British Hill-climb Championship

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A close contest

Some years ago, when International racing events were fewer in number, and travel was not so easy, Motor Sport used to report at great length on British hill-climb events, such as Shelsley Walsh and Prescott. With the widening of racing interests, and an overcrowded calendar of events to try and cover, the hill-climb scene in Britain has been neglected editorially, but for all that the activity on the hills has not declined, and has, in fact, become stronger and stronger, encouraged by the National Championship controlled by the RAC and sponsored financially by the Shell petrol Company. Enthusiasm for sprint hill-climbing amongst the competitors is as strong as ever and competition is very keen. Not having seen a Championship event for some time, I took the opportunity of a weekend off from Grand Prix racing to visit a British hill-climb event just half-way through the Championship season, and was visibly impressed by the machinery being used and the keenness of the competition and the driving standards, while at the same time the paddock atmosphere was relaxed and friendly, with none of the “band-wagon” ballyhoo that follows the Grand Prix “circus”.

The Championship points are decided on two extra runs at the end of each meeting for the fastest ten during the day, and hundredths of a second mean the difference between winning or losing. Starting at Prescott in May, the 1970 Championship season had an event almost every alternate weekend, there being 12 meetings in all, from Wiscombe Park in Devon, to Doune estate in Scotland, and with two “foreign” events for good measure, one at the old-established Craigantlet hill in Northern Ireland and the other at Bouley Bay in Jersey.

Competitors count their scores from any eight of the 12 events, and throughout the season the chief contestants have been David Hepworth, with his 4WD Chevrolet-powered special, Sir Nicholas Williamson with his F5000 McLaren also Chevrolet powered, David Good with a similar car, Roy Lane with his 4WD Tech-Craft, born out of the remains of the experimental 4WD BRM, but now using a 2.1-litre V8 BRM engine, Mike MacDowel with a Brabham powered by a rare 2-litre Coventry-Climax V8 engine, Peter Blankstone with his 4WD Oldsmobile V8-powered Brabham, Tony Griffiths with a very neat little Brabham with Cosworth FVC 1,800-c.c. power unit, and Peter Meldrum with his 4WD special powered by a supercharged Lotus twin-cam engine. As can be seen, the accent is on brute power and 4WD, though the Grand Prix knowledge designed into the McLarens made them the equal of the more complicated 4WD cars, and to see any one of these cars do a standing start on an 11-ft. wide road between grass banks is quite a spectacle.

The Championship looked as though it was going to be for Williamson when they were all at Doune in September. Hepworth crashed on his last run of the day and Williamson looked set for FTD and an unassailable lead with only one more event to run, but MacDowel came into his own on the tricky Scottish hill, with the V8 Climax really singing on all eight cylinders, and he snatched FTD from Williamson, and maximum Championship points for the meeting, leaving the Baronet and Hepworth to go to Bouley Bay with equal points. After a day-long needle match in class runs, they lined up for the Championship run and Hepworth had his clutch fail on the start line, leaving Williamson to net FTD and the Championship. However, it was not as easy as that, for competing at all the 12 rounds of the Championship has meant a very full and busy season for the winner, including a crash at Great Auclum which ripped a rear wheel and suspension off the car.

The competition this year has been so tense that almost every one of the top contenders has made excursions off the road in their frenzy to clip fractions of a second off their times. Good crashed his McLaren, Lane smashed up his special at Auclum. Hepworth crashed at Doune, engines have blown up, clutches have burst, and for all the competitors the 1970 season is one to be remembered.

Williamson’s McLaren-Chevrolet V8 was built at the end of the 1969 season by John Brimsted of PMB Garages of Bookham, working at the Trojan works where production McLaren racing cars are built. During the successful 1970 season pre-race work was carried out at PMB, as were repairs after excursions off the road, while Alan Southon of Phegre Engineering, Hartley Wintney, looked after the car at the various meetings, sharing the transport work with Williamson in the latter’s 220S Mercedes-Benz, with the McLaren behind on a large-size Don Parker four-wheeled trailer. They started the season with a Ford Zephyr V6, but it was quite hopeless as a tow-car and a change was made to the 220S, of 1964 vintage with 95,000 miles to its credit. During the rather hectic season the Mercedes-Benz clocked up 12,000 miles travelling all over the country with its attendant trailer and McLaren, and Williamson is full of praise for the way it has performed. He is equally satisfied with the 5-litre Chevrolet V8 engine in the McLaren, for it was prepared by Charles Lucas and has never missed a beat all season, requiring nothing other than routine maintenance of tappets, ignition and carburation, the last-named being in the form of two four-choke Holley instruments on which only two chokes operate in each carburetter on part throttle openings, a progressive system that pays off in slippery conditions. The engine is taken to 6,500-7,000 r.p.m. at all times, and quite often in the heat of the moment 7,000 r.p.m. is seen on the tachometer. It drives through a Hewland LG600 gearbox which has the three lower ratios calculated by Williamson before the season to cover most of the hills used. Maximum speeds in the gears are of the order of 60 m.p.h., 80 m.p.h., 110 m.p.h., 125 m.p.h. and 137 m.p.h., though top gear was never used, and 4th only at Shelsley Walsh and Barbon, the lower three ratios sufficing for all the other hills.The McLaren runs on Goodyear G14 wet-weather tyres at 18 lb/sq. in. all round, and they appear to be well suited to all conditions; some G18 tyres were tried around mid-season, but were found wanting, in that the short runs never gave them time to warm up to their correct working temperatures.

Hill-climbing to this standard costs a lot of money, apart from the initial outlay of around £,7,000 for the McLaren, and all the major contestants take part for the excitement of the activity, and the pleasant social life that invariably goes with something that is everyone’s hobby rather than their profession. While there is prize money to be won and Shell pay bonus money for Championship points gained, it is not a form of competition that even pays its way on running costs. As Sir Nick Williamson explains it, you decide how much money you can afford to spend on your hobby before the season starts and hope you won’t be too far out at the end of the season, but one unfortunate accident can easily absorb all the prize-money you have won, as he knows from experience. This is his third full season at hill-climbs and winning the Championship has more than justified the cost and effort. For 1971 he has plans for a smaller, lighter, and more agile car in the form of a Brabham with 1,800-c.c. FVC Cosworth engine, so if anyone wants to buy a very successful Formula 5000 McLaren-Chevrolet, “one titled owner, never been driven in top gear. etc. . . .”

D. S. J.