The hills are alive
Prescott, April 27: the British & Midland championships emerge from hibernation
The time of day is immaterial — Brixton never sleeps. Early starts acclimatise you to weaving around its nightclub strays and this morning's foremost exhibit is a young woman teetering on high heels between two lanes of slow-moving traffic. In one hand she has a cigarette, in the other a full pint. It is not yet 6am.
Little more than two hours away, via London's West End and thence the A40/ M40/A40, the scene is a touch more pastoral — although here, too, folk are cradling drinks (typically either Thermos coffee or polystyrene tea, both of which provide partial defence against the chill). Cockerels and lowing cattle can be heard in the distance, pheasants and nuthatches closer by: the most conspicuous sounds, though, are those of dewy tarpaulins being peeled from cars and a gentle priming of engines.
Prescott has an old-school paddock, an engaging blend of uneven, grassy mounds, slightly haphazard parking, polite neighbourly chat (often between earnest rivals) and a bloke walking his golden retriever. Nobody appears to have alerted the Bugatti Owners' Club to the 21st century's dawn, and it's probably best that such secrets remain undisclosed.
This is practice day for the opening round of the British 8c Midland Speed Hillclimb Championships, although there are competitive runs in some classes (on two, three and four wheels). The entry ranges from hard-edged, purposeful and lightweight single-seaters by such as OMS, Force and Gould, whose clients will pursue the weekend's fiercest ascent of the 1127-yard hill, to a turbocharged, four-wheel-drive Mini, various antiques and a 43-year-old Hillman Avenger that looks remarkably pristine, given its Rootes roots. Pleasingly, there is also a competing Lotus Cortina Mk2 — fairly scarce compared with so many racing Mk1s, of which there seem to be more now than ever there were in period.
Proceedings are interrupted early on, with a lengthy delay to allow a Lotus Elise to be retrieved after its driver slithers beyond the lip of Semi-Circle, the long, final right-hander that overlooks much of Gloucestershire. But for the most part the event proceeds at a cracking pace, despite occasional showers. An intermittently damp surface is clearly a potential setback when you're running singly against the clock, but you don't hear many complaints. It's the luck of the draw and the elements brook no argument.
Possession of a media tabard provides privileged access at a few points on the course, but generally Prescott permits parallel proximity for all. There are fabulous views almost anywhere you stand and every so often there's a passing flurry of steam from the valley below, a suitably period complement courtesy of the nearby Gloucestershire Warwickshire Railway.
The course is barely any wider than some competing cars and there is little margin for error (save at the aforementioned Semi-Circle, where you might not hit anything until you reach the foot of the steep, adjacent meadow), but kerbs are clipped, barriers skimmed and commitment is frequently absolute. It's sometimes said you need only two cars to create a racetrack spectacle, but in this context one is plenty.
Decent crowds bear testimony to hillclimbing's raw appeal — and I hope to attend events at several other venues this season, including Loton Park and Harewood — but it's a branch of the sport that continues to be overlooked by many. This was the first of Prescott's six 2013 meetings and others follow on June 1-2, June 29-30, August 3-4, August 31-September 1 and October 5-6. Even allowing for wobbly pedestrians, it's within easy reach of both Birmingham and London, a detail that removes any excuse for a significant chunk of the population.
Worth noting, too, that the paddock clubhouse serves cracking cheese and onion pasties.
Custom cannot stale such infinite variety
Brands Hatch, April 28 (750MC) & May 5 (MGCC): a twin showcase for club racing's essence
You anticipate a phalanx Caterhams — or duplicates thereof — but little can prepare you for the diversity of a race that merges the 750 Motor Club's Sport Specials series with its Sports Racing and GT Challenge. Yes, that really is a Porsche 917 clone (architect: Graham Turner) amid the usual suspects...
He first raced the car in 2005 and all running gear comes from Porsche (engine is a 3.6 flat six).
"I wanted to be as accurate as possible7 he says, "and it is built in the same, stark way as originals." The Gulf livery is no mere mimickry, though: the fuel firm has sponsored the project, which cost "about 180,000, in terms of parts". You might struggle to source a real one for that...
People talk about the economic meltdown's effect on motor sport, but word seems not to have filtered through to every grass root. Arranged one weekend apart by two of UK racing's organisational backbones, these meetings averaged grids in the mid-20s — and much of the racing was highly competitive, too. Highlights included a Classic Sports Car Club-promoted Special Saloon race, during the MGCC meeting. This concept has gently been gaining momentum over the past couple of summers, although the name is mildly misleading. Special Saloons participate, of course, but in the main this is an outlet for many of the bygone club racing staples (Modsports, for instance) that fizzled out during the 1980s, when one-make series began trampling all in their path.
If you crave a whiff of Castro! R, believe flared-arch Ford Anglias are essential to our sporting landscape and still regard Wendy Wools as a high-profile sponsor, this is manna.
A circuit getting back on track
Donington Park, May 4: thoughts in the slipstream of the third Historic Festival
Matters other than racing came to dominate the agenda following the latest Donington Historic Festival, but the circumstances of Christian Devereux's unfortunate accident have been eloquently addressed elsewhere in the magazine, and also by Andrew Frankel on the Motor Sport website.
It's inevitable that such events cause a commotion within the wider media, simply because they are nowadays such a relative rarity. No matter how much safer the sport becomes, however, its potential dangers can never wholly be eliminated. There are huge forces involved and it is impossible to legislate for their occasionally wayward nature. It has always been thus and will forever be so.
I attended only on the Saturday and at that stage the vista was positive, partly because of the consistently fine spectacle but also because of the way in which Donington Park has recently evolved. When the circuit reawakened from a year's slumber in September 2010, following the previous tenant's unsuccessful attempt to transform it into the British Grand Prix's long-term home, it was littered with fractured concrete, toppled fencing abounded and the once-luscious infield was an ocean of mud, from which the public was barred on safety grounds. In parts it looked a bit like Reims, but less serviceable.
Progress has since been both steady and constant. The British Touring Car Championship passed through during the early stages of a packed 2013 calendar, the FIM Superbike World Series was due to appear as this issue hit the shelves and its popular UK counterpart is scheduled in September. There is much, much else between times, too.
Scars might remain from the failed Fl development, but under Christopher Tate's management — and with invaluable support from Kevin Wheatcroft, the son of the man behind the circuit's initial reopening in 1977 — Donington Park is slowly but surely recapturing its lustre.