Sidetracked with Ed Foster

Change afoot for bend at Brands?
Jonathan Palmer’s vision is to improve overtaking at a corner that is ‘not a classic’

Not many people like change, especially when it involves something they have loved for many years. Formula 1 moving away from Europe, smaller engines in 2014 and the ‘push-to-pass’ DRS: there are plenty of people who are strongly against all of them.

It seems there are also plenty of people against a planning application received by Sevenoaks District Council on October 20, 2011. This wasn’t for a sprawling new housing development, though; this was for the “reconstruction and re-profiling of Graham Hill Bend on Brands Hatch motor racing circuit”.

On hearing about the plans, motor sport forums around Britain erupted with cries of “leave Graham Hill Bend alone!” and “the new corner looks dreadful!”. Soon there was a petition being sent around via Twitter, and it seemed that Jonathan Palmer, boss of MotorSport Vision who own Brands Hatch, had made a very rare mistake. “I’m not particularly concerned about the backlash,” he admitted in December. “A lot of people just don’t like change and I’m not surprised, especially with things like circuits. But these people aren’t the ones who are trying to operate them commercially.”

Of course, the current Graham Hill Bend is far from the corner that it was. In the winter of 1998-99, under Nicola Foulston’s guidance, the bend was changed from a very fast, sweeping left-hander to what it is now. The reason? To promote more overtaking. The fact that in May 1999 Brands Hatch Leisure launched a bid to host the British Grand Prix from 2002 onwards may well have had something to do with the building work as well.

The new Graham Hill Bend failed to produce the overtaking that it promised, and that is exactly why there are more possible changes in the pipeline. Note the word ‘possible’.

“The first point to make is that we’re not definitely doing anything,” said Palmer. “We applied for planning because we are considering making a change to Graham Hill Bend and in order to be in a position to do that – if we choose to – we need to have permission.

“The second thing to note is that the plan we filed is only indicative, an early iteration of what we’re looking at. Of course in an ideal world these things would remain out of the public domain until we were doing them, but that’s not how planning permission works.

“At the end of the day this is our circuit and we are the ones that need to look at evolving it and making the business more viable. We won’t do anything unless we’re pretty damn sure it is going to be successful and it will promote overtaking.

“We don’t have the space that Silverstone has, and, given that we aren’t going to build an oval, anything that’s going to promote overtaking is going to involve a tight corner. You can’t get one without the other.

“The main problem is with the higher-grip cars in the Formula 3, Formula 2, DTM and British Touring Car championships. The best solution would be to change motor racing so that all cars have more power and less grip, but that’s not going to happen so we need to look at the circuits.

“Of all the corners at Brands, Graham Hill stands out, firstly because it’s not a classic corner and secondly because it’s been changed a few times in the past. It’s nothing like it used to be, and I don’t like the current iteration. It really doesn’t do anything much: it’s not very characterful and, with the kink on the way down from Druids, it’s not even a good overtaking spot. On top of that it’s not even challenging for the driver!”

It’s only halfway through our conversation that another, and perhaps a major, reason for the change is mentioned. Of course everyone would like more competitive overtaking, but apparently one championship has been leaning on MSV to provide exactly that. “There has certainly been pressure from the DTM to make overtaking easier,” Palmer admitted. “It’s the only championship that has put pressure on us, but the fact is I think DTM has a more proactive approach to the whole business of entertainment. Most championships quite rightly assume that a track would never change for them. In a way, the DTM deserves credit for pushing not just with their own cars and the technical rules, but also seeing if they can influence track design to make the whole show more exciting.”

The real question is whether or not the redesign will be good for drivers and spectators. If it purely promotes overtaking it will not necessarily be warmly received by everyone. “For people who race historics – and I’m pretty sure the guy who started the petition [to stop the planning permission going ahead] does – it tends to be that slow corners are not so much fun,” Palmer (below) pointed out. “The way we’re looking at doing Graham Hill, though, I think it will be. With a clever new layout it will be much more of a driver challenge.

“If the critics want to spend their efforts making suggestions and emailing them to us we really would be very grateful to look at them. We’re going to spend another six or nine months mulling over what really would be good. It’s not easy, but everyone can rest assured that I’m not just an appointed manager. This is my business and I do not intend to mess it up. I’m not saying that I’ll definitely get it right. However, I will definitely do something that I believe will be better for the future of Brands Hatch. We’re not going into this lightly.”

For many people Brands Hatch is sacrosanct and they won’t welcome any change, but they shouldn’t ignore Palmer’s words. After all, he’s the reason we’re still using Brands, Oulton Park, Snetterton and Cadwell Park.

So what other changes can we expect at MSV’s circuits in the near future? Well, the only other one at Brands Hatch will be an asphalt run-off at Druids to encourage people to “have a go” on entry. At the moment the gravel trap tends to dampen some of the enthusiasm. As for Paddock Hill Bend… “None at all!” said Palmer, slightly shocked. “Paddock is an absolutely classic corner.” Phew.

