Willhire 24-hour race

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Our own 24

The weekend after motorised Britain was suffused with pride (for Jaguar’s Le Mans victory) and rage (for BBC Television’s apparent indifference), 1.9 miles of Norfolk’s Snetterton circuit played host to the United Kingdom’s only 24-hour race.

Instead of Jaguar versus Mercedes, Porsche and the Japanese, the contestants were from the booming National Production Saloon Car Championship. Miffed by an absence of success and further turbo boost-controls, Colt Car Company had withdrawn is support for the Starion, leaving eight Sierra RS Cosworths the favourites for victory in this safely-organised BRSCC contest.

The obsolete three-doors were boosted to rather less than their usual production racing 270-285 bhp in the interests of durability. The “Cosworths”, as they always seemed to be referred to in the category, were still comfortably the fastest straight-line propositions in the field along Snetterton’s answer to Mulsanne – the Revett straight.

The Fords, which finished 1-2-3 against all predictions in 1987, faced a field of potentially more reliable but slower BMW M3s, Escort RS turbos (a surprise winner in 1986) Golf 16V GTis, and a lone Mercedes-Benz 2.3/16, plus sundry representatives of Peugeot, Honda, Lancia, Opel, Fiat and the flock of GTi Suzukis which dominate the sub-1300cc division.

The star turn amongst the 37 on the grid was Nissan and former TWR Jaguar star Win Percy. This time he was sharing a new racing project from Mazda UK, the 4×4 323 turbo, with previous Uniroyal Champion James Kaye and rally champion Alistair Sutherland. However, the Mazda never looked like cutting really fast times, having an engine sealed close to the standard 148 bhp. The “stars” at Snetterton were really the eleven previous winners in the race.

This was the ninth edition of an annual fixture which started from a meeting of Willhire owner Roger Williams and then BRSCC director Peter Browning. In 1980 it was a mixed sports and saloon event, but the 1985 swop to a saloon car championship race marked the beginning of an escalation in spectators and competitors which is quite a surprise to anyone who remembers Snetterton only for its windy isolation.

The June weather is usually kind, and this year was no exception. Unfortunately that 21-26 C temperature is not a blessing for the hard-worked 205/50 road-legal rubber which twists beneath 1200kg of Cosworth through the many hard rights such as Coram’s endless 100 mph corner.

Aside from Spa-Francorchamps (ancient or modern circuit), I am not fond of spectating at 24-hour races, so my Norfolk presence was that of a participant.

It was the fourth successive time I had attempted the race – one with which I become fascinated through the generosity of another journalist who let me share his fragile but exhilaratingly fast Fiat Abarth. That was so much fun that, when the inevitable retirement came, I vowed to come back until we did get a decent finish… I am still waiting.

Since 1986 I have used Ford Sierras, starting with a long-shot XR4x4 ad then two of the inevitable RS Cosworths. Last year’s Cosworth was a bit of a mess, but fast enough to figure in the top three when healthy, even with me abroad.

This year’s car was a pristine example prepared by the people who first trusted me enough to support my saloon racing sideline: Janspeed. I did not really need reminding that it had been sixteen years since we tackled 29 novice-season races and came home with a class title, for, instead of driving for Jan Odor senior, I had agreed to accompany Kieth (yes, that is the Hungarian spelling) Odor, who had been less than ten years old when I drove for his dad!

Now Janspeed has seen its turbocharging technology fully employed upon the Sierra Cosworth, for the Ford Races under strange technical regulations in Britain. A 26mm air-restrictor on the path from intercooler to injection attempts to strangle the Cosworth’s overwhelming horsepower advantage. Yet there is no control placed on the boost, so competitors run more than double the Ford-recommended figure of 0.55-bar/8 psi. A fair degree of technical expertise with electronics and turbochargers is called for if the poor old Garret AiResearch TO3 (which spends its life working virtually flat-out against the restrictor) is to remain serviceable and the head-gasket unblown.

Generally you can reckon that a winning RS Cosworth in this category will have 280-285 bhp, enough to slam it to 135-140 mph on many British circuits. That road tyre-smoking power level was my first racing experience of the Janspeed Ford.

In late May, Kieth and I shared the driving in a one-hour event around Oulton Park’s captivating crests and cunning double-apex corners, finishing third overall. So we went to Snetterton with some optimism, even though all of us know that this complex car would be far more sorely tested in 24 hours.

Just as you would expect, we took the precaution of running lower boost to place less stress on not just the engine, but also upon replacement running gear. Included were a new Borg Warner gearbox, viscous coupling differential, brake discs (we bedded-in six sets of Mintex M200 brake-pads amongst the testing chores) and gas-insert Koni dampers.

In a formula where you cannot change any material part of the suspension, especially the coil springs, the replacement dampers and abused tyres (standard 205/50-sized BF Goodrich TA-R1 for us) end up as the only obvious handling advantages. As ever, in “showroom” racing, it was the subtleties that mattered just as much…

The Sierra proved incredibly sensitive to ride-height, so that it felt terrible nervous when riding on new springs which were fitted to avoid falling below the specified legal minimum-ride height. As the springs settled beneath the load of a full 120-litre fuel-tank, its contents consumed at close to 10 mpg, the Sierra also stabilised. Unless upset by heavy braking, the RS Sierra turns into an apex on understeer lock, followed by power oversteer.

