How to speed up Shelsley Walsh – by the fastest man on the hill

by Nik Berg
26 April 2022 4 min read
How to speed up Shelsley Walsh – by the fastest man on the hill
Photo: Ian Dowding - Track Action Photography

The hillclimb course at Shelsley Walsh in Worcestershire has been testing drivers since 1905, making it the oldest motor racing venue in the world to still hold competitions on its original layout.

Just 1000 yards in length and devilishly narrow, with a course record of 22.37 seconds, driving the hill is a concentrated shot of adrenalin that almost anyone can enjoy.

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You can even compete in a standard road car if you wish, as long as you have an RS Inter Club Competition Licence, which costs £69 (no test required), and an MSA approved crash helmet and fireproof suit.

That makes hillclimbing one of the most accessible motorsports there is, although at the highest end it’s a very different story. “Patrick Head told me years ago that he thought hill climbing was much more expensive than Formula 1 for the miles that you did,” says current hill record holder Sean Gould.

Driving a custom-built Gould Racing GR59 Formula Car, powered by a four-litre V8 Judd engine producing 620bhp, Gould set Shelsley’s fastest time in August 2021 on a day that saw records rapidly changing hands between the top three competitors.

Gould grew up with the sport, helping his father build a series of lightweight spaceframe specials from the age of six. By the time he could drive they’d moved on to sophisticated honeycomb chassis cars and were getting help from Patrick Head at Williams. Gould competed for a couple of seasons, but soon interest from other racers led to father and son forming Gould Racing, building cars for others, and now supplying composite components for Formula 1.

Amazingly, after a 26-year break from the sport Gould got back in the driving seat and stormed up the Shelsley Walsh course to top the leaderboard, so who better to guide you up this historic hill?

Corner by corner

Gould hill climb
Photo: Ian Dowding – Track Action Photography

“The start line is up quite a steep slope, so you’re already on an angle before you start and it’s very tricky to get a good start there,” he says. “I’ve always started from the right hand side but, looking at videos of other people, I could see that I probably lost a tenth or two because the left hand side of the track hasn’t been used so much over the years. It’s not as polished and the tarmac has got some nice sharp edges in it.

“It’s quite easy to overdo it, or underdo it, because you’re trying to drop the revs down as low as possible to minimise that initial bite of the tyres when you drop the clutch. Then it’s really trying to be very calm on the throttle, not pushing too hard so you’re feeling the grip from the tyres through the back of your seat.

“Off the start and up the slope I’m pulling second gear and then short-shifting into third just before I turn into Kennel. Over the brow I’m keeping tight to the right hand side – with the negative camber on the tyre, it’s actually almost on the grass. Kennel is a very important corner because if you take too much speed off there, because there’s a massive slope coming out of it going up to the next corner it compounds the time you lose if you lift. I left-foot brake a little just as I’m going into Kennel at 103mph and then try and make a nice apex and sweep from the left to the right-hand side of the road.

“I accelerate all the way up to Crossing and turn into the right before Crossing. There’s a drain cover on the right-hand side that I like to make sure that I’ve gone over and perhaps about a metre past before I turn to the left. On the record run I just breathed off the throttle slightly, I didn’t brake at all and went in to Crossing at 128mph. It’s pretty quick.

“So, it’s just a light breathe off the throttle and it’s really the scrub on the car as you’re going around the corner slowing it down. With these big engines, what you need to do is try and get the wheel straight as fast as you can, as soon as you get straight that keeps all the corner weights nicely balanced and then you get good acceleration.

Gould hill climb
Photo: Ian Dowding – Track Action Photography

“I change into fourth in Crossing and fourth carries me all the way up to The Kink. The Kink is very, very bumpy. And even though I’ve tried to do it flat I can’t and am on about 25% throttle through there.

“I’ve learned that the Bottom S is quite an easy place to lose time, so I try to keep the car at a steady speed. I’m doing 153mph into the Bottom S, so it’s very fast. I try to brake as late as I can but keeping the car stable. I’ll be down from fourth to second and I have to be careful not to knock off too much speed. But it’s also very easy to go in too quickly and lose the back of the car. There’s quite a big bumpy set of stones laid into the inside curb, and I make sure I don’t hit that because it shocks the car over to the right-hand side. Then it’s a case of making sure that I’ve got the car good and straight so I can have a good squirt between the two points.

“I boot it up to The Top S. There’s a tree on the left-hand side there, I go very late and very wide there. If you go in too quick, although you can get time between the esses, you lose a lot of time at the exit. I go about half a meter or so past the drain cover before I turn in. Then I’m actually pointing the car into the bank on the inside as I’m on the throttle with the car sliding, using the road from the inside to the outside. Then it’s just pulling the gears effectively, watching the rev counter and the shift lights and crossing the line at around 150mph.”

If you’ve caught your breath and fancy following in Gould’s wheeltracks (you can watch a video of him here), Hagerty is hosting a special event at Shelsley Walsh on 28 May, where 50 selected classic and competition cars will compete and guests can also drive up the historic hill. Hagerty experts will be on hand to offer classic car valuations and there’ll be plenty of fine food and additional entertainment on offer. Tickets start at just £15 and can be purchased here.

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