Touring cars, bikes, a dearth of Cortinas… and a sprinkling of poetry
The British famously have a habit of banging on about the weather – but of late there has been good cause…
Three races, nine different drivers on the podium (some of whom had never stood there before)… and if Jason Plato’s name was mentioned over the PA at any point, I’m not sure I heard it. Fierce competition in the British Touring Car Championship is nothing new, but some of the most prominent names certainly are. The likes of Plato and Matt Neal were still there, fighting their corner (from rather a long way back, in the case of the former), but there is definitely an air of change in the BTCC’s 60th anniversary year (aka its 61st season).
The series has sometimes been divisive in terms of its perceived acceptance of underhand driving tactics, but a yet more stringent penalty system is now in place – and there was little sign of wilful misbehaviour as the 2018 campaign dawned. There was some contact, of course, but how could it be otherwise with 32 cars hemmed into 1.2 miles of competitive asphalt… and 1.1sec covering all of them during qualifying?
The BTCC’s availability on free-to-air TV seems to encourage, rather than diminish, raceday attendances. Within minutes of the gates opening the pathways were reassuringly populous – not to bygone F1 standards, of course, but healthy by the standard of the modern age. While families queued in the pits, in one or two instances awaiting signatures from drivers who are as yet little known beyond their immediate relatives, 2015 Le Mans winner Nick Tandy wandered unmolested through the paddock, wherein his JTR team is running four 911 GT3s in this year’s Porsche Carrera Cup GB. Low-key has oft been his motif.
Held on an initially sodden track that dried rather dramatically, the second BTCC race was a glorious throwback in the finest traditions of mixed-weather chaos. While those on wet-shod Dunlops disappeared as a tightly knit unit at the front, rivals who gambled on slicks drove as delicately as they could. Starting 27th in his Vauxhall Astra, Senna Proctor posted a 1m 18sec on lap two, was down to the 55s by lap 10 (but still only 26th), had found another four seconds by lap 16 (now 21st) and yet emerged in front on the 26th of 27 laps before going on to take his maiden BTCC win by half a second. It helped that Aiden Moffat had run wide at Druids in his Mercedes, and the outcome owed more to meteorology than any trick BTCC legislation, but the facts should not be allowed to get in the way of a compelling spectacle.
The FIA F4 race that followed immediately was won by Ayrton Simmons – a neat fusion of coincidence and heritage.
Other points of note included the Ginetta Junior teenagers’ insistence on ignoring the traditional practice of avoiding wet kerbs, but getting away with it for 99 per cent of the time, an extraordinary piece of sandy artwork on the Clearways tyre wall – an almost perfect impression of a 911 GT3 wheel, left by Fraser Robertson left after he’d been launched into a double roll – and a first BTCC podium (in race two) for AmD Tuning Audi driver Ollie Jackson, who also ran strongly in the finale until a tap cost him several positions. During the morning I’d chatted to AmD boss Shaun Hollamby about the realistic targets for a team running with relatively modest resources. “Ollie was a bit disappointed to qualify 23rd,” he said, “but he was only six tenths off pole and he’s not a professional racing driver! The great thing about this championship is that it’s so close – and if the circumstances are right we have as much chance as anybody of running at the front.”
An icon of the 1960s, the Lotus Cortina more or less disappeared from the national racing landscape during the ’70s, began to reappear a decade later and went on to become more common than ever it was in period. So why were there only two at the Historic Sports Car Club’s Snetterton meeting – among, indeed, a field of just nine touring cars?
’Tis sadly symptomatic of historic saloon car racing’s exploding popularity that the cake has become ever more thinly sliced. A few participants have moved on to other disciplines and some were awaiting fresh parts, but on this occasion owners of pre-66 tin-tops also had clashing possibilities at both Croft (13 entries, also only two Cortinas) and Imola (47 entries, a cornucopia of Cortinas).
As the old adage goes, though, it takes but a couple of cars to make a decent race. Mark Watts’ Ford Mustang was always going to have an advantage, given the length of the Snetterton 200 circuit’s straights, but Bob Bullen kept him honest with his bright yellow Anglia, closing up under braking and hustling into the lead during race two… but only momentarily before the reality of 4.7 litres/eight cylinders kicked in against 1.5/four.
At the opposite end of the subscription spectrum, the two road sports fields (historic and 1970s) were as diverse as they were busy. Ever a champion of the unusual, Ian Jacobs turned up in a Fiat 124 Spider – as beautifully presented as always in his customary British Racing Turquoise – while such as Mark Bennett (Alpine A310) and William Jenkins (Porsche 914-6) added distinctive silhouettes among the more familiar TVRs and assorted strains of Lotus.
In the latter department, students past and present from the Cambridge Regional College were tending Howard Payne’s Europa twin-cam – youth cutting its teeth on antiquity and a sign of hope for the future.
Away from the racing, I might previously have mentioned (once, twice or more) that Snetterton has lost a little fried zest since its entrance was relocated and the Little Chef disappeared, but I’m reliably informed that the old building’s shell is still there, complete with kitchen, if you know where to look.
It’s a slightly less viable business proposition, mind, since they shifted the A11.
It wasn’t the most promising of starts. You scramble from bed at 3.20am, quaff a couple of espressos, load cameras and notebook then walk out into rain so intense that the standing water was almost axle deep towards London’s western fringe. The M40 wasn’t much better, ditto the southern slopes of the M6… but the clouds finally unzipped close to the Tropic of Stoke to reveal a glorious microclimate in the unlikeliest of regions.
The Wirral Hundred Motorcycle Club has been running grass-roots meetings at Oulton Park for more than 60 years – and its latest was a fine example of the breed. Negotiating the paddock required almost polar expedition levels of planning, such was the density of small vans within. There were clashing attractions in the area – a Liverpool MC sprint at Aintree, banger racing at Chesterton Stadium – but nothing that was likely to dilute the assembled numeric splendour: 49 riders practised for the Formula 600 race and 40 went through to the opening race.
There was also the dependably dynamic body language of the powerbikes, pawing the air as they crested Deer Leap, or bucking and weaving under acceleration from Druids.
Opposite lock while balanced on a rear tyre alone? Perfectly normal, it seems.