A race less ordinary
Editor Nick Trott experiences the highs and lows (and everything in between) in the inaugural, and brilliantly eccentric, Equipe Classic Relay
“What’s the water temperature?” asks Nick Crewsdon, our mechanic for the Equipe Classic Relay. I’m sitting waiting in the pitlane for the end of a red flag period in John Pearson’s beautiful sky blue MGB Roadster. It’s the day before the Equipe Classic Relay – the first of its kind – and I’m giving Pearson’s MGB a quick run to check that everything is OK.
Everything is not OK.
The B’s water temperature needle is rising in direct proportion to a feeling of panic welling up inside me. Oh Lord, what have I done?
The Relay can trace its origins back to Brooklands in 1931 – at least that’s what it says in the excellent Motor Sport magazine archive, which I unashamedly plug (see motorsportmagazine.com). The first race was called the Relay Grand Prix and had an entry of 66 cars divided into 22 teams. The engine capacity limit was 1½ litres.
“The point of the 250-mile Relay-Race,” recalled former editor Bill Boddy in the September 1977 issue, “was that amateur drivers with comparatively ordinary sports and racing cars could have the opportunity of driving in a long-distance race without having to submit their cars to too much lappery, while being able to enjoy the kind of pit-work and strategy associated with such a race.” Boddy recalled a number of “humorous scenes” from the early Relay-Races at Brooklands, including watching the “decidedly intrepid” Morgan three-wheelers speeding around the rim of the banking, and “the changing-over of the sashes, which might include the spectacle of drivers running long distances to achieve this, after their cars had expired out in the country”.
The Relay concept evolved and expanded over the years, notably through Holland Birkett. Throughout the UK, and indeed the world, the Relay became a must-visit event for competitors and drivers alike. It was the spirit, fun and camaraderie of these early Relays that Equipe series organisers John Pearson and Rob Cull were looking to recreate with the first Classic Relay. Buoyed by the success of their Equipe GTS pre-66 series, they took the plunge and booked Silverstone for a three-hour event in September 2017.
‘There was a huge gap in the market for a long-distance team event for smaller-engined cars. The Spa 6 Hours is a fantastic trophy event for historic cars, but the race is dominated by semi-professional drivers in GT40s, Jaguar E=types and Cobras. Also, asking one car to last six hours is a tough call.” Pearson has a fond opinion of the long-standing history of the Birkett Relay, but feels the traditional balance between old and new cars is now too skewed in favour of the newer cars. And so the Equipe Classic Relay was born.
The entry criteria for the Equipe Relay demanded pre-66 GTs up to 3 litres and touring or saloon cars up to 2 litres. All cars had to comply with FIA appendix K and slither around on Dunlop historic tyres in wet or dry conditions. The field included a number of recognisable historic racing shapes, from MG to Lotus, Triumph to Healey, but with a few curios including Elva Couriers, a Turner and a Tornado Talisman. Speaking to John and Rob a month before the event, they could hardly contain their excitement that the Relay had received entries from a number of cars with period racing history.
SO HOW DOES the Equipe Classic Relay work? You have a team, preferably with a daft name (ie ‘Team Bald and Short’), with two to four cars allowed per team. Only one car is allowed on track at any time, although drivers physically handing over a sash or a baton in the Brooklands tradition, despite its comedy potential, is not required. The race would be three hours, with a good result ultimately dependant on a) a good team manager with a clear race strategy, b) consistent and mistake-free driving, c) efficient driver changes and d) the handicap system. You’ll note there’s no mention of strong reliability here, because while vehicle dependability in any classic race is important, the rules of the Relay allow competitors to pace their vehicle to suit its inherent reliability. For instance, if a team entered a car with a known weakness, it could complete a more sympathetic shorter stint and allow a car with greater reliability to take a longer one.
And the handicap? This is where it gets truly fascinating, and mysterious. Equipe Classic employed the services of Martin Dewey, arguably the most experienced handicapper anywhere in the world. Prior to the race, all drivers were required to submit lap times from previous races at the circuit – the Silverstone National. I had no prior experience of the circuit so I submitted a time based on my average pace relative to Ed Foster, the owner of the MGB I have been sharing this year (read more in our ‘Garagista’ section). I’m generally about a second a lap slower than Ed, so I found Foster’s times from his last race on the National at tsl.timing.com, created an average and added a second to that. As I trawled through this process, I hoped that other rookies were being as diligent – and honest – as I was!
