On the road with... Simon Arron

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Twin peeks at twin peaks
Prescott, April 25 & Shelsley Walsh, May 3: Traditional British motor sport touchstones, about 40 miles apart

Far beyond the cones that sectioned off parts of central London for the Gallipoli centenary commemorations, The Cotswolds were bathed in mist. Even when grey, though, Prescott still looked magnificent – and a carpet of dandelions, bluebells and buttercups enhanced its appeal. Green woodpeckers were audible and their greater-spotted counterparts visible. It’s as much a nature reserve as it is a hillclimb course.

Venue for the concurrent opening rounds of the Avon/TTC MSA British Hill Climb, BMTR Midland Hill Climb and National Hill Climb Association Motorcycle Championships, among other things, it always breeds growing anticipation as you thread along an almost deserted A40, skirt around Cheltenham and head up into the sticks, passing the Gloucestershire Warwickshire Steam Railway en route to parking in a steep, slightly damp field. And there, on the far side of a pleasingly antiquated footbridge, you’ll find a wonderfully diverse assembly of cars and bikes, scattered beneath the trees of an orchard in full bloom.

There are worse places to appreciate the engineering muse.

I tend not to consult the programme before a hillclimb begins: it’s more fun to stand trackside and wonder what the hell might appear next, but the entry contained everything from antique Velocettes to cutting-edge Goulds with monstrous diffusers via four V8-engined tubular assemblies that were loosely described as “Guernsey sand racers”.

Other highlights included George Harding’s energetically driven Mitsubishi Lancer – possibly the only vehicle I’ve seen competing with a tow bar, as I missed the caravan races that were briefly a feature of the UK fixture list circa 1974 – and a PA announcement asking for assistance because a car had become beached on a cattle grid while negotiating the return road to the paddock.

You don’t get that at Yas Marina.

Overall, however, the weekend was marred by some competitors’ struggles to comply with this season’s tighter noise restrictions – a fair few failed – and, more worryingly, an accident that befell local competitor Steve Hemingway, who suffered serious injuries when he crashed his 1985 Pilbeam during the meeting’s second day.

Pretty can sometimes be perilous, and I wish him well.

One week on, the weather forecast predicted a “91 per cent chance of precipitation” for Shelsley Walsh’s season-opener, although the reality was 91 per cent sunshine between occasionally fierce squirts from above. British Championship competitors were otherwise engaged at Craigantlet, but their Midland counterparts were in action… eventually. A fault with the timing system delayed proceedings – a road-going Mazda MX-5 was initially clocked at 150mph through the speed trap, although that was a touch more credible than the 187mph credited to a following Fiat X1/9…

The glitch was swiftly sorted and texture soon posed a greater challenge than technology, drivers never quite sure how slippery upper parts of the course remained beneath the trees. It began to look sensibly dry during the lunch break, after which a short, sharp cloudburst took us back to square one.

Several drivers were caught out, not least Andrew Lewis: his Lotus 22 squirmed through The Esses before slithering up and onto a grass bank, upon which it was eventually quite neatly parked. The car wasn’t damaged and swiftly returned to action – for which a great deal of credit goes to the marshalling team, who managed to tease it back to earth using gentle persuasion rather than a hoist.

I was much taken by Rodney Eyles’ Ralt RT3, complete with 2.7-litre V6 rather than the 2.0 in-line four that was a staple in the car’s F3 heyday, and John Hewett’s Lyncar, the appearance of which has rather changed since I used to see one in John Nicholson’s hands on what seemed to be a fortnightly basis, when the UK had two well-supported Formula Atlantic championships.

Little did I imagine that I might still be watching such a car 40 years later.

Short but sweet
Oulton Park, April 18: Three meetings from the same circuit in two issues? There is method behind such apparent impartiality…

Edgware Road, west London, 4am. To the sound of much tittering, three of Boris Johnson’s rental bikes are teetering precariously between traffic and parked cars. It sounds as though beer might be involved and the riders’ uncertain technique confirms as much. Oddly, it’s a partial foretaste of what lies ahead.

Anyone who has read more than a couple of sentences of my career output might know that I love Oulton Park, where first I watched the sport in the 1960s and which I still tend to regard as my home circuit (even though it lies more than 200 miles from my front door).

There was sound reason for my third day trip in four weekends – a first chance in 20-odd seasons to watch cars in action on the little-used Fosters Circuit, a sawn-off version of the original. It was sometimes derided when it served as the only Oulton layout from 1975 until early 1984, because much of the track’s sweeping majesty was felt to have been lost. Its compact nature promotes close racing, however, and Fosters – named after former circuit manager Rex of that ilk – is a spectacular vantage point, with a high-speed, off-camber approach. It takes a precise touch to get a car settled and turned, all the more so because there’s a fair chance that someone else will be lunging to your inside. Things can look rather less controlled than a drunk on a Boris Bike…

The corner’s frantic nature was soon missed when the longer circuit reopened, as popular a development as that was, although it is still pressed into service a couple of times per annum. The most recent meeting complemented its 1.66 miles perfectly – 12 races, two apiece for the Toyo Tyres Porsche Championship, Ford XR Challenge (yes, there’s still ample life in second-generation XR2s, now about 30 years old), Mighty Minis and Super Mighty Minis, plus four for proper Formula Ford cars (divided into two groups, pre-90 and post-89). A pity that FF1600 old hands John Village and Andy Middlehurst were missing: they’d been scheduled to return to their roots in Crosslé 25F and Mygale GC15K respectively, but engine problems sidelined both during a test session the previous day.

My stint commenced at Lodge Corner, as is customary, and I worked my way gradually towards Druids before ambling down Clay Hill, past Knickerbrook and on to the crowning glory of Fosters, where the first things I spotted were some brake smoke and an XR2 smacking over the inside kerb. Just as it always was, then.

The shorter lap length and glorious weather helped, but everything ran very slickly – to the extent that marshals were able to enjoy the rarity of a decent lunch break (although those between Fosters and Knickerbrook had their sandwiches interrupted by a Porsche 924, which broke down during three out-of-session acclimatisation laps behind a pace car).

Collectively, the racing was close and engaging throughout – one of the most consistently entertaining meetings I’ve attended in some time. The only thing missing – from my perspective, at least – was a conveniently located ice cream van.

Fosters really should be used more often.