On the road with Simon Arron

Game, set and maths

Snetterton, September 19 & 27: from ERFs to ERAs and Scanias to Austin 7s, opposites prove attractive

t might just be the perfect commute – mile after mile through low-lying A11 mist, with barely another car on the road and the sun ever on the cusp of breaking through. About five miles from Snetterton’s front door, it does just that. Time, then, to beat a path to the café and take breakfast on the terrace.

Beyond lies a curious assembly. Nominally the BTRA’s Truck Racing Championship is the headline act, but its rolling stock is too big for the coveted pit garages and takes up a significant chunk of a paddock that extends almost to Norwich.

The supporting cast includes a round of the King Henry’s Taverns Clubmans Championship, latest event during the Clubmans Register’s 50th anniversary tour. Many of the names are familiar, not least because they were racing the same – or similar – chassis when new. “We are trying to encourage fresh blood,” says organiser Chris Hart, “and now have a few sons and even grandsons of original racers on our roster.”

The series has also attracted Robert Manson… who commutes to most events from his native California. “My local circuit is Laguna Seca,” he says. “I tend to race flat-head specials at home, but a friend of mine used to build Clubmans cars at the Mallock factory and told me all about them. I came over to take a look, fell in love with the whole thing and am just completing my second season.”

It’s conceivable, however, that Manson has covered fewer miles than one of the entries in the Classic Touring Car Racing Club enclave. Tim Dodwell purchased his VW Scirocco from the late Gerry Marshall in 1983 and has been racing it ever since. Furthermore, he has always driven it from his base (by the Devon/Somerset border, so not terribly near any circuits) to and from every venue at which he competes – as far north as Knockhill, as far south as Spa. “The paddock here is packed,” he says, “and I had a little bit of trouble getting in. The bloke on the gate tried to insist that I went into a public parking area, because he couldn’t believe the Scirocco was actually my racing car. Mind you, it’s not the first time that’s happened…”

The competition is for the most part engaging – the Legends fizzy and ferocious, Morris Minors proving that the long-lost concept of suspension travel did once exist, the trucks a riot of diesel fumes and melting tyres – but you can’t help wondering whether Snetterton’s ‘300’ layout is perhaps a touch too long for a meeting such as this (although it would be wonderful if ever the Blancpain Endurance Series or similar could be tempted to East Anglia). Very few drivers are able to lap its 2.97 miles in less than two minutes at racing speed, so green-flag laps and safety car interruptions – of which there are a couple – mean things sometimes move a trifle slowly.

One week on, the shorter Snetterton ‘200’ is back in service – but that’s not the only reason things feel a little different. The clatter of diesels is replaced by that of spanners as the Vintage Sports Car Club moves in for its final race meeting of the campaign. Blue is the predominant colour, with few clouds aloft and a healthy assembly of Bugattis below, but entries are not universally strong and paddock rumour suggests this meeting might be struck from the 2016 agenda. Competitors have too much choice nowadays and some still seem to consider Snetterton relatively inaccessible, which is by no means the case since the widened A11 was completed.

The cars’ poise and attitude make up for any lack of numbers and it would be a pity should this event be lost. It’s always diverting to behold Bentleys wrestling with Austin 7s, an ERA would be worth watching if it were the only car entered for the whole event and the opening handicap – with the top three cars covered by 0.28sec at the end – proves that arithmetic is not yet a forgotten science.

Low key, high class

October 3, Thruxton: it was once almost part of my job description – thou shalt spend thy weekends pounding up and down the A303…

Rewind 32 years and you’ll find that Thruxton hosted six F3 meetings in a single campaign, alongside European F2, the British Saloon Car Championship and assorted clubbies. There were still only 12 days of racing per annum, but they were a little less condensed than the modern diet of six racing weekends. The circuit’s final meeting of 2015 was the first properly low-key Thruxton meeting I’ve attended in three decades… and felt all the better for the fact almost nothing seemed to have changed in the interim (although the M3 is a bit slower than it used to be, courtesy of endless unstaffed roadworks monitored by average-speed cameras).

Having two 45-minute Britcar races was probably overindulgent, given the relative paucity of the field (Nigel Mustill’s Riley TDC qualified on pole for the first by 13.787sec, so it’s perhaps a good job there’s no 107 per cent rule), but much of the schedule rippled with common sense of a kind that’s relatively rare in the modern sport. In some instances, two, three or even four championships were combined to produce full grids of compatible cars, the result being close, frequently frantic competition and boundless diversity. The gaps were filled mostly by various Caterham races, wherein the rules apparently mandate that lead battles must feature at least seven cars. This isn’t so much motor racing as chess on wheels, the object of the exercise being to make sure you’re lying second or third at Church on the final lap, to obtain a potentially race-winning slipstream on the long, uphill drag towards the chicane.

This was our sport as it should be – with the added bonus of conditions being sufficiently warm to justify small queues at the paddock ice cream van.

Not bad for early October.

Force & nature

Brands Hatch, September 5: heritage in the foliage and a British sports car showcase

Isolation is rarely so splendid. You hear tell from time to time of local residents muttering about the sound of cars on Brands Hatch’s relatively little- used Grand Prix circuit, but out in the woods, by the exit of Westfield, ring-necked parakeets and green woodpeckers made at least as much noise as passing Triumph TR4s. One suspects the avian philharmonic attracts few complaints. True, there were a few Ford Mustangs to provide contrasting bass notes, but surely that’s just the rhythm section…

I spent quite some time in the sticks on the opening day of this Aston Martin Owners Club event, the only one to use the longer version of Brands Hatch, and was surprised to see so few others doing likewise. It’s basically a nature reserve laced with cars – a rarity in this day and age. It also appeared that almost every MGB built was taking part in some capacity or other. It might have said ‘AMOC’ on the programme cover, but the entry was heartily stuffed with TVRs, Austin Healeys, Jaguars, Sunbeams, various shades of Lotus and others of that ilk.

It was a history lesson of sorts, the once thriving British sports car industry restored to full health and being deployed as manufacturers intended.