These prior lap times were analysed by Martin then compared with each driver’s qualifying times on the morning of the race. If any inconsistency or nefarious behaviour was suspected, Martin would delve deeper into individual driver performance at previous races, and adjust the handicap to suit. When it all shook out after qualifying, each team was given a number of laps. These laps represented your team position at the start, and drivers would be required to catch up throughout the race. Once again, vehicle preservation is key here, in that you are not necessarily racing the cars around you and with consistent lap times you could stay on or ahead of the handicap.
The finer details of the handicapping process were never revealed, and teams were not given the opportunity to challenge it. This meant there was a beguiling sense of mystery, and all drivers had to take it on trust that Martin had got it spot on, but not one driver or team complained – which must be some kind of record in racing today.
Speaking to other drivers, there seemed to be a consensus in that attempting to cheat the handicap meant risking a penalty that you’d never see – as Martin would apply it pre-race and stack the odds against you. For the control freaks among us (which is about 99 per cent of all people involved in motor racing) it meant a form of surrender – but John and Rob recognised this before the event and walked miles up and down the pitlane in practice, qualifying and the race to ensure the spirit of the event and the faith in Martin was maintained. “The ambition,” Rob Cull told me just before practice, “was that every car would be on the same lap, on the last lap, and it would be a race to the flag.”
BUT AT PRESENT it looks like we aren’t in the race at all. Nick emerges from under the B, frowning. It has sprung a leak. We push the car into the garage, and a depressing stream of fluid trickles behind it.
I’m not a car breaker. I’ve had one spin this year and not one mechanical issue. I pride myself on this and was therefore mighty depressed that I might have contributed to our exit before the race had begun. I was honest with Nick and John – on those first few laps in a new car on a new track, I scanned the gauge perhaps a couple of times (but not enough). When I remembered to check, all seemed fine. However, a short stop in the pits created a sudden temperature spike that I didn’t notice.
Bonnet up, Nick goes to work. A major fault is suspected. I want to bury my head in the Silverstone tarmac. Then John suggests that we whip off the cylinder head. The car received a new head gasket at the previous round, and perhaps something has gone awry. I call co-driver Peter Haynes, and team-mate Paul Latimer to give them the news. Paul is just about to load his own MGB on a trailer and depart for Silverstone. I tell him to sit tight…
To everyone’s great relief, it turns out that the head gasket has indeed failed – although the cause remains a mystery. Nick fits a new one. I call Peter and give him the good news, and Paul is back on the road. We’re on!
OUR TEAM MANAGER ARRIVES. Christian Horner was unavailable, and while Ron Dennis was interested in reprising the role he mentioned something about washing his hair, so Jack Phillips stepped in. Jack is Motor Sport magazine’s digital editor. He’s never had a role on a race team before; he casually read the rules the night before and looked altogether befuddled. Plus in his work life, I’m his boss. No pressure. However, he speaks to John and Nick and a few knowledgeable folk in the pitlane and applies the most basic strategy: one hour each, no unnecessary pitstops, plus a fast and consistent pace. He would monitor lap times, and if he felt confident with his calculations and analysis would give us the ‘hurry up’ on the pitboard, but otherwise we would stick to the strategy.
In qualifying, Peter and Paul are properly quick. I’m a little slower, but consistent. That’ll do. Then I get a call to visit the clerk of the course, who informs me that I pulled out ahead of another car in the pitlane, causing it to swerve. I recall seeing the car in my mirrors, but contest that I pulled out ahead of him. As the race has yet to start, and a pleasant relationship with all the officials is prudent (and encouraged), I back down. Humbly.
Then I get called to the clerk of the course again! What now?! This time team manager Jack volunteers to attend as I sense a tantrum brewing inside. What a baptism. He is told that two of our team cars were on the circuit for a couple of laps in qualifying – a big no-no. It turns out it was my fault. I saw what I thought was Paul’s MGB drive past in the pitlane, and drove onto the circuit. However, it wasn’t Paul’s car – it was another similar B! For the millionth time this weekend, I say sorry.
