A gruelling 24 hours, with bursts of activity, sleep snatched wherever you can and no shortage of risks. That’s the Three Peaks Challenge – and, as Chevrolet works driver Oliver Gavin is about to discover – a surprisingly fitting warm-up for the world’s fastest 24-hour race
by HENRY CATCHPOLE
PHOTOGRAPHY by ASTON PARROTT
& HENRY CATCHPOLE
‘The nice lady in there,’ says Oliver Gavin, motioning to the Glen Nevis visitor centre that he’s just emerged from, ‘informed me that there’s still quite a lot of snow on the top of the mountain.’
I look at the boot of the Corvette in front of me. It’s a huge boot. Bigger than any boot in any other 650bhp two-seat sports car I can think of. And it’s stuffed to the gills with waterproof clothes and glucose-filled supplies. But it doesn’t have any crampons in it. For what won’t be the last time in this adventure, I wonder if we might have taken a bit more kerb than our dampers are set up for.
Oliver Gavin, in case you aren’t familiar, is arguably the UK’s greatest current endurance racing driver. With five wins in the GT class at Le Mans (including 2015), five wins at the 12 Hours of Sebring, five Petit Le Mans class wins and the nail-biting class win that he took in the 24 Hours of Daytona this year, his palmarès speaks for itself. He hails from the same village in Bedfordshire as perhaps the only other person who could lay claim to the title, Nick Tandy, so clearly there’s something in the taps of The Sun Inn.
Unfortunately for Olly, he also happens to live near me and so we cycle together occasionally. Him training for Le Mans, me training for, well, small local Thursday evening bicycle races… Anyway, it was on one of these rides that I suggested doing the Three Peaks Challenge. The ruse is that you have to climb the highest peaks in each of Scotland, England and Wales within 24 hours and as a bonus you get to drive through three of the greatest sets of driving roads in the country as you travel between each mountain. Clearly, given that Olly races a Corvette C7.R and has been with the American team since 2002, the only sensible car to take was a Corvette Z06. Using anything more practical would have just been daft…
So, Olly picked me up at 5.30 this morning, we breakfasted in the ever wonderful Tebay services and now, just after 5pm, we’re about to begin our 24 hours. It’s already been a long day, but the theory is that we complete Ben Nevis before it gets dark and then drive through the night to Scafell Pike. It is a beautiful evening and as we’re ascending we meet several people on their way down the mountain. About halfway up we stop and chat to a worryingly well-equipped couple with a Border collie. While I throw a ball for the dog, Olly enquires about the snow.
‘Oh the snow’s not that bad,’ says the man. ‘You know the bit where it goes…’ Olly listens to a detailed description of the local topography, nodding knowledgably despite the fact he has as much experience of the top of Ben Nevis as I have of Watkins Glen. ‘Well I didn’t want us to look like complete amateurs!’ he says when they’re out of earshot.
We hit the white stuff about half an hour later, our knobbly trainers struggling for traction on the slush. Thankfully, as well as the footprints of others, there is a line of cairns (the piles of stones, not the small dogs) to guide the way through the white wilderness, each one emerging from the cloud just as the previous one is hidden from view. I know that it’s important to keep to the right on the summit, away from the huge cliffs on the north face, and we reach the trig point not long after 7pm. I set up the camera on a timer, smile, and then we begin half walking, half sliding back down. The friction increases at about the same time as we emerge from the cloud and the view is spectacular, with Lochs Eil and Linnhe spread out below, their surfaces sparkling in the evening light.
By the time we’re back at the Z06, the light is definitely fading and the car park is pretty much empty, but the Corvette is still getting a lot of attention and people seem to have driven out from Fort William especially to take photos of it. Admittedly, it does look extraordinarily aggressive with the optional aero additions of the Z07 Performance Package, including the adjustable ‘wickerbill’ on the rear wing.
The Z06 suits Scotland, or perhaps it’s the other way round, but something as elemental as its 6.2-litre LT4 supercharged V8 needs a bit of room. Pointing the angular yellow bonnet across the vast open expanse of Rannoch Moor, the Eaton supercharger feels like it can get into its stride and the whole car and those in it seem imbued with the mighty forces created by the engine. The best thing is to select third on an empty stretch and then hold the throttle open from low revs, feeling the surge build and build as the speed piles on and on, daring your right foot not to lift all the way to the limiter. It’s a bit like standing next to a huge stadium speaker with the volume being turned up, and up, and up until you want to run away, but you feel trapped by the sound as it seems to take over every fibre of your body. It’s intoxicating and ever so slightly scary.
