August 12th, 2010

Autotesting with Paul Swift

There are times in life when you are simply so amazed at someone’s ability you are lost for words. I had one of those experiences when I recently spent the day with Paul Swift.

The Swift name may ring a few bells in your head, if you don’t know the name you will know the stunts. Paul is the son of legendary autotest champion and stunt driver, Russ Swift. It turns out that Paul isn’t too shabby behind the wheel himself, winning the UK Autotest championship seven times and being the go-to guy when a film or TV show needs a stunt driver. You have probably seen Paul in various films without knowing it but his recent claim to fame was when Steven Gerrard scored England’s opening goal at the World Cup but was replaced with cars playing football – that was Paul and his team.

I travelled up to 25th Ford Fair Fair at Silverstone to have a go at Autotesting in a Ford Kuga and ride shotgun with Paul during his mesmerizing precision driving show. It turned into quite a crazy day.

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Traveling to Silverstone was as hectic as traveling to Silverstone always is. Luckily I had two weapons up my sleeve; an AWOL sat nav and a car which wasn’t a Ford. My sat nav always seems to be on class A psychedelic drugs as it never takes the ‘normal’ route to a destination. But like the Beatles, it does its best work while under the influence. Somehow it took me on a route that no one else knew and I popped out of a rural junction right outside the gates of Silverstone. I then initiated my second weapon to weave through the sea of blue ovals. Not having a Ford instantly meant I was someone different and somewhat official because no one would turn up to a Ford festival without a Ford, would they? Well I did, and because of it everyone would let me through to the front gate – I felt like Moses parting the sea of Reebok Classics and baseball hats.

I made my way to the Ford stand where I was introduced to Paul by having balls of Pirelli rubber spat into my eyes from his ice white Focus RS. Paul walked over from a cloud of smoke, I felt like I was in the presence of the Stig. For all I knew Paul could have been the Stig as he has spent more than enough time with the Top Gear boys on various show features and on the Top Gear Live tour. But then I was assured that he wasn’t the Stig, he is too nice and too Northern.

After setting out a basic course Paul set about teaching the basics of autotesting. He stressed being calm and accurate around the ultra narrow car park course. The course consisted of a slalom run into a 180 degrees arch to a garage where you would reverse out and J turn to quickly go 360 degrees clockwise around a cone and finish up in the same parking spot where I had started – easy eh! Well, not as easy as Paul made it out to be.

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Our autotesting car was not quite the half-sized, quick-geared autotesting Mini, it was a Ford Kuga.The Kuga may not be an obvious choice, but the torquey diesel engine coupled to a long first gear and sharp turn in made it quite a capable autotesting candidate – especially for a rookie like me.

I stood back with my mental video recorder on to watch Paul show me how it was done. Spinning all four wheels off the line, he then slithered through the slalom like a snake on performance enhancing drugs, to proceed to whip the Kuga in and out of the garage in a ploom of smoke, then use the handbrake to make the heavy Kuga pirouette like a graceful dancer and finally cross the line in an astonishing 22 seconds. This was one of those moments where you just stand there speechless and applaud. It was then my turn.

Now I am not filing excuses here but I didn’t have a great deal of time in the car to become accustomed to the controls. Having never driven a Kuga, let alone thrashed one round a car park, I wasn’t confident in beating the seven time autotest champion.

With one quick orientation lap to learn the course I was sat on the start line dreading a stall. “3…2…1…Go!” I was off, no stall (Yes!) and weaving through the slalom I made it into the garage. Having never driven a Kuga I guessed at how to get the car into reverse, was it a press the stick down jobey like a VW? Or the pull the stick up approach like a Vauxhall? I went with the stick down approach – I was wrong. Losing valuable time I spun it out of the garage and made my way for the 360 around the cone. Not having the ability to pull off the handbrake pirouette I went for the well known ‘full lock and foot to the floor’ technique. It was partially successful as I crossed the line in 38 seconds, but then I was informed that I clipped a cone on the slalom. Paul giggled; “that’s a five second penalty”. Balls. 43 seconds was my final time which left me in second place out of all the journalists taking part. As one of the most competitive men on the planet I wanted another go. I found that autotesting is an ideal motor sport for a competitive perfectionist like me. You only have yourself to blame if you make a mistake and accuracy is key. Cost-wise, autotesting is one of the most affordable motorsports there is. You can do a full season for less than £1000 so it is something that most people can take part in.

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After sulking about hitting a cone for 10 minutes I sat down to watch Paul’s precision driving show. Using a standard Focus RS Paul drove it like an absolute nutter. The only modifications to the car is a bit of tape on the handbrake so it doesn’t lock and the ABS has been removed. With 300 horses going through the front wheels Paul can go through a set of Pirellis in 45 minutes, especially when Paul wheel-spins, drifts and J-turns constant;y. I was astounded at his ability to know exactly where the car was and how much grip he had. The car was almost an extension of Paul as he J-turned inches from other cars without batting an eyelid. It was enthralling to see him have such control but look so chaotic.

What I wasn’t expecting during the stunt show was actually to become part of it. I was called out just as a very precarious ramp was constructed. Paul told me to get in the boot of a Fiesta Zetec TDCi. “Are you serious?!” I said, “Yep!” Paul grinned. Now, I have seen lots of Mafia films and when people get in the boot of cars in generally doesn’t end too well. Paul backed the diesel Fiesta up in front of the ramp. I was informed that it had a locking differential, that means … oh God! Next thing I know I am in the boot of a Fiesta on two wheels hearing the sound of alloy wheels scrape across the tarmac. Coming down to earth with a thud I smacked my head on the rear window, but I didn’t care, it was awesome!

I left the day feeling very much safe in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be doing any handbrake parallel parks in Tesco car park soon. I also learned that Paul Swift is a the nicest hooligan in the world and one day you should stop and stare at his stunts.

You can see more photos from the Ford Fair on our Flickr page and a video of the day here.

Rowan Horncastle

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