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In its 25 years the M25 has set numerous world records, so to mark the motorway’s milestone anniversary CM set out to establish its own unique achievement on London’s notorious orbital ring road Words: George Barrow / Images: Tom Lee Love it or hate it, there is something bizarrely alluring about the M25. Fly into any London airport and you’ll see its majesty, with its 117 miles of carriageway illed with trafic. It also has a reputation for being a bit of a car park, so when I boldly claimed our long-term Volkswagen Caddy could do 700 miles on a single tank, the M25 seemed like the ideal proving ground to ensure a consistent (if slow) average speed.
Being an automatic, the odds were stacked against our Caddy DSG, so a quick call to VW saw a more eficient Bluemotion sneak its way into the car park, and while few CM staff truly thought it possible for a light van to clock up 700 miles continually lapping the M25 at the national speed limit, I was conident enough to announce to the ofice a world record attempt and achieve the greatest number of laps of the M25 in a van. The stage was set. A week later, I’m heading to Clackett Lane Services with a stopwatch and case of energy drinks.
There are just a few minutes to go before the first of what we hope will be several laps of the M25. Whisking us around the London Orbital will be a Volkswagen Caddy Bluemotion that has just been fully primed at the pumps of Clackett Lane services.
I’ve never been a fan of early morning photoshoots. Photographers are a meticulous breed, and these low light levels are not ideal shooting conditions. Fortunately, our man Tom Lee is up to the task and the pictures are over with in a flash – literally. There's a reason I call him Two-time Tom.
The challenge has begun, and the Caddy and I gently ease onto the motorway, heading clockwise. If past experience is anything to go by this first lap should be a quick one and, sure enough, traffic is light. During this lap and the next, minimising our fuel consumption will be critical, because running at the speed limit of 70mph will seriously affect our economy. As perverse as it may sound, traffic is definitely going to be our friend.
Heathrow Airport is approaching, and the controlled speed limit section has been dispatched for the first time. In a few hours this fiveand six-lane section will be one of the worst we’ll have to endure, but for now we sail past. The tail-lights of a small aircraft can be seen rising into the sky. Many people think the airport closes at night to give locals a break from the noise, but as a resident under the flight path I’m well aware that Heathrow never sleeps. Much like the motorway, it only gets quieter.
Just over 70 miles have passed since the Caddy set off, and I’m conscious that we could be more than 10% into our journey. A reassuring glance at the fuel gauge shows it hasn’t yet moved a millimetre.
Lap one complete, and it’s been an easy and quick one. The fuel gauge still sits stubbornly on its original mark, and traffic is building. The signs are encouraging.
It’s dawned on me that I’ve spent the past two hours thinking about aerodynamic trailers. It’s not how I usually spend the small hours, but the constant stream of overnight courier artics has made me realise just how prevalent they are becoming. During the day they are still quite scarce, but at night they appear to be out in force. Are Cheetahs usually nocturnal?
The fuel needle has moved. I thought I was imagining it, but as the Caddy speeds past the M40 junction for the second time there is now clear daylight between the needle and full.
Traffic slows to around 15mph, and the stopwatch is activated for the first time as we join the line of vehicles waiting to pay at the Dartford Crossing. With my pocket £2 lighter I’m thankful this isn’t an HGV, which reminds me of CM managing editor Will
Shiers who is an M25 veteran, having endured 24 hours in a Renault Magnum around the motorway several years ago. Unluckily for him, he is now waiting at Clackett Lane, ready to chauffeur me around what is certain to be the most gruelling of today’s laps.
Shiers takes the wheel, and we’re straight into a jam. The Bluemotion’s Stop/Start system kills the engine. Shiers complains bitterly about having to do the worst lap of the day. I ignore him and switch on the radio for the first time to get an update on the traffic from Radio 2. The M25 doesn’t even get a mention, but why would it? This is the world’s largest car park after all.
It’s been a slow drag around to South Mimms services, but traffic is gradually clearing and with any luck we will hit the Crossing when it is quiet.
We pass the sign for Thurrock services. Five hours ago the whole area was masked by fog, now only a whisp of grey remains. Shiers has just realised that the Bluemotion comes fitted with cruise control.
Time for an argument. Shiers is convinced we should be using the cruise control, citing the 50 ways to save fuel feature we both had a hand in writing.
He thinks he’s won, but I flatter his ego by telling him that a skilled driver such as he can read the road and produce a more consistent drive without cruise control. “You can take advantage of the terrain and changing traffic speeds,” I say. My boss protests, but I overrule him. This is my van.
Back at Clackett Lane, the Caddy now has three laps under its belt. I jump out, desperate not only for breakfast, but also the facilities. I glance at the dashboard: 352 miles have gone by and we are still not even half way into our fuel. Shiers is left to continue, unmonitored.
