Following last weekend's GT1 World Championship round at Interlagos in Sao Paulo, I've now flown south to Argentina: another place I've always dreamed of visiting. The passport is getting full with new visa stamps, my eyes are getting even wider and my brain is being overloaded with all the amazing things I've seen this year. I quit Sao Paulo with the Sumo Power Nissan team early on the Monday morning after the race: whilst the 26 sea containers containing the GT1 grid trucked off towards the border, we headed back to the Guarulhos International airport to pick up a flight to Buenos Aires – the first leg of our trip to the remote Potrero De Los Funes track in the San Luis province of Argentina.
I'd left Brazil behind with an appropriate visual sign-off: a VW Beetle with a Senna S sticker, spotted whilst driving down the Ayrton Senna highway.
Back home, London is under a couple of feet of snow. I'm getting emails from friends and family with photos of impassable roads, iced-up trains and snow drifts up to your knees. My car is apparently more now an igloo than a motor vehicle. And yet, I can't help but send images like this back to them. I'm not sure I'll be welcome when I return next week…
However, it's not all blue skies: this time of year seems to have a weekly cycle of building temperatures, from a shockingly cold low-20°C to start (ahem, sorry Englanders!) building to 30s… and then the storms hit. And my god do they hit. More on that later.
After the two-hour flight, we arrived in Buenos Aires and took a bus into the centre: straight away I was snapping away at the cornucopia of cars we passed. After an half an hour on the highway we came over an improbably high and over-complicated junction to drop down into the city proper and past my first sighting of Buenos Aires' famous purple-flowered jacaranda trees. They really bring the city alive with colour.
I love the fact that you see modern European saloons next to hulking old American cruisers next to big slab-fronted pick-ups, all threading their way through the multitude of old-school low-nosed Mercedes lorries pulling every kind of trailer you can imagine. I struggled to identify a lot of the American kit: for instance, this Dodge Polara. It's that kind shape of classic cruiser that populated '70s cop movies.
Our hotel was opposite a rather tired, abandoned shop – called Harrods! No relation to the London store, I'm assuming. This pick-up was parked on the road, sporting a dangerous-looking after-market nose statuette! Buenos Aires has a great feel: European café culture mixed with American bustle and, of course, South American laid-back style. Half the Sumo Power team seemed set on the idea of staying there permanently.
However, the next morning it was time for another flight, this time an internal three-hour 'hop' from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, out by the Chilean border. There the 22-strong Sumo Power team split up into a half-dozen Heinz-variety of hire cars: VW Gols (not Golf; a local model) and Jettas, plus my steed for the upcoming road-trip: a Ford Ranger 4×4. We would be the luggage carrier, as the other compacts sagged under the weight of their occupants alone. Cases stowed in the back of the pick-up, we headed out of Mendoza and onto the road for San Luis. Exit Mendoza, turn left, go straight on for three hours. And time for the start of the next leg of my car-spotting safari. I marked this as a Hillman Avenger: of course, I've been corrected that it's the Dodge Avenger…, the US equivalent. The last time I remember seeing one of these on the road (and working more to the point), I must have been a kid!
Luckily I wasn't down to do any driving, so I settled down in the back seat whilst Mark Nye, number 3 mechanic on the #22 Sumo Power GT-R, steered us along and Ian Smith, chief engineer on #22 handled map duties.
Next up, the common Ford Falcon (with facelift). What I liked about this one was that it was parked in the middle of road-works: they'd dug up the road all around, leaving the Falcon stranded at the side of the road!
Feeling all David Attenborough, I kept scanning the sides of the road for more prey. Spotted! An old Ford Sierra, hiding under the trees out of the midday sun, likely waiting for its Ford Fiesta mate to return from a hunting mission.
Displaying its rear in some kind of mating ritual: a lesser-spotted Ford Taurus GT.
There are a lot more European makes in this neck of the woods, particularly Fiats, Renaults and, like this 1960s 404, Peugeots. I think the doors may have rusted up, so the ladder is there to get in via the sunroof, Thunderbirds style.
Patched-up jalopies might be the norm, but even these old girls eventually grind to a halt. Outside each town is the sad sight of a scrapyard, just like cemeteries on the outskirts of towns. My heart leapt as I was sure I'd spotted an old Alfa on the right…
We'd been told that the road wasn't that interesting, but at least it was straight and easy.
Warning! Beef country! Now you're talking We all perked up a bit at the thought of some lovely Argentinian steak later in the day.
The next area we passed through was perfect olive and wine country: either side of the road the acres of trees and vines stretched into the distance. So, of course, it seemed like the sensible thing to do was to stop and buy some local produce.