Some three hours of practice are provided, half of it the mandatory night session in which every nominated driver (between two and four per car) must complete at least three laps.

We intended to drive two-handed for the majority of the race. From the delayed 4.15pm Saturday afternoon start to 10.31am on Sunday, that is exactly what we did, but former Porsche Champion (and Snetterton 24-Hour Race winner) Bill Taylor stepped in for what was destined to be the last stint.

Practice left us on the third row of the grid, seventh quickest courtesy of Kieth. In fact, as for the night session, our strategy was simply to do the minimum possible, the car now fully race-prepared so that any excess practice mileage was pointless.

To put our lap times in perspective, it is worth reporting that pole position went to the Dave Pinkney/Rob Gravett RS Cosworth in 1min 18.58sec (87.82 mph), nearly a second faster than eventual winners Lionel Abbott/Graham Scarborough, who would cover a record 1964.9 race miles at an average 81.85 mph. In race trim, our car recorded a 1min 19.43sec (86.88 mph), the fifth fastest lap (the winners also established the fastest racing lap, 1min 18.54sec, fractionally faster than the best in practice).

I had the honour of starting the car in a 2½-hour session, but we normally ran closer to 2¾-hours with brake-pad changes scheduled every second stop and tyres thrown at the car during most stops.

The daytime temperatures did give us tyre problems. As Kieth put in laps below 1min 20secs, we suffered the tread separating from the carcase and consequent deflation. But there was plenty of warning and it is worth saying that temperatures in excess of 250 deg Fahrenheit were recorded, even when the covers had reached the pits. Other leading brands suffered the same problems when fitted to the faster cars.

The rolling start was a daunting third-gear experience, the herd of Cosworth’s congregating on Riches, the opening corner, in a dusty haze of blue tyre smoke, over-run exhaust flames and searing paint schemes. The initial laps were spent with the Cosworths gradually subduing the interloping Escort RS of David da Costa. I settled in behind the Firestone Firehawk RS Cosworth of Jerry Mahony.

Dry and dusty night or sun-soaked day, lap times and cornering patterns remain the same, altered only by the need to accommodate sudden strings of traffic. Some 25 of 37 starters completed 24 hours; only 24 were classified though, the second-placed RS Cosworth disqualified for using a tyre lacking road legality.

In the RS Cosworth you need drop no lower than third gear at this circuit, the superb torque a marvellous assistance to avoiding tyre-destructive wheel spin. Fourth is required to dive into the aptly named Bomb Hole dip that introduces you to the delights of Coram. All through this eternal right you listen to the tortured near-side front tyre wailing, your body braced upon a giant alloy footrest and by the embrace of your Willans harness.

You straighten the steering and give the tyre an easier time at the expense of your heart-beat. Prompting the big Ford back into 100 mph line for the left/right flick of Russell is a precise process, otherwise the car bites back and clips the forbidden zones of the low kerbs.

Past the pits, fourth can be exchanged for fifth again at the designated 6000 rpm limit, the side exhaust booming off armco and backmakers with exhilarating vigour. Top is only required again on the Revett back straight. The car I had last year reached the rpm equivalent of more than 130 mph at the fastest point, but this year’s more conservative specification brought only 121 mph.

That was not enough to cope with the other Sierras in the opening charge, but the Firestone car was exactly the same at that stage and I knew Mahony/Hales had been a leading force in this category before. Thus I wasn’t too disheartened by my first-hour placing of seventh, three seconds ahead of the Firestone machine, a position which strengthened into fifth at the close of the second hour.

Unfortunately our pit-stop at 6.44pm took 13 minutes, after a misunderstanding during a brake pad change (to check wear rates) popped a piston from one caliper. That delay summed up our event – we would just get the car back into the top ten when another mechanical gremlin wormed into view…

Amongst the evil ones were: a burst oil cooler, total brake failure after a caliper distorted (I took to autocross on the infield to slow the thing down on the fourth gear approach to Riches), the tyre deflation, intermittent clutch operation due to a fractured steel component in the fulcrum operating mechanism, plus a series of electronic engine management misfires after the alternator was damaged by a surprise shear in the massive bolt which locates it.

At 12.52pm on Sunday the electrical shortcomings eventually mismanaged the engine to the point where the head-gasket wept. The travel-stained Ford rolled silently toward my Renault caravan base (thank you, Tim Jackson for putting a roof over our heads!) with less than four racing hours left.

Yes, I was disappointed. Yet ten hours and twenty-five minutes racing in four sessions gave a personal satisfaction that was denied the hardworking Janspeed pit-crew. Team manager Frank Swanston, engine ace Norman Clancy and Kieth’s regular mechanical minder, Shaun Arnold, demonstrated that they could whip the car back into contention after each delay and I hope they all get another chance to try to win this challenging event.

I enjoyed my hours of sweated labour, but I think a trip on the Autoglass 1989 Tour of Britain (and Ireland) might be a more appealing project and story next year. However, there are still two longer-distance races for Odor the younger and myself to tackle in 1988: a one-hour event at Donington on September 18, and the following weekend at Brands Hatch finale to the Uniroyal series over 300km of the modified Grand Prix circuit. JW