Reliving the dream

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You don’t have to be signed by Ferrari to drive a Grand Prix car. Historic racing is booming, and for some it’s a boyhood dream come true

Writer Rob Widdows | photographer Jayson Fong

Would you like to race a historic Grand Prix car? Silly question. Of course you would and so, it seems, do a great many other people. The historic racing scene is extremely healthy right now and the Masters Formula 1 series is attracting ever more wonderful cars as each years goes by. These cars are not only expensive to buy, but costly to prepare and race – a detail that hasn’t prevented the grids becoming more eclectic.

Might this be due, in part, to the woes that are currently affecting contemporary Grand Prix racing, the domination by one team, the visual similarity of all the cars, the subdued noise? Possibly, because it’s not just the Masters F1 series that is on a high, it is historic racing across the board with events such as Silverstone Classic, Grand Prix de Monaco Historique and the Goodwood Revival attracting ever-bigger crowds.

Brits tend to wallow in a bit of nostalgia; the grass always looks as though it was greener back in the day, but that doesn’t explain the huge appetite we have developed for racing as it used to be. We like the noise, the smell, the opposite lock and the wheel-to-wheel dicing that are all features of a historic meeting.

To discover a bit more about what has led to the rise and rise of the Masters F1 series, I spoke to some of the drivers who will bring their Grand Prix cars to Silverstone Classic in July. All three have made their fortunes in business, enabling them to indulge in their passion for the bygone Formula 1 cars they own and race in Europe and the USA.

You will be able to see a full grid of these sensational machines in action on the Grand Prix circuit, during Silverstone Classic on July 29 to 31.

1976 March 761-4  – Tommy Dreelan

“These cars are fantastic to drive; they’re well built, quite simple, and they all run the Cosworth engine so that keeps things very competitive. I like the history of the cars, who raced them, where they ran, all of that. I keep telling my wife they are good investments too, and it’s nice if they appreciate, but that’s not the reason I have them. I want to have some fun with them. I wanted cars with history; we looked at a lot and now I have a Williams FW08 as well as the March 761. 

“The March was raced by Arturo Merzario, and once by Vittorio Brambilla in Germany, throughout that dramatic 1976 season. This is chassis 04, the works March Engineering entry, and one of six that were built for ’76 and ’77.
It was not a winner, of course, but a well engineered car with a wider track and a stronger chassis than previous March F1 cars. 

“We bought it in 2012 to do the Monaco Historique meeting – it was my first single-seater race, and it was very wet, so it was an incredible experience. The first few laps were pretty scary, all those buildings flashing past me, and somebody clipped my wheel in the tunnel, but you just have to get on with it. 

“They can be expensive to run, especially as we do a lot of preventative maintenance like crack-testing all the major components, so we don’t wait until we have a failure. We have our own team, Celtic Speed, to prepare and run my two F1 cars and my two Group C cars. To run the Williams and the March for a full season in both the European and the American series costs us about £300,000 for both cars. 

“Ron Maydon and his team at Masters run a great series, with fantastic grids and a very friendly paddock, and the races are a terrific spectacle. I’m still learning to get the best out of these cars and I’ve done some coaching with Aaron Scott, who won the Masters race at the Mexican Grand Prix in my March last year. So the car is a Masters winner, it’s just down to the driver. The more track time I have, the closer I hope I can get to the front. 

“It is a dream come true, a privilege to own them, but they are very quick and I do back out of situations rather than tangle with another car. We are all competitive people, we’ve been successful in business, we all share that common factor, so there is a great camaraderie whether you are winning or not. My passion is the cars, not the winning.”

1983 Tyrrell 012-01 – Ian Simmonds

“It was a dream to race a historic Formula 1 car, probably a foolish dream, and I’d never sat in a single-seater before getting the Tyrrell. My wife bought me a track day at Rockingham in a detuned F1 car, and I was hooked. It’s a privilege to drive this Tyrrell, a dream come true. I am only the steward of this car for a period of time; someone else will have the pleasure after me. 

“My car is Tyrrell 012, chassis 01, raced by Michele Alboreto. It’s the last DFV-powered Formula 1 car to score world championship points, the last of Ken Tyrrell’s really competitive cars before the turbo era. Alboreto won with this car in Detroit, was sixth at Zandvoort, but he had eight retirements and finished 12th in the standings while Tyrrell was seventh in the championship for constructors. 

“They knew they couldn’t compete with the turbo cars so, with 012 they went for a light, skinny and very nimble car. By ’84 they’d lost the Benetton sponsorship, however, so in some ways the 012 was the end of an era for Tyrrell. The history is very much a part of what I love about the car and I still have to pinch myself when I line up on the grid alongside a JPS Lotus or a Marlboro McLaren. It’s unbelievable. 

