ford Escorts that Roger Clark was associated with. ‘Dad started this company when Matt (Olly’s older brother) left school and they specialised in motorsport preparation. It really took off and Matt showed an incredible eye for detail, I’d describe his approach as being “ruthless with perfection”. Again he has that direct, clean and simple way of looking at things. Our cars reflect that. The Subaru thing happened around 1992 when a chap called Max Harvey wanted to get into rallying and co-drive for dad as well as help Matt with his rallying, so we put together a two-car team around something new called an Impreza.’
Although the Subaru Legacy had hitherto done a fine job on the rally stages, RCM hadn’t ever worked with them and so the Impreza was their first experience of Subaru. Two cars were acquired from Prodrive as kits and assembled as RCM saw fit to Group N specification. ‘It all took off from there, really’ Olly recalls. ‘Customers wanted us to build similar cars, either as competition cars or for the road. This snowballed into the servicing and tuning side. Then of course we had customers wanting more and more power, which led to us developing parts to help them achieve this. Over time cars and parts have become lighter, stronger, faster, more reliable… and that’s really where the company has pitched itself using – wherever possible – British technology.’
The thirst for more power from a Subaru Impreza would appear to be as prodigious as ever. ‘Last year was our best year to date and this year’s looking even better’ Olly says of the demand for RCM’s handiwork. ‘We’re shipping parts all over the world. Since we built Gobstopper and then Gobstopper II the demand for our performance parts has grown again. Now we’re getting people asking us to build whole engines and cars for them. We offer anything from a £150.00 induction kit to a £500,000 carbon-bodied racing car …’
It was a matter of time before we mentioned the Gobstopper cars. For all RCM’s achievements, it was an Impreza built for Time Attack competition that commanded a whole new wave of respect for the firm. ‘It started in 2006 when we wanted to build a company demonstrator – a shop window we could go and compete with so people could relate to what we do.’ And that name? ‘Well you’re always going to get your critics who want to stick the knife in or say “oh it’s not going to be able to do this or that” or “you should be using an Evo” and so on. So the car was designed to shut those people up and the Gobstopper name stuck.’
With the nitrous oxide engaged the Gobstopper produces no fewer than 880bhp (770bhp when it isn’t spraying the laughing gas). At the annual Ten of the Best competition, which aims to find the best all round car and driver in Europe (taking into account handling, top speed and a quarter-mile run), Gobstopper took the overall prize in 2007, 2008 and 2009. It also took the Time Attack Pro Champions honours in 2008 and 2009. As a measure of just how good RCM is at building a car (not to mention Olly’s ability as a helmsman) that’s pretty strong stuff.
Somewhat surprisingly, when the decision was taken to build Gobstopper II, more power didn’t figure in the equation. ‘It has the same power. Exactly the same’ concedes Olly, before adding ‘that two-litre engine Matt has developed is as refined as it’ll ever be. He’s squeezed everything out of it and has made it reliable. Gobstopper II is all about aero and handling and making the thing go around corners. In fact, in a straight line the top speed of Gobstopper II is slower than Gobstopper I because of the extra aero kit. It’s actually heavier, too!’
The flat floor, the aero package and the extra doors add up to a chunk of extra mass – Olly reckons as much as 250kg – but as he points out ‘it goes round corners much faster, so that’s okay.’ Having spanked the opposition by over half a second at this year’s Festival of Speed, ‘okay’ might be an understatement.
Speaking of FoS, what’s it like to get your first invitation from Lord March? ‘It’s just a crazy feeling when that letter just turns up out of the blue. A crazy feeling. I’d always watched it and saw Derek Bell and Johnny Milner going up the hill. Then when the invite turned up I had to pinch myself.’
Surely though, he knew that with Gobstopper II he had a shot at a top time? ‘Well we’ve only ever competed in Time Attack at circuits and in our little Subaru tuning bubble, so we had no way of measuring how we’d get on against a Pikes Peak car. We went in with an open mind.’
So, at what point did the team realise that the car was properly quick? ‘After the first run I wasn’t sure if people were sandbagging or just gradually getting up to speed, which is what you’re meant to do at hillclimbs. We just put a clean, crisp run up the hill and the time was up there. We looked at each other and said “should we have just done that?!” After all we’d only launched the car for the first time the previous week at Blyton …’
Surprisingly, despite nailing that final run of 44.91 seconds, Olly reckons there is room for improvement, firstly with the start. ‘I think now that we’ve done it we’ve much more of an idea. For the shootout we had a poor start and we had a miss-shift going under the bridge. From Molecombe onwards there are areas we can improve on, too. We can improve the set up. Matt has a few more tweeks he wants to do and the great thing about having all the datalogging is that we have so much information we can look at and analyse. So there is scope to go faster.’
As if to offer the competition some faint hope, Olly tells us: ‘the car’s biggest disadvantage is its weight. It’s around 1,200 kilos, whereas the original Gobstopper is at around 1,150 kilos. The next step would be to go to a full tubular chassis. That would loose 250 kilos and would be pretty dramatic. The day after the Festival of Speed Matt was already on it. His brain never stops! If or when we do Gobstopper III it will have a tubular chassis.’
Even before FoS had drawn to a close, Matt Clark was thinking up ways to go faster, apparently inspired by Jean-Phillippe Dayraut’s Mitijet Mini Pikes Peak. ‘That’s a wicked car. Just wicked! Olly enthuses. ‘Beautifully put together. The day we turned up there we were parked up next to it and Matt looked it over then said “that’s what we’re doing next”, mainly from a weight perspective; a weight distribution and balance perspective.’
Having established that Olly and Matt Clark know how to make Imprezas go extremely quicky, and that they’ve identified areas where they can get up the Goodwood hill in less time, there was just one more question to ask: Can Gobstopper II set a new record up the hill and finally displace Nick Heidfeld’s record of 41.6 seconds?
Although Olly clearly wants to give us an answer, his face contorts as if he’s examining in fine detail every inch of the course and every minute improvement RCM can make to the car. After a lengthy pause he replies ‘If we can get some weight out of it, yes it can. It can do it. It’s a really really good package. We did some figuring out and we reckon that 50 kilos is worth around half a second up the hill. The ingredients are in the somewhere, we just have to make it happen. Matt’s the mad professor and he’s deadly serious about extracting more speed.’
As we prepare to leave RCM Olly is chuckling to himself. ‘You know’ he says ‘I still get butterflies about Goodwood. Every day at some point I’m thinking about it. At the start of my run the car bogged down a bit and that still grates me!’
Talk about unfinished business. Assuming that RCM is invited back for FoS 2016 we’d recommend keeping an eye on the performance of the white Subaru from Hinckley with the unmistakeable image of Roger Clark on the side. It might – just might – get up the hill faster than a Formula One car …
Photography by Tom Shaxson