Snetterton, June 4th/5th
This year’s was the fourth Willhire 24 Hour Race, all held at Snetterron, and so far all won by one man – Phil Dowsett has been in each of the winning teams. Entry is restricted to production cars, but in order to broaden the field, also includes those cars which have been out of production for more than three years and would normally be removed from the homologation lists.
Some of the drivers were well-known faces, such as Tiff Needell, Gerry Marshall, Tony Lanfranchi, but many had simply organised their ride as a one-off event, possibly the only race they will enter in the year. Some of the pit–crews too, were less than expert, but in fact rather added to the entertainment.
Shortly before 4 p.m., the cars formed up on the dummy grid – all except the BMW 323i of Colin Davids Racing. Gearbox trouble in practice forced them to try and change the ‘box, but this took longer than expected, so as the mechanics worked the rest of the field set off behind Mike Wilds in the Pace Car. At the front were two Porsches, a 928S with the official blessing of AFN Ltd, driven by Tony Dron, Win Percy, Andy Rouse and Phil Dowsett, and a 911 backed by, and of course shod with, BF Goodrich Tyres, which Colin Blower shared with Malcolm Paul and Tiff Needell.
Although the start of a round–the-clock event is really not critical, the excitement of the crowd was obvious as the field approached the end of the warm-up lap. The flashing amber lights of the Pace Car ducked into the pit·lane, and the front rows leaped ahead as if it were a 10 lap sprint. Within two minutes, the 323i roared up through the pits to join them, leaving the pits empty as all the crews hung over the pit rail watching their cars.
For the first few laps, spectators stayed glued to the action, carefully noting the order, commenting on fractional gains and losses, discussing Gerry Marshall’s attempts to get his Capri 2.8i past Blower‘s 911 into second place, while the 928 had already begun to lap the 1,300 cc cars, a Honda Civic and a Skoda Rapid Coupe.
After an hour or so, however, everyone began to realise just how long they were going to be here, and started to divide up and explore the various entertainments. The cafeteria began to fill, those with pit passes made the first of many visits there, some stretched out in the strong sunshine which soaked the grass – and some went to the fair. Laid out within the circuit were dodgems, roundabouts and side·shows, the brassy music giving a holiday air to the Norfolk scene.
Whether watching the cars or not, the enthusiastic commentary and the grapevine ensured that everyone knew that Marshall‘s Capri was having fuel surge problems, and that Allied Rubber Products’ Morgan Plus 8 had already had a new fuel pump fined, dropping Mike Ridley back to eighth place. Stops for fuel were becoming regular at this point, but the Goodrich team had a momentary panic when they thought Blower was making an unscheduled stop. It was a mistake, but it ought to have been an omen.
Next door, AFN produced a tape measure and carefully marked out just where their leading 928 was to park when it arrived. In the event, they stood holding the obligatory NASCAR-type fuel churns for nearly 15 min. before Rouse pulled in – the car was proving more economical than they had planned for.
A stroll up to the Esses gave an indication of the difference in speed between the fastest and slowest cars, and also provided the spectacle of Graham Hathaway just keeping the Alfa (GB)–entered GTV6 on the road through a series of wild slides. Later, it transpired that a severe vibration was making the car difficult to handle, and the Alfa crew worked hard throughout the night in pit·stop after pit·stop changing brake and drive components, which left a private . GTV6 sitting stripped in the paddock.
With the onset of night, the ID lights on each car became vital to the weary lap·scorers, and the atmosphere in the pits became noticeably more friendly. Equipment was passed from team to team, coffee and hot meals appeared, and huddled figures could be seen trying to get some rest on camp chairs. Since there was only one commentator, there was a long spell during the night when the public had no indication of what was happening, which made British Telecom’s hourly bulletin service rather valuable. One of these reports held a surprise – the Goodrich 911 had suddenly dropped to eighth, while Tony Lanfranchi’s GM Dealersport Opel Monza had pushed the 2.8i Capri into third. The Porsche had developed a driveshaft fault, and after a quick check which showed the near·side u/j to be gone, Needell was sent out to potter round until a new shaft was removed from Malcolm Paul’s own Targa. Half an hour was lost changing it, and in the early morning, brake trouble too held them back, and resulted in the poor Targa ending up on four axle stands.
It took the sunrise to lift the grumpy silence that descended over the crowd as lack of sleep began to tell. Those who had left the circuit overnight began to return, the campers woke up, and as the car lights went off two by two, there were still 19 cars in the race. A solitary 2·litre Capri had blown a piston, while, after stopping on the circuit and getting outside help, the BMW 3.0Si was also excluded, but continued to the finish. The same fate was to befall the Savoire Faire team, whose Caterham 7 ended up with the diff of the firm‘s demonstrator, thereby breaking the rule which requires certain original components to be used throughout.
Blazing sunshine set the scene for the 911 ‘s pull back up the field, passing Slaveley’s Scirocco which was showing well, and as the crowd began to thicken, they were treated to a hard fight between Marshall and John Lindsay in his +8. Tiredness seemed to drop away as the end approached; some crews had had far more work than others, like the Telecom team whose Capri spent over a quarter of the race in the pits, but an eagerness to finish pervaded every pit. The Stechman +8 sat on jacks having its seized diff. rebuilt, but no.one expected it to rejoin. Speculation grew as to whether the 928 might reach 1,000 laps, and whether the Civic team could find enough tights to keep their alternator turning. (Two hours per pair, they reckoned) The fair and the cafeteria emptied, the pit-lane filled up, and then there was a burst of applause – the Morgan was rolling out of the garage to rejoin the action with ten minutes to go.
Everyone strained to watch the Porsche on its last lap, but the 911 diverted attention by screeching into the pits as the flag was being readied, to have the brake fluid cap replaced. With lights raised, Dron crossed the line, and everyone relaxed. Not 1,000 laps, but only five short. The leaders began to form up on the grid, but the 911 had only just left the pits for its final lap and already people were spilling onto the track. When it finished, it had to take to the grass (at very low speed) to navigate the crowd.
It may be tiring, but there is a sense of spectacle about a 24-hour race even where the cars are production models and the teams are amateurs. It seemed a pity that the attendance was no better than last year, both of spectators and entrants, but there will be a race next year, and the organisers promise better promotion for the ’84 version. With the ideal grid of between 25 and 30 cars, an expansion of the sideshows and motoring exhibition, and a full-time commentary, it would make up an exciting weekend. GC.