On the road with Simon Arron
Possibly the only man with both F1 and Mallory Park media passes. Next stop..?
Brands Hatch, September 27-28: a little French dressing adds a great deal of flavour
Our sport often feels overly homogeneous, with the same championships sticking together and producing predictable line-ups, so here was a welcome antidote to the norm: a low-key Historic Sports Car Club event, yes, but one with a twist.
You might remember Donington Park daring to be different more than 30 years ago, with German Group 5 racers and Belgian touring cars being invited across the Channel to give its events a different feel – and that sense of adventure is alive and well within the HSCC’s corridors.
For its autumnal Brands Hatch meeting, it welcomed three French championships – Historic Formula Ford, Classic F3 and Maxi 1000 (which featured an engaging cocktail of small saloons and sports cars) – and was rewarded with a decent response for this toe-in-the-water exercise. The French races were scheduled early on both days, to give overseas visitors chance to begin their return trips at a sensible time, and the sight of FF1600 cars being sent out for the opening qualifying session was a throwback to the days when almost all race meetings commenced with practice for the first of two FF1600 heats – the Cortina philharmonic, with tyre squeal on backing vocals.
The Maxi 1000 field wasn’t quite as vast as it might have been on home soil, but was ripe with beguiling diversity: the 20-car grid included Minis, Alpine A110s, a Honda 600, various Simcas, an Austin A35… and a Trabant. Last-minute entrant Jonathan Lewis won both races in his Cooper S, but visiting Mini driver Frédéric Thiefain had a less productive time. He collided with Michel Chapel’s Simca Rallye 2 in the opener and then coated the Druids approach with oil on Sunday after his crankshaft let go. At that point he hopped out, took a packet of cigarettes from the pocket of his overalls and lit up while watching the race unfold. “That’s just the way racing goes,” he said. “Despite everything it has been a brilliant weekend. I’ve never been here before and it’s a fantastic circuit, particularly in a Mini.” One suspects he’ll be back, should the experiment be repeated (as hopefully it will).
The most eye-catching name in the Formula Ford race was that of Philippe Siffert, son of Jo – popular winner of the 1968 British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, but who perished here on October 24 1971 while participating in the non-championship Victory Race (arranged to celebrate that season’s world title triumphs for Jackie Stewart and Tyrrell). On that sad afternoon Grahame White was clerk of the course… just as he would be on this occasion, 43 years later. On the Friday evening, the pair of them went out to the site of Siffert’s accident, close to Hawthorns, to pay thoughtful tribute. Philippe had been only nine months old when he lost his father.
Siffert Jr had raced at Brands before, in the 1992 FF Festival. He subsequently competed in various cars, including an Opel Lotus and a Renault Spider, before retiring from the sport in 2003, with the advent of fatherhood. He was tempted back by friends, to have a bit of fun at the wheel of a Royale RP21. “I might do a bit more in future,” he said, “but for now I’m just enjoying myself. I don’t really fit the car, so am taking things fairly easily.” He finished 10th in the opening race, but retired from the second with a misfire. Mike Gardner, another late entry who fancied a crack at unfamiliar foes, scored a brace of victories in his Crosslé 30F.
There is a reasonable chance that the Siffert racing dynasty will continue, because Philippe’s 11-year-old son has just started karting. Meanwhile, his famous father’s name is now perpetuated by a range of Jo Siffert-branded luxury watches. I notice that Philippe is wearing one on each wrist and ask why. “For exactly that reason,” he says. “People always ask, so I am able to show them the watch, explain the significance of the name, that I am his son and design the watches myself. It seems to be useful marketing.”
When he arrived in Kent, Philippe checked in at his hotel and was given the keys to room 22 – Jo’s race-winning number at Brands in 1968. He assumed friends had surreptitiously pre-arranged this pleasing piece of symbolism, but they hadn’t.
It was simply a quirky coincidence.
State of the kart
Cadwell Park, August 31: a British Grand Prix that tends to be unjustly overlooked
Scamblesby: is there a better village name in the whole of Britain? On the surface it’s a sleepy Lincolnshire outpost, but it’s also a significant landmark, a sign that you are just a few dips and twists of the A153 from a small brown sign that entices you to turn right into Cadwell Park. The journey from my home is about 160 miles, yet there are no clues to the circuit’s existence until you reach its gate.
Today there will be two simultaneous Grand Prix-status events in the UK, the more famous of them starring Marc Márquez on two wheels at Silverstone (although MotoGP would also suit Cadwell rather well). This, though, is the British Kart GP, first held at Silverstone in 1978 and subsequently transferred to Brands Hatch and Pembrey, where it fizzled out after 2002. It was revived at Cadwell in 2006 and, after a two-year Snetterton detour, returned to the Wolds this summer.
There are five classes on the bill – Superkarts, Formula 450 National, F250 National, F125 Open and F125 KZ – with heats and supporting events for two regional sports/saloon series. The Grand Prix grids are decided by fastest race laps during two preliminary races (for championship points), which slightly blurs the balance of power as some drivers opt for tactical retirements to conserve equipment for the main event.
The F250 and F125 entry lists are absolutely brimming, but numbers are reduced in the other categories: all the 125s run together, while Superkarts and F450s race concurrently. “I think finance is the main reason for dwindling numbers,” says Superkart racer Paul Hewitt. “It’s probably about £1200 to do the full GP weekend, and I don’t think running costs are hugely different between our karts and the 250 Nationals, but it hurts when a Superkart goes wrong. A new engine can set you back £25,000…”
The assembly area is a fug of two-stroke fumes – intoxicating in more ways than one – and the pocket-sized missiles are absolutely in their element at Cadwell, which is long enough to stretch their legs but sufficiently narrow for them not to look lost. It’s a wholly natural setting, embellished by grazing cattle in the field beyond Barn Corner and a rabbit that pops in and out of the hairpin tyre wall.
There’s a reasonable amount of chaos on the support bill – the first CNC sports/saloon race is red-flagged after an accident that requires substantial barrier repairs, so the second is moved to the end of the day, in a bid to make sure the karts aren’t compromised by curfews. And in one of the Northern sports/saloon events, an unnecessary safety car board is displayed in time to slow the leader… then withdrawn before the second-placed driver sees it, enabling him to maintain momentum and snatch a lead he keeps to the end. A meritocratic failure, perhaps, but such foibles make the world a richer place.
Things run more smoothly in the scaled-down world alongside. Liam Morley strolls to victory in the Superkart final to annex the coveted GP race plate for the next 12 months, with Stephen Clark sixth on the road and winner of the F450 division. Team-mates Chris Needham and Matt Isherwood are a couple of seconds apart, and well clear of the rest, in the 125 event, with eighth-placed Richard Crozier best of the KZs.
The pick of the main races is that for F250 Nationals, with Paul Platt beating Gavin Bennett by 0.188sec and Dan Clark right in their slipstream. Ross Allen should have been involved, too, but his engine seized on the opening lap.
Cadwell’s signature photograph features superbikes leaping over The Mountain’s crest. Karts don’t get quite so high, but the quickest runners become significantly airborne each time they pass. This might be the least celebrated of Britain’s assorted Grands Prix, but in terms of commitment it’s a match for its illustrious namesakes.