Grass roots still greener

Blyton Park, March 12: Traditional entertainment in remotest Lincs – at the 101st motor sport venue the author reckons he has visited… 

Ignoring the sat-nav, which seemed determined to guide me into a field full of bovine chicanes, I carried on for a short distance and peeled instead through a gate that apparently led from a Lincolnshire B-road into 1976.

After a short drive along the crumbling roadways of what was once RAF Blyton, I reached the entrance (basically a young lad with a clipboard, who confirmed my name was on his list and waved me through) and proceeded to find a glorious assembly of cars. An abundance of Issigonis Minis and Ford Escorts set the tone, although there were enough Citroën Saxos and Subaru Imprezas to provide a reality check. And there was a fantastic soundscape, with an exultation of skylarks providing a mellifluous contrast to the burble of cold engines gently being primed.

Welcome to the opening round of the 2017 BTRDA Rallycross Championship.

Rallycross is big news at present. During the off-season, barely a week passed without the announcement of pedigree drivers committing to the FIA’s world championship. The BTRDA series is at the opposite end of the scale, with sponsorship culled not from global energy drinks colossi or car manufacturers but from such as Marc’s Motors or Canterbury Plumbing Supplies. 

Blyton Park’s location and provenance mean it is inevitably flat, but that doesn’t necessarily translate as characterless. The paddock is delightful and blessed with a cosy clubhouse serving decent food – sourced primarily from local farms – for a fair price. I arrived early enough to do a track walk, in order to get my bearings, and was greeted by a bloke distributing fire extinguishers to the marshalling posts. It turned out to be an admirably hands-on approach (at 8.10am) on the part of circuit owner-cum-MINI racer Richard Usher: not quite the same as Chase Carey doing likewise ahead of the British GP, perhaps, but the principle isn’t dissimilar. (Richard has since sold the site to Ginetta, though he’ll continue to manage it.)

Some of the heats were marred by misadventure – mechanical or otherwise – and very occasionally only one or two cars would finish, but for the most part the racing was hugely entertaining. Admission cost £6 (plus a quid for the programme) and the principal spectator bank provided uninterrupted views across the whole track.

Regular front-runner Paige Bellerby (Lotus Exige) won the main final, from Michael Boak (Citroën C2), while Shaun Buckley headed an Escort clean sweep in the historic division. The BTRDA series continues at Pembrey not long after this magazine hits the shops (May 6/7), with further rounds at Pembrey (August 5/6), Blyton Park (October 15) and Croft (November 5).

Not so much the grass roots of our sport, then, as their very seeds.

I can’t recommend it highly enough.


Donington Park, April 8: 56 Formula Ford 1600 cars, a qualifying race and a final? Which millennium is this?

The forecast looked good, so for the first time in the UK this year I opted for shorts. And then, about five miles from the circuit, my Fiat Punto’s dash chirped up with a warning: “ice danger”. It mattered not. My first annual glimpse of Donington Park engendered a nice, warm feeling, with the Historic Sports Car Club attracting an absolutely massive entry – and the clothing set-up had come into its own by mid-morning.

After a standard motor racing breakfast (brioche, Lincolnshire sausage, lashings of HP sauce), I strolled along to Coppice. I first took photographs here in 1980 (during a non-championship race for Zakspeed Capris and suchlike), when I was perched in a grandstand that stood approximately in the middle of what is now a gravel trap.

This is a good place to commence an anti-clockwise lap on foot, pausing awhile at every vantage point to see how the circuit has progressed since it was brought almost to the point of closure by misguided attempts to turn it into the British GP’s home. There remains work to be done, but the vista is overwhelmingly positive.

The racing wasn’t bad, either. Back in a single-seater for the first time in more than 40 years, Tim Brise made it through the FF1600 qualification race – but that guaranteed him only a spot towards the back of the grid for the final, a wonderful contest in which Callum Grant defeated fellow Merlyn racer Michael O’Brien by 0.057sec after they’d emerged side by side from the chicane on the final lap.

Jack Drury won the Historic Touring Car Championship race on his first start in veteran father Terry’s Ford Falcon, while the Derek Bell Trophy (aka Formule Libre) initially featured a four-way lead tussle before the safety car emerged, failed to pick up the leading car and threw the race into confusion. In the process, pace-setters Jamie Brashaw (March 73A) and Mark Dwyer (742) ended up overtaking behind said safety car and being excluded from the results, handing victory to welcome late entry David Shaw’s Eifelland March 721.

That was a rare blip.

I often hear it said that our sport isn’t as good as it used to be, but I’d counter that it’s every bit as good if you look in the right places.


Brands Hatch, March 25 & April 2: Term begins once more for two of the UK’s heavyweight championships

The Australian Grand Prix is one of the best events of its kind if you are there – and also if you aren’t, for European TV broadcasts are early enough to leave the rest of the day clear for some three-dimensional sport. In F1 qualifying’s immediate slipstream, it was time to head to Brands Hatch for the opening round of the British Truck Racing Championship.

Some people are dismissive about trucks, but the family appeal is obvious, with noise and smoke (take your pick between tyre and diesel) contributing to the spectacle. Chuck in a fairground, monster truck passenger rides (an opportunity to contribute to the flattening of Volvo V70 estates) or the willingness of racers to let kids sit in their cabs and it’s easy to see why the BTRC pulls in decent crowds.

Sideshows included local racer Rod Birley’s bid for a 600th career win, though he was left on 599 after four starts failed to produce the victory he required, and the ever-dependable Legends. No aero, no grip, ample power, the ability to corner five abreast: if Liberty Media wants to spice up Grand Prix weekends, it should buy a fleet of these, paint them in team colours and set F1 drivers loose for 20 minutes on Friday and Saturday afternoons.

One week on, it felt as though the clock had been rewound by 30-odd years. At 7.30am, a line of cars was edging gently up the A20 as spectators arrived early to secure a decent view for the British Touring Car Championship opener. Inside the circuit, base camps were already being built along South Bank. Not quite on the same scale as British GPs of yore, but the mood was comparable. By the time racing commenced, it was packed.

The BTCC has long been a popular draw, but has this season a rare degree of strength in depth. Of the 32 drivers on the grid, 16 had recorded at least one race victory before the campaign’s dawn, several others have the potential to join that roster, there are no real makeweights and the top 24 drivers in qualifying – covered by less than one second – represented nine manufacturers.

Highlights included two stylish drives through the field by Colin Turkington, after he’d been involved in a start collision in race one, and – on the support programme – a promising performance by 16-year-old kart graduate Jack McCarthy, fifth and fourth against a strong Renault Clio Cup field on his first competitive car outings. Most successful kartists beat a path to Formula 4, but if McCarthy wants to hone his craft he might well have made a wise choice. F4 cars showcase some fine driving, but that’s not the same thing as close racing (the same applies equally to the Porsche Carrera Cup, which around Brands Indy was equal parts colourful and processional).

The three BTCC races, though, were ripe with competitive ferocity. People often dismiss the series for its perceived thuggery, but I’d highlight not the level of contact but the fact that there isn’t significantly more.

That might have something to do with driving standards being a great deal better than is often appreciated.