Two-time Tom is still waiting patiently at the service station, having been “entertaining” himself with a copy of The Guardian in between a nap and breakfast. He claims he’s been busy, though, taking pictures of us from footbridges. I break it to him, gently, that he will be joining me for the next lap. It suddenly hits me that this is turning into a scorcher of a day. I’m straight on the phone to Shiers, who eventually answers, having figured out which button controls the Bluetooth kit he’s borrowed. Everything is fine, he is just as hot as I am, but hasn’t even turned on the fans, let alone the air-conditioning.
However, the treacherous managing editor has defied my orders and been playing with the cruise control. He says the long gradient near Leatherhead was perfect for it. The Caddy swings into the car park, and an overheated-looking Will Shiers emerges from the cab. The Volkswagen’s fourth lap has taken longer than expected, an unpleasant surprise for what we thought would be a relatively quiet period for the M25. We have a quick debrief and Lee prepares to enter the VW, snapping as we talk.
Later Shiers will tell me that the overhead signs were warning of a lane closure, and that the variable speed limit section was at 40mph, yet the motorway appeared clear – a classic M25 ruse.
12:25pm 12:57pm 12:59pm “Last lap, is it?" asks Lee. I shoot him a
look of death as we rejoin the M25, and politely inform him that we still have just under half a tank of diesel left.
Lee’s camera has been clicking for over half-an-hour, and he has now informed me that we will have to stop to get his second memory card out of the back. I tell him to be more selective with his shot taking and to prepare to take a picture of the “Give Peas A Chance” bridge we will soon pass, just before J17.
Satisfied that he now has enough room on his memory card to last the rest of the journey, Lee settles the camera on his lap. “Good, you’ve stopped,” I say. “Now you can count the number of cat’s eyes across the carriageway.” Lee laughs, thinking I’ve managed to regain my sense of humour. I hand him the small black counter I’ve been hiding in the door pocket: “Just pick one lane, I’ll tell you when to stop.” Did you know there are, on average, 392 cat’s eyes across a one-mile stretch of a three-lane motorway? Factoring in those sections with extra lanes, that means there are nearly 50,000 cat’s eyes on the M25. Or at least that’s what our extensive research tells us. Another solo lap beckons.
Time for Sally Traffic, and it’s good news – I think – the M25 still doesn’t get a mention. As long as it stays clear we won’t have any trouble getting the Caddy safely off the motorway when the fuel supplies run low. Like a military super computer, we’ve carefully calculated a number of eventualities, and are waiting for that orange fuel light to flick on. In the meantime a Louis Armstrong song starts just as the radio is silenced. I like Louis, and continue to sing the only song of his I am confident I know the words to, What a Wonderful World, in my best Satchmo voice.
Another uneventful lap of the M25 complete, except for the light flickering as we crossed the Thames. A seventh lap looks out of the question. From here on we are just hoping to make it to J11 and the safety of our test track. I set off on the last leg of our mission, but not before Shiers and Lee perform an impression of me singing, having winessed my karaoke whilst photographing from another vehicle.
The needle is practically horizontal. As I pass J8 for Sutton and the CM office I consider pulling off to find familiar roads to safely stop on, but I trust in the preparation work. An earlier practice lap suggested we’d get 57.5mpg, while the combined fuel
figure published by Volkswagen says we might do 55.4mpg, but that’s not while running at near 70mph. The former figure would see us well clear of J11, and safely lapping the test track; the latter would probably leave us dead in the water right about now...
The Caddy is now just passing the site of what will eventually be the Cobham services – a welcome addition to this section of the motorway – but there are still at least seven miles to go until we reach the Woking and Chertsey turn off. There’s no going back now as we pass J10. It’s five miles until our exit and I think I just felt the engine falter for the first time. Or did I? Even if we make it there with fuel to spare, we are now in danger of not making it to the track in time, as it suddenly dawns on me that last entry is 5pm.
Three hundred yards, two hundred yards, one hundred. We’re off the motorway.
The fuel gauge is at rock bottom, but have we given up too early? Its now just five miles of country roads to the track.
We’re on the track, but the Caddy is still going strong, taking the undulating twists and turns without missing a beat, and although our mini M25 doesn’t have any traffic, there is a traffic light-controlled crossing that we have to slow for.
There’s a chug, quickly followed by another. Surely this must be it. VW has assured us that the engine can take the stress of running out, providing that once we put fuel back in we let it run for a while to self-bleed.
A small reprieve as we coast down one of the track’s slopes, but there our luck is out. The Caddy’s death rattle is brief. We coast to a halt. It’s over. 758.6 miles!
Maths will later reveal that the Caddy could have nearly made it as far as Junction 19, but that’s immaterial. We’ve drained an entire tank and notched up 56.5mpg in the process. It’s taken 13 hours and 23 minutes, an average speed of 56.6mph, and remarkably, according to the stopwatch, we have spent just one hour 27 minutes travelling at less than 20mph.
Whoever said the M25 was a car park was wrong – for today at least. ■