On the road with... Simon Arron

Back to the future
Goodwood, March 29/30: the 72nd running of an old favourite proves genuinely innovative…

It wasn’t quite how Goodwood felt during the 1980s, when it was a sleepy test venue that happened to have a good café – the perfect rendezvous point ahead of a day testing road cars around the South Downs – but it was similar. The approach roads showcased Sussex at its tranquil best, with only the occasional, stubborn pheasant impeding progress.

The principle of Goodwood’s 72nd Members’ Meeting has been explained many times, but merits brief repetition: it was conceived as an invitation-only event for members of the Goodwood Road Racing Club, a throwback to similar meetings staged for BARC disciples in the 1950s and 1960s. The news ignited many an internet forum (something you didn’t get 50 years ago) as club racing was swamped by significant and unusual controversy, but Lord March doesn’t do things by halves.

Fuelled by their passion for the Goodwood Revival, the wider public didn’t want to miss another Goodwood ‘event’; GRRC members, meanwhile, wanted payback on their investment, a high-quality race meeting without the queues or the crush. But when tickets were not taken up in sufficient numbers, it was inevitable that they would be offered more widely. Result? Irritation on both sides.

Henceforth, the solution is probably to limit the number of tickets and sell them only to GRRC members for a fixed period (and perhaps at a discount), but make it clear that any surplus will become generally available after a set date. That should eliminate any confusion. As for the pricing (£75 for one day, £120 for two), it was a lot more than it costs to attend most clubbies (advanced tickets for the same Saturday’s BARC fixture at Oulton Park were £10), but compared favourably with what some Premier League clubs charge to watch a 90-minute match. Predictably, though, a modern-day Goodwood ‘clubbie’ turned out to be little of the sort.

For the most part, the racing was uniformly engaging. Some cars will have been familiar to Revival regulars, but the headline Gerry Marshall Trophy – for Group 1 saloons that raced during Goodwood’s 32-year hibernation – added a splash of varietal colour and noise. Goodwood is customarily reserved for cars relevant to its original years of operation, 1948-1966, but its ethos also extends to crowd-pleasing and the tin tops fitted the bill. It mattered not that an HB Vauxhall Viva, shared by Paul Chase-Gardener and Gerry Marshall’s son Gregor, was never a Gp1 car in period…

To hear a couple of Mazda RX-7s being primed in the paddock was a delicious throwback to the days of sumptuous aural diversity. The symphony lasted some time, too. “You have to warm them up for about an hour,” said Patrick Watts, sharing Ian Cowley’s Pentax-liveried RX-7, “or else they blow an oil seal…”

You wondered how many Group 1 cars would survive the 45-minute feature race, given the smoky haze that heralded their practice session, but 19 of the 25 starters were still running by the end – and they were every bit as good to watch as they sounded. That applied equally to the 1960s saloons in the Sears Trophy, wherein Nick Swift (Mini Cooper) delivered a masterclass in the tricky art of perpetual momentum.

The themed parades were less dramatic. The promotional blurb showed turbocharged F1 cars belching flame, but that was never going to happen behind a pace car (even if it was a Ferrari F40). On Sunday, one of the F1 cars failed to keep up and would have been lapped by said pace car, had passing been permitted. A nice concept, but it needs further thought.

The best race was also the longest, the 60-minute Moss Trophy that ended in complete darkness on Saturday evening. It was possible to follow the action, simply because Simon Hadfield (in Wolfgang Friedrichs’ Aston DB4GT) and Oliver Bryant (sharing the Lotus 11GT ‘Breadvan’ with Joe Twyman) were knotted together in the fastest two silhouettes.

An enthralling, nip-and-tuck duel ended with Hadfield just ahead – and it was only then that I noticed quite how cold it had become, a tribute to the insulating properties of first-rate racing.

First among equals
Donington Park, March 23: a sumptuous start to the four-wheeled season

The ritual once began on the 6.16 train from Hale to Cuddington, quiet Cheshire villages separated by about half an hour. The final few miles to Oulton Park were covered by bicycle – and there was a fair chance you’d arrive before the bloke on the gate, which effectively waived the 30p entry fee.

That, though, was 1974. Forty years on, my first car race meeting of the campaign involved circumnavigating the club-going dregs of London’s suburbs and hitting the northbound M1 at a time of day that a) enabled a motorway to fulfil its designated purpose and b) got me to Donington Park in time for the standard cocktail of scrambled eggs, mushrooms, beans and so on.

Mission accomplished.

The paddock was rammed upon arrival, the public parking areas rather less so – symbolic of the status quo and not just a consequence of my obsessive breakfast pursuit. People flock to meetings with the highest profile, but that’s not always where you’ll find the best racing.

The principal lures? A Classic Formula Ford race with 30-plus cars, their form untainted by the aerodynamic clutter that sometimes stifles close competition, plus assorted Classic Touring Car Racing Club championships (some allowing drivers to exercise cars in preparation for Goodwood) and various Caterham classes in which the regulations apparently dictate that thou shalt race no fewer than 15 abreast.

Mike Gardner was among the FF1600 front-runners, in a Crosslé 30F recently acquired from prolific Northern Irish racer Tommy Reid’s collection. “It has a bit of a misfire,” he said, reaching in his van for a feeler gauge. “I’ve not been used to dealing with cars that still have points…”

Ben Mitchell won both FF1600 events, the first easily so and the second after a tight tussle with fellow Merlyn Mk20 racer Callum Grant. The sport’s essence, though, was perhaps best espoused by Mitchell’s mentor Simon Hadfield.

Biffed from the first race in his freshly restored Royale RP24, and without enough spares to effect on-site suspension repairs, he left the circuit to pick up a Lotus 51 – conveniently stored only a few miles away – and returned to start race two from the pits before carving through the field to finish 10th.

As you do.

Ticket to ride
Oulton Park, April 5: 39 years of wasted opportunity finally come to an end...

In a previous existence I would have been in Bahrain on this day, covering Mercedes-Benz’s domination of Formula 1 qualifying (and wondering why the Grand Prix wasn’t taking place somewhere else – France, perhaps, or else Imola).

Instead, after idling through assorted schedules, I opted for a 400-mile day return to my first Oulton Park motorcycle meeting since October 11 1975, when 160 1000cc racers (plus 17 reserves) battled through four heats to annexe one of 40 places in the final. Star names that day included Ron Haslam, who was entered in the 250, 350, 500 and 1000 classes (although he didn’t feature among the 90-strong sidecar entry).

Five decades on, grids were similarly full – if a little more diverse – for the second NG Road Racing fixture of the year. Most regular observational haunts have their customary appeal – Druids and Lodge, for instance – but motorcycles also draw you elsewhere. Cars are rarely very lively at Hill Top, for instance, but bikes tend to be quite the opposite as their front wheels go light. And cars don’t flirt so spectacularly with the sleepers through the left-handed kink at Clay Hill, either.

No matter how familiar the terrain might be, it feels like a completely different circuit.