It was a simple idea. Visit four different racetracks, in four different countries, in four days.
Our steed? The world's foremost high-performance wardrobe, the Volvo 850 T5 estate, chipped to almost 300hp and fitted with a dump valve which was so inappropriate on a big Volvo, it couldn't help but make you smile.
And the route? Well, that was something we came up with while sitting around the fire pit in a French campsite one night. We'd spent the previous week rock climbing in Fontainebleau Forest, and with the journey home looming, our thoughts had turned to how to spice it up a bit. A few Kronenbourgs later we had our plan, and on the Thursday morning, we packed away our climbing kit and the modestly proportioned bell tent which had been home for the previous week, and hit the road.
Our first objective was no longer in use as a race track, but the slow decay since it hosted its last race in 1972 has given it a unique aura which makes it a must-visit for any motorsports fan. The Reims-Gueux Grand Prix Circuit was first used in 1926, and for almost fifty years it had echoed to the baritone roar of duelling motors and braying crowds, but today it is silent. The grandstands rise from farmland, their paint flaking to history, while race control is now a mildewed, windowless tower, whose four stories tower over the landscape without purpose. Advertising hoardings display hand-painted names from the past; forgettable modern vehicles potter anodynely along the start-finish straight.
Reims-Gueux is a glimpse into a long-lost past, populated by the death-defying giants of motorsport history. To wander the semi-ruined buildings is to don sepia-tinged glasses and look back with a mixture of nostalgia and melancholy, to a world most of us never experienced. In short, if you're a car enthusiast and you're passing by, it's a must see which won't fail to move you.
Following a night in an Irish bar in Reims, we set course for the second track of our little tour. But there was nothing little about where we were heading - 'The Mighty ovloV' was Nurburgring-bound. This giant among racetracks is the most legendary crucible in all of motorsports. It's a place where history has been made, reputations built, and heroes lost. At over 14 miles long, it's the most challenging track on the planet, and as such, is the perfect venue for an over-turbo'd Volvo to show just what it was capable of.
But first, we had to get it ready.
One of the beauties of the Volvo 850 is its practicality, and the huge boot meant we never exactly packed light for camping trips. In the back of the car, there was over 100kg of camping and climbing gear. The bell tent alone weighed 26kg, the furniture to fill out its vast interior tipping the scales at the same again. And then there was the small matter of the tent's woodburning stove. Now, we're no experts, but we're pretty sure that lapping the 'ring with a cast iron woodburner loose in the back of your car is rather frowned upon. So, our first act after checking into our guesthouse at Mullenbach was to spend fifteen minutes carting the contents of our cavernous boot into the room. Then, it was off to the track to take advantage of the Touristfahrten session.
Although it may not exactly look like a track day special, and despite the fact we hit the track four-up, the mighty ovloV acquitted itself pretty well. The turbocharged, five-cylinder motor up front emitted a fitting growl through it's sports induction kit and stainless exhaust, while sending dump-valve expletives echoing around the forest at every breaking point never got old. The brakes weren't quite up to the same level, and faded out rather dramatically towards the end of the lap, but fortunately the chassis' safe, mildly understeering set-up meant it would take some pretty dramatic errors to get into any real trouble. Which is just as well, when you're trying to concentrate on the track with three other people clowning around in the car. But we did indeed survive the touristfarhten, and so were ready for track number three, the following day.
A crisp spring morning greeted us to the home of Belgian motorsport as our whistle-stop tour continued. Smaller than the Nurburgring, though barely less celebrated, Spa twists through the forests of the Ardennes and as we pulled up, the sounds of high revving engines echoed across to us from the legendary corner of Eau Rouge.
A private track day was underway when we arrived, and after parking our boxy steed we wandered over for a coffee and a spot of spectating. The smell of petrol, hot oil and burnt rubber hung in the air as we strolled, enjoying the sight of everything from little Mazda MX5s to track-focused Radicals streaking along the tarmac of the start-finish straight, before slingshoting through the left-right rise of the most famous corner in motor racing. Unfortunately the nature of the track day meant we weren't able to fire up and join them for a few laps, but even so, it was great to just be there, soaking up the atmosphere.
And then, after a few hours of getting inspired to try our hand at a track day at Spa, it was time to continue the journey, by hitting the road to country number four.
Sunday morning in the UK dawned just as bright as it had in Belgium the day before, and spirits were high as we headed across country number four, to our forth track of the trip. And uniquely, this track had no corners, and hosts races which are over in a quarter of a mile. Yep, Sunday was all about Santa Pod.
A weekend-long car meet was in full swing when we arrived, which went by the name of 'The Fast Show' and if we're honest, it wasn't really our scene, being very much aimed at the neon lights and hip hop, fast n'furious crowd. Modified Japanese motors were very much the order of the day, and over-exhausted Subarus competed with slammed Miatas for our attention. But despite the fact The Fast Show wasn't really aimed at us, or our breeze block Volvo, it was still good to see a different vein of car culture alive, well and enjoying itself in the Northamptonshire countryside. Even if we couldn't get a run down the drag strip, due to a combination of a two-hour queue and the fact with a woodburner loose in the back, clearing scrutineering was rather unlikely.
And so our campfire idea of visiting four different race tracks in four different days came to pass. And there was one clear thing to take from it - the Volvo 850 T5 is one of the most complete cars out there. What a machine.