Few circuits offer as sumptuous an array of showdowns as Brands Hatch
It might have staged its most recent Formula 1 race more than 30 years ago, but as a consequence it hasn’t been obliged to evolve – and that’s a good thing. While some of former British Grand Prix co-host Silverstone’s charms have been obliterated by development, Brands Hatch retains much of its original majesty – and few circuits are capable of generating such a sense of occasion when there is something of moment at stake. Such was the case in October, with the British Touring Car Championship, British Superbike Championship and Formula Ford Festival settled within the space of 22 days. Quite a month, then.
The sequence began with the BTCC finale and a flavour of bygone Brands Hatch, with queues building gently along the A20 and people arriving early to park folding chairs in prime locations before ambling off to find a bacon butty.
Many are critical about driver conduct in the BTCC, but things have to be put in context. During qualifying for the previous round, at Silverstone National, the whole 32-car field had been covered by 0.886sec. Things were a little less competitive around the Brands GP loop – only the top 23 were covered by nine tenths – but such numbers underline that proximity is inevitable, particularly when cars are not especially aero-dependent and thus enable drivers to corner as a mob. The key thing is how individuals behave within that framework – and some have greater style and class than others.
Double champion Colin Turkington has traditionally been one of the good guys, ferociously hard yet scrupulously fair, and his recovery drive during the second race (essential, to keep his title hopes alive) was – for a while – a case in point. With no success ballast to impede him, he stormed cleanly from 15th to second before coming up with his own version of push-to-pass by elbowing leader Aiden Moffat aside at Paddock. It didn’t look subtle – the Northern Irishman was fined £500 and handed three penalty points – but it wasn’t typical.
That set up a championship showdown between Turkington and Ashley Sutton, but it didn’t last long in the gathering gloom. When Mat Jackson rejoined after running wide at Graham Hill Bend on lap two, he snagged Turkington’s BMW and broke its suspension. Subaru driver Sutton, 23, thus clinched his first BTCC title – a popular triumph in a series that doesn’t always reward young blood.
Talking of which…
Earlier in the day, during a sensational Ginetta GT4 Supercup race, one of the commentators referenced a “Gilles Villeneuve-style manoeuvre”. A slight exaggeration, of course, but more than 35 years have elapsed since the French-Canadian’s passing and our sport has still to conjure a better synonym for ‘spectacular’.
Part of the BTCC’s appeal lies in its ability to engage with fans – and if anything the BSB is perhaps even more successful in this regard. On the final morning of the season, the pit walkabout was swamped with families and – brandishing team lanyards, badges and signed photographs – young kids were having a brilliant time before a wheel had so much as turned. Formula 1 used to do stuff like this – I have the stickers to prove it – but pterodactyls were still common at the time.
And then there’s the quality of the spectacle – both sporting and human.
Much of the racing was breathless – at one point, a Superstock 600 lead battle stretched much of the way from Druids to Paddock – and a single superbike (let alone a field of 26) is always worth watching, riders ever refusing to accept physical legislation as they caress 200-odd bhp around the Brands Hatch GP circuit’s glorious contours.
Leon Haslam (Kawasaki) came into the weekend with a healthy advantage, though serial champion Shane Byrne whittled this down to just a couple of points by winning the first two races.
The final denouement was remarkable, not so much for what happened on track as for events afterwards. While Josh Brookes led for Yamaha, Haslam ran ahead of Byrne in the early stages – until brake failure pitched him off at Hawthorn (approach speed: circa 170mph). While Byrne eased off to cruise to title number six (though it’s the first time he’s ever staged a successful defence), Haslam was helped to the grid to congratulate his rival: he wanted to do that before heading to the medical centre, which was vaguely essential as he’d broken one apiece of ankle, wrist and thumb.
Contrast his attitude with that of a sportsman in a higher-profile arena (no names, but let’s call him ‘Sergio’), bleating constantly on the radio because he’s behind his team-mate, then ask yourself where courage and dignity are more likely to be found.
One week later the crowd had thinned significantly: the Formula Ford Festival no longer has its pull of yore, but the category – historic or contemporary – still produces the finest single-seater racing in the British Isles.
Time was that one would rise in the morning, watch the Australian GP and then head to the Festival: this year, the running order was coffee, cheese-laced croissant, Brands Hatch and then a dash home to watch Lewis Hamilton conquer the Circuit of the Americas. Again.
There was a familiar name at the front of the Festival field, too. Outright winner in 2003 – and successful in the Kent-engined section the following year – Joey Foster added to his garland collection by winning heat, semi-final and, having passed Neil MacLennan on the ninth of 20 laps, the finale.
Almost 80 cars took part – about 100 shy of heyday levels – but some things haven’t changed. A front-runner in the first FF Festival I covered in 1982, Rick Morris was involved once again – at least until he was sidelined by an accident on Saturday afternoon, when Storm Brian rendered conditions intermittently treacherous.
While the main event could be improved only by the presence of more cars, the supporting cast requires careful pruning. One-marque BMW and Porsche races were fun to watch, but felt out of place, while the visiting Irish supercars (they’re not) and Global Lights added nothing at all.
Until a couple of years ago the Irish Fiesta Zetec Championship was a regu
lar feature – a cocktail of cheerful attitude, 10-car lead battles and a willingness to fix inverted cars with a hammer and then carry on as though nothing untoward had occurred.
Their restoration to the schedule is most surely overdue.
A week beyond Prescott’s annual event of the same name, Wiltshire’s interpretation of an Autumn Classic came to pass. The event has been gaining traction in recent years and is now among the most popular meetings at the former RAF airfield. It’s not hard to see why, with a blend of racing, static displays and parades that included a few F5000 cars being driven at a reasonable lick.
It’s hard to believe a venue of such quaintness (those approaching from the east will likely pass through the hamlet of Tiddleywink) hosted European F5000 Championship rounds in 1970 and 1971, when the facilities weren’t as good as they have since become. Then again, Mallory Park used to host F1 races…
The term ‘classic’ applies to the event’s structure and content, with seven practice sessions, as many races and no repetition. It also represented something of a cross-pollination, with diverse organising clubs – including the VSCC and HSCC – conjuring strong fields. Only the 500cc F3 race was poorly supported.
The accent was on sports cars and single-seaters, though the single-marque Jaguar event underlined that a well-driven Mk2 remains as entertaining to watch as any racing saloon – and made one wonder why there was no pure tin-top contest on the agenda. That was about the only thing missing.
Other highlights included Richard Bradley’s post-race bow to the crowd after he’d spun his enthusiastically driven Aston Martin Ulster on successive laps at Quarry. Bradley is accustomed to a slightly bigger audience, mind: in 2015 he stood atop the Le Mans 24 Hours podium after sharing LMP2 victory with Matthew Howson and Nicolas Lapierre…