On the road with... Simon Arron

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Home on the range
Oulton Park, November 8: one of the modern era’s surprising success stories continues to evolve

Given this magazine’s sometimes quirky past, it seems wholly appropriate that Bill Boddy chose to ‘preview’ the new Oulton Park circuit in the March 1954 issue, even though the first meeting had taken place the previous August. WB liked what he found, though, and discussed a future extension that would take cars left at Cascades and on towards an “Avus-like” banked, right-handed hairpin. He wrote, “This will cut out the only really dangerous part of the present circuit, where a car could fall down an embankment and into a lake if it got out of control at Range Corner.”

Cars raced through Range for only a few meetings, but it exists to this day to serve as an occasional link road. A hint of its original purpose was glimpsed last autumn, however, when Bolton Le Moors Car Club chose to incorporate it as part of the route for its increasingly popular Neil Howard Stages – and added a water splash. That’s why I found myself standing on the very embankment WB described, wondering whether I might have need of the lake should evasive action be required. There was little sign of the paddock’s “large refreshment marquee” to which Bill referred, but its fried breakfasts might not have been a match for those in the present circuit café…

Club-level events have a habit of attracting the same few die-hards, but the Neil Howard Stages has taken on a life all its own – mostly, it seems, through word of mouth. It is not part of circuit owner MSV’s roster of promoted events, but you’d never guess as much from the congested parking lots. This was the third time the rally had taken place at Oulton, attendance has grown by the year and a close-of-play fireworks display was very much a bonus rather than the main draw.

This year’s format was the best to date, with four of 10 stages using the water splash and a couple of ‘super-specials’ on the circuit’s rally school course, which – oddly – hadn’t previously featured.

The surface at Range is significantly fractured nowadays, but that apart the route is asphalt all the way (by design, at least), with the regular circuit tackled in both directions and interspersed with chicanes formed of cones, tyres and oil drums.

Richard Sutton’s engaging V8-engined Triumph Dolomite didn’t show this time, but the oversubscribed entry was as diverse as always, with everything from original Minis to World Rally Cars via countless Mk2 Ford Escorts (a good thing, that). In the end, Stephen Simpson and Patrick Walsh (Subaru Impreza) scored a fairly comfortable victory in mostly slippery conditions, despite initially taking one of the widest lines ever seen through Lodge Corner. Kevin Procter and Derrick Fawcett were second in another Impreza, having overhauled previous winners Graham Coffey and Victoria Myers (Fiesta WRC) on the final stage.

Down in 49th overall (and ninth in Class B), one of the most popular cars in the field was the pleasingly yellow Ford Anglia 105E of Peter Sharples and James Swallows – but even that was much too fresh to have been acquainted with Range Corner in period.

Groove Armada
Slot car racing, 1974-2014: telemetry now available in 1/32 scale

Model shops were always designed to lure impressionable schoolboys – and then frustrate them by sticking impossible price tags on the best kit – but 40-odd years ago an establishment in Manchester was having something of a clear-out. And there, among the cut-price bargains, was an MRRC Lotus Cortina slot racer.

Nobody else in the shop seemed quite as excited as I was, but I dived on it anyway while my mate went for the more prosaic option of a Mini. At that time, few Scalextric racers looked much like whatever they were supposed to represent (and would lose a rear wing as soon as they spun into a chair leg, something I attempted to redress by making catch-fencing from an old net curtain), but the MRRC alternative was a little less crude – and also quite scarce. One bus ride later, my friend’s Mini stuck to the track like glue while the Cortina understeered off at any corner, irrespective of approach speed. I spent weeks trying to improve the weight distribution via the miracle of Plasticine, but nothing seemed to work and the sense of bitter disappointment lingers still.

The industry has moved on in the past 20 years, with scale accuracy and exquisite detail now the norm. Spanish company Fly has produced all sorts of stuff (including, commendably, Chevron B19s), while Scalextric and Revell both make beautiful Lotus Cortinas that turn in as required. Carrera has come up with a splendid Ford Capri RS3100 and it’s probably quicker to list the cars you can’t buy than those you can.

With the modelling standard now so high – and lane-changing digital sets long since established – the scope for innovation is becoming more slender, but Scalextric has just produced ARC (App Race Control) One, a £99.99 set that allows you to connect a smartphone to the track (via Bluetooth) to record lap times, set race distances and factor in elements such as tyre wear and fuel loads, both of which necessitate pit stops. There is also a real-time throttle trace on the screen. ARC One comes with two generic GTs, but the power base is compatible with older sets and Lotus Cortinas may thus be twinned with the new technology.

Our first attempt to set up the MotorSportring resulted in E Foster and S Arron being disqualified, possibly because I’d pushed the wrong button at some point during the set-up phase, but a second attempt was more successful. The app eliminates all sorts of potential arguments and points out a few harsh truths: around a 3.5sec lap, a couple of tenths are beyond an eternity.

I don’t believe it…
Brands Hatch, November 23: the best way to determine a race’s outcome?

In a previous life I’d have been in Abu Dhabi, bathed in 34-degree heat while the Formula 1 finale unravelled. Now, though, I was in the Swanley suburbs, where it had been raining non-stop since about Thursday and it was so dark at 10am that bringing a camera looked like a masterclass in futile optimism. It probably didn’t help that the second Abu Dhabi GP3 race was on TV when I squelched into the media centre.

These two meetings were not, however, the polar opposites they might have appeared.

Brands Hatch’s last event of the campaign featured, among other things, the conclusion of the BRDC F4 Winter Championship (clinched by Will Palmer, adding another trophy to the family’s seasonal haul in the slipstream of elder brother Jolyon’s GP2 title success), the Formula Vee Festival (won by Gac driver Martin Farmer) and the Victor Meldrew Challenge… which threw up a few parallels with events in the Middle East.

There, of course, the double-points initiative (since mercifully canned) created the possibility of Nico Rosberg being able to bumble around to finish fifth and yet still wrest the title from Lewis Hamilton, despite the Grand Prix victory score being 10-5 in the Englishman’s favour beforehand. At Brands Hatch, the Meldrew Challenge thrived on its traditional handicap formula involving drivers’ weights, ages, marital status and other criteria. Barnaby Davies (Toyota Starlet) and Jody Halse (BMW M3) won one race apiece and Halse was declared the 2014 Victor victor. A deliberate bit of fluff, perhaps, but no sillier than what might have unfolded 4250 miles away.

Despite much fuss about the 2014 F1 scoring system, the fact remains that the world title would have remained open under all but one of the previous scoring methods – the exception being 10-6-4-3-2-1 to the top six, implemented from 1992 until 2002. That was scrapped after Michael Schumacher clinched the title on about the third day of pre-season testing (well, July 21) and Bernie decided such meritocracy was bad for business. In its place came 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 for the top eight… and we toddled off to Japan for a 2003 title showdown between Schumacher, who’d won six races, and Kimi Räikkönen… with just one to his name. Justice prevailed, but it was still a system with the potential to reward relative mediocrity.

There are no perfect solutions and there will always be quirks, but the evidence points to 10-6-4-3-2-1 being the fairest option to date. If it were my show, I’d reinstate that pronto for the sake of sporting purity.

Otherwise, they might just as well peel a leaf from Victor’s laudable book.