I try to get some sleep before Glasgow, but snoozing while a car is pulling what feels like 2 G through roundabouts isn’t terribly easy. The ride quality of the magnetic dampers can be adjusted (Tour, Sport or Track) and it’s actually comfier than I’d feared it might be, but as you’d expect, the Z06 always retains an underlying firmness. As we cross the Erskine Bridge we’re on schedule, but then we hit the equivalent of a full course yellow as roadwork diversions take us off first the M8 and then the M74. It’s as we’re sitting in a sea of stationary red tail lights that we both realise that supper would probably be a good idea.
Which brings us to perhaps the lowest point of the whole venture. Standing in a slightly dilapidated garage just south of Glasgow at about 1am, Olly and I are surveying an almost empty fridge. There is a middle-of-the-night stillness to the forecourt, and only the hum from the refrigerator is breaking the silence inside the shop. It’s hard to make decisions when you’re tired and I sway back and forth between the choice of a lone jumbo sausage roll and abject hunger. Eventually I plump for the former because I’ve been staring at the thing so long it would be embarrassing to leave it there. Eating is unappealing when you’re tired, which is why Olly has a protein shake as soon as he gets out of the car at Le Mans. Tonight he bravely decides to test the naming strategy of an all-day breakfast triple. Efficient refuelling this is not.
‘It’s one of the most challenging times of any race,’ says Olly when we’re back in the car and on the M74 with me behind the wheel. ‘Whether it’s the middle of Le Mans or the latter stages at Sebring, your perspective is very, very different at night. You realise that you’re relying on some real key markers, either on the racetrack or just off it, to get your references.
‘In the day you pick out your escape routes and hope you don’t ever have to use them. Then at night, in high-pressure moments, you’re trying to remember what’s in the darkness – in the light I know that I can go here and I can do this. A classic spot at Le Mans is the second chicane, because you can easily lose the car on the brakes on the bump on the way in and you can end up sideways as you enter that first left part. You know that you’ve got most probably one to one-and-a-half car widths where you can run round the inside of the kerb on the right-hand part of the chicane before you then go in the gravel, so you’re all the time trying to get the car to that point where you know you’ve got that tiny bit of room.
‘You realise you can make up big chunks of time on your competitors by being quick in the night, but you really are taking big risks. It’s usually the second or third hour of the darkness that’s the most dangerous. You’ve got guys that have come out of the pits, they don’t know where they are, it might be the first time they’ve ever raced at Le Mans in the dark. That’s when you see the most gravel on the track. That’s when you see cars being driven slowly with punctures and you also know you’re very susceptible to punctures from the debris. So your senses are really heightened at that point. You’re really looking for everything, even smelling the burning rubber from cars in front.’
I keep my nostrils alert, but thankfully there is no whiff of scorched tyres during my stint as we head towards the Lake District, picking up the A595 (and then the A596 thanks to another diversion) the far side of Carlisle. I love the head-up display, particularly at night. It’s been a feature of Corvettes for some years and it’s brilliant. For some reason I didn’t expect Apple CarPlay too, but it’s here. What’s not so great is the optional, slow-witted Hydra-Matic 8L90 eight-speed automatic transmission. While it’s undeniably quite nice as a labour-saving device on a journey like this, it really doesn’t do the car any favours and I’d go for the seven-speed Tremec manual all day (and night) long.
Olly takes over for the last 45 minutes and we rumble into the deserted National Trust car park at the far end of Wasdale just after 3am. Our schedule says we don’t have to start for another hour and I would dearly love some more sleep (this is why official websites, and evo’s legal department, recommend getting someone else to do the driving if you’re going to attempt the Three Peaks), but now I’m awake, we decide that it’s better to push on. In the dark it takes forever to get ready, but eventually, with rucksacks on, I blip the key, the hazards flash to show that the car is locked, and we set off.
