Thruxton at 50: Home comforts

One well-known driver still covets his local circuit, where he remembers halcyon days of a boyhood spent trackside. Writer: Tiff Needell

My dad was a regular spectator at Brooklands before the war and a proud member of the JCC and BARC – for which I have a wonderful collection of his enamel members’ badges. He even competed in a rally and an autotest there, but sadly never thundered round that daunting banking.

With aircraft factories built all over his beloved Brooklands, after the war he followed the BARC down to its new home at Goodwood and competed in a couple of Members’ Meeting handicap races before a wife and the responsibilities of fatherhood rather curtailed his activities.

From now on he would be restricted to sitting in the grandstands where his two young sons soon inherited his passion for motor sport. From the moment I crawled up the big bank on the exit of the Goodwood Chicane and saw these colourful, noisy, smelly machines being wrestled through the corner by the supermen behind the wheel, all I ever wanted to be was a racing driver…

I begged my parents to take me as often as possible and the Easter Monday Formula 2 meeting soon became one of my favourite events of the year. Rug over our knees, hot tomato soup, plenty of food in the hamper and one of the best views in motor sport as the field streamed down Lavant Straight, through Woodcote and then the chicane.

I saw wins for Stirling Moss, Mike Hawthorn, John Surtees, Graham Hill and Jack Brabham plus my greatest inspiration of all, Jim Clark. And it wasn’t just Clark in the F2 race because he was in the saloon car race and the sports car race if there was one on the timetable. I’d fill in all the details in my programme, write the numbers on the grid as they were read out and try to do lap charts that my brother made look easy! But to my great dismay, the Goodwood doors closed and it was all over. Easter Monday in 1967 was a long haul to Silverstone…

BUT THEN CAME the great news that the BARC had found another new home, still in south-eastern England. They’d gone from Brooklands to Goodwood and now it would be Thruxton that would carry forward the club’s history. The popular Easter Monday meeting was back home.

With my brother now old enough to drive, our parents decided they’d done enough carting us around the race tracks of Britain, so we were left to venture forth on our own. Unable to afford grandstand seats, the Complex was picked out from the map as the place to go and we set off very early – down the A30 with the M3 yet to be built – to make sure we got a spot on the fence as close to the action as we could be.

I was a keen photographer and had a little Pal M4 35mm with a screw-on x1.5 enhancer – a sort of poor man’s telephoto lens. I’d develop and print the photos myself at school, but even with the magnification I needed to have the enlarger on its maximum setting to make the cars fill the frame…

Still, I had plenty of action to catch with a programme that featured two heats and a final for the 35 F2s entered, but great sadness surrounded the event after Clark’s death just one week earlier. Graham Hill withdrew his entry, but Jackie Oliver bravely arrived to drive his red and gold works Lotus.

There was also a European championship round for Formula Vee, in which a young Helmut Marko took third place, and a round of the British Saloon Car Championship, so there was plenty for me to photograph and the arrival of the Red Arrows was simply a bonus!

While I clung to the fence dreaming of being a racing driver, I never thought it would actually happen. With no family money, even karting was out of the question, so little did I believe that just over three years later it would be my name in a Thruxton programme entered in the Formula Ford Lotus 69F that I had won in an Autosport magazine competition.

“Rug over our knees, hot tomato soup, plenty of food and the best view in motor sport as the field streamed down Lavant”

WITH THE BRAND-NEW car sitting on its brand-new trailer and towed by a very rusty, very second-hand Morris 1000 Traveller, my first Thruxton race was on May 30 1971. It was to be only my fourth race in the prize Lotus and I had little idea of what I was doing! Unable to afford any testing my plan was to learn as many circuits as possible in my first year and, with the huge success of Formula Ford, you could find a non-championship race somewhere every weekend – it was a magical era.

To make life a little harder my practice session was in the wet. With the formula back then running on road tyres, the challenge this high-speed track offered was hard enough in the dry but learning it in the wet was a daunting prospect. Yet the difficulty it created made it all the more rewarding and that challenge remains the same today as it was all those years ago.

