Turning back the clock
Thruxton, March 30-31 & Oulton Park, April 1: a traditional Easter double revisited... in reverse
The recipe was usually similar: bicycle, tent, Camping Gaz stove, one small saucepan, a few tinned meals and a couple of equally daft mates. I first attended an Easter Oulton Park meeting in 1972, to watch Niki Lauda win a sodden round of the British Formula 2 Championship, and over time the event became an ever more elaborate annual highlight. For most of the 1970s, the headline event was a round of a major national single-seater championship, typically Formula 5000, Group 8 or British F1. Particular races stand out: Lauda's aforementioned wet-weather dominance; Gordon Spice winning in 1975, when the sky was blue but the circuit wet because trackside snowbanks were busily melting; and the epic 1979 F1 battle between David Kennedy and Rupert Keegan, who rubbed wheels with Formula Ford-level ferocity until Keegan ran out of brakes and slithered off the road.
As time moved on and I graduated from two wheels and 10 gears to four and four, the world opened up and previously inaccessible locations suddenly lay within reach. For a fewyears, it became Easter custom to leave Cheshire before Saturday sunrise and head south towards Thruxton, Supertramp or Camel providing the cassette soundtrack to a 180-mile trip that took less than three hours on almost deserted roads. The European F2 Championship would be the headline attraction (as, on one occasion, was the FIA F3000 series, hard though it is to imagine GP2 ever visiting Hampshire), with practice sessions on Saturday and racing on Monday. History is littered with fine racing weekends, but this was surely a match for any.
There were no UK circuit activities on Good Friday this year (on four wheels, at least), but for the next two days the Historic Sports Car Club's Easter Revival — the first ever wholly historic meeting at Thruxton, oddly — was the trigger for a nostalgic road trip (albeit in reverse, with Ou1ton Park wrapping things up on Monday).
Airfield circuits often stand accused of being featureless, but if ever you have a chance to walk a lap of Thruxton, you should. It is flat out in parts, certainly, but a cocktail of dips and cambers mean it is anything but flat.
The paddock was absolutely rammed, as always with the HSCC, although entries were slightly thin in one or two classes — including the Jochen Rindt Trophy race, which catered for Historic F2 and Classic F3. This, though, was proof of the old adage that you need only two cars to create a contest. Nick Fleming (Ralt RT1) and Martin O'Connell (Chevron B40) fought a pulsating battle in race one, the verdict finally settled when the duo touched at the chicane and O'Connell rose up on two wheels before bouncing over the kerbs and rejoining to finish second. Andy Smith (March 742) joined the previous afternoon's pace-setters in part two, when O'Connell eventually broke clear to win on aggregate.
Other highlights included the ByBox Historic Touring Car Championship round, not so much for the ferocity of the lead battle — Richard Dutton (Ford Mustang) won comfortably after a restart, Neil Brown having rolled his Lotus Cortina at the first time of asking — but for the sight of countless squabbling Hillman Imps struggling to keep any wheels on the ground as they negotiated the chicane.
The Historic Formula Ford i race was similar, Nelson Rowe (Crossle 20F) and Benn Simms (Jomo) running separately at the head of the field and leaving a six-car battle in their slipstream. Tiff Needell was in the thick of this, at the wheel of his recently reacquired Lotus 69. "If I find myself tempted to bang wheels," the 61-year-old said beforehand, "I'll put the car back in the garage afterwards and leave it there." It was a clean fight, though, and wonderful to behold. Needell eventually fended off his rivals to secure a podium finish and relished every moment. He returned to the pits punching the air with both arms, as though he'd just clinched a world title rather than a distant third place in a Formula Ford race at Thruxton.
Such elation reflected the general mood at an event with rich potential.
In recent seasons, the British GT Championship and British F3 have been an Easter staple at Oulton Park. The dramatic decimation of the national F3 championship (which has just four meetings this year, only two of them in the UK) did not greatly reduce the meeting's appeal, though, such is the GT Championship's present stature. And besides, the support programme featured two rounds of MotorSport Vision's club-level F3 Cup, both of which GP3 Series convert Alice Powell won easily.
Oulton's landscape flatters most things, but contemporary GTs are steeped in poise and purpose when standing still. The racing is mostly close, too. The Trackspeed Porsche team won both races, Phil Keen/Jon Minshaw taking the first and Nick Tandy/David Ashburn the second, which ended with a ferocious two-lap sprint following a prolonged safety car period. The cause was a blazing Ginetta, Colin White's G55 igniting on the approach to Lodge Corner and prompting the driver to pull to a smouldering halt at Deer Leap. It took several extinguishers, two fire tenders and quite some time to smother the flames, the marshals remaining a paragon of calm persistence as the inferno seemed several times to be suppressed before flaring up once more.
It was an unfortunate conclusion to the weekend for a series blessed with volume (there were 30 cars on the grid), diverse racing pedigree (Porsche, Ferrari, McLaren, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Aston Martin, Nissan, BMW and Ginetta are all represented), high driving standards and impeccable presentation. The cars are lively to behold and, best of all in this age of sonic oppression, they sound the part.
We're constantly told that motor sport is suffering during the present economic climate, but it rather depends where you look.
Swiftly over and out Down Under
Albert Park, Melbourne, March 17: historic sports car racers feel the pinch as the F1 season begins
It is an endearing feature of the Australian Grand Prix that the organisers don't understand the concept of silence. The track is in almost constant use throughout the event's four days — and occasional pauses usually mean there's some kind of aerial exhibition.
Historic events are a long-standing part of the weekend's fabric. The Tasman Revival F5000 series or historic saloon cars sometimes feature, but this year it was the turn of bygone sports racers — many of them fresh from the previous weekend's Phillip Island Classic. There are, however, downsides to prestigious association.
A downpour put paid to the final phases of F1 qualifying — and also washed out the opening sports car race, scheduled for Saturday evening. "The timetable doesn't allow us much of a margin7 said Rob Hall, present to race one of two Matra MS6705 alongside his father Rick. "It's a shame the schedule has been squeezed, but the same thing has happened to far bigger fry than us at Grand Prix meetings. There was a risk that we might not have been able to compete at all."
Two eight-lap races were compressed into one of just six, on Sunday lunchtime, although Hall Jr played little part. "We had to change an engine at Phillip Island7 he said, "and weren't able to get the new one running cleanly during practice. We've changed almost everything it's possible to change, though, and will see how we get on."
With the car refusing to rev cleanly during the parade lap, he was left with no choice but to pull off.
Michael Lyons dominated the race in his ex-Helmut Kelleners March 717, with fellow Brit Andrew Newall initially leading the chase in JCB's ex-Bill Cuddy McLaren M8F. It wasn't wholly straightforward for Newall, mind.
"A backmarker hit me at Phillip Island7 he said, "and I've had to fudge a rear suspension repair. The top link on the right-hand side is an inch lower than it should be and the car has horrible snap oversteer through left-handers. Phillip Island, of course, consists mostly of left-handers. There are only a couple here in Melbourne, but the car feels pretty unsettled through both. I qualified second, though, so can't complain."
He looked set to finish second, too, until "the engine suddenly went lame and started to breathe horribly heavily". A trail of smoke heralded the car's imminent demise and he pulled off with a lap to go, after a front crank seal blew out. Alex Davison (Porsche 936-81) went on to take second, from Russell Kempnich (Porsche 956C) and Hall Sr.
It had been the weekend's most elegant contest, but also regrettably the shortest. "It's ironic, isn't it?" said Rob Hall. "At Phillip Island our race was shortened because conditions were thought to be too hot... then we come here and the same thing happens because it's so cold."