Formula 3, sit up and crack along
Barrie ‘Whizzo’ Williams recalls the glory days of F3, when it was affordable and sociable

On Friday 13 at Autosport International a small and select group of people and cars gathered to celebrate the history – and success – of Formula 3.

Machinery from all seven decades of the series was on show, from this year’s 2012 Dallara to a 1951 Cooper Mk 5 with the name ‘Bernard Ecclestone’ emblazoned down the side in black.

Jonathan Palmer, British F3 champion in 1981, was at the photocall, as was Barrie ‘Whizzo’ Williams who I caught up with after he had stood for the obligatory pictures. Williams, typically, had just reduced three friends and himself to complete hysterics.

“I actually raced the last Formula 3 car that the Cooper Car Company ever built – the T83B,” he told me once he had calmed down. “It belonged to a friend of mine called Alan McKechnie and we both went down with Nigel Mansell’s uncle Bob to collect it from the factory. It wasn’t quite closing down then, but it was on the way and I remember we had to pay cash for it because John [Cooper] needed to pay the wages at the end of the week!”

His Cooper – fitted with a Holbay engine – wasn’t as fast as the Brabhams of the day, but he did manage to win the Wills International Trophy Meeting at a typically wet Silverstone.

“I came from gearbox karting, as did a lot of us, and we just jumped into the F3 cars. You can always tell the ones who came from karting because they sat up in the car and didn’t like lying down like you were supposed to.

“We raced at all these strange places in Sweden and I actually got married because of it. I met my ex-wife while over there for one of the races – they were good days. There was a big queue for starting money at the end of the day so that you could get to the next meeting. That never happens nowadays!

“I think Formula 3 is still the championship that everyone needs to do on the way to F1. Although it is becoming very expensive and it’s getting a bit processional, whereas Formula Renault has picked up the cudgels very well and it’s a little more exciting. Renault has put a lot into it and I’m just wondering whether Formula 3 at present is a little bit out of touch. The cost of doing these race series now is terrifying.”

Williams didn’t spend long in Formula 3. His friend Chris Lambert was killed at Zandvoort in July 1968 driving a Brabham-FVA BT23C, and it didn’t take much for fellow driver Tony Lanfranchi to persuade him to try something else.

He did exactly that and has gone on to forge a career competing in almost every other type of car. “I’ve been fortunate,” he told Simon Taylor when our editor-at-large had lunch with him for the October 2006 issue of Motor Sport. “I’ve made a lot of friends. I’ve never made any money, but I don’t owe anybody anything. I’ve just cracked along.”

If you ask anyone who races against him he still very much ‘cracks along’ when he’s behind the wheel.

Hinchcliffe heads for the future with an eye on the past
Canadian IndyCar star was relieved to land Andretti seat after Newman/Haas’s withdrawal, but there is more than a hint of sadness

The 2011 IndyCar season will always be remembered because of the tragic death of Dan Wheldon at the Las Vegas race on October 16. The two-time Indy 500 winner, who had sat out most of the season due to lack of funding, was just about to announce a deal with Andretti Autosport for 2012.

It sadly wasn’t to be, but a new driver has just been announced by the team. Last year Canadian James Hinchcliffe stepped onto the IndyCar scene after two years in the Indy Lights Championship. Three fourth-place finishes for Newman/Haas Racing and 12th place in the 2011 championship standings secured him the Rookie of the Year title.

Things looked good for a second year in the single-seater championship, but on December 1 disaster struck. After 107 race wins Newman/Haas was withdrawing from IndyCar racing.

“I was somewhat aware of the fact that the team had recently received some bad news about potential sponsors,” Hinchcliffe said on hearing the news. “But it’s Newman/Haas… You just always assume that they will find a way to make it work.”

With Andretti Autosport looking for a driver to join Marco Andretti and Ryan Hunter-Reay, and Hinchcliffe looking for a seat, it wasn’t long before the announcement came. Even though the Canadian is understandably delighted about getting the drive he did say that the fact he was taking Wheldon’s seat weighed on him from the first phone call. “I am going to think about Dan every time I get into that car,” he said.

For now, though, it’s off to the Rolex Daytona 24 Hours (January 29-30) for the first time where he will be sharing a SpeedSource Mazda RX8 with Jonathan Bomanto, Sylvain Tremblay and Marino Franchitti. When I spoke to him he had just stepped out of the SpeedSource race shop in Florida and was delighted about his first step into endurance racing.

“It’s such an historic race,” he tells me, “and it’s one of the big ones in the world. Just the thought of doing a 24-hour race, being on it for that long and sharing the car with other guys really fascinated me.

“In every race there is an opportunity for things to go wrong, but when you’re doing a 24-hour race there’s much more opportunity! It’s going to need a completely different mindset, but it’s a cool challenge.”

So is the Daytona 24 Hours a precursor to more endurance racing? “It’s definitely something that I want to do two or three times a year,” he admits. “A lot of IndyCar drivers do the [Daytona] 24, Sebring and Petit Le Mans – I just want to get in on the action. I’ll drive anything, anywhere, anytime.”

With his second year in IndyCar promising some more good results Hinchcliffe is one to watch, whether it’s in the single-seater arena or the endurance racing world.