Every schoolboy’s dream job?
Given this is my first contribution to Motor Sport, I thought I really ought to introduce myself. Obviously because it’s polite, but also because as a long-standing reader of this hallowed publication, I know I’d want the opportunity to look the new boy up and down to see if he fits the bill. So, here goes. Please be gentle with me.
No matter how far back I look, right to my very earliest memories in fact, I can’t recall a time where I didn’t love cars. Riding in them. Drawing them. Reading about them. Making models of them. Photographing them. Watching them race. And, once I was old enough, driving and racing them myself.
I suspect being brought home from hospital as a newborn baby in a Triumph GT6 might have something to do with it; tender lungs treated to some lead-rich five-star petrol fumes; delicate ears rattled by a snorty straight-six lullaby. In my parents’ defence it was the early 1970s.
This magazine also played its part in corrupting my young mind. I have to confess I don’t remember the date of my first issue, but I’m pretty sure it had James Hunt’s Marlboro McLaren on the cover. For some reason one thing I do remember vividly is being obsessed by the old black and white Caterham Cars adverts, which always seemed to be located on the inside front cover. If you’re wondering, yes, I have since owned a Seven. Impressionable youth indeed.
Apart from pushing a small Corgi die-cast Yardley M19A around imaginary race tracks on my bedroom floor, my first introduction to motor racing was as a spectator. Initially avidly watching F1, rallying and rallycross coverage on the television, then, aged 11 or so, as a trackside spectator. Together with best mate Nick and his father, my dad and I would regularly go to Silverstone and Brands Hatch for the 1000Kms Group C races and the Tourist Trophy, which in those days was a round of the European Touring Car Championship (ETC) for Group A touring cars. I’ll never forget the buzz of excitement as we drove through the gates, nor the extreme cold as we huddled in the draughty grandstands at Woodcote and Stowe. I’d get autographs, take photos, proudly wave home-made banners with Nick and stand as close as I could to the track, transfixed by the noise and drama. Thanks to TWR’s success I still have a soft spot for the SD1 Rover Vitesse. To be honest it’s a miracle I didn’t have a 40-a-day smoking habit, divided equally between Bastos to help Tom Walkinshaw pay the bills, and Rothmans to keep Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx in 956s.
Thinking back it seems surreal that the racing we watched back then is now revered and celebrated in historic race meetings and festivals around the world. Can I really be that old? Actually, don’t answer that. The only thing more bizarre is that I’ve since raced with (and against) some of those heroes I watched race in the Eighties and Nineties. Sharing a Jaguar D-type at Le Mans Classic with Andy Wallace and a GT40 in the Spa Six Hours with Gerhard Berger have been by far the finest pinch-myself moments yet.
Parental and childhood influences fuelled my obsession for cars, but it was more by accident than academic design that I became a motoring journalist. Becoming a road tester was the dream, but there weren’t any O-levels in oversteer or primary and secondary ride appraisal. Thanks then to Jaguar and the Guild of Motoring Writers for the Sir William Lyons Award – a competition aimed at budding young writers – for providing me with an opportunity to get noticed and, ultimately, to get my first full-time magazine job. With a foot in the door I was fortunate to work under the tutelage of some great mentors who taught me the right way to do things, and that the best results always come when you’re having fun.
It was in those formative days (1993, to be precise) that I got my MSA race licence, so that I could drive BP’s guest car in a round of the Caterham Seven Roadsport Championship. Getting my National B licence and doing that race were moments that genuinely changed my life.
This month marks the start of my 25th season of racing. I wish I’d been diligent enough to keep a diary of every car I’ve raced or tested over the years, but alas I always had something better to do. Suffice to say it’s got to be several hundred different cars and a few hundred races. And that’s not counting events such as Bonneville Speed Week and Pikes Peak International Hill Climb. Nevertheless, when I think about that first race I still get goosebumps. Still feel my heart-rate increase. Still recall the mild panic rising in my chest as it dawned on me I’d never actually overtaken anyone in a racing situation – this rather critical epiphany coming halfway through attempting to overtake someone…
These days I’ve got a lot better at controlling my nerves, and I’m (a bit) better at overtaking, but whatever and wherever I race I’m pleased to say the incredible, inimitable, almost uncontainable rush of excitement and nervous energy remains just as powerful. Adrenalin is clearly still my
drug of choice.
That’s why even after all these years there’s still so much to get excited about. Over the last four or five seasons I’ve gorged myself on historics, doing more racing than the previous 20 seasons put together, in cars I previously would only have dreamed of driving. Iconic and utterly individual machines such as the Mk1 Lotus Cortina, Lola T70 Mk3B, Lotus Elan 26R and 3.4 RS ‘Cologne’ Capri. Oh, and a super-sideways AC Cobra at last year’s Goodwood Revival. And, and, and… When I get a moment I’ll dig through the terabytes of GoPro footage I’ve accumulated over the years and share some snippets of in-car footage on our website – motorsportmagazine.com.
I’m thrilled to say I’ll be racing a few of those cars and – hopefully – driving with some more heroes this year. I’ll also be stepping-up into Peter Auto’s new-for-2017 Euro F2 championship, driving an ex-Giacomo Agostini Chevron B42 from 1978. Having previously raced only one single-seater, a Formula Palmer Audi, at Brands Hatch back in 2001, the prospect of piloting this quick and gorgeous open-wheeler is more than a little intimidating. Especially as the first event is at Spa!
Racing any car is tremendous fun, but I find historics completely bewitching. They’re so expressive and engaging, with a magical combination of little or no aero and almost always more grunt than grip. They demand empathy, mechanical sympathy and constant improvisation. A bit of bravery too, if it’s a T70 in the pouring rain. Whatever the conditions, and whether mid-week testing at Donington or dicing for a win at Dijon, the joy of historics is that every lap doesn’t just feel like the most fun you’ve ever had: it is the most fun you’ve ever had.
That’s why I regard my race licence as the most precious card in my wallet. It’s a passport to pleasures I’m incredibly lucky to experience and the provider of memories I know I will never forget.
So the bucket list isn’t getting shorter, which is a very good thing, because it means there’s plenty of fun left to have. It goes without saying I’m very much looking forward to sharing the best of those adventures with you over the coming months. I really can’t wait to get started.