Racing Lines: The unbeatable rhythm of old circuits

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One of the many upsides of racing old cars in the UK and Europe is that you sometimes get to do so at old circuits. Much like the machinery, they are throwbacks to another era. Typically charming, unique in character and almost always old-school in their provision for run-off (Goodwood being the prime example), they are a totally different experience from modern circuits.

Part of that is of course due to safety considerations, but modern circuits are also designed for an altogether grippier breed of car: machines that are quick in different places to those conceived and raced before slicks and wings changed the sport.

It’s this that accounts for their differing rhythm. One born of classical curves with varying radii that suit cars with more grunt than grip, balanced by high-speed straights and some tight, technical corners to create additional overtaking opportunities. 

Dijon-Prenois is a perfect example – a compact, looping fairground ride of twists and turns, linked by a humdinger of a last corner that feeds onto a long, long straight. In the age of Balance of Performance it’s hard to imagine a 1.6-litre, 180bhp Lotus Elan and a 4.7-litre, 400+bhp Shelby Cobra setting similar times anywhere, yet Dijon creates its own kind of parity. And having driven the circuit in both those cars I know that it doesn’t come at the expense of fun in either.  

Last season I visited two circuits I’d never raced at before: Jarama, Spain and Imola, Italy. Actually I’d never even been to Jarama before, and only visited Imola once; at a Lamborghini driver training day (I was there as a journalist, not an owner!) just a few years after the bleak San Marino GP weekend in which Roland Ratzenberger and Ayrton Senna lost their lives.

Both these circuits are in the most unlikely locations: Jarama sandwiched in a sliver of wasteland between the main motorway out of Madrid and a gated community of houses; Imola in tranquil parkland slap bang in the middle of town.

Jarama was designed in the mid-1960s (before the advent of slicks and true downforce) by John Hugenholtz, who also penned Suzuka and Zandvoort. Opened in 1967 it hosted nine World Championship Grands Prix. The last in 1981 is remembered for Gilles Villeneuve holding back potentially faster rivals in his cumbersome, Ferrari 126CK, the Scuderia’s first turbo Grand Prix car. In the heyday of ground effects, it’s no wonder Villeneuve created a roadblock around the tight and narrow track to take what would be his final victory. But in cars with only mechanical grip it’s a fantastic place to race – the long straight and uphill climb allowing big bangers (I was in a Mk3B Lola T70) to romp away, only for the more agile cars to hunt them down in the twisty sections. I loved it, despite losing out to Martin O’Connell’s lighter 2.0-litre Chevron B19.  

Imola has a very different atmosphere – as regal and tranquil as Jarama is scrubby and urban – but a similar blend of extreme speed, technical turns and unforgiving confines present a sizeable challenge. After the season-opener at Jarama I was looking forward to ending the season with another new (old) circuit, but feared the T70 would feel several sizes too big. 

With a championship title in the balance (we had to win the race to take Peter Auto’s Classic Endurance Racing 1 title) I was certain the repeated braking efforts into tight chicanes would once more leave the big V8 Lola easy prey for the light and nimble 2.0-litre Chevrons and Lolas. 

What I hadn’t reckoned on was just how fast Imola is. Nor how the uphill drags from the Tosa hairpin towards the blind, cresting left at Piratella, then again from Acque Minerali to the Variante Alta, would play to the Lola T70’s supreme through-the-gears stonk.   

It’s not often you’ll hear a driver say the straight is their favourite part of any lap, but the rush down Imola’s start-finish straight is mind-blowing. At least it is in a T70. But then far from a Mistral-spec ramrod it’s actually a long, flat-out series of eyes-on-stalks kinks that funnel between concrete walls, before plunging you into leafy parkland and the braking area for Tamburello.

In qualifying with the help of a useful tailwind the T70 was just clipping the limiter in fifth (top) gear before hitting the brakes. That’s near as dammit 170mph. As I sit here typing that seems like absolute madness, yet I know it to be one of the single most vivid and addictive impressions of speed I’ve ever experienced in a racing car. 

Ironically we have the much-maligned circuit designer Hermann Tilke to thank for reinstating at least some of Imola’s speed, for it was he who removed the Variante Bassa chicane in a 2007 revamp aimed at helping Imola regaining F1 status.         

Another grand old Italian circuit is Monza. It’s also an odd one. Much changed since its steeply banked turns were abandoned, it remains the grandaddy of power circuits. As such it really should be pretty dull with anything less than 400bhp under your right foot, but because its layout is quite unlike anything you’d see today you have to drive it differently to do well. 

I fondly recall a U2TC (pre-66 under 2-litre touring cars) race a few years back when Jackie Oliver taught me a Monza slipstreaming lesson. Each lap I’d grab every opportunity to scrabble past his BMW 1800 TiSA in my Lotus Cortina. Often locking a front wheel on the way in, running wide on the way out and generally over-driving. 

Lap after lap I’d fight my way in front, only to see him coming at me like a freight train on the approach to the Parabolica. I simply couldn’t shake him. Sometimes if I was behind him out of the Ascari Chicane he’d give me a chance into the famous 180-deg final corner. Naturally I’d oblige – with another puff of tyre smoke – only for him to get a much cleaner run through Parabolica and come drafting by me on the long drag to the start-finish line, just as the Cortina ran out of revs. He’d even wave on the way by.

As you can imagine this became increasingly infuriating until finally the penny dropped, at which point I found the whole pantomime really rather amusing. I knew he was playing with me, but still couldn’t stop myself from racing him at all the wrong bits of the circuit. A fact evidenced by square front tyres, melted rears, smoking brakes and buzzed brain. 

It’s not often you get the chance to be taught a lesson by one of the best and most versatile drivers of a generation (the generation if you ask me), yet this was mine. And all thanks to Monza. To add insult to injury, once he saw I was a spent force he got bored and drove away from me. School dismissed!

If there’s one thing that separates historic and modern racing it’s the memorable and individual characters of the old cars. So maybe it stands to reason the one thing that makes driving them even better is racing on classic and equally characterful circuits.

Add a wily septuagenarian driver to the mix and you have something that’s impossible to beat. 

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