Well, almost the same because it was made a little easier when they reduced the big bump on the apex of Church and also when they took away the Armco barrier lining the inside of the Chicane, but we’ll come to that later. Whereas modern technology has created single-seater formulae that can run full throttle from the Complex to the Chicane, that very much wasn’t the case back in the 1970s.

For me, in the wet, nothing was flat. That starts with the awkwardness of Allard, where the exit suddenly comes up to greet you, making your turn-in point critical. Then there’s the complication of the Complex where you don’t want to use all the road out of Campbell and you don’t want to use all the road out of Cobb because you want to create the optimum line through Segrave with its tricky adverse camber exit.

The Complex is laid out as I feel all complexes or esses should be, with the first element the slowest to encourage overtaking on the way in, a decent distance to the next corner and progressively becoming faster and faster with a good exit crucial to launch you into the countryside and the fabled high-speed section, with three very quick corners, that makes Thruxton so special.

“Tucked into the slipstream, waiting for the man in front to choose inside or outside, then diving for the other…”

First up was Kimpton (now called Noble as Thruxton celebrated another British Land Speed Record holder) and it’s perhaps the easiest of the three to take flat out, but it’s crucial not to exit too far to the right or you’ll compromise your entry into Goodwood – the hardest to take flat!

Surviving Goodwood, the gentle curve of Village is no problem but all of a sudden you’re heading down hill, gathering momentum and trying to tell yourself not to lift for Church. It’s impossible not to in the wet and was extremely hard to even in the dry at a time when our road rubber gave far less grip – and the big bump at the apex invariably pitched you sideways at high speed.

Of course, every extra mile an hour you can exit Church with is crucial to your speed all the way up Woodham Hill and into the braking area for the Club Chicane – your best chance of overtaking. Tucked into the slipstream, watching the driver in front look this side and that in his mirrors, waiting for him to choose the inside or the outside and then diving for the other…

With its wide, high-speed, curved entry funnelling you into the bottleneck of the tight left in the middle, this is much more exciting than overtaking in a straight line, and back in the early days there was no kerb to bale out over – just a solid Armco barrier to clatter into. You did have the option to go straight on but then you had to do a U-turn to get back out again!

It was a barrier that gave photographers a superb vantage point and drivers a much greater challenge. It also taught us to respect our rivals. There was no point just barging up the inside like you can do now because you knew if the other car hit the barrier it would bounce back and take you with it. Apart from the race-stopping incident in the 1975 F2 event I don’t remember any horrendous accidents, but – as safety issues were given ever more importance – sadly the barrier had to go…

ON THAT FIRST momentous visit I was pretty chuffed to discover I’d been 13th fastest of the 28-car entry and went on to finish a very happy eighth in the dry race, thoroughly enjoying the fast, flowing circuit. I returned almost a year later when no fewer than 49 cars turned up for a national championship round split into two heats.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t only learning how to be a racing driver but was also a reluctant mechanic, as so many of us were in those early Formula Ford days, and I made the classic error of putting fourth gear the wrong way around so had to scream my little engine way over its safe limit in third for a couple of laps to qualify 18th for my heat in which I finished 10th. That earned me 16th on the grid for the final, in which I finished ninth!

Lesson learned, I returned for another non-championship race a month later, qualified sixth and fought through for my first ever race win – with fastest lap as a bonus! I don’t think there’s ever been a happier day in my entire racing career. Your first win will always be the one you cherish the most.

THERE’D BE 16 more Formula Ford races slipstreaming around Thruxton, before I took the next step up the ladder to Formula Ford 2000, with 10 top-three finishes including two more wins. But the story doesn’t quite end there as, having sold that Lotus 69F in 1973, I bought it back in 2012 and have since done five more races at Thruxton in the Historic Formula Ford Championship with three more podiums and, best of all, one more win!

Two wins with the same car and the same driver at the same circuit 42 years apart. Now that must be some sort of record – and where better to do it than at Thruxton, the family home of the BARC… and the Needell family.