Extra pep for the Gold Cup with vintage whimsy and MGBs out in force
The memory remains vivid and I suspect ever will: drenched clothes, irreparably soggy programme (replaced about 40 years later, for £7 via the miracle of eBay) and a bright red Bell Star with yellow tinted visor, both elements clearly visible through the murk. Its wearer? Niki Lauda, on his way to victory in the second round of the 1972 British Formula 2 Championship. Gerry Birrell and Tim Schenken were the only other drivers unlapped. Dave Morgan, fourth, was three laps in arrears – but Alan Henry’s report in Motoring News explained how the Englishman had pitted to switch to a less fog-prone open-face helmet, only to find that his young son had wandered off with it to keep his head dry. Motor racing might be a touch more professional nowadays, but that’s not necessarily the same thing as ‘better’.
That race, on March 31, was hailed as the return of top-class F2 to Oulton Park after a five-year absence. The series reappeared six months later, but that would be it for the category in Cheshire – at least in contemporary terms. A pity, really, because such cars seemed dimensionally perfect for the venue’s slender contours.
When the HSCC announced it was to implement a historic F2 race as the headline feature at its annual August bank holiday Gold Cup, I thought it a mixed blessing. A nice idea, certainly, and – as reported a year ago – the event needed a size 12 racing boot up its exhaust pipe. But F2? At a time of political fragility, with two rival series vying for entries?
The HSCC’s instincts proved correct, with 24 cars pitching up. The disparity between heavyweight and makeweight might have been vast (as is frequently the case in historic racing), but they looked and, equally crucial, sounded the part. Mind you, that would have been true had double-winner Darwin Smith’s March 722 been the only car on track. With such a positive response, the HSCC committed during the weekend to support F2 again in 2018 – with a possibility of the series returning to Thruxton, a traditional F2 venue in the days when a large bag of chips cost 5p.
The F2 races weren’t the only highlight. European Touring Car Championship winner in 1985, Gianfranco Brancatelli made his Oulton debut at the age of 67 and drove a Sierra RS500 with panache. Richard Attwood was out, too, the 1970 Le Mans winner still representing Porsche – albeit in a 928 (in ’70s Road Sports) rather than a 917. Steve Soper made his first Oulton start in eons at the wheel of a Rover SD1 (winning the Historic Touring Car Challenge, with Chris Ward) and the opening part of the first Derek Bell Trophy race was among the most vibrant things I’ve watched all season. Pole-sitter Andy Smith’s fleet Formula Atlantic March was beaten away by the less nimble F5000 missiles of Neil Glover (Lola) and Greg Thornton (Surtees) and it took him a few laps to reclaim the lead, but he did so in style – passing both rivals in one move around the outside of Shell.
The only downside? Politics led the Guards Trophy sports and GT fields to be split, despite there being only enough cars for one strong grid. That created two weak, 40-minute races – on Sunday, when noise considerations meant racing couldn’t start until midday and timetable pressure was already tight.
Many readers will associate the Gold Cup with such as Moss and Clark, and rightly so, but not much can be done (short of the Tardis becoming commercially available) to bring those days back. In a modern context the event has recovered some of its lustre and that, to me, is worth celebrating.
One week on, spectator banks that had been packed for the Gold Cup were all but empty – one man without his dog – for a low-key MG Car Club meeting.
Events like this still resonate, because there always seemed to be MG races on the card during my days as a cub reporter at Oulton (and Aintree, come to that) in the early ’80s – and if anything it seems there are more Bs in action now than there were when the model was only slightly obsolete.
For the most part this was an illustration of club competition at its most pure – proof that a slightly battered Metro remains a fine basis for an effective racing car – but it also served as a reminder of the sport’s potential perils.
