Winter's winning formula

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UK motor sport doesn’t ever truly switch off. And if proof were needed…

Circuit racing might grind almost to a halt beyond October, with a few honourable exceptions, but the ‘off-season’ contains plenty of weekend alternatives that don’t involve pubs, garden centres or television sets. For instance…

BRANDS HATCH

The rain wasn’t heavy, initially at least, but remained irritatingly persistent. As its volume intensified during the day, the temperature dropped: chill factor, moisture factor… who knows? And yet, throughout it all, a couple of blokes on the spectator banks thought it perfectly acceptable to wear shorts. Fine on the grounds of taste, perhaps, but less so in terms of common sense. They appeared to be enjoying themselves, though, which arguably counts for more than comfort – a perfect snapshot of local resolve.

In truth the day was probably better suited to sitting indoors and listening to goals rattle in on BBC 5 Live with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc to hand, but I have an internal trigger that forbids such indulgence: it’s January, Brands Hatch is stirring, get thee to the A20…

Third round of the 2017-18 Motorsport News Circuit Rally Championship, Chelmsford MC’s MGJ Winter Stages is now well established as part of the circuit’s repertoire. The recipe is tried and trusted – eight stages that blend the regular racetrack with access roads, the pit lane, both paddocks and the undulating course that hosts Brands Hatch’s own rally school – but familiarity doesn’t breed complacency. By the day’s end there were sufficient scars to vouch for both the event’s challenging nature and the commitment of those taking part, though the conditions probably didn’t help. And the pit exit hairpin, a tight squeeze for anything much bigger than a Fiesta, proved as always to be a chaos magnet. One driver stalled there for two consecutive laps, making navigability even more marginal and costing several rivals a second or three.

It says much for the Ford Escort’s emotional pull that about one third of the 80-plus entry were in either Mk2s or Mk1s, most of them with modern running gear (sequential transmission and so forth) beneath a recognisable cloak, but that doesn’t make them any less engaging to behold.

There was also a trio of Ferrari 308s, one destined to end its day in the Paddock gravel, one not especially quick and the other – shared by Lee Jones and Thomas Grogan – taking a worthy sixth overall among the more conventional weaponry,

The winners? Mark Kelly and Andy Baker. In a Mk2 Escort. Obviously.

BROOKLANDS

Some locations retain an aura even when there’s nothing going on – and Brooklands is one such. That the Vintage Sports-Car Club happened to be present, performing antique gymnastics against the clock, was merely a bonus.

Entries for the traditional New Year Driving Tests have dwindled slightly – down from 60-plus in the previous two years to 47 on this occasion – but it remains deeply satisfying to see the extant bits of Brooklands being used, even at speeds significantly south of John Cobb’s 143.44mph record, set as recently as 1935…

The nature of the event had changed slightly, with no reversing tests (the rules used to allow cars without a suitable gear to be pushed backwards) and the banking being used only lightly. Perhaps understandably, given the acclaim surrounding its relatively recent reopening, greater emphasis was placed on a series of exercises on the Finishing Straight.

Eddie Williams (1929 Frazer Nash Super Sports) is a regular front-runner at VSCC race meetings – and he underlined that he has dexterity as well as speed by taking outright victory from class winner Edmund Burgess (1924 Bugatti T13) and Richard Marsh (1929 Austin 7 Ulster). Among the most eye-catching entries were the 1925 Trojan Utility of Frazer Sloan, which just about conquered the Test Hill (with its one-in-four gradient towards the summit), and Katie Forrest’s 1912 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, which required a three-point turn simply to access said Test Hill but otherwise performed with abundant grace.

And then there’s all the other stuff that was accessible to visitors on the day – the sprawling collection of sheds housing one of the planet’s finest assemblies of subjects automotive and aeronautic, everything from pre-war Grand Prix cars to Concorde via a Morris Eight.

Plus, of course, the on-site café retains its period urinals – strictly not for use, and bereft of graffiti as ‘the right crowd’ presumably didn’t do that kind of thing – but a charming throwback of the kind you simply don’t find elsewhere.

Walking into the new Flight Shed, the first thing one sees is a Sopwith Camel replica, with twin machine guns perched just behind its propeller. It would be impressive today if somebody came up with adequate synchronisation technology to prevent such planes shooting themselves down, but the Sopwith Camel is 101.

STANDLAKE

There is something defiantly grandiose about the word ‘arena’ – a term you might apply with equal certainty to Madison Square Garden or the Camp Nou. You might not associate it with a small plot of land just off the B4449, about 14 miles to Oxford’s west, but Standlake Arena has been a sporting hub since 1972.

Originally a dirt track, it was paved during the early 1980s but that’s about it as far as facilities go. There is raised banking upon which early arrivals may park to obtain a weather-sealed view from the comfort of their car, plus a tea hut, but for the most part it’s a friendly, laidback place carpeted in mud and gravel (with a bit of ice thrown in if you happen to be there for the Heavy Metal Classic – a January staple that once attracted a UK record entry of 266 bangers, though that is now capped at 236).

Standlake prides itself on an old-school approach – only the driver’s door and floorpan may be welded for strengthening, but that’s it. Anything considered to have been too zealously prepared will be rejected at scrutineering. That apart, almost anything goes: the multi-class structure admits Nissan Micras at one end of the scale and Rolls-Royce Silver Shadows at the other, though some things – including Ford Mondeos and Toyota Previas – are barred on the grounds of inherent natural strength. The 2018 entry included an Austin Allegro and two Morris Marinas, though science is powerless to explain why you’d choose either for durability or handling…

Many people remain dismissive of short-oval competition, but in all its forms (banger racing included) it’s a good place to fine-tune one’s car control, peripheral awareness and reflexes.

Standlake calls itself the ‘home of motor sport in Oxfordshire’ – a claim the Williams and Renault F1 teams might validly contest, ditto Brookes University – but for £12 per head (including programme) and with at least 20 races (depending on the survival rate) it provides competitively cheap racing on both sides of the fence.

Welcome to the school of very hard knocks.

Images: Simon Arron