On the road with Simon Arron

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Old, but still hard to beat
Brands Hatch, October 26 & Silverstone, November 1-2: evidence that new ideas aren’t necessarily the best

When you think of Formula Ford, does your mind’s eye conjure the ungainly, bewinged contraptions that have struggled to attract custom on the British Touring Car Championship support programme in recent seasons… or compact, uncluttered projectiles that hunt in large packs? In all likelihood the answer is ‘B’ – and if it isn’t it should be.

For career-minded drivers, Britain’s single-seater landscape has been in tatters awhile – with the conspicuous exception of Jonathan Palmer’s BRDC Formula 4 Championship, launched successfully in 2013. Formula Renault thrives in Europe, but has been absent from these shores for three seasons (although a return is planned for 2015). British F3 is being put out of its misery and we wait to gauge response to the new MSA Formula (an FIA-approved recipe that effectively replaces modern Formula Ford). As things stand, there might soon be three similar categories courting kart graduates.

Below the radar, meanwhile, Formula Ford 1600 carries on doing what it has always done, providing drivers with an opportunity to hone their craft in cars that permit properly close racing.

The Brands Hatch Formula Ford Festival might be a shadow of its former self, with sufficient cars for just a couple of heats, but that hasn’t diluted its intensity. James Raven eventually won this year’s event quite comfortably, simply because he was the only driver able to unstitch Jonathan McMullan’s largely flawless defence. McMullan didn’t have the fastest car, but intelligent technique provided adequate compensation as he completed a Ray one-two with five cars on his tail.

One week later, at Silverstone, the Walter Hayes Trophy attracted 115 entries – and founder James Beckett hopes to attract sufficient numbers to expand the format from six heats to eight in 2015, just like the Festival in its heyday. Wayne Boyd (Van Diemen MS13) took a victory that was memorable not so much for the fact that he won the Grand Final from 14th on the grid, after repassing Rob Hall on the final lap, but for his recovery from a distant 33rd to seventh in the first semi-final, after he’d been bundled into a spin on the opening lap. You tend not to notice driving rain when you’re watching a performance of that calibre.

Given that sufficient cars exist, is it perhaps time to set the two events a fortnight apart and create some kind of combined award for the best aggregate performance? That might boost the event that most needs it, without diluting the other.

Expanding the WHT might mean shifting qualifying to Friday, given the restricted hours of daylight and the need to incorporate support events (race organiser the HSCC’s Formula Libre-style single-seater and closed-wheel races are lovely, anything-goes throwbacks), but teams tend to be at the circuit by then anyway, for testing.

However things evolve, the original Formula Ford continues to produce competitive splendour that’s hard to fault (or, indeed, match), despite being 47 years old.

Strength in depth
Silverstone, October 25: the beguiling diversity of a national institution

It can be only a couple of degrees outside, but still you get a nice, warm feeling as you peel across the Wellington Straight bridge and see Silverstone’s national paddock looking absolutely rammed. The trimmings might have changed over the past 30 years or so, but this is club racing in the grand manner of old: hundreds of vehicles (quite literally so, in this instance) and precious little in the way of an audience.

The occasion is the 64th annual running of the Birkett Six Hours, the 750 Motor Club’s annual end-of-term relay: with 69 teams of four to six drivers (and sometimes as many different cars) the landscape is as varied as any in modern motor sport. The field might include many a Caterham (or derivatives thereof), but the entry also features Smart ForTwos, Radicals, a Triumph Dolomite Sprint, a sprinkling of Minis (ancient and modern), a Renault 5GT Turbo, an authentic Porsche 935 K3 replica and AC/DC’s car-loving lead singer Brian Johnson in an MGB. Oh, and Le Mans 24 Hours LMP2 class winner Jota Sport is also here, tending to a couple of Mazda MX-5s – not quite a full factory effort, but it doesn’t look far short.

The bank to the outside of Copse is packed with photographers shortly before the scheduled kick-off at 11.45, but the shot is diluted by the decision to implement what is effectively a safety car start, with drivers setting off in single file after a rolling parade lap. By the time the first two cars reach Copse, some of the field are still on the Wellington Straight: by the second lap, the leaders are already passing their first of many backmarkers. Clumps of traffic and huge speed differentials are ever a factor.

The race loses much of its zest before one-third distance, after a serious accident at Maggotts: Charles Harvey-Kelly (Radical SR3) and Ben Pearson (BMW Compact) hit the retaining wall hard after a collision and the safety car appears while medical crews extricate Harvey-Kelly. The operation takes some time and the unfortunate driver is subsequently airlifted to hospital with head injuries.

The race eventually carries on, the appropriately named Winning Radicals team of Aaron and Lee Bailey, John Macleod, Doug Carter and Brian Murphy (all in Radicals, obviously) completing 141 laps to win on scratch. Victory on handicap goes to Six Signatures, an all-Caterham armada featuring James Needham, Kurt Brady, David Rowe, John Toshack and Spencer Horgan.

The British Grand Prix has been a calendar staple since 1948, despite Bernie Ecclestone’s past efforts, but the Birkett began only three years later and outstrips most things in terms of heritage. One imagines there might be calls to restrict the range of entries in the wake of this year’s event, but diversity has been the event’s essence from day one.

The Birkett is what it is and would best be left that way.

Blazing saddles
Snetterton, October 11 & Brands Hatch, October 18-19: sharply contrasting finales at the end of the bike racing season

It was a step from a universe in which the battered Ford Transit is king (that will be the Classic Racing Motorcycle Club) to one in which even some sidecar teams – traditionally motorcycle racing’s poor relations – have huge hospitality rigs. Welcome, then, to the British Superbike series.

One of the biggest advantages of an early drive to Snetterton is that a few Little Chefs still operate on the A11: most such institutions have long been boarded up, but head east and they continue to serve a hearty breakfast.

Upon arrival, one of the first things I hear is the paddock tannoy: there is still space in one or two events. If anybody fancies an extra race, late entries are being accepted for (look away now if you compete on four wheels) £25.

In many ways it’s like a historic car meeting, with intense combat at the front while others are content just to enjoy the machinery at their own pace. It’s a happy, relaxed place.

The intensity is far greater a week later, although the anticipated BSB showdown fizzles out after a practice accident leaves contender Ryuichi Kiyonari with a fractured collarbone. Initially it seems he might miss only the first race – and conspiracy theorists go into overdrive when rival Shane Byrne falls, potentially extending the title fight. In the end it makes little difference, because Byrne wins twice on Sunday with Kiyonari still sidelined.

Even with the main show shorn of a little spice, the spectacle remains compelling. All forms of motor sport are there to test the laws of physics, but superbike racing does so more than most: as riders try to reapply power at the exit of a greasy Graham Hill Bend, some kick out a rear wheel in a manner that verges on speedway.

I know little of bikes, old or new, but do rather enjoy watching them.