STEEP THRILLS

STEEP THRILLS

SHELSLEY WALSH IS 96 THIS YEAR. BUT ITS ORGANISING CLUB, MIDLAND AC, HITS THE EVEN TON. PAUL FEARNLEY AND FOUR LEGENDS OF THE HILL JOIN THE PARTY STEEPED IN HISTORY AND STEER SHELSLEY

Walsh, population 31, is a haven. A place where mobile 'phones are often joyously free from signal. A place upon which the Gods have smiled.

Shelsley Walsh, cheek by jowl with Shelsley Beauchamp, tucked away in the Teme Valley, nestled in Elgar's beloved Malvem Hills, is surely the very spot for which florid brochurespeak was created. What's more, the sun is shining (smiling?) and I am cushioned in the 'armchair' from where ERA R4D is commanded. Just feet behind stands the simple brick column that bears Raymond Mays' memorial. He loved this place. Recorded 20 F1Ds here -12 of them in R4D and its

earlier incarnations. The car on the hill. Everything perfect barring one thing: R4D, a machine of rip-roaring exhaust notoriety,

is mute. From underneath the passenger seat of its tow car is fished a tightly-twisted output shaft. The 'silencer'.

Part of me is disappointed. The other part, the one that has always blanched whenever I've stared into this car's cockpit to view its by-theballs Roots supercharger, is relieved. Plus, whenever a pre-selector gearbox's mechanism has been explained to me, it has sounded simplicity itself; I am sure, however, the crystal-clear logic of it all would have been muddied by motion, blurred by the confines of Shelsley's hemmed-in, hectic 1000 yards.

The car, no doubt, would've done its best for me. Mays' hillclimbing background made him a traction and acceleration zealot, and it's no surprise ERAs possess heaps of both. If he had one eye on voiturette success, he had the other on Shelsley's record. In mymind's eye,! have 4500rpm on the large white-out-of-black clock. Staring up at the right-left sweep past Vox Villa, Triangle just over the rise,

keynote white-painted metal railings to the left, I know this is exactly what Mays saw. I drift in reverie.

Gripping the cord-bound, springspoked wheel, heavily canted and offset left-to-right as opposed to the usual right-to-left (adaptions to cope with Mays' childhood arm injury), the revs build. And away.

With second already selected, just a kick of the clutch required, speed would gather faster than any supercar you might care to mention.

Kick. Another tenth pared.

Flat through Kennel. Getting steeper. Onto Crossing. Hold your breath. Flat through kink. Third briefly. Hard on the anchors for Bottom S. Road bit wider. More room to work with. Keep in tight. Then turn in late. Hug the bank. And burst through tree line. Hard on the power for finish straight Three hundred yards. Washboard surface. Farm track,

really. Complete with gate. Slash the line. At over 90. Park on grass. To contemplate.

They cross the finish at 140mph these days. But little else has changed. It's still a mad scrabble to shed speed afterwards. My first reaction is, 'Why don't they shunt the line down a bit?' But that, of course, is to miss the point entirely: the hill has been 1000 yards since 1907 (the first two climbs were eight yards shorter).

As circuits evolve over the years, a chicane here, a swimming pool there, lap records lose their gravitas, their points of reference changing every other year, it seems. Break the record at Shelsley and it means something. Like being a boxing champion before the proliferation of governing bodies. Midland AC is multifaceted (see sidebar), but Shelsley is at its core. The members love this place, 2011Ds or no. For example, Roger Willoughby regularly rushed the hill from 196190, mainly in modern machinery. s)-?