Except in the pitch black it’s not entirely clear where we need to go. I look at Olly, Olly looks at me, and we both blind each other with our head torches. Luckily I have a cunning piece of technology. Every time you buy an OS map, you now get a code that lets you download a digital version of the cartography to your phone through the Ordnance Survey app. It then uses your phone’s GPS to pop a little arrow on the map so that you can find your way. Obviously you shouldn’t just blindly follow such things, but it’s a huge help in at least picking up the thread. We head out of the car park, wander through a field with some slumbering livestock, clamber over a stile, and then begin our ascent of Scafell via Lingmell Gill.
‘You can really pick up time at this point in the race,’ says Olly, mind clearly thinking forwards a few weeks to when he will most likely be in the car at La Sarthe. ‘It’s the coldest time of day, but if you can get the tyres to switch on then you can pick up three or four seconds a lap on your rivals. The Astons always seem to manage it but we’re pretty good, too.’
I certainly don’t feel like I’m picking up any time at the moment, with my legs really struggling to get going. What on paper had looked like the easiest of the three mountains is proving to be relentlessly steep and quite tricky. Wasdale stretches out behind us and ahead the dawn is slowly breaking. Not far from the summit a horizontal orange slit opens in the grey cloud far away to our left. We pause to watch the brief sunrise. Seeing Earth’s star rise is arguably the most memorable moment of any 24-hour endeavour, and with no one else around, up here it feels like a rare privilege. There is something encouraging about the way it chases away the darkness, spreading light over a landscape, whether it’s lush mountains and lakes or stripy kerbs and gravel traps.
The trig point on top of Scafell Pike is wreathed in cloud and although there’s no snow, the wind and the lingering chill of the night mean it’s far colder than the top of Ben Nevis. With no view to linger over, we begin descending quickly but there is no obvious path through the morass of sharp, loose rocks. It is prime ankle-breaking territory and the placement of every footstep needs attention, particularly with tired legs. It might not be mountaineering, but it’s rather more than just an easy stroll and not for the first time I wonder if this was a terribly bright idea. After all, much as I don’t want to break my own limbs, it would be disastrous if Olly injured himself just a few weeks out from the biggest race of the year. I look at his skinny ankles and hope that they hold out. He drove the F1 safety car between 1997 and 1999, so I convince myself he must be a very safe person…
We’re back at the car by 8am and on our way soon after, having consumed a couple more protein shakes. Olly drives initially so that I can hop out and take the odd photo, but after about half an hour he pulls into a lay-by. Sensibly, he has recognised that the tide of sleep is lapping too far up the shores of consciousness. Thankfully I feel relatively spritely so we do a driver change and push on, Olly jamming a pillow betwixt seat and B-pillar and nodding off almost instantly.
It means that I get to do the A595, which is one of those great bits of road that we could never use in a photo shoot (too hedgy) but is nonetheless cracking to drive, especially early in the morning. With 285-section tyres on the front and 335s on the back, the Z06 has monumental amounts of grip and you can make wonderfully swift yet smooth progress. As you follow the undulations it feels like there’s almost no need to brake for corners on the road, such is the tenacity on turn-in. There could be a bit more feel from the steering, but you quickly build huge confidence in the grip. The only problem with the wide rubber is one that is exposed both on the Lake District’s narrower roads and the inside lane of the M6. At the hint of a camber or imperfection, the huge Pirellis begin to hunt around the surface, meaning you can never entirely relax with the small Alcantara-covered wheel.
We stop at Lancaster Services on the M6 and I promptly fall asleep in Costa. Apparently it’s only at the third time of asking that Olly actually manages to wake me up. Unsurprisingly, he does the next stint behind the wheel. When I rub my eyes blearily an hour or so later, we’re in Wales and the weather looks remarkably good. We’d take the roof panels off if the boot wasn’t filled with half of Ellis Brigham’s stock.
We’re doing well for time, but then a traffic jam on the way up from Betws-y-Coed means we’re stationary for half an hour. We use the delay to re-pack rucksacks and generally get ready so that when we arrive at the Pen-y-Pass car park we simply hop out, give the keys to the waiting Aston Parrott, evo’s staff photographer, and head off on the Miners’ path in blissful 19-degree sunshine.
