On the road with Simon Arron

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Slow in, fast out
Oulton Park, March 28 & April 6: From 2CV to GT3, opposite ends of the performance spectrum showcased on successive weekends

“Tea or coffee sir? It’s included in the price of your breakfast…” As welcomes to a fresh Oulton Park season go, that has to be among the warmest. There was a time when I seldom missed any event at the circuit closest to my childhood home, but professional obligations breed distance. It was a great privilege to spend 20 seasons covering Formula 3000 – and more than a decade as a full-time member of F1’s itinerant society – but such commitments can isolate you from other of life’s better things.

This year, for the first time since the early 1980s, I was free to attend the opening two meetings of an Oulton campaign. It involved quick-fire 450-mile return trips just nine days apart, but who wouldn’t want to do that?

The curtain-raiser was more than just a slight throwback. In a corner of the paddock closest to the media parking meadow, the Citroën 2CV community was busy fettling lots of cars with hardly a straight panel between them – redolent of the Renault 5TS Championship of bygone years.

Some people are sniffy about the concept of 2CV racing, but few other categories generate quite so much regular, six-abreast competition. And while they might be a tad slow (Pete Sparrow conjured fastest lap of the day, his 2min 31.760sec equating to a 63.85mph average), they can also bite. The first race was interrupted for more than an hour after a first-corner pile-up and an air ambulance had to be summoned to ferry Sammie Fritchley to hospital. Her injuries proved not to be serious, but it’s always a most uncomfortable feeling when a race track falls quiet and the silence is broken only by the whirr of incoming rotor blades.

The balance of the programme featured Legends, several strains of Caterham and the bewilderingly diverse CNC Heads Sports & Saloon Championship, involving everything from Saker GTs and Minis to a Citroën Xsara (about as far removed as you can possibly be, then, from the contemporary one-make stranglehold).

The racing? That was uniformly close. John Mickel won all three Legends events, which implies dominance, but his victory margins were respectively 0.222, 0.119 and 0.166sec…

Little more than a week later, a pleasing assembly of open trailers had dispersed to make way for the professional pantechnicons of the British GT Championship, to my mind the most spectacular high-profile series in the land. A little variety has been lost – there were no Audis or Nissan GT-Rs in the field at Oulton – but the 34-car field incorporated cars from Aston Martin, BMW, McLaren, Porsche, Ferrari, Mercedes, Lotus, Ginetta and Toyota, all of which look and sound the part. Competition was fierce, no matter whether a pro or an amateur was at the helm, the twin 60-minute race format kept interest alive and the performance split between GT3 and GT4 categories brought astute traffic management into play – proper endurance racing, easily digested.

But (and it’s a sizeable ‘but’) you had to wonder about some of the driving. The opening race was one of the most chaotic I’ve seen in years – and McLaren racer Salih Yoluc was implicated in much of the pandemonium. On the first racing lap of the day, the Turk was involved in a collision that left three cars beached in the Cascades gravel. They were retrieved under the safety car and he resumed three laps in arrears, shortly after which he was running just ahead of a multi-car lead battle. In the circumstances he should have yielded and driven his own race, but he persisted in trying to compete with the front-runners – and the queue behind grew steadily. He was a couple of seconds from the leaders’ true pace, didn’t always look wholly in control and finally outbraked himself at Hislops. Having cut across the grass, he rejoined right in front of the second-placed Gary Eastwood/Adam Carroll Ferrari – while travelling much more slowly. His actions triggered a chain-reaction collision that caused a fair bit of damage. Afterwards, the car was excluded from the balance of the meeting for driving that the stewards deemed “incompatible with safety”. Race officials often stand accused of doing too little, but they got this one right (although ‘balance of the season’ might have been a more suitable cooling-off period). One experienced observer likened Yoluc’s track etiquette to the kind of thing you might see during a computer game…

Eastwood and Carroll (one of many a fine racer who slipped through the single-seater net for reasons pertaining to cash rather than ability) won on the road, but were subsequently relegated to second. The rules mandate a minimum pitstop time and entrant FF Corse was a touch too brisk with its driver change: Carroll had to dawdle down the pit road to remain within the window, but in so doing impeded the Liam Griffin/Rory Butcher Aston Martin Vantage, which was later promoted to first place.

Andrew Howard and Jonny Adam completed an Aston double in the second race, partial compensation for the fact that they’d been eliminated from the first in the slipstream of Mr Yoluc’s antics.

Will Palmer and Harrison Newey – sons, both, of F1 fathers – had finished first and second in Saturday’s opening BRDC F4 race, while Chris Mealin and Jordan Albert took a win apiece on Monday. The racing was admirably close, but no more so than that at the front of the FF1600 SuperSeries, which suffered only from a poor field (odd, when there are so many cars around and this was a chance to compete in front of a sizeable crowd at a high-profile meeting).

Now in its third season, the BRDC F4 Championship has been a fine initiative… but there’s still plenty of life in its spiritual forebear.

The right Pryce
Brands Hatch, March 15: A reminder of how the motor racing landscape has changed since the 1970s…

Give or take a day, it was 40 years since Tom Pryce had been in action at Brands Hatch, coaxing his Shadow DN5 to a comfortable victory in the Race of Champions – the Welshman’s only Formula 1 success in an all-too-fleet career.

It was a non-championship event, of course, and Ferrari was absent, but the field was decent, with 20 cars on the grid (four of them F5000 spec, admittedly) and Maurizio Flammini’s Williams in the paddock, sidelined by a practice mishap. John Watson and Ronnie Peterson followed Pryce home, with Jacky Ickx fourth ahead of defending world champion Emerson Fittipaldi. Imagine that, a quality F1 field marauding through Kent in mid-March…

Nowadays the UK’s car racing season tends to be a week away from ignition at this stage, but the motorcycle racing community tends to be unfazed by potential inclemency and this NG Road Racing event was Brands Hatch’s second bike clubbie of the campaign. The weather was appropriately foul, the track neither wet not dry but just horribly greasy (so much so that one or two riders, rarely the most shrinking of violets, opted not to race), and there were arguably more competitors than spectators. It mattered not. There was still a nice buzz around the place, a sense of spring gradually reawakening to a predominantly two-stroke soundtrack. Given the conditions, the racing was admirably vigorous – and all credit to Yamaha 250 rider Darrell Higgins, who produced what will surely be one of the saves of the season by coming off his bike but somehow keeping everything upright.

Before travelling to Brands I’d risen early to watch F1 cars in action as the 2015 world championship commenced, 12,000 miles distant. There were 15 cars on the grid, with five sidelined in the paddock through technical, physical and financial mishaps.

Progress?