But he also owns the supercharged Cooper-JAP that set FTD in August 1957, when colourful pub landlord Dickie Henderson clocked 35.84sec. Roger purchased the car in '71 for 1250. Then a friend bought the box that contained its spare spark plugs. For 1,400! It had originally held a pair of duelling pistols. The blown 1000cc V-twin emits its discordant bark. "Can't quite beat Dickie's time," Roger shrugs. "Got

within a few hundredths. 85mph over the line. Don't want to wear the seat belts, do you?" Big-twin Coopers won the title 11 times in a row (1951-61), although Ken Wharton, the driver who made the breakthrough, mixed and matched his supercharged version with R11B and R4D in 1953-54 and '56, scoring three more Shelsley l 1Ds for guess which one. Tony Marsh, who still competes, David Boshier-Jones and

David Good added to Cooper twins' tide roll-call, by which time supercharging was a rarity. "A well-sorted normally-aspirated car has a more bottom-end punch," says Willoughby. That being so, they must have plenty, kir the merest whiff of throttle pricks up this Cooper's ears. With 140bhp, this flea-sized car can scratch just about any itch. Its solid back axle (a duff is optional) would demand respect on the limit, any

doubts or momentary hesitations ringing up terminal understeer, but at these getting-to-know-you speeds, it's an absolute hoot. The Centric supercharger whirs in smoothly, although at what revs I cannot tell, for the counter is masked by the steering wheel's tdc spoke. The positive-stop motorcycle gearbox is snick-snick swift, all four ratios used on the ascent, although I would have preferred to pull for up and push for

down. The steering is super-direct, any ham-fisted inputs sending you snuffling the banks like a terrier.

Roger says it "all hops about a bit" and gears can be selected without the clutch — at high speed. I will have to take his word on such matters.

That I have yet to mention the brakes (four drums, apparently) speaks volumes. No more need be said. Apart from the fact they are a sight better than those on the Vauxhall Villiers. Press the middle pedal on the latter device and the mechanical advantage is sufficient to move the front axle but, because of a design flaw, insufficient to introduce shoe to

drum. Intrepid owner Julian Ghosh assures me they work well, in reverse. Great. Building three GP racers for 1922 almost bankrupted Vauxhall. These cars were right at the cutting edge: three-litre, twin-cam, four-valve, pent-roof, plug between the cams, flywheel between pots two and three, massive

roller-bearing crank — all courtesy of Harry R Ricardo. A superb four-speed crash 'box. Fourwheel brakes (the thought was there).

But Vauxhall were outflanked: the French changed the regs, introducing a 2-litre limit. So the only true allBritish GP car of the era was revved up with nowhere to go — except the TT, a three-car team managing a third place and two retirements. Mays scored his first Shelsley 11) the following year, at the wheel of a Brescia Bugatti, but the second proved hard to come by, Basil Davenport's spindly 'Spider' special setting seven consecutive bests. The thwarted Mays bought GP Vauxhall chassis number two, which had been fettled by supercharging genius Amherst Villiers. One large (gearbox-sized) blower breathing through three 48mm Zeniths later,

and a walloping 300bhp was on tap.

Mays got his prized second Fl D in 1929. His third in '30. His fourth in '31. And his fifth in '33. Traction — another solid axle — and acceleration were the keys to this success. "You have to grab it by the scruff of the neck," says Ghosh. "I had to make a conscious effort to keep my foot flat on the floor on my first drive. It snakes and weaves, but it's brilliant once you're used to it" Yes, but this car can bite, as evinced by gam-like scar on Julian's right arm, legacy of a Wiscombe Park roll. And this car can be pig

headed. Its 80:10:10 methanol-benzenepetrol mixture acts as a soothing balm for its stressed internals, but has the annoying habit of icing-up the Zeniths. The Villiers does not like hanging about Doesn't suffer fools gladly. It fires first time on this occasion, a meaty belch clearing its throat. The supercharger frets

and whistles and the motor hunts and coughs as it sucks greedily on a 3/4-inch fuel pipe.

Ghosh jumps out I notice his steeltoecap boots and glance down at my fireproof 'ballet' shoes. There is a message there somewhere. I jump in, daintily, and Julian adjusts the handthrottle, setting tickover at 2000rpm. It won't run any lower.

