On the road with... Simon Arron
A season of contrasts
Brands Hatch, May 25 & June 8: blast from the past plus a visit from the brash-and-bash brigade
There’s an argument that Britain has too much motor sport, but I’d counter that the year simply needs a few more weekends. I’d never previously attended the Masters Historic meeting on the full version of Brands Hatch, not least because the Monaco Grand Prix had occupied my time for 16 straight seasons, but bypassing the principality left options aplenty: Brands, Prescott, Crystal Palace, the World Rallycross Championship at Lydden Hill, an appetising motorbike clubbie at Oulton Park…
Absence from Monte Carlo did not mean missing F1, but exposed me instead to a different – and some would argue superior – strain. There are some fine venues on the FIA Masters Historic F1 Championship calendar, but to my mind none is as complementary as Brands Hatch. The track has changed so little since contemporary F1’s last visit, 28 years ago, that passing Tyrrells or Marches seem wholly normal.
It was also very good exercise.
Modern tracks are designed with proper access roads, but Brands Hatch’s farthest reaches – a bit like those at Suzuka – involve scrambling through brambles and bushes if you want to make the most of a media tabard by watching from the outside of Hawthorns, Westfield or Dingle Dell.
At one point I was wholly snared by the undergrowth, but the view justified a bloodied calf or two.
The historic tapestry wasn’t wholly accurate – a Williams FW07 would not have been beaten by either Ensign or Arrows in period, for instance – but it mattered not. For the most part everything looked as it should – and the sport has few finer sights than a packed field of 1960s saloons wafting around Brands Hatch when the sky is blue and the grass verges are dappled with daisies and buttercups. The Minis of Nick Swift and Jonathan Lewis outpaced an armada of Ford Mustangs and Falcons during damp qualifying for the Pre-66 Touring Car race, although the balance of power was restored in Sunday’s sunshine.
A fortnight after this cultured retrospective, the circuit (the sawn-off version this time) could scarcely have looked more different as it hosted its second American SpeedFest, a blend of music, muscle car displays and monster truck rides with a bit of motor racing thrown in. It proved to be a major hit in 2013 and was no less popular this time: more than an hour before Sunday’s first track action, the perimeter roads were packed with families arguing about whether they should next go and look at the Ford Mustang display or General Lee from the Dukes of Hazzard…
The racing centrepiece was the NASCAR Whelen Euro Series, the American sanctioning body’s only licensed championship outside its homeland. The 400bhp V8-powered cars sound the part and are entertaining to behold, but not necessarily for the right reasons. They race twice per day with different drivers, respectively categorised as either Elite or Elite 2, but there was ample evidence that a third category is required: Muppet, perhaps.
I spoke to one seasoned pro who has competed in the series and he despaired at the standard of track etiquette and the leniency shown to serial offenders. “I heard a driver celebrating a one-place grid penalty,” he said, “because it put him on the better side of the track for the start. The attitude is all wrong.” Regular Radical front-runner Bradley Smith was offered a guest drive and felt he’d spent most of his first race being used as a target, so initially declined to take part in the second (although he was eventually persuaded otherwise).
Bernie Chodosh’s V8 and Big Banger races provided a cheery contrast, the promoter’s almost-anything-goes motif pitching Ford Escorts against Porsche 917 replicas and McLaren M8s against MGBs. Both worked as a diverse whole and, an added bonus, the drivers seemed aware that Brands Hatch hasn’t hosted contact motor sport since the 1970s.
Capital gains tracks
Crystal Palace, May 26: a bygone fragment brought back to life
First used as a motorcycle circuit in 1927, Crystal Palace was about 205 miles from home – and thus beyond the cycling range of my 11-year-old legs – when racing activities ceased in 1972, so I never saw cars compete there in period. Much of the old track’s layout survives, albeit in narrower form than hitherto, but the Sevenoaks & District Motor Club’s annual, increasingly popular sprint uses only a portion.
Ordinarily cars start on a parkland pathway before looping to the left, heading down to a right-hand hairpin and then merging with the old start/finish straight before continuing through North Tower and down The Glade to the finish. That was the chosen route for the first part of this year’s two-day event, but it had to be shortened dramatically for the second, when persistent rain turned the paddock to mud and cars were moved to the final part of the course. It was also felt that the tree-lined Glade might be a touch too slippery. On the first day Gary Thomas set the pace in his Force PC single-seater; on the second nobody was able to beat Justin Andrews’ four-wheel-drive Subaru Impreza…
One of this year’s headline attractions was the reunification of stars and cars from a 1971 tin-top race, which some years ago formed part of the BBC’s 100 Greatest Sporting Moments series. That featured an epic tussle between Martin Thomas (Chevrolet Camaro), Mike Crabtree (Ford Escort) and the late Gerry Marshall (Vauxhall Viva), Crabtree winning on the road after Thomas spun… but Marshall being awarded victory after Crabtree was penalised for jumping the start. Thomas was present on the first day, Crabtree on both and Marshall was represented by son Gregor.
The cars lined up in original grid formation for a photocall, with a couple of extras, as Murray Walker’s period commentary played over the PA. It’s almost unthinkable to imagine cars will ever race again at the site, but this was a pleasing throwback, thoughtfully executed.
Now 80, Crabtree was happy to chat about the race. “I think I was 1.5 seconds faster than the others in practice,” he said, “but I’d raced at Crystal Palace a number of times and appreciated the importance of a good start.
I also knew the Camaro would be very good off the line, which made me all the more determined to get away well, but then I went too soon. Realising what I’d done, I briefly lifted off the throttle, which allowed Martin to get ahead, and it was my balls-up that made it such a good spectacle. Do I still watch it on YouTube? Absolutely – and every time I can feel my hands starting to sweat.”
Rain fails to stop play
Cadwell Park, June 7: Lincolnshire has a reputation for being flat, but isn’t uniquely so…
Truly enjoyable drives are no longer possible in many parts of modern Britain, due to traffic intensity, tyre-shredding speed cushions and suchlike, but just occasionally you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Cadwell Park isn’t the most accessible of circuits from the Home Counties (it’s normally quicker to get to the more distant Oulton Park, simply because there’s a useful motorway network), but the trip seems a breeze when Lincolnshire’s brisk, sweeping A-roads are all but deserted on a beautiful, balmy morning (although that did mean leaving north-west Kent at 4.20am).
Upon arrival, the rewards included the modern miracle of a grass paddock, in which many a Frazer Nash was being lovingly unwrapped as the dawn chorus gently faded. Just beyond breakfast, however, the sky turned a menacing shade of slate and conditions morphed from mild to monsoon. You wondered whether drivers would venture out at all, but this was the Vintage Sports Car Club and spindly tyres cut with equal efficiency through puddles and nonsense, so the meeting went ahead after the very slightest of delays.
The Mountain is Cadwell’s topographical signature and a fine place to spectate, but other gems merit parallel attention. At Charlies (which provides an elevated view across much of the circuit) you can watch cars loom over a crest before tackling a dipping, challenging right-hander that leads onto the Park Straight. Hall Bends are quick and rewarding, although in these conditions the surrounding trees make you ever wetter rather than providing any shelter. And Hairpin isn’t really a hairpin, but is awkwardly cambered and illustrates that the VSCC racers’ traditional elbow-twirling vim cannot be diluted – even on days such as this.