On the road

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From Abu Dhabi to Zolder via Interlagos, Jerez and, obviously, Oulton Park. Where next..?  

FLIGHT PATH IS THE RIGHT PATH

Ashley, Cheshire, April 30: After much of its 2016 season was washed out, the Leewood Motor Club is back on track

Castle Mill Lane. The name will resonate only if you grew up in a very particular part of Cheshire. I used to cycle there as a kid to frequent an open-air swimming pool that has long since disappeared, little imagining that motor sport of any kind might one day break out in the surrounding fields. But…

Formed in the 1970s as an amalgamation of the Lancs & Cheshire Autograss and Leesona-Holt Rally Clubs, Leewood created its Ashley racetrack in 2000, with the assistance of a friendly farmer, and has been there ever since (though the venue’s existence somehow escaped me until recently). Time, then, to investigate. This would be my first Cheshire autograss since 1977, when I attended several events at Antrobus – once the rich reward at the end of a 14-mile bike ride, but now sadly buried beneath a golf course.

Competition began earlier in the day than anticipated, with a gold-wrapped Jaguar F-type taking on an Aston Martin Vantage through Hyde Park Corner and along Park Lane. The F-type was still leading, just, as they disappeared from view around Marble Arch – the legitimisation of racing on public roads being taken slightly out of context. Things weren’t a great deal calmer on the M40, with the recently announced increase in speeding fines deterring not a single Porsche Cayenne owner from what looked suspiciously like significant three-figure speeds. I eventually peeled away from this stream of constant velocity and took refuge on familiar B-roads, arriving at Ashley’s only crossroads to find a small fluorescent ‘motor racing’ sign pointing to the left. This I knew to be false information: it transpired that one or two local dissenters turn the arrows around as a form of protest, though it’s hard to imagine that there can be many valid complaints about extra noise as the track is more or less adjacent to one of Manchester Airport’s increasingly busy runways.

The layout is a simple clockwise oval with better facilities than you might imagine – permanent loos, plus a mobile catering van in the classic tradition and a charmingly ramshackle race control hut. (As an aside, former World Touring Car Championship and BTCC racer Tom Boardman is a club alumnus.)

This being a low-key event, there was no formal entry list – it was just a matter of seeing who turned up on the day. In the end there were about 35 cars in various classes, but rather more drivers than that as husbands, wives and offspring often share. It’s a proper family pastime and many competitors had also brought along their dogs, though as yet there is no suitable class for quadrupeds. This sense of community extends to many aspects of autograss, with some drivers abandoning competition at lunchtime and assuming marshalling duties during the afternoon.

Cars start in a single line abreast, up to eight at a time, though there was ample evidence that you need no more than two for a decent race. John McGrady and David Mansfield proved as much every time they ventured out in their remarkably equal Vauxhall Novas – an object lesson in fierce, clean rivalry. Action began at 11.00 and, with the entry being relatively small, was over shortly after 14.30, with everybody having ample time for several races. When 60 or more cars materialise, as is sometimes the case, meetings tend to run into the early evening.

Given that the venue was a swamp for much of 2016, leading to most fixtures being cancelled, it was ironic – though welcome – that winter drainage work had been so successful that on this occasion the circuit frequently needed to be watered to suppress the dust.

Relative brevity did nothing to dilute the spectacle and I’m fairly certain that Ashley must be one of the most surreal venues in sport: where else can you watch antique Nissan Micras and suchlike kicking trails of dirt towards an Emirates A380 on its final approach?

SONIC BOON

Oulton Park, April 17: Britain’s loudest contemporary championship attracts an appreciative audience, but perhaps merits even greater acclaim

The British Touring Car Championship continues to enjoy a higher profile – and its appeal is self-evident – but it remains a source of bafflement that the GT equivalent isn’t perceived as being at least its equal. Even at a time when GT4 cars outnumber their more potent GT3 brethren, the cars have a presence unlike anything else in modern British motor racing. I know this isn’t a privilege available to all, but to stand at Deer Leap as a Bentley Continental rumbles past about a metre from your left shoulder is equal parts delicacy and sensory overload.

There is evidence, though, that the series’ appeal is growing. Perhaps the Easter Monday element was a factor, but by 9.00 there was talk of traffic stretching back more than a mile from the main entrance and folk queuing for an hour or so just to get in. The spectator banks were in parts absolutely rammed – despite the weather. The forecast predicted no rain all day, but there was little else for much of the morning.

Highlights included a wonderful performance by Jon Minshaw and Phil Keen in Barwell Motorsport’s Lamborghini Huracán, who built such a lead that they appeared on course to finish the second race before their rivals were halfway through the first. They went on to win both at a canter. In the opener, the sight of early GT4 pace-setters Ciaran Haggerty/Sandy Mitchell (McLaren 570S) keeping pace with slower GT3s in the damp was entertaining, though subsequent problems denied the Scottish duo a class victory. One wonders what Ron Dennis would make of his 570S being monstered – and sometimes beaten by – Ginetta’s G55 GT4, as it was in race two: perhaps he doesn’t know.

Barrier damage on Saturday led to the start of the BRDC F3 Championship being put back until Monday, but when it finally got going Enaam Ahmed (Carlin) proved to be the class of the field and won all three races, the first of them after a close tussle with Lanan driver Toby Sowery (who ran wide through the Cascades gravel moments after surrendering the lead).

The revised schedule was always going to put strain on the timetable, but MSVR did a sterling job trying to keep things on track, despite a few curve balls. The second GT race was stopped early after the Ian Loggie/Callum MacLeod Bentley savaged a) the Mercedes of Martin Short/Richard Neary and b) much of the Hill Top tyre wall, while the final Ginetta GT5 race had to be cancelled – not because of anything they had done, but following delays caused by a VW Golf vaulting the Druids guardrail during an earlier race.

There are some things for which one simply cannot legislate.

VARIETY CLUB

Thruxton, April 23: Tradition dictates that the Hants racing season should commence at Easter, but it was worth a slight wait

There had been time only to relish a sausage baguette and a cup of coffee, but none to pore over the entry list. Ordinarily it might have been a surprise to find that the opening practice session of the day contained BMW M3s, Caterhams, a Porsche 911, a BMW bike-engined Citroën 2CV and an MG Magnette, but this was the Classic Sports Car Club – UK racing’s master of diversity.

I caught only the second part of its two-day Thruxton extravaganza, but it was an illustration of how race meetings should be run in the modern age – slick, and consistently engaging.

You could argue that Chevrolet Camaros and Ford Capris belong in a category called ‘proven’ rather than ‘future’ classics, but it matters not. Most cars qualify for two or more series within the CSCC portfolio and it’s just good to see cars of this type being put to competitive use.

There have been changes to Thruxton over the winter – a debris fence has been erected at the chicane exit, which will doubtless be an irritation to some, but the bewildering variety of chosen racing lines remains utterly beguiling, even when observed through wire.

John Spiers (TVR Griffith) won the one-hour Classic K race… by less than a second from the Paul Tooms/Julian Barter Lotus Elan, while 45 cars practised for the Swinging Sixties race, 42 started and Ray Barrow (Camaro) beat the TVR Tuscan of Jon Wolfe/David Thompson by 1.5sec after 40 minutes. And then there were three special saloon/modsports races – relatively low in number and high on unreliability, but if cartoonish Ford Anglias fail to raise a smile then you are probably watching the wrong sport.

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