Interview; Hugh Chamberlain

In amongst the big boys

Life was not easy in 1988 for anyone trying to beat Spice Engineering in the World Sports-Prototype Group C2 Championship. But then, it wasn't easy in 1987, or 1986, or1985.

The team which came nearest last year was the Spice customer team run by Hugh Camberlain, a burly ex-policeman who came to world-class competitions via a happy era in Clubmans racing. In contrast to the works which wins practically every race and is heavily sponsored, Chamberlain's has featured Jean-Louis Ricci's Cosworth-powered Spice and his own Hart turbo-powered Spice usually handled by Nick Adams, neither of which has ever won a championship race; in the case of the turbo-powered car, It has achieved results in spite of being seriously under-financed for most of the season.

Chamberlain's route into C2 via Clubmans might seem rather unfashionable these days, and he admits that as a driver he is not quite as brilliant as he once thought. His preparation of Mallock U2s and their engines, though, was excellent, and when his second car was driven by Will Hoy in 1982 Chamberlain made two discoveries: "The engines and chassis were a good bit better than I realised, and I had to face it that with similar equipment Will was considerably quicker than I was. That was a realisation for me, I had to take it on the chin."

There was a good deal to celebrate in the 1982-84 period, when the only real opposition came from Creighton Brown, also in a Mallock. "There was a suggestion that Will and Creighton should get together and run a pair of cars in 1985, but Creighton said quite rightly that we were winning everything already, and we might ruin Clubmans completely."

Looking for a logical progression into sports-car racing, Chamberlain decided to contest Thundersports. He bought a Tiga and installed a Hart turbo engine, based on the former F1 four-cylinder unit, following an introduction by Creighton Brown to the Harlow tuner. The top car in the previous year's World C2 Championship had been the Giannini Alba, an Italian car powered by a 1.8-litre, four-cylinder turbochargcd engine, and this route seemed a very good idea both to Chamberlain and, later, to Martin Schanche. By 1985 though, Gordon Spice and Ray Bellm were proving that the best package was based on the Cosworth V8, a model of simplicity.

The '85 Thundersports programme was clearly not the success the team had expected despite the combined talents of Hoy and Brown at the wheel. "We liked the idea of turbocharged engines, and no-one ever says no to 450 horsepower," Chamberlain admits, "but it was dreadfully unreliable. Not because of the engine, but because we just didn't understand how to run a car of that sophistication."

By the end of the year Chamberlain clearly believed that he'd solved the major problems and declared himself in the World Championship C2 class, preparing the Tiga-Hart for Hoy and Gareth Chapman, with Dan Murphy assisting when a third driver was required. Alas, the season could not be judged a success, for they accumulated a total of seven points, eighth in class at Brands Hatch and seventh at Spa.

Things could only get better, and Chamberlain took a large step forward for the '87 season by buying a Spice chassis, installing what should by then have been an extremely reliable Hart 1.8-litre turbo engine. Hoy was wooed away to join Martin Schanche's new Lucky Strike team, in a Zakspeed turbopowered Argo (a professional drive, in which he achieved no fewer than seven pole positions during the season), so Chamberlain regrouped around another Clubmans-bred driver, Nick Adams, who had introduced the Post Office Swiftair sponsorship to Ecurie Ecosse but had then turned down the offer of six drives in the second car.

In theory the team had every potential to win races, and there was no question that in Adams' hands the Spice-Hart was very fast. On its debut at Monza it ran with the works Spice for an hour until the turbo failed, and it led C2 at Silverstone until a hare committed suicide at Adams' wheels. But pole position Le Mans was followed by a troublesome race and the gremlins remained at Brands (starter motor), Spa (wet electrics) and Fuji (gearbox).

Two things brightened prospects for 1988. Jean-Louis Ricci (a member of the perfume family) bought the Spice factory's Le Mans car for the latter part of the season and asked Chamberlain to operate it as a team car — this continued in 1988, with a brand-new car, and at the end of the season Graham Duxbury joined Adams for the non-championship race at Kyalami, and they won very stylishly after a tough battle with Costas Los and Philippe Henning in the GP Motorsport Cosworth.

It seemed that Spice Engineering might have some very worthy opposition in 1988 and could perhaps be beaten by customers (something that Jeff Hazell said he would welcome), yet for various reasons the team encountered little opposition . . . and when it was beaten it was the Italian Kelmar Tiga team which took the C2 victory at the Nurburgring.

The advantage of running a two-car team showed up early in the season, Ricci and Ballot-Lena finishing third in class at Jerez, second at Jararna, third at Monza and fifth at Silverstone. The Hart-powered car driven by Adams had a shaky start but got better as the season went on, claiming third at Brno (after Ricci was disqualified for pushing his car over the line!), third at Spa, fifth at Fuji and fourth at Sandown Park.