“At Goodwood last year three of the mechanics who used to run the car came to see us. We had our picture taken with them and the Tyrrell, which was a thrill. When I bought the car Benetton gave me a book that has a picture of them with Ken Tyrrell and the same car. It’s good to talk to the guys who looked after the 012 in its racing days, all part of the experience of owning a car like this. 

“I’m still learning about driving the 012. It’s a massive learning curve; the car is so quick through the corners, stops so quickly, and you have to believe that it does what it does. I started racing in Radicals, so it was a huge step to move to Masters F1 – a bit mad perhaps, and I certainly have to keep a bit fitter because of the forces inside the car. 

“I started by paying a team to run the car for me but now we have our own operation, Complete Motorsport Solutions, which runs cars for other people as well.

“This is much more cost-effective, more efficient, and we can better control the costs of running something like the Tyrrell. Above all else, I still get such a buzz every time I sit in Michele Alboreto’s old car and they fire up the Cosworth behind my head. Fantastic.”

1981 Williams FW07C – Mike Wrigley

“My car is from 1981. Alan Jones used it to win the first and last races of the season, the US Grand Prix at Long Beach and the Las Vegas GP at Caesars Palace, which was his last race for Williams and his 12th and final GP victory. 

“Designed by Patrick Head, it’s typical of his cars of the period, well engineered with a very strong honeycomb chassis, and I thought I should have it while I can still do it some justice. Alan Jones did seven races in this car, as the reigning world champion in his final season for the team, finishing third in the championship behind team-mate Carlos Reutemann and winner Nelson Piquet. In ’81 Williams won another championship for constructors, way ahead of Brabham and Renault, so I think this car is quite a special piece of Williams history. 

“Racing these cars doesn’t have to be that expensive if you’re sensible about it, look after the cars yourself and don’t do lots of testing. In Masters F1 we have a rev limit of 10,000, so that means 1500 miles between engine rebuilds. I’ve won a Masters championship using one engine all year, so it can be done with good preparation. The people with bigger teams, and lots of professional mechanics, will spend a lot more, but I’m doing it for fun, I am living
the dream and some other things in life have to be sacrificed. 

“For me, the history of the cars is important, ditto the drivers and designers who created this history. Williams has created so much over the decades. I am simply privileged to be able to race a piece of motor racing history, to sit where Alan Jones sat in 1981, and that’s a great feeling. I have had other F1 cars but an FW07 is a bit special, the only problem being that former Williams mechanics will tell you what times you should be doing… 

“But while Masters is competitive, we are doing it for the sheer pleasure of racing these great cars. I do think about the risks, there’s always an element of risk in a car as quick as an F1 Williams, so there are situations where I would be sensible, especially as I get a little bit older. I have raced professionally, but these cars have a satisfaction that’s not all about winning. It’s also about the cars themselves, where they stand in history, what they mean to the fans, and that may be partly why the Masters series gets such good grids and such big crowds.”

And in addition to F1 cars…

Racing saloons poised to star during a typically diverse Classic weekend

The 2016 Silverstone Classic has been proclaimed, by the promoters, as a “full-on festival of flat-out fun for all the family”. Nicely alliterative, certainly, but will this summer’s event live up to the hype? A glance at the programme for July 29 to 31 suggests the answer is yes, it will.

Let’s start with the tin-tops, or touring cars, as these almost always provide the most spectacular on-track action at a historic race meeting. There will be no fewer than four touring car grids – that’s more than 200 cars, from 1966 up to the Super Tourers of the 1990s, all doing battle on Tin-Top Sunday.

For extreme speed,and noise, the new Can-Am 50 Interserie Challenge will stage its season finale. These ground-shaking sports cars are celebrating the 50th anniversary of Can-Am, one of the greatest motor racing spectacles ever created. 

With bigger grids than ever, the FIA Masters Historic Formula 1 circus is on an all-time high. Powered by the legendary Cosworth DFV, all cars will be at their eye-catching best around the high-speed Grand Prix circuit. Staying with Formula 1, the Classic will also celebrate the 40th anniversary of James Hunt’s dramatic World Championship victory at the end of a highly charged duel with Niki Lauda in 1976. James’s son Freddie will lead the tribute in his Father’s McLaren M23 while brother Tom will be out in that red, white and blue Hesketh. 

Bike fans are not forgotten. World GP Bike Legends will take to the track, as will a Sidecar Salute featuring champions past and present.

Away from the track a different kind of soundtrack will be supplied by The Boomtown Rats, the Stranglers and Reef. And… there will be a car football match to celebrate England’s victory over Germany in the 1966 World Cup. Silverstone Classic is nothing if not diverse.