On the road with... Simon Arron

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Heavy metal thunder
Brands Hatch, June 9: muscle cars show their pulling power at American Speedfest

There are probably better places to be than the A20 hard shoulder, fitting a spare wheel to your Fiat Punto as Sunday morning traffic rumbles past your left elbow. That particular distraction was always going to put me slightly behind schedule en route to Brands Hatch, but blown tyres are an occasional occupational hazard. A subsequent obstacle was rather less expected.

A20 traffic tailbacks are nothing new, but in recent years they tend to be caused by a regular car boot sale that takes places close to where the A20 and M25 meet. That’s what I thought this time, too, until it became clear that the queue stretched over the horizon and on towards Brands Hatch. It’s the first time I’ve experienced such a thing since the mid 1980s, when current Formula 1 cars sometimes still pitched up in Kent.

MotorSport Vision had made a significant promotional investment in the inaugural American Speedfest, which combined US-style track action (including the Euro Racecar NASCAR Touring Series, Legends and Pickups) with sideshows that stretched from monster truck demonstrations to hot dog-eating competitions via an Elvis impersonator. There were also about 700 cars on display – and for those wondering why there was a Porsche 917 among all the Americana, it was the example Steve McQueen drove during the making of Le Mans. If you wanted to make use of the popular parking area on the lower slopes of South Bank, you could take any car you liked so long as it was a Ford Mustang.

During the day’s course, I bumped into MSV chief executive Jonathan Palmer: rather charmingly, he was standing in line at one of his own catering kiosks, awaiting a cup of coffee (the approximate equivalent of José Mourinho joining fans in the half-time queue for a meat-and-potato pie at Stamford Bridge). “I’d hoped this might be quite popular,” Palmer said, “but I’m absolutely amazed by the turn-out.”

With the exception of the Ariel Atom Cup (a fledgling series that is gaining support as it grows), the entry lists were almost as busy as the spectator banks. And most competing cars had a core principle in common: grip was generated mechanically, not aerodynamically.

It was the first time I’d watched a round of Bernie’s HVRA V8 Challenge (named after creator Bernie Chodosh), which caters mostly for cars built during the 1960s-1980s (although there is an invitation class for anything appropriate, so long as it’s interesting). The rules and regulations are equal parts brevity and simplicity, with selected highlights including: no slicks, no kit cars, drivers may run any wheel/tyre configuration (bar slicks), drivetrain is free but engine and car must be from the same manufacturer, no restrictions on brakes or transmission, glass fibre panels permitted, no moaners or runaway winners…

It’s designed to be as cost-effective as possible and a 33-car field – including a Sunbeam Tiger, countless Camaros and Mustangs, assorted MGBs and an Opel Manta – implied that the sums are about right.

Chodosh isn’t the only Bernie who administers a V8-powered racing series, of course, but basic ingredients sometimes produce the tastiest recipes.

Cameraderie, close contests… and feathers
Snetterton, June 2: stumbling upon Norfolk’s hidden secrets at the annual Historic Sports Car Club meeting

To the naked eye, it looks like an old farm track – a slender strip of asphalt long since consumed by nature. It is bordered by birdsong, butterflies and frisky hares, yet it’s not so many years since this was the A11 – one of the main routes between London and England’s eastern fringe. You used to know you’d reached Snetterton when you could see racing cars tearing along the Revett Straight, which ran almost parallel to the main road.

The wildlife isn’t confined to the circuit perimeter, either. Skylarks can always be heard overhead when engines fall silent – and a couple of oystercatchers have set up home on the infield (wading birds, then, with precious few opportunities to wade). The pair predictably took flight at the first sign of humanity, yet remained content to stand close to the kerbs as Mallock U2 Mk20s or Chevron B43s passed only a matter of feet away.

Nowadays, the accredited can stand among the old A11’s foliage to photograph cars approaching Snetterton’s second corner – listed on official circuit documentation as the Montreal hairpin. To locals, though, this was and always will be Sear Corner (and thus tends to be known affectionately as the “Searpin”).

Snetterton underwent a radical overhaul during the winter of 2010-11, with the addition of a new inner loop that increased maximum length by about a mile. While there was some unhappiness about the subsequent airbrushing of traditional corner names, however, circuit owner MotorSport Vision has served customers well, with the construction of a central spectator bank that provides fantastic views over whichever of three track configurations is in use.

Snetterton 200 is closest in character, profile and length to the previous layout, but the HSCC opted for the full 2.9 miles of Snetterton 300. The swiftest Classic Clubmans drivers were the weekend’s pace-setters, at about 1min 55sec per lap (most things were comfortably north of two minutes), but a stretched landscape did little to dilute the intensity of the closest contests. Tim Davies, who won the British Formula Ford 2000 Championship 30 years ago, recovered from a spin to take his Lotus Cortina to grab second in the opening Historic Touring Car Championship race, behind Jonathan Gomm’s BMW 1800 Ti. In the follow-up, Davies successfully resisted fierce pressure from fellow Cortina driver Neil Brown and Gomm: the three were separated by less than a second at the end, with Gomm splitting the two Cortinas, and all subsequently discussed their afternoon’s work with a smile.

Fine spectacle, right attitude.

Harvesting the field of dreams
Silverstone, June 1: drivers defy the premise that modern racing is unaffordable…

It’s no secret that the British GT Championship is presently the most potent and beguiling in domestic motor sport… but even that doesn’t attract quite Blancpain Endurance Series-type support. Silverstone, the second of this year’s five BES events, attracted a 57-strong field of GT3 cars (above). Grand Touring, indeed.

The support programme was a little less buoyant, yet healthy by today’s standards. The mainstream Formula Renault 2.0 category is presently absent from the UK’s national calendar, having dribbled into extinction at the start of 2012, but the two main continental series regularly attract 30-plus fields, with 26 drivers entering for Silverstone. Of lower profile, but equal interest, is Auto GP, a home for chassis first used in the original iteration of the now-defunct A1GP.

Powered by 550bhp Zytek engines, the cars are driven by a mixture of career-minded youngsters, ambitious amateurs, GP2 Series drivers who fancy a bit of extra practice and F1 refugee Narain Karthikeyan, who at 37 is juggling Auto GP with a fierce ambition to compete in the US-based IndyCar Series.

Racing for the first time with multiple F3000 champion Super Nova, Karthikeyan finished second on the road in race one – although he was later handed victory when rival Kevin Giovesi was penalised for a pit error.

In 2012 Karthikeyan had run at the back of the British Grand Prix field with cash-strapped HRT. “F1 is F1,” he said, “and I’d rather be doing that, but it does feel nice to be driving at the front. Besides, life became pretty messy with HRT towards the end of last season, with things breaking all the time because the team couldn’t afford to fit new parts…”

This was the meeting’s first day of two but, despite the quality of the fare, not many were present to watch the latest chapter of the Indian’s diverse career. Almost a year earlier he’d been watched by a crowd of 120,000, but this time it was probably closer to 120…