Another year over...

…and Motor Sport’s historic racer can’t wait for a new one to start afresh. Here are edited highlights of the campaign just past

I’m not sure about you, but with winter upon us and most of the sport’s biggest championships decided for another season, I tend to find this time of year oddly melancholic. I suspect that’s largely because it signals another year has whistled by in the blink of an eye, but also because it’s the time fans and competitors alike reflect on the highs and lows of a season immersed in the sport we love.

As one of Motor Sport’s resident historic racers I’m extremely fortunate to spend as many of my weekends as I can (perhaps a few more, truth be told) competing in some of the best meetings on the calendar.

It’s something I’ve done for the last five seasons or so, and though that’s a spit in the ocean compared to some of the scene’s diehard competitors, it just happens to have coincided with one of historic racing’s most dynamic periods of growth and change.

This was reflected in some of the cars I tested or raced during the year. Two of the best examples are the remarkable V12 diesel-engined Peugeot LMP1 car that races in the new Masters Endurance Legends championship, which I tested at Silverstone for the July issue, and the beautiful short-wheelbase Porsche 911S I raced in the hugely popular 2.0L Cup historic one-make series, also enjoying its debut season in 2018.

I don’t mind admitting that testing the Peugeot was one of the more nerve-wracking assignments. Horrid weather, a hugely intimidating and entirely unfamiliar car and the prospect of running in a live test session among other sports-prototypes made it a real baptism of fire, but when the rainstorm abated and I finally got to drive it the experience was truly remarkable.

Cars drenched in downforce are a million miles from my regular historic steeds, and indeed an anathema to many people’s notion of what historic racing should be. Yet not only is the Peugeot a magnificent piece of top-flight endurance racing’s recent past, but the series in which it is eligible to run shows how classic racing has a bright future.

It’s historic racing’s increasing scope that I find fascinating, for not only does it add a fresh element of excitement and interest for racers and fans, but it showcases the ability of today’s historic race preparers to rebuild and run cars that were until just a few years ago absolute state-of-the-art machines built and run with near-limitless factory budgets.

The clincher for many collectors and racers is the added safety these obsolete modern-era endurance cars provide, coupled to incredible reliability and durability that means they can do two or three seasons without needing to pay any major attention to the engine, gearbox or brakes. Compared to historic racing’s staple machinery that dates back to the Sixties, this is the stuff of fantasy.

Further evidence of this new wave’s growing stature in the wider fabric of motor sport can be found in F1 commercial rights owner Liberty Media’s inclusion of Masters Endurance Legends as an element of selected Grand Prix support programmes. And this is in addition to the well-established FIA Masters Historic F1 grids, which also serve as the warm-up act for Lewis & Co at a number of Grands Prix.

F1 provides an exceptional shop window for historics. It’s also an endorsement of the professionalism that exists at the top end of the historic scene. It’s by no means indicative of what club level historic racing is like, for thanks to the tireless efforts of clubs like the HRDC there is still the opportunity for people to build and prepare their own cars, then drag them around the country with a van, a trailer and a handful of mates. That should always remain the lifeblood of the sport, and long may that continue.

Still, it’s an indication of how historic racing is luring owners and drivers from the modern scene that the overall standard of preparation and the money being spent is on the increase. I suppose that’s inevitable in a cash-fuelled pastime such as motor racing, but I also believe it is because when you race at the top end of historics you’re driving at meetings with a caché, profile and audience that puts many modern GT counterparts to shame. Given most modern GT series are geared around so-called gentlemen drivers and the funding they bring, it’s perhaps little wonder that these wealthy amateurs are drawn to owning and racing cars that are huge fun, retain or increase their value and get you invited to Goodwood or onto the grid of an F1 support race.

The 2.0L Cup was another sign of the growing maturity and sophistication present in historic racing. One-make racing has been the backbone of modern racing for decades, yet is almost entirely absent in historics. Julius Thurgood’s Austin A30/A35 Challenge was the first serious attempt and succeeded in bringing new blood into the sport. But where Thurgood’s HRDC-run initiative was conceived as an entry-level series, the 2.0L Cup has taken Porsche’s modern Supercup as its blueprint and applied it to early short-wheelbase 2.0-litre 911s (hence the name).

It’s a brilliantly simple idea that has been perfectly realised by series founders James Turner and Lee Maxted-Page and adopted by French historic racing supremo Patrick Peter, who ran grids at four of Peter Auto’s meetings – the Spa Classic in May, Grand Prix de l’Age d’Or at Dijon in June, Le Mans Classic in July and the Dix Mille Tours at Paul Ricard during September.

With plenty of 2.0-litre 911s already racing in assorted historic series, the 2.0L Cup hit the ground running. But the promise of ultra-close racing, strictly policed technical regulations and some first-class circuits meant a significant number of cars were built specially for the inaugural season. The sight of more than three-dozen 911s taking the start of the first round at Spa was truly remarkable: a glowing endorsement of a great concept and a fresh direction in which historic racing can develop.     

Personal highlights of the season? Too many to list. The Spa Six Hours proved the usual rollercoaster, but leading the race in ‘my’ Ford GT40 was pretty epic, as was racing a near-priceless original Competition Department Jaguar E-type in the Kinrara Trophy at Goodwood. However, 2018 being a Le Mans Classic year, a truly memorable moment was driving a Mk3B Lola T70 at La Sarthe. I’ve raced T70s many times, but to experience one of these iconic cars absolutely flat out at its spiritual home and to put it on pole for the Grid 4 group is to understand why the thrill of driving at the Le Mans Classic means it only seems to get bigger, better and more spectacular with every running.

Low points? Retiring the aforementioned T70 from its first race and withdrawing it from the rest of the Le Mans Classic weekend was pretty depressing, but far worse was being involved in a rather sizeable shunt at the Goodwood Revival.

Prior to being nerfed off at the fastest part of the circuit I was having a fantastic race in the St Mary’s Trophy, but the entirely avoidable incident not only propelled me into one of Goodwood’s unyielding earth banks, but into the midst of the growing call for improved driving standards.

To Goodwood’s credit the crash was taken extremely seriously, with Martin Donnelly and the stewards interviewing all concerned and watching trackside and in-car footage in frame-by-frame detail. The outcome has been covered elsewhere in this magazine, so I won’t dwell on the crime or the punishment, but while it was pretty bloody scary for me and a potentially damaging incident for the Revival, I do believe that the necessary steps are being taken by Goodwood to police poor driving and instil the necessary degree of collective respect and responsibility among competitors. If there’s one thing historics can’t take from modern racing, it’s a tolerance of contact or overly aggressive driving. 

Finally, I can’t end this piece without mentioning Henry Hope-Frost, who was so tragically killed in a motorcycle accident on his way home from work at Goodwood just days before this year’s Members’ Meeting. Like many thousands of people, I loved Henry – and have come to realise quite how much in the painful months since his passing. I’d be lying if I said his loss hadn’t left a massive void in the historic racing community. Most obviously at Goodwood, where his intelligence, knowledge and irrepressible enthusiasm so brilliantly expressed the ethos of its three showcase events, but also at the Donington Historic Festival and Silverstone Classic, where he was also such a big part of the commentary and pit lane teams.

It’s hard to take any solace from such a heart-wrenching loss, but the one thing that has given me comfort is the continued and increasing presence of #Fever tribute logos on racing cars and crash helmets up and down historic and modern grids in the UK, Europe and far beyond. I’m sure he’d be somewhat flummoxed by these displays of respect and affection, but racing in his memory is something his countless friends in motor sport do with great pride.

For this reason alone, the 2019 season can’t start soon enough.