The H-pattern gate, around which your right leg has to be contorted, is conventional in layout, and I attempt to ease first into mesh. Graunch. Julian motions with his right shoulder. I shove the ratio in. The clutch has a short travel, but is more progressive than I'd imagined. And away. But that's about all. The steering, at this speed at least, is hefty, requiring shoulder, bicep and forearm, but not wrist. There is a message there 5,4 somewhere. No question, this car has this particular scruff by the neck. Never have I wanted to resort to a car's brakes more. Why is it you always want things you cannot have? I reach for the handbrake, the only method of retardation, as I approach Bottom S. And realise that it is beyond my grasp. I lean out of the seat and stretch for salvation, an action which at least means my whole body can be applied to the subse

quent application. I notice later that the sturdy lever is bent. Hmm. I do at least swap ratios, doubledeclutching up and down, and can

confirm the change is sweet The only other thing I can confirm is that this is one serious motor car capable of crossing the line at 85mph, of a top speed of 140mph, and of unnerving nervy journalists at a thousand yards.

That's all well and good, but if you want to win here now, you need 600bhp. And brakes. And probably a Gould, a carbon-fibre monocoque single-seater, pulling huge wings, sitting on big, fat, soft slicks, and with a 'stroked' Fl engine amidships. Roger Moran, the 1997 hillclimb champion, was a Pilbeam runner for years, but as he slipped slowly down the rankings, and Gould-mounted

David Grace took three titles, he knew he'd have to swap allegiances.

"It's stiffer than the Pilbeam and I'm sure it will be quicker, but I'm still getting used to it," he says of his GR37, the chassis of which is based on Ralt's RT37, a car designed to run as an F3 and F3000 car. It fell between two stools on the tracks, but has since found its niche.

Squeezing into the Gould is a sharp reminder of how far the sport has moved on. Everything falls to hand. Its Judd, a 4-litre 570bhp V8, idles smoothly, revs to 11,250, delivers from 4000, yet will nudge around a packed paddock on tickover. Despite higher speeds, this is the easiest drive of the day. It stops, it goes where it's pointed, has a silky throttle, shattering brakes and slicing gearshift.

I restrict myself to a single shift, but Moran makes three on a 26-second run. First off the line, second before Kennel. This 120mph gear takes him up to Bottom S, where he brakes to 45mph and selects third. Well, it's where third usually lies, but is a ratio between first and second, good for 80mph, at which point a 140mph fourth is taken. Such cog-juggling is the norm, different hills requiring different patterns another brain-teaser in this most focused of disciplines.

You wonder, though, how far it can go. Just how much faster you can be? Shelsley's record has stood since 1992. A dead end in more ways than one?

Except, of course, the record was broken last weekend, by the latest Gould, its sequential gearbox taking power from a 2.5-litre V6 originally built for a Class One touring car. There are certain summits, it would seem, that can never be reached. CI

SHELSLEY WALSH RECORD-HOLDERS

1971 David Hepworth (Hepworth) 29.92s 1971 David Hepworth (Hepworth) 29.64s 1972 Mike MacDowel (Brabham) 29.29s 1973 Mike MacDowel (Brabham) 28.82s 1973 Mike MacDowel (Brabham) 28.21s 1975 Roy Lane (McRae) 28.03s 1976 A.Douglas-Osborn (Pilbeam) 27.92s 1976 A.Douglas-Osborn (Pilbeam) 27.64s 1976 A.Douglas-Osbom (Pilbeam) 27.39s 1977 A.Douglas-Osborn (Pilbeam) 27.35s 1980 A.Douglas-Osborn (Pilbeam) 26.71s 1980 Martyn Griffiths (Pilbeam) 26.60s 1981 A.Douglas-Osbom (Pilbeam) 26.42s 1982 A.Douglas-Osbom (Pilbeam) 26.37s 1983 A.Douglas-Osborn (Pilbeam) 26.08s 1990 Martyn Griffiths (Pilbeam) 25.86s 1992 Richard Brown (Pilbeam) 25.34s 2001 Graeme Wight (Gould) 25.28s