We decide shortly before the race that each driver should complete a full hour. This will minimise time lost ‘passing the baton’, but introduce an element of jeopardy in that John’s B will need to complete two hours, albeit with an hour’s break while Paul is on track. We qualify 10th of 27, thanks to a stellar lap from Peter, and figure that with consistent driving, solid teamwork and close analysis of the lap charts from Jack we might finish in the top five. And it starts well. Very well.
Peter positively rips off the line. He’s up to sixth then fourth by lap six. He’s quick. Bloody quick. Too quick? I consider asking Jack to show him a ‘steady’ board, but ultimately it’s Jack’s call and there’s no sign that he’s overdriving. Plus John’s MGB is singing sweetly. However, mechanical trouble or accidents can strike at any time, so Paul sits belted in his car in the pit garage – should he need to scramble.
He sits for an hour. Now we know why Rob suggested a cautious approach to taking on fluids before the race…
Peter pits. Paul heads out on track. We’re running fourth overall and our calculations suggest we’re right at the sharp end in the handicap. This is fun. We muck in to refuel John’s MGB, then I visit the loo, then jump in and belt up. I’m ready.
Still ready 10 minutes into Paul’s stint.
Still ready 20 minutes into Paul’s stint.
Still ready 30 minutes into Paul’s stint.
Then I fall asleep.
Fortunately, my dad – who’s come to watch – taps on the window.
“I think you’re out soon,” he says.
Jack confirms it. Then I go. Steady to the end. Paul runs a stellar stint and has kept us in fourth overall, and we’re still right up there in the handicap. Steady, Nick. Steady.
It rains. Cars spin off. Concentration wavers a little. I think about my family and kids in the grandstand and imagine them cheering – so I showboat with a long slide through Luffield and then instantly issue myself a reprimand. Don’t cock it up now…
Chequered flag. It’s over! We did it. No problems. Fantastic atmosphere, hugs and smiles all round. We’re fourth overall, but the result doesn’t matter. We help to pack up, forgetting that the race is a handicap and the result hasn’t been calculated. It doesn’t seem to matter, until at the trophy ceremony John and Rob call out our name. We’d won!
With thanks to John, Rob, Nick Crewsdon Racing, Roy Gillingham of Chequered Flag Classics, title sponsor of the event British Motor Heritage Ltd (www.bmh-ltd.com).
For more information on Equipe GTS, visit www.equipeclassicracing.com. Speak to the Equipe GTS organisers at Race Retro, stand 2-336.
Go to www.motorsportmagazine.com for a full gallery of the event.
RIVALS VOICE THEIR APPROVAL
Experienced racers John Yea, Bill Rawles and Steve Winter also competed. Their thoughts?
“It was a highlight to see our cars running the full stints,” says John Yea of The Heritage Boys team, “plus we had some reasonable changeovers. I was delighting in the shower of rain we had – until I spun coming out of Copse, fortunately without hitting anything, or impeding anyone. Overall, I found the whole atmosphere to be of good-natured but serious rivalry, properly competitive, but with respect for other participants.”
Bill Rawles, of Keeping Healeys Racing concurs. “The atmosphere was very friendly, the event was brilliantly organised and ran smoothly from start to finish. Although the highlight of the race was definitely taking the lead off the start line. Going from fourth to first and then to lead for 45 minutes was an amazing feeling, almost surreal.
I enjoyed the pressure and the excitement at the same time. It was also a very proud ‘dad’ moment to share a race for the first time with both of my sons, who grew up with my racing Healey and used to watch me in action.”
Steve Winter of Team GB, which ran Porsche 911s, adds: “It was so good to be racing among like-minded people, My highlight? Finishing!
“More seriously, I learnt a new line into Brooklands, passed on to me by Calum Lockie. It worked a treat and I overtook five cars there at different stages of my stint. It was always a horrible corner for me, but now it is my favourite. And the Scandinavian flick into Becketts is best fun ever.
I didn’t get lapped at all in my stint, which is what I love about Equipe GTS – all the cars are very similar, unlike other GT championships where our little 911 gets buzzed by Chevrons and E-types.”