A motoring writer has the best job in the world. I know – I’ve been told this at least once a fortnight for years.
Popular perception is that all day is spent swanning around in highly-desirable sporty cars and/or attending manufacturer launches of same, usually in some exotic place, to where I and fellow motor noters have been flown business class in work time — with everything laid on.
Money for nothin’ and chips for free, you could say.
When I suggest there’s a little more to it than that such as pressure of deadlines, taking responsibility for cars costing more than a very nice house and producing some lucid words that do justice to driving said wheels – sceptics often reject the notion.
“Don’t spoil my fantasy with your reality,’ one said.
“Reality?” I counter. “How’s this for reality?
“A dozen flights in 10 days: Brisbane-Sydney-Singapore-London-Paris-Toulouse-Paris-Coventry-Paris-London-Singapore-Sydney-Brisbane.
Throw in a hectic itinerary in different countries: two drive programs, visiting an F1 works, and covering one of the world’s most important motor shows — not to mention getting crook halfway through it.”
True story. In the (northern) autumn of 2006, I received an invitation from Peugeot Australia to join a trip to France for the international launch of the 207 GT and to attend the Paris motor show.
But there was an added twist. I would link with Renault mid-trip, joining two other Aussies and a large group of Asian journos to drive the RS 225 Megane at Renault’s test track at Mortefontaine (and touring their F1 chassis works in Oxfordshire).
Okay, so I flew business class and managed a broken night’s sleep in a hotel upon arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport. But the dreaded jet lag had me tight in its grip by the time I slipped behind the wheel of the 207 GT on some tasty driving roads outside Toulouse.
Luckily, the little Pug’s new 1.6-litre (co-developed with BMW), with 110kW/240Nm four-pot, direct-injection and twin-scroll turbocharger, had the energy and inclination I was missing and entertained highly.
Tramp down with the right foot and response was keen and didn’t taper off until the high side of 5000 rpm.
There’s no mistaking its agility and keenness to corner, though the steering lacked weight and feel.
For a warm hatch, the five-speed manual came with a long, poorly-defined throw between cogs.
The ride felt brittle and I winced at how it might come undone on our typical Aussie back roads.
I didn’t think much about it at the time, but the journo I was sharing the drive with had just finished a backpacking trip around Europe and was sniffling, sneezing and coughing chronically.
There’s not much room inside a 207, so it was little wonder that I would soon have whatever he had.
Of course, the itinerary didn’t allow me to skive off to bed early. Oh, no, a banquet in the grand dining room of the fine chateau at which we’re staying required my presence.
And, I had to go along with a wine tasting challenge where the idea was to identify mystery tipples purely by palate and nose (the glasses were opaque). Not just type of wine, but country/region of origin.
Thus, it was heavy of head the next morning that I jetted back to Paree and linked with the Renault group at the Paris Hilton. That, of course, is as in hotel, not femme fatale.
Another long dinner, this time in the close confines of a lovely restaurant where my Asian colleagues joined the locals in after-dinner cigars.
Enveloped by the pungent smokescreen, I could feel my head becoming more and more congested.
Day Four dawns, and we’re on a coach heading north of Paris to the imperiously-named UTAC CERAM Centre for Testing and Research at Mortefontaine.
Purpose – to drive some of Renault’s more interesting Euro-spec fleet.
As it turned out, all road-testing facilities of the centre were booked out, so we found an entertaining, little loop of local roads instead.
The car to peddle hard was, as you would have guessed, the hot Megane of the day, the RS 225.
And there was a choice – Cup or F1 Team, the latter a dress-up special edition to celebrate Renault and Fernando Alonso’s 1995 F1 world championships.
No surprise that everyone made a bee-line for the latter, but a pair of Chinese nationals with limited English did what we were all explicitly told not to – hog it.
When they finally wandered back in late in the piece, things came to push-and-shove with other motor noters. “Oh, my God, we’re going to have an international incident,” Renault Australia’s PR officer shrieked.
Regardless, I got to drive the Cup and F1 Team and came away delighted with both.
