On the road with Simon Arron

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From Abu Dhabi to Zolder via Interlagos, Jerez and, obviously, Oulton Park. Where next..?

Running up that hill

Loton Park, September 10: Science is powerless to explain why Arron had never previously set foot here, but that foolish oversight is now rectified

It lies only about 40 miles beyond virtual homophone Oulton Park, host to a significant chunk of my adolescence, and yet somehow our paths hadn’t crossed. Loton Park meetings seem always to have clashed with something to which I’m irreversibly committed – and it looked as though I might miss out once again this year. Mesmerising as the Goodwood Revival’s opening day had been, however, the following morning I took a last-minute decision to abandon jacket and cravat for T-shirt and shorts. Next stop: the verdant lanes beyond the village of Alberbury, Shropshire. I’d been in the paddock for about 10 seconds when the scale of my absent folly became apparent.

The Vintage Sports-Car Club’s presence added a certain elegance, but the venue would be tinged with magnificence if it were laced only with Morris Itals. Driving his GN-Ford ‘Piglet’ with customary verve, Dougal Cawley described Loton as an “unsung jewel”. You didn’t need to walk too far to appreciate that truth. Set in the grounds of a country estate that has been owned by the same family for more than 300 years, Loton is quite long by UK standards, at 1475 yards (stop sniggering in Switzerland). The course might officially be described as a hill, but it also dips in parts and the adjacent bracken is ripe with free-roaming deer. The resident herd seemed unbothered by the passing rasp of 500cc F3 engines – but red flags were primed lest any should wander too close to the track’s perimeter (which, by and large, they didn’t). Up above, meanwhile, the soundscape was dominated by the siren caw of ravens, which nest in nearby cedar trees.

It isn’t wholly bucolic, though. Between the trackside ferns are battered brickworks that once formed the foundation of munitions storage huts during WW2: today they provide a usefully solid platform for marshalling and/or photography.

This was only a practice day and the entry lacked a few VSCC staples – no ERAs, for instance, as several of those were otherwise engaged in Sussex (where it was by now very wet) – but that didn’t dilute its competitive allure. Such as Chris Williams (Napier Bentley), various members of the Walker family (GN Thunderbug, Amilcar-Hispano, Darracq) and Julian Grimwade (Frazer Nash Norris Special) are always a treat to watch, to say nothing of the Edwardian cars that turned out in decent number. Fastest time on Sunday, though, would be set by Phoebe Rolt in her Formula Junior Elva, 1.1sec quicker than Tom Walker in the Amilcar. Closest contest of the weekend came in the pre-1941 class for 1100-1500cc racing cars, in which Robert Cobden (Riley Falcon, 65.0sec) beat Charlie Martin’s Morgan Special by precisely one tenth.

It would have taken little more than an hour to get to Goodwood, as opposed to the three that separated me from Loton, but the extra mileage had been worth it for a day’s sport infused with the cordial good cheer that is the VSCC’s motif. It’s true that my legs had been fairly well savaged by thistles and nettles, but I shall cheerfully return to let them be scarred thus again.

Low profile, high standard

Brands Hatch, September 17: Proof that bigger isn’t necessarily always better

Two years ago this had been an event of significant stature – a full weekend of racing, several key French historic championships popping across the Channel to rub shoulders with their UK counterparts – but this time a relatively threadbare paddock told its own tale. The organising Historic Sports Car Club was simultaneously occupied with the Spa Six Hours and its traditional September Brands meeting was reduced to a single day, with a sprinkling of its own series and a couple of slightly more modern interlopers. It seemed somehow appropriate that temperatures had dropped from 20-plus degrees a few days earlier, so that autumn’s full force could now be felt, but here was proof positive that one should never be fooled by appearances.

What followed was some of the best racing that is likely to break out anywhere on the planet this year.

In recent times Historic Formula Ford has become a byword for close competition – echoing the category’s zenith 40-odd years ago, before the prefix of antiquity had been added. The championship features many talented youngsters for whom ‘career’ single-seater categories are beyond financial reach. They race hard, but they do so on a budget and their track manners are firm but scrupulously fair – far removed from some of the stuff you see on the professional ladder.

In the first of two races, Callum Grant (Merlyn) and Rob Wainwright (Elden) spent the best part of 17 laps side by side, rarely entering Paddock more than a couple of centimetres apart and frequently doing so side by side, with Benn Tilley (Merlyn) tucked in right behind as the top two swapped positions. It was breathtaking to behold and Wainwright eventually prevailed from Tilley and Grant, the three of them covered by four tenths.

Later on they came out again – and this time their duel was arguably even better, with Benn Simms (Jomo) joining in for a while before the top three edged clear. The recipe was pretty much as before, except that Grant won from Tilley and Wainwright, 0.4sec once again covering the top three at flagfall.

There was some other fine stuff, too, with Ian Pearson (Van Diemen) doing his customary giant-killing job and beating many theoretically quicker cars to take a brace of podium finishes in the combined Classic F3/FF2000 races (both won by Simon Jackson’s Chevron B43) and the HSCC adding what was effectively a Formula Libre class for anything with closed wheels (Tony Bennett won twice in his Caterham 7, against varied opposition that included a Sunbeam Alpine and a few MGBs).

It was, in many ways, the very essence of how motor racing is supposed to be.

Choices, choices

Thruxton, September 24: Hants or Leics? The UK’s congested calendar creates another dilemma

It was unquestionably one of the campaign’s most difficult decisions: VSCC Mallory Park or HRDC Thruxton, the certainty of seeing Edwardian cars and Canada geese versus Austin A35s and the faint possibility of a red kite soaring overhead? In the end I plumped for A303 rather than A47, but either would have been a sage choice.

A folding bike is a useful accessory at Thruxton, given the site’s layout, but getting anywhere is mostly a first-gear slog as the access routes are largely grass. It’s worth it, though, because from atop the spectator bank between Segrave and Noble one can see most of the lap’s 2.34 miles. It was just possible to discern that those dots in the distance were actually Lotus Cortinas attacking the chicane kerbs – although it was also quite hard to stand, given the force eight breeze. Might explain why I was the only soul up there.

Highlights included seeing Julian Balme’s competing Ford Falcon being driven to (and from) the venue along the A303, in the manner of old, Andy Newall’s spirited handling of an Austin A35, two marvellously manic Mini races (let down only by a shortage of starters) and a terrifically close finish in the HRDC Touring Greats race. Mike Jordan had been dominant in his Austin A40, but a red-flag interruption (to recover the latest of this year’s many rolled A35s) threw the race into disorder. Jordan and other front-runners had still to make their mandatory stops prior to the restart – but the splendidly named Ding Boston (Riley 1.5) had already done so. That soon enabled him to establish an advantage, although Jordan caught him at the chicane on the final lap and made a bold bid to recapture the lead using an adventurous outside line.

Adventurous, but unsuccessful.

The meeting also featured former F1 racer Tiff Needell – a driver of pedigree in a properly grass-roots environment. Making a one-off appearance in the Toyo Production BMW Championship, Needell had a particularly strong second race and secured third spot after passing Harry Goodman at the final turn. It was a good, hard, clean contest, with frequent positional exchanges accompanied by swathes of tyre smoke.

It was also an entertaining way for former works Pilbeam FF2000 racer (we’re talking early ’80s) Goodman to retire from the sport for a second time. Having returned a few seasons ago after many years away, he bowed out with pole position, plus second and fourth places in the two main races.

A positive farewell, all in all.

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