Willhire 25hrs

A scorcher!

Longer-distance saloon car racing in Britain reached new levels of endurance ten years ago, when the BRSCC and sometime historic racer Roger Williams united to organise and sponsor a 24-hour race.

Backed by Williams’ vehicle hire company, Willhire, and usually (even with his leg in plaster!) featuring the boss in Ford machinery, the event has prospered at its Snetterton home. This year’s tenth running was stretched an extra hour in honour of Willhire reaching 25 business years in East Anglia.

Extra time did not inflict terrible carnage on the 24-hour regulars, 20 finishers from 36 starters being little fewer than would normally have been expected. All were given a 2½–hour respite by early morning fog which demanded the use of pace cars.

That meteorological inconvenience dropped the winning average for the 1.9-mile selection of fast curves and hairpins to 78.54 mph. The victorious car racked up the fastest lap in a more representative 1 min 18.52 sec (87.89 mph) – a fine achievement on road-going 205/60 radials from the Firestone Firehawk range – but the 2000-mile target was not exceeded, journalist Mark Hales and former ATS Formula One driver Slim Borgudd recording 1964.93 miles.

Much of the race featured a tense two-way struggle between the Firestone-sponsored Sierra and Sapphire RS types and the lone three-door Sierra RS backed by Janspeed and Castrol.

The Willhire is usually characterised by hot and sunny June weather, and this year’s edition really deserved the tabloid “Phew! What a Scorcher!” cliché. Temperatures during daylight reached over 85°F, and drivers might realistically expect to be operating one of the turbocharged Sierra glasshouses at 95-100° for long periods.

Halfway through the production racing season, both Firestone and Uniroyal-backed Championships were balanced on a knife-edge between Hales and fellow Ford-runner Kieth Odor. Practice is not generally much of a guide to form in long-distance motor racing, but these two chief protagonists lined up second (1 min 19.02 sec) and third (1 min 19.18 sec). The Hales Sapphire went on to defeat the Odor Sierra by three laps, largely as result of the latter’s two extra fuel-stops.

Pole position had gone to the sister Fire stone Sierra of Jerry Mahony/Tim Harvey (1 min 18.9 sec), but the significant factor was that one of the BMW M3s, that of Guy Povey, also lapped just beneath the 1 min 20 sec barrier. There was a pack of similar BMWs not far behind, plus the welcome fifth Snetterton marathon return of a left-handdrive Mercedes.

Entrusted to owner Ricky Fagan and two of the men who had shown its potential in earlier events, Ians Flux and Taylor, this well-raced 16v of Cosworth ancestry became a 2.5/16, and put up a stout fight for overall, as well as class, leadership. Despite a predic table accident when Fagan was being lapped by Odor, it not only defeated the BMW horde but also grasped third overall, a result that owed just as much to the hard-pressed mechanics as to the demoralising driving skills of Flux/Taylor.

As an aside, the Mercedes presence at Snetterton made me wish the marque was represented in the senior Group A series, to relieve the M3 monopoly. Its current absence is due to finance and differing regulations between this country and Germany. Jochen Neerpasch, the competition director at Daimler Benz AG, wants to see a united touring car formula throughout Europe before he commits company support to saloon cars in 1990, and beyond.

Snetterton’s afternoon start showed that the production racing classes still offer some variety over the televised category. Aside from the fact that nobody races a Sapphire in Group A (because there is no equivalent to the biplane Evolution RS500 in a Sapphire body), the Abbott brothers applied their driving and managerial skills to the creation of an effective Group N Saab 9000 Turbo to replace the Ford with which they won the 1988 Willhire. This welcome novelty has finished just outside the top three on a couple of occasions this season, and on this occasion qualified ninth. Its engine was to expire at little more than a tenth of the winners’ total lap-score.

Also adding variety was a Renault 21 Turbo (it finished 15th), and there were some of the fleet 16v Vauxhall Astra GTE hatchbacks to keep the previously dominant Golf GTIs racing hard to the finish.

In the end the privateer Golf of printer Nick Baughn and Simon Kirby beat off the Astra prepared by former Dealer Team Vauxhall engineer Gerry Johnstone, and another Golf ensured the GM car finished no higher than third in class, 13th overall. Yet it cannot be long before the Vauxhalls start to punish the Volkswagens, as they have in Group A.

The class-winning Golf finished sixth overall this year; last season it was third on the road, second after a BMW was disqualified. This is a remarkable achievement, but perhaps even more worthy of inspection by those interested in cheaper motorsport was the Suzuki Swift GTi.

This year a private Suzuki team featuring drivers Tim Busby/Simon Munger/Heather Baillie (one of three women entered this year) hauled the older Swift GTi outline to 14th overall — and a win in a class that was contested only by Suzukis! All the class competition beloved of magazine group tests (Citroen AX GT, and the like) was not even entered, such is the speed of this bargain-basement Japanese hatchback. The Swift lapped faster (1 min 25.25 sec) than the GTE Vauxhall in the class above; all this on 165 tyres and little more than 100 bhp . . . JW Abbott Racing’s Saab was refreshingly different, but not for very long. .  JW