Some Malbec red wine for the team (to complement the evening's planned barbecue) and a couple of jars of succulent olives were purchased, then it was back into the Ranger to powerslide through the gravel and back onto the highway for the final stretch to San Luis.
It had seemed a bit strange that we were flying three hours northwest to Mendoza, only to the drive back towards Buenos Aires for three hours.
The next signpost explained why… We were halfway to San Luis, but there was almost 1,000km to the capital! I decided to keep quiet in the back from then on.
After hundreds of kilometres of flat landscape, the volcanic ridges flanking San Luis loomed into view as we approached our destination. The track is up in the mountains, so we drove past San Luis and its permanent racing circuit to find the Potrero De Los Funes track. Winding up through the randomly signposted roads we caught up with another of our party: more of #22's crew stuffed into a little VW. They'd stopped for directions; we picked up Data Engineer Adam Shaw and set off again. It turned out we were actually pretty much on track.
Literally, it turned out! Driving past the Cabanas that would be home for the next week, we continued through a rocky gorge – and emerged to painted kerbs and concrete walls. As we were there, it seemed rude not to put a few laps in.
All four of us were open-mouthed: it's a fully-fledged racing circuit running round a reservoir, surrounded by volcanoes and with hotels, houses, shops and restaurants lining the side of the track. Slabs of concrete barrier and fence are simply removed to get access to all these places: they've then slotted back into place for the (infrequent) races that are lucky enough to take place here. Cars are parked up on the kerbs whilst their occupants pop into the chemist or the butchers. A local bus service potters down the back straight. It's surreal.
It's difficult to comprehend at first. If you lived here, surely every time you had to pop out to the shop you'd put a couple of laps in. How could you not?! And it's free! It's all public roads. It turns out the Ranger is actually surprisingly good as a track-day car as well: a light rear and stiff suspension meant that even at low speeds you could get the tyres squealing and the unloaded wheel cocked in the air. Fun, fun! The track can be split into two halves: the opening section with sweeping turns and quite long straights punctuated by viciously tight chicanes, which drops towards the bottom end of the track. Then the track tightens right up, around a slow hairpin and winds its way back up through a series of very narrow switchbacks. This section is going to be lethal with the GT1s: there's no room for error. In fact, the entire track is lined with those unforgiving concrete blocks, often just an arm's length away,
As we put in a final lap (there were a couple of final laps, to be honest), we spotted a VW heeling over through the corners behind us. He took us into the final right-hander onto the start-line and disappeared into the distance.
Half-way round the lap we caught up with it, parked by the side of the track. Inside, #23's driver Michael Krumm. "What are you doing?!". He looked rather bemused as we sat idling in our pick-up. We were too busy giggling.
Time for refuelling. The woody BBQ smells emanating from the Complejo De Lago tempted us in. Despite the perturbing translations on the menu (I'm sure I've got Goat Of The Flames' first album) and our utter fail at Spanish, we ordered up.
A local Quilmes beer and some utterly delicious steak later, four very happy and full Brits drove rather more sedately back to the Cabanas.
More car-spotting. Hardly a classic – and I have terrible childhood memories of one my parents had when I was young – but there are lots of Renault 12s staggering around. It's like the entire stock of old 12s was shipped out here when France finally gave up on them. It's a nice rust colour as well, which is appropriate.
Again, more big pick-ups tower over the Euro veterans.
We had a quick drive up into the hills to try and find volcanoes spouting lava and flame. No such luck, as we were several thousand years late, but there were yet more classics tucked away in villages. I'd be quite content to cruise round in this Chevy Nova.
With the cars still on the back of trucks somewhere in northern Argentina, it meant there was a rare night off for the Sumo Power team. After a slightly fraught shopping trip, Logistics Manager Carl Holden and Event Co-ordinator arrived back at the Cabanas laden down with Quilmes and plenty of meat to throw on the BBQ. Excellent job. With Chief Mechanic Mark Paulin and #23's Number 2 mechanic Gareth 'Panda' Sandells manning the tongs, the meat did grill and the beer did pour.
I've decided this is the way I want to write Speedhunters stories from now on: off the back of a pick-up truck, steak sandwich and glass of red to hand, with lightning raging on the horizon. Perfect.
After a scorching day and a balmy, mild evening, around 10pm suddenly the temperature plummeted. Lightning had been flashing away in the distance for some time, providing great entertainment for the boys all lined up on plastic chairs and facing the plains to the south. Flashes increased, to the left, to the right… and got closer. And closer! Then, with hardly any warning the storm hit us. Biblical rain, a plague of frogs (okay, one, but he was pretty big) and booming thunder right over us. Quite perturbing. Thank god the BBQ was still going and there was some beer left… Well, it was far too risky to run back to our own chalets…