On the road with... Simon Arron

The taste of good heights
Oulton Park, April 21 & Thruxton, May 4: British motor sport’s twin peaks… but could they be made better yet?

Both paddocks were rammed, ditto many of the spectator banks, but there was a subtle difference. There were plenty of motorhomes and hospitality units in Hampshire, but not quite so many racing cars.

It was the first time in a while that I’d attended a round of the British Touring Car Championship and my inner cynic was primed. When first I covered the series (more than 30 years ago, admittedly, when it was still the British Saloon Car Championship), teams relied on converted coaches, vans and trailers to flit between venues, races often shared headline billing with British F3 (when we had a series worthy of the name) and the wider world was unaware of either’s existence. All a far cry from today’s carefully managed show, with its significant TV profile and legions of fans, many wearing team apparel and all creating a decent atmosphere by cheering (or gasping at) every pass or defensive chop.

By reputation the BTCC has become too boisterous, with drivers getting away with more aggression than might be tolerated in other series, but there was little evidence of that at Thruxton. The meeting featured a few instances of minor contact – and a couple of headline incidents in which cars went off at Church and finished up closer to the A303 than the circuit – but precious little to offend the purist.

For the most part, the competition was clean – and one lead battle, between the Hondas of Gordon Shedden and defending champion Andrew Jordan, was a perfect illustration of how things should be done: Shedden earned victory through sharp racecraft rather than sharp practice.

The area that needs most work is the one about which fans probably care least: Ginetta Juniors apart, the support package is horribly weak in terms of numbers (for instance 13 Formula Fords, 14 Ginetta GT4s and 10 Porsche Carrera Cup cars). The latest Renault Clios are a hoot to behold, but 11 cars do not a full grid make.

The second Clio race was put back, to allow upper suspension mounts to be modified after the drivers’ appetite for kerbs highlighted a potential weakness, and plastic marker posts were installed at the chicane as a supposed deterrent. These were shattered and replaced several times before marshals gave up the unequal struggle, but comedic interludes could not mask a brittle truth.

A fortnight earlier, the British GT season commenced with a 32-car field rich in quality and diversity, plus a decent supporting card (although a 1hr 40min race for 10 Aston Martin GT4s benefits drivers rather more than fans).

Attempts to run two Volkswagen Racing Cup events proved a touch chaotic, the first being nixed by a start-line pile-up and the second red-flagged after Kieran Gallagher suffered a brake pipe failure on the approach to Shell. In the ensuing accident, his Golf cleared the tyre barrier and landed in a woodland clearing beyond, where it remained until being craned out the following day. Nobody was seriously hurt, but drivers got only four laps of racing rather than the two x 20 minutes scheduled.

With Bentley, Aston Martin, Ferrari, Porsche, McLaren, BMW, Audi, Lotus, Nissan and Ginetta represented in the main event, the British GT Championship began the year with bigger fields than the pan-European Blancpain Endurance Series – and an equal spread of manufacturers. Similarly, the BTCC compares favourably in both respects with its global counterpart, the WTCC.

Feathers, both, in the cap of UK motor sport, but a little remedial work is required below the surface.

Narrow minded
Prescott, April 27: sunshine, rain, fried breakfast, motorbikes, cars and bluebells – a blissful recipe

The ground is moist, the air largely silent save for the chatter of goldfinches in blossom-rich trees and the sound of tarpaulins being peeled from dew-drenched metal. The occasional burble of a tickled carburettor completes a pleasing vista. You could make a case for Prescott having the world’s best paddock – a bluebell-cum-turf carpet is an asset in this regard – and it is certainly one of the most picturesque.

This was practice day for the opening round of the British Hill Climb Championship, ditto its Midland cousin, while bikes and sidecars were in competitive conflict. First, though, there was an essential call at the paddock café for a cooked breakfast and a pint of black coffee – so rewarding an experience that the action began without my noticing.

Initially the conditions were treacherous and, hillclimb technology being what it is, a 4.5-litre Triumph TR7 (with twin turbos, obviously) was one of several cars that seemed reluctant to track a true course. Given the slippery surface, it was no surprise that the red flag should be brandished from time to time to allow cars to be extricated from the gravel. You’d hear occasionally dramatic messages over the radio network – “Emergency at Pardon!” – but your ears told you this was no more than a car slithering gently towards the tyres.

The bigger guns got to run in the dry, their cars’ breadth amplified by the compact stage. Precision and commitment are a given in this business, but they are rarely showcased with quite such eloquence.

Whispered in the sound of silence
Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, May 9-11: a first encounter with Grand Prix racing’s new generation

Regular visitors to the Motor Sport website might be aware that I received a written lashing in the wake of my reaction to a first live glimpse of the latest Formula 1 cars, mostly because I rather liked them. The noise debate seems to have aggravated the watching public more than almost anything I can recall.

Having heard positive and negative feedback from colleagues present at the opening four races, I travelled to Spain with an open mind. Certain aspects of the performance graph are flawed – GP2 pole-sitter Stéphane Richelmi would have lined up 18th for the Grand Prix, while slowest F1 qualifier Kamui Kobayashi’s best time would have put him only 14th on the GP2 grid – but similar things have happened before (with F3000 in the mid-1990s) and should change as F1 teams climb the development curve.

The relative lack of noise didn’t concern me – a slight surprise, if I’m honest, but wholly explicable. The first contemporary F1 car I saw live was Hans Stuck’s Brabham BT45B, at Silverstone in 1977, and its wailing Alfa flat-12 sounded fabulous on the approach to Woodcote. It is some years, however, since the sport had a meaningful sonic tapestry. To my mind, F1’s last truly soulful engine was probably Lamborghini’s 3.5-litre V12, more than 20 years ago.

The recent V8s have been loud but indistinguishable and the same applied to the previous V10s: all scored high marks for volume rather than character.

The V6 turbo cars might be an acquired taste (for some, at least), but I found them engaging to watch because the accent is on lashings of torque rather than grip.

Turning back the clock (a habit, I concede), there were certain bits of music that used to make the hairs stand on the back of my teenage neck – the instrumental break in Deep Purple’s Highway Star, for instance, or that after 2min 24sec of Genesis’s Dancing with the Moonlit Knight.

A pack of passing Formula 5000 cars had exactly the same effect, but then so too did the sight of a Hawke DL15 or Royale RP24 being pitched into a corner and balanced on the throttle from entry to apex and beyond.

And they had the same engine as my dad’s Ford Cortina.