On the road with Simon Arron

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Track of my tiers

Snetterton, March 27: it’s British Formula 3, but not as we know it. A popular old name returns to the domestic calendar

There is, I suppose, a symmetry of sorts. When Formula 3 switched to 2-litre engines in 1974, I was present at the opening race – Oulton Park, March 9 – to watch Brian Henton spin and then recover to win after 15 laps, although the achievement wasn’t quite as impressive as that might sound. Only 12 drivers entered (quite a contrast with the circuit’s final F3 race of the 1.6 era, when Alan Jones beat a full field containing Tony Brise, Jacques Laffite and others of similar calibre), seven arrived, five started, three finished and the grid was bolstered by a motley patchwork of Formula Fords.

That same 2-litre principle continues to underpin the FIA European F3 Championship, though the UK’s domestic series petered out at the end of 2014 due to rising costs and decreasing interest. The name has this year returned, though, after Jonathan Palmer repositioned what was his entry-level BRDC F4 Championship in a bid to create clear separation from the far-too-similar MSA Formula. It has a new look, more performance, lots of racing heritage (Tatuus chassis, 230bhp 2-litre Cosworth engine) and the F3 label has been adopted in a bid to restore some form of structure to a national single-seater ladder that has become a pale shadow of its once-congested self.

F3 will mostly be the main support feature at British GT Championship meetings this year, but it kicked off as the headline at a busy MSVR-run club meeting alongside a cast including Radicals, the beguilingly diverse MSVT Trackday Championship (five classes, separated in terms of bhp/tonne), the glorious evergreen that is FF1600 (which suffered a few withdrawals due to appalling conditions during the meeting’s second day) and stuff that could exist only in the UK, such as the JustMotorsportAds.com Nippon Challenge/Deutsche Marque/Tricolore Trophy, for Japanese, German and French cars that need a racing home…

 There was also a decent turnout of wildlife: pied wagtails are a constant at most UK tracks, but Snetterton seems to have more than anywhere else and is also blessed with some of the most sociable rooks.

The F3 cars were a couple of seconds shy of lap times the last time a representative field turned up in Norfolk, in August 2012, but they look and sound the part and there was some close racing – albeit not at the front during the opening race. In unusual conditions (bright sunshine, sodden track following a pre-race storm), Carlin driver Lando Norris romped away to win by 19sec. Circuit boss Palmer, who scored a victory here during his own British F3 title season in 1981, was on hand to present trophies. During the recent past he has often expressed a desire to create a healthy, F3-style national championship at a realistic price point (such things always being relative in motor racing) and the initial evidence suggests he might succeed. “We expect to do the season for about £200,000 per car,” said Richard Dutton, boss of Fortec Motorsports, “and in the previous F3 era budgets had crept up to £650,000-plus. Costs are spiralling in Europe, too, where the F3 championship is turning into a playground for millionaires. Some people are throwing absolutely silly money at it. Last year we entered four cars, but we’re no longer running any.” He’s not alone: Euro F3 entries had slipped from almost 40 in 2015 to 21 by this season’s opening race at Paul Ricard. There were 21 F3 cars at Snetterton, too, but that’s fine at the start of a fresh chapter.

Most F3 teams used privacy screens to conceal their garages from the public gaze – an odd stance, given that the sport should be doing everything it can to engage with its audience at national level – but a few key essentials are in place. The fact the first three races produced as many different winners (Matheus Leist and Enaam Ahmed triumphed on day two, by which stage I’d done a flit to Cheshire) suggests that the campaign will be suitably competitive, while Toby Sowery was also a constant factor, finishing fourth, third and second respectively. One or two have a little work to do, mind: American Quinlan Lall missed the assembly area entry prior to the first race and could be seen apparently heading towards the A11 (a pointless exercise, as the local Little Chef was demolished years ago), although he did return in time to take his place on the grid.

A few purists might complain that a one-make series has no business calling itself ‘F3’, given the category’s open heritage, but to my mind it represents a rare outbreak of common sense and is thus welcome. 

Somehow it seemed appropriate that I should turn out to watch my second consecutive new-generation F3 race, 42 years after the last…

Short but sweet

Brands Hatch, April 3: oodles of youthful promise… and a first encounter with the Subaru Levorg

It’s not just the 7.45am tailback that underlines the modern British Touring Car Championship’s allure. It’s the audible buzz that builds as the first of three races approaches, the fact a high percentage of the audience is dressed from tip to toe in team apparel and the complete invisibility of the pit asphalt when the public invasion is in full swing during the morning walkabout.

A manufactured show as well as a showpiece for manufacturers? The accusation has been made many times but, whatever your feelings about the purity of using ballast to tweak the balance of power, the wider public seems not to mind. Cramming 32 modern racing saloons (and estates, thanks to Subaru) onto the Brands Indy circuit creates an undeniable spectacle – and there is an encouragingly gifted infusion of young drivers among the established stars at the front and the well-heeled amateurs towards the rear. Tom Ingram (22) wins the opening race of the campaign in his Speedworks Honda Civic, while MG team-mates Ashley Sutton (22) and Josh Cook (24) are bang on the pace throughout. Old-stagers Matt Neal and Gordon Shedden accumulate more points than anyone else during the day, in their works/Team Dynamics Hondas, but the opposition appears deeper and stronger than it has for some time.

A shame the rest of the programme isn’t quite as diverse as the main course, which has a side salad of one-make everything, but the Porsche Carrera Cup underlines that defending champion Dan Cammish is more than ready for a bigger stage and the Ginetta Juniors are dependably entertaining.

Outside karting, where else could you find an eight-strong lead train with a cumulative age of about 118? 

Queue branch

Oulton Park, March 28: nature vanquished in a triumph for astute marketing 

Storm Katie’s wrath had been forecast as I continued an Easter trail that embraced Kent, Norfolk, Kent, Cheshire and Kent again (plus Marwell Wildlife in Hampshire, although that bit need not detain us), but nobody anticipated heavy snow in Birmingham, nor the flooding that would close two northbound lanes of the M6 while the blizzard was at its fiercest. Possibly not the best day to introduce a new event, then (even if the sun later appeared).

Such holiday weekends used to be a time of plenty in Cheshire, with perhaps Formula 5000 on the Thursday/Friday and then some of the world’s leading motorcyclists pitching up for the final leg of the Transatlantic Trophy on Monday. But no more. This year’s schedule accommodated a Friday/Saturday bike clubbie and, 48 hours on, the first Easter Funday, a family-themed event (fairground attractions, egg hunts, entertainers in a big-top tent) that happened to have a bit of motor racing attached – monoposto, northern sports/saloons, VAG Trophy, the BRSCC XR Challenge for 30-year-old Fiestas and Escorts and a couple of Grand Prix demos featuring Benetton B190, Jordan EJ12 and a Formula Nippon Lola painted to look like a Renault R27, even though it was nothing of the sort. The F1 cars weren’t spectacularly quick, but made enough noise to magnetise small children. Job done.

The decision was also taken to use the Fosters circuit, so during a 15-minute race cars passed by rather more frequently than they would have done on the longer version – again, a move to engage families (many possibly visiting a circuit for the first time, following an extensive marketing campaign locally).

Customarily a meeting such as this would attract a sprinkling of people with an Arron-level appetite for motor racing’s grass roots, plus participants’ friends and families. By early morning, however, drivers were queuing for 20 minutes or more to get in.
Not like the early 1970s, certainly, but attracting several thousand people to a modern clubbie represents a miracle of Leicester City proportions.

Nobody had seen that coming – rather like the crepuscular snowstorm.

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