The quick-fire throttle response and a breadth of the 2.0-litre (165kW/300Nm) turbo engine, nigh non-existent body roll, quick but communicative steering, tenacious grip and strong (Brembo) brakes set new hot hatch parameters for me.
Back to see the City of Lights lives up to its name, with an evening dinner cruise along the Seine. An utterly enchanting experience, to the point where I didn’t quite feel the cold (illness and air temperature) coming over me.
By the time the boat berthed, and we walked to the hotel, it was well after midnight.
My head had seemingly only just hit the pillow when the alarm went off and it was up and at ’em for our charter flight to Coventry. More specifically, a tour of the Renault F1 works in Oxfordshire — the first of its kind for me.
Renault, at the time, was top of its game, having won the aforementioned driver/constructor world titles with its R26 and well on their way to taking the double again at the time of our visit.
The former Benetton works reflected the winning standard. Room to room, building by building, it presented like a state-of-the-art aerospace facility.
The definitive moment was technical director Bob Bell hosting a live cross to Renault’s F1 team during practice for the Chinese Grand Prix where we got to converse with test driver Heiki Kovalainan, already announced as Alonso’s replacement for 2007.
Here we had an Australian (me), in company with Malaysian and Singaporean journalists, participating in an audio/visual link hosted by an Irishman in England communicating with a Finnish driver in China about his Anglo/French-built car and Spanish teammate.
What’s that they say about the world having become a global village?
The surreality lifted my spirits. But it wasn’t to last.
Walking across the tarmac at Coventry airport, with a chill wind fingering the marrow in my bones, I began to shiver and shake.
Next day, it was off spluttering on seven cylinders to the Mondial De L’Automobile (Paris Motor Show) media day. Motor Trend magazine once descried the bi-annual occasion as an automotive equivalent of storming the Bastille – and it’s true.
When not scoffing and swilling tasty French fare, more than 10,000 media from around the world can be found crawling all over eight huge exhibition halls containing hundreds of concepts and new releases.
For me, the standouts were the supercar trio of Alfa Romeo 8C Competizione, Audi R8 and Ferrari P4/5, a stunning one-off Pininfarina design with Enzo underpinnings.
(In the years to come, I got to drive the former two but the latter continues to evade me – and no doubt always will).
And while we were there for a glimpse of the future, a look back at the past proved irresistible.
Tucked away from the mainstream, I stumbled upon L’Incroyable Collection (Incredible Collection), featuring 60 vehicles from 25 private and public automotive museums as well as the French car makes.
How’s this for a tasty treble? Jackie Stewart’s 1969 World Drivers Championship-winning Matra MS80, a car especially significant as being the first French chassis to win such a title; a 1968 Matra MS630 sports car, also in pale blue national racing colours; and a Porsche 917 LH, from the Musee Automobile De La Sarthe along with a 1950 Talbot Lago 26C and 1930 Casimir Ragnot CRS001.
As the name might suggest, this is the museum at Le Mans which displays the cars that helped make the 24 Heures the classic it is.
With its long tail, the 917 was clocked at 386km/h down the fearsome Mulsanne Straight in those hazy, crazy days before chicanes. C’est magnifique, non?
Then it was back on the flying kangaroo, first to Heathrow, then Singapore, Sydney and, finally, Bris Vegas, arriving just after daybreak on the Sunday morning.
My wife picked me up from the airport, but instead of heading home, sweet home, she drove on to Toowoomba, some 120km away. It was my brother’s 50th wedding anniversary.
As the only other senior male in the immediate family, I was asked to make a speech. Can’t remember what profoundness I blessed the occasion with; still, relatives continue to talk to me all these years later.
Back to work the next day, and by now my cough is near-emulating a German Shepherd’s bark. And that’s a real problem.
I’m scheduled to have a hernia op on the Wednesday. So off to my GP who chastises, “No way you can have key-hole surgery with that cough. We’ll have to cancel it.”
Long story less long. Yes, I eventually did get that pesky hernia operated on.
Waiting alongside another guy also about to undergo the same op, we struck up a conversation. He asked what I did for a living. I told him.
“Motoring writer! You write about cars?” he chirped. “You’ve got the best job in the world!”