"I'm happy to have finished second in the C2 World Championship, but we scored about half as many points as we should have done," Chamberlain summarises. "It wasn't a bad season, by any standards, but I felt we should have won at least four races when the Spice team slipped up, and we weren't in a position to capitalise on their mistakes."

For a team owner who finished second in the World Championship, second to a "factory team" which was well-nigh unbeatable, Chamberlain is a stern self-critic. His sense of justice dates back to his five-year career in the Metropolitan Police, on a tough beat in Kentish Town, but, as he says, he was not really cut out for a career in the police force.

"We wouldn't have seen eye to eye in the long term, because I was far too lenient with people I felt sorry for. My time as a policeman made me realise that I'd had a very lucky and very privileged childhood, and made me determined to do something with my life."

On leaving the Met in 1964 Chamberlain spent six years in the motor trade, most of them with the Radial motor component factoring company. He started racing a Jaguar XK120, moved on to a Cooper-Jaguar, and bought his first Clubmans car, a Mallock Mk6, in 1968.

That was the beginning of the love affair with Clubmans, and sports-cars in general, and the successful preparation of engines (road cars, as well as racers) led to the formation of Chamberlain Engineering in 1972. For ten years the business developed according to plan, Chamberlain buying premises at Buntingford, Hertfordshire in 1978 and, while road car engines provided the "bread and butter" work, racing became an increasingly important feature.

Neither Chamberlain nor Schanche managed to win a World Championship C2 race with a turbocharged-engined car (the last to do so were Almo Coppelli and Guido Dacco, in the FF team's Giannini-Alba at Mosport in August 1984), and Chamberlain is on the point of conceding that the Cosworth V8 is, after all, the only realistic way of competing successfully.

There are no regrets, though, about running Hart turbo cars for four seasons. "I suppose I have shot myself in the foot," says Chamberlain, "but I have always maintained that you will have to do extraordinarily well to beat a works team if you have the same equipment. They will always have the availability of money, of good drivers, and the benefit of development. You'd be hard pushed to beat them at their own game.

"If, however, you've got an engine that's capable of producing 20 to 30 horsepower more, and is 20 kilos lighter, then it has got to be a good way to go. Especially if you know that you're capable of qualifying a number of seconds faster, and therefore starting a number of places further forward on the grid. Our engine is old, and the electronics are those which were thrown away in F1 six years ago, but I firmly believe that if someone came along with the right sort of money, and the right sort of package, the turbo engine would be very competitive indeed."

Nick Adams, in fact, qualified the Chamberlain Spice-Hart outstandingly well at Le Mans, his time of 3min 30.26sec being 16th overall, faster than nine C1 cars (most of them Porsches), and 7.6 seconds faster than Gordon Spice who was second on the C2 grid.

Surprisingly, with the benefit of ongoing development but without any major modifications, Adams was a full 10 seconds quicker at Le Mans, 5 seconds faster at Monza and 4 seconds faster-at Silverstone last year. The races have been run faster, too, since the allocation of fuel was increased by 10%, "but the sophistication is far greater too, and costs have escalated," says Chamberlain. "Costs will go up again in 1989 and I imagine that some teams in the lower echelons will find their way into the BRDC British C2 series, or the German Supercup. I suspect that's where our Hart car will finish up, though I'd like to run it in a few more World Championship events, say Le Mans, where its advantage is greatest."

In common with most of his C2 class-mates though, Hugh Chamberlain would like best to graduate into the new 31/2-Iitre class this year, probably using the same cars with 3.5-litre Cosworth engines. That is only 200cc more than this year's DFL engines, but with no restriction on fuel the drivers will enjoy themselves better, will have another 2000 rpm and an extra 100 bhp if they can afford it, and above all will be in with the big boys, an important psychological point when dealing with potential sponsors.

There is no turning back now, for the C2 category will almost certainly cease to exist at the end of the 1990 season, and may effectively be ended in the coming year as more teams jump ship and go into C1/3.5.

"We've got to go forward and that does mean the 31/2-litre class," says Chamberlain. "We really would be among the big boys, the Jaguars and the Saubers, but once we get there we'll be trying to win. There wouldn't be any point in doing it otherwise. I fear that Group C will become almost like Formula One, and that we may eventually have to produce our own chassis, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it."

Almost like Formula One . . . that's what a lot of people believe the future holds for sports-car racing, a category which will change almost out of recognition when the races are one-driver, two-hour, "made for TV" sprints. Any small and under-financed team will be forced out of World Championship racing, so in every sense 1989 is a make-or-break year for teams such as Hugh Chamberlain's. MLC