A little under two hours later we are on the top of Snowdon wearing every item of clothing we have, with rain and wind testing various bits of Gore-Tex to the maximum. If ever we needed a display of fickle mountain weather… The route feels pretty exposed with the wind trying to tear us off the side of the mountain, but we are certainly not ill-prepared compared to others. About a quarter of an hour into the descent, an elderly man has fallen and cut his head quite badly. Two doctors are already on the scene along with three other people, so there’s little we can do to help, but they gratefully take my survival bag and the small medical kit I’ve been carrying. As we push on down, the rescue helicopter hovers above us as it tries vainly to find a way into the low cloud. It’s all quite sobering (thankfully the mountain rescue did manage to carry the injured gentleman out on foot and he made a full recovery).
The last few miles are relatively flat, so Olly and I break into a run back to the car park just to keep warm (he’s a sub-three-hour marathon man, so if they ever bring back the traditional Le Mans start, he’ll be in good shape). We reach the car with 40 minutes to spare and after 467 miles of driving and 26 miles and 71,600 steps of walking, running and scrambling over 3000 metres of vertical ascent, it’s fair to say we’re knackered. Having burned nearly 7000 calories each, we were probably even less fuel-efficient than the Z06, too. Just the press duties to attend to, which involves a few photos, before Olly has to dash off to catch a flight from Heathrow the following morning…
Chevrolet Corvette Z06
Engine V8, 6162cc, supercharged CO2 291g/km
Power 650bhp @ 6000rpm Torque 650lb ft @ 3600rpm
Weight 1734kg Power-to-weight 381bhp/ton 0-62mph 3.8sec (claimed) Top speed 196mph (claimed) Basic price £87,860
evo rating: ★★★★☆
Another 24 Hours
Two months later and a week or so after Le Mans, Olly and I meet up for a cycle and then sit down in a local coffee shop. ‘Doing the Three Peaks was actually really good training for Le Mans,’ says Olly. ‘The timescale is obviously similar in that it’s more than just the 24 hours. You get minimal sleep and what you do get has to be grabbed in fits and starts, not necessarily when you want it. You need to get your nutrition right too, not that we really did. There’s teamwork and communication involved. There’s obviously the driving between the peaks, too, but it’s actually the bits on the mountains that more closely equate to the driving stints in the race. The physical exertion is different but equally hard and you have to concentrate intensely every second because every footstep on a steep, slippery slope has the potential for disaster in the same way a fraction too much pressure on a pedal could spell the end in the race.’
Gavin then goes on to describe the knife-edge braking into Mulsanne corner. As he sheds great chunks of speed and tries to keep the car as straight as possible through the right-hand kink, he’s also watching the lights that tell him how close he is to full lock-up on each wheel. Things were made trickier still after the team had to wind almost all the wing out of the car in a vain effort to keep up with the rampant turbocharged Fords.
Olly is one of the most fascinatingly analytical people to listen to on the subject of driving. He can dissect a car’s balance and behaviour down to what feels like an almost molecular level. He talks about problems that a couple of psi difference between the front and rear tyres gave them throughout the 2016 race. He recounts the perils through the chicanes and Porsche Curves of having understeer when you turn one way and oversteer when you turn the other.
As the fall on Snowdon showed, there is real danger in doing the Three Peaks, too, if you’re not careful. But what the Three Peaks Challenge can’t replicate is the mental pressure of competing at Le Mans. Yes, Olly and I wanted to complete the challenge in 24 hours, but we didn’t have an entire team of people and millions of dollars of investment behind us, there weren’t other people competing against us and there wasn’t worldwide glory (other than this feature!) waiting for us if we got to the end.
This year was particularly stressful because of the widely documented Balance of Performance issues in the GT Pro class. And then physically it was really tough, but in a different way. During his first stint, Olly lost his left earplug. It was a freak occurrence, but given how loud the Corvette is meant he was almost deaf in that ear at the end of his three hours. He was having to press his helmet into the side of his head down the straights to try to alleviate the pain…
‘I’d definitely do the Three Peaks again, though,’ says Olly. ‘It felt like a real achievement.’ It felt like an achievement to me, too, but it’s nice to have these things confirmed by a proper endurance racer.
‘The z06 suits scotland. its 6.2-litre supercharged v8 needs a bit of room’
‘snoozing while a car is pulling what feels like 2 G through roundabouts isn’t easy’
‘not for the first time, i wonder if this was a terribly bright idea’