On the opening lap of the first scheduled MG Trophy race, a couple of touches in the tightly packed midfield sent Gianni Picone barrel-rolling to the right of the Lakeside Straight while Adrian Wray was pitched off to the left before being launched from a barrier. I witnessed the incident from the outside of Cascades, but it was only when the dust settled that the full scale became apparent. Wray’s car had struck a marshalling post, the occupants being fortunate to escape without serious harm – thanks in part to the debris grille that diluted some of the car’s energy during its flight. Even so, the impact was sufficient to split Wray’s crash helmet as his rollcage deformed: both drivers were hospitalised, but neither sustained serious long-term injuries.
As one marshal said to me later, “We always expect a quiet day when we’re posted to Lakeside.” Even at this level, though, our sport generates lots of kinetic energy – and it’s impossible to predict the consequences when this is unleashed in an unpredictable manner.
Sometimes, it really doesn’t take much.
The A11 had been shrouded in fog for much of its length, so it was pleasing to peel into a pool of sunshine in which Snetterton – uniquely, it seemed – was bathed. The paddock café’s terrace benches were too wet to permit a comfortable al fresco fry-up, though, a dewy clue that autumn was not so much nigh as in full swing.
Introduced in 2012, 78 years after the club’s formation, the VSCC’s Snetterton fixture has looked a little wobbly of late. It was dropped in 2016 – due in part, I’m told, to a shortage of competitor support – but resumed on September 17… only for another thin entry to materialise. True, the Goodwood Revival had been a week beforehand and Snetterton clashed with the Circuit des Remparts meeting at Angoulême, but it’s a shame to see drivers drawn increasingly towards the bright and shiny rather than being prepared to set co-ordinates in the general direction of Great Yarmouth.
Even so, the meeting drew a substantial crowd and was ripe with glorious cameos. In the Redgate Mug race for Standard & Modified Pre-War Sports Cars (the only one with a full grid), the three-wheeled Morgans of Iain Stewart and Sue Darbyshire finished 0.19sec apart after outmanoeuvring Mike Preston’s pole-sitting Bugatti T35B on a track rendered sodden by a cloudburst. And it was fun watching Patrick Blakeney-Edwards (Frazer Nash) overhaul Fred Harper’s Kurtis Indycar in the damp, the latter not exactly blessed with traction.
An Archie Scott Brown 1950s Trophy Race was most appropriate, paying tribute to a driver whose name has long been revered locally, given his strong Snetterton connections. A pity it attracted only 10 entries, but it ended on a positive note.
In 1962, Julian Sutton won a sports car race at Snetterton’s Archie Scott Brown Trophy meeting at the wheel of a Lotus Elite, XLD 121. Now owned by David Beattie, the car was back at the venue once more – though Beattie was away on vacation and thus unable to compete.
The solution? He entrusted the car to Colin Elstrop, who made good use of the Elite-friendly conditions to add another Snetterton success to its CV.
Two VSCC events within the space of six days? Proof, surely, that you really can’t have too much of a good thing.
One is never sure what will first be heard as you unravel your belongings in the Prescott car park. An engine gently being primed? A steam train? In this instance it was actually a cow lowing in a nearby shed, further evidence – not that any were needed – of the venue’s pastoral splendour.
The BBC’s weather website had confidently predicted a zero per cent chance of precipitation, but that was wrong even before I reached the paddock. It mattered not: in the slipstream of a sausage bap and a pint of black coffee (a fine clubhouse cocktail for a fiver), the Cotswolds mist gradually dispersed to leave Prescott looking its best.
All VSCC meetings are clubbies by definition, but this – on the long Prescott course, as opposed to the celebrated two-day meeting on its shorter counterpart at the beginning of August – felt more so than most: smaller entry, smaller crowd, but the same capacity to enchant.
The timing equipment failed briefly – actually good news, because it obliged some cars (including Mark Walker’s marvellous Thunderbug) to venture out for an extra run – but that apart it was a day of seamless delights.
Nick Topliss (ERA R4D) reached the top with competitive runs of 49.92 and 49.42sec, the only driver to dip below 50sec. For consistency and brio as an art form, look no further.
All images Simon Arron