On the road with Simon Arron

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Winter wonderland

Brands Hatch, January 31: mud, persistent drizzle, biting wind and a Ford Escort armada – welcome to the 21st century

Standing to the outside of Druids, appreciating the protective properties of Gore-Tex boots that are just about visible in the sludge below, the grass in the distance looks lush and inviting. It’s hard to imagine that this green sward was once Tumbledown Hill, a rutted escarpment that formed part of the presently defunct Brands Hatch rallycross circuit. Conditions today would be ripe for such sport.

But the MGJ Engineering Winter Stage Rally isn’t a bad alternative. Cars might set off one at a time, but the event’s format – multiple laps of four different stage layouts, each notionally tackled twice – necessitates a fair bit of overtaking. At one point, a Mk2 Escort lunges past a dawdling Honda Civic entering a hairpin with barely enough room for a single car. The quicker driver is hard on his horn, but an audible warning is no safeguard against the laws of physics and rear bumper inevitably contacts co-driver’s door midway through the Escort’s handbrake turn. Moments later, there’s the sound of a solid impact a few metres behind me as one of MotorSport Vision’s large red waste bins collects an errant Ford Fiesta that has just dislodged one of the many tyre-wall chicanes.

It’s a bit like rallycross on a quarter-scale circuit.

This Chelmsford MC-run event was the fifth round of the MSVR Motorsport News Circuit Rally Championship – and the first run to new safety regulations implemented in the wake of the 2014 Jim Clark Rally tragedy, in which three bystanders were killed when a car left the road. Measures that make sense on a special stage do not necessarily translate to a conventional circuit, however, and many trackside trenches – traditional habitat for marshals and photographers during race weekends – were in this instance out of bounds to all. 

This was the first, understandably cautious step in an evolutionary process and in due course a workable compromise will doubtless be reached for single-venue events at racetracks. That’s essential, because grass-roots sport needs all the support and coverage it can muster: this event usually attracts a dozen or more accredited photographers, but a combination of restricted access – and, quite possibly, a £60 charge for the correct MSA tabard – reduced attendance to just three.

It was a good event, too, with a field containing everything from old WRC-spec Ford Focuses and a couple of Ferrari 308s to 1-litre Nissan Micras and the inevitable galaxy of Mk1 and Mk2 Escorts, whose body language was the usual elegant counterpoint to that of grippier modern machinery.

Despite the wintry conditions, which eventually morphed into weak sunshine, a half-decent crowd turned out to watch Chris West/Steve McNulty (Peugeot 306 Maxi) beat Ashley Field/Ryan Vickers (Darrian T90) by 35sec, with James Sharrock/Stuart Faulds (Ford Escort Mk2) a further 15sec back ahead of Steve and Sebastian Perez (Ford Focus WRC). 

Number one seeds Jeremy Straker/Simon May had myriad problems with their Darrian T9, missed the first couple of stages and then joined in to treat the day as an extended test session. Only seven of the eight planned stages could be completed, as various incidents – Graham Hill Bend appeared particularly bothersome when tackled in reverse – caused delays that ate into the available time.

Through my lens, the performance of the day came from Steve Quigley/Tom Hutchings, fifth overall and second in class in a Renault Clio 172 Cup that looked relatively unspectacular but whose neatness masked its significant speed.

Momentum as an art form, then.

French blues with jazz overtones…

Ickford, Bucks, January 30: open day at a Bugatti specialist… and an unexpected opportunity to discuss 1970s production saloon car racing

The approach roads are a constant delight, threading between high hedges over which red kites swoop occasionally into view. It’s not a place to be brisk, though, because the terrain is narrow, many a horse is out for gentle morning exercise and some of the potholes are almost large enough to swallow a Fiat Punto whole. It’s the very essence of rural Britain.

Just beyond a T-junction, set back from the road, Bugatti specialist Ivan Dutton bristles with expertise distilled through three generations of one family. Victor Dutton was a riding mechanic for the factory Salmson team during the early 1920s and later opened his own garage business. Son Ivan became a successful racer and, at the helm of a Ford Escort, won the Castrol Production Saloon Car Championship title in 1973 before graduating to the main British Saloon Car Championship (as once the BTCC was known) in a Capri. Grandson Tim also competes and now manages the family’s Bugatti repair and restoration business, opened by his father in 1979.

Today is an open day, a chance for customers and racing associates to chat while perusing Bugattis in various states of rebuild (plus an elegant Lamborghini Miura, parked by the front door). Between times there is also a hearty lunch, served to a fine soundscape provided by James Pearson (piano) and
Sam Burgess (bass), regulars both at Ronnie Scott’s – a London jazz club with motor sport connections, as a well-known sponsor during the 1970s.

Embracing a significant cross-section of the wider racing community, guests include 1969 British saloon car champion Alec Poole and Historic Racing Drivers Club founder Julius Thurgood, who is contemplating a particularly busy year. On top of his regular itinerary he has a new one-day fixture at Thruxton plus a feature event at the Goodwood Revival Meeting for his Austin A35 Academy racers, whose regular season has so far drawn more than 50 registrations.

After a guided tour of the workshop, Tim introduces me to Ivan – who has just passed a medical to secure his annual competition licence renewal, at 75, and will participate from time to time this year in a mixture of cars. We’re surrounded by Bugattis, but Ivan nods towards a nearby door. “One of my old Ford Capris is through there,” he says. We chat about his racing heyday, some of the characters he knew and – as it is one of the day’s themes – the bond between the racing and music industries. During the mid-1970s, BBC Radio 1 sponsored a production saloon series and one of my period programmes has Bill Sydenham’s A&M Records-sponsored Hillman Avenger on the cover, with the names of artists Andy Fairweather Low and Supertramp among those on its flanks. Ivan is on the entry list, in his Capri, as are emerging radio presenter Mike Smith, Pete King (Mazda RX-3, backed by the aforementioned Ronnie Scott’s Club) and Jeff Beck Group/Rainbow drummer Cozy Powell (in another RX-3, sponsored by Hitachi).

“Cozy was quick,” says Ivan, “but needed to be a little smoother. Every corner seemed to be an adventure for him. I often raced against Noel Edmonds around that time, too, and he was pretty good. Another Radio 1 DJ was also interested – an American guy, Emperor Rosko. We had a spare RX-3 for guest drivers and asked whether he fancied racing it, which he did. We invited him to a mid-week test at Brands Hatch, but he told us that wasn’t necessary because he was a natural and didn’t need to practise. Somebody else rolled the car before Rosko drove it, however, so we never did find out.”