Nights in shining armour

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Le Mans in June? A British winter? Racing beyond dusk always has a certain ambience

Winter clubbies might not have the clout of yore, when the televised BBC Grandstand Formula Ford 2000 Championship was something worth winning – a potential career advancement, indeed – and decent crowds turned out to watch both that and a strong supporting cast, but they retain a distinct charm. And at this time of the year a drizzly, grey day feels like the perfect backdrop: guerrillas in the mist, then…

BRANDS HATCH

The Kent circuit is not alone in hosting hibernal race meetings, but has always been foremost in this domain. Among the bygone Grandstand FF2000 champions here crowned were future Formula 1 drivers Julian Bailey, Martin Donnelly and Mark Blundell, while Damon Hill made his car racing debut in the series (without great distinction, but that’s not the point).

There was no single-seater competition on the menu during successive into-the-night race weekends in mid-November – and the first of them, organised by the reliably well-drilled Classic Sports Car Club, was a template for how racing should be at all times of the year, with colossal grids and even greater diversity. The club motto is ‘racing for cars of all ages’ and sometimes it applies simultaneously, so you find a platoon of Caterhams going wheel to wheel against Ford Anglias, a VW Fun Cup racer and a TCR-spec Audi RS3 that was getting in some early laps prior to the introduction this year of a new UK series for such cars.

The conditions were often treacherous – ‘into-the-night’ was something of a relative term, given the shortage of daylight – and track etiquette reflected as much. Drivers in the CSCC Tin Tops series spun with such regularity that there were four in the Paddock Hill Bend gravel by the end of practice – and a couple of the others picked up penalties for failing to heed flag signals (though in their defence it was at times so gloomy that even bright yellow didn’t really stand out).

Other potential impediments included a Jaguar XJ6 coating about half the circuit in oil (some races had to be reduced in length as a result of delays) and the safety car emerging in completely the wrong place during the first (and shorter) of Saturday’s night races. Even the officials, it seemed, found circumstances quite challenging…

The rapid (just the 275bhp) Ford Fiesta of Richard Wheeler and BTCC regular Jake Hill won the opening day’s main event, more than a lap clear of Tom Mensley’s Renault Clio, but the most dramatic finish came in the Adams & Page Swinging Sixties race. Leader Ian Everett (BMW 1502) had a quick spin at the final corner, but recovered just in time to defeat Daniel Williamson’s Corvette by four tenths after 30 minutes of racing. Crossing the line among a clutch of slower cars, the winner then failed to spot the chequered flag and completed another lap at racing speed before the penny dropped.

Yes there was murk and a bit of pandemonium, but there was also some very fine racing, with the added frisson of competitive twilight. It was one of the most engaging meetings I’d watched all year.

Seven days on, the entry was much thinner for the BARC-run Britcar finale’s opening day – and from late morning the weather was even worse (though nobody appeared to have mentioned as much to the Ginetta Junior drivers, who are ever worth watching).

A bunch of young kids, with a future star or two perhaps in their midst, they tend to put their cars where they want them and then try to sort things out when they get there. And most of them have sufficient car control to do just that (even if there were a couple of stoppages).

Their counterparts in the Renault Clio Junior series were slightly less disciplined: despite there being only nine cars, they still managed to conjure four red flags during qualifying…

Some racing broke out between interruptions and a combined Mini Miglia/Se7en race was a welcome throwback to winter meetings of old. It was quite an introduction for Miglia newcomer Liam Deegan, who had never previously driven on slicks – and in the opening race had to do so in the rain. He recovered from a spin to finish second to Nick Padmore, then reversed the balance of power in race two (by which time all were on more suitable, treaded rubber).

In theory the Britcar race was the only one scheduled to take place under cover of darkness, but visibility was close to zero when the second Mini race started (several cars for some reason having only one functioning headlight) and even more so when the Ginettas came out again.

They don’t have headlights at all, but that

MALLORY PARK

The good news, heading through West Dulwich on Boxing Day morn, was that Australia had ‘slumped’ to 170-3. The bad? Skipper Steve Smith was now at the crease, so the Radio 5 commentary threatened to be a painful companion en route to the outskirts of Hinckley. He cracked his first ball for four and remained unbeaten when stumps were drawn just past Newport Pagnell services, but there was more positive sporting news about 50 miles ahead: the 43rd Plum Pudding meeting.

Customarily the UK’s only race event catering for two, three and four wheels (and one of a reduced number of automotive sporting options over the festive period, particularly since Wimbledon Stadium’s demise), it had to be adjusted in 2017 as there were insufficient sidecars to justify a grid. What remained, however, was a pleasing combination of the utterly random, with sports and saloon car fields blending the obvious (Caterhams, Mazda MX-5s, Honda Civics and Renault Clios) with the somewhat unexpected (a rallycross-spec Ford Puma V6, for instance), while the solo motorcycles all ran together whether they had 300 or 1000cc.

The customary qualifying system was in place – the field lining up according to the order in which entries were received, so a first-class stamp counted for more than hand-to-eye co-ordination or throttle delicacy – and the grid for the second race was a mirror image of the finishing order in the first. Not for the purist, perhaps, but a good way to ensure a constant stream of passing manoeuvres without resorting to DRS.

Mallory had changed slightly since my most recent visit, a couple of years beforehand, with an increased number of sound insulation barriers (for the benefit of local residents) and public access opened up to the inside of the John Cooper Esses. In an age when spectators tend to be ever more distant from the action, Mallory – now and always a friendly place – is doing things slightly in reverse. Debris fencing remains scarce, too.

I know modern custom dictates that queuing outside Next is a popular pastime in the immediate slipstream of Christmas, but strolling Mallory Park’s perimeter is surely a healthier alternative, even if you have first consumed the local delicacy known as a fried breakfast.

And here it’s worth sounding a note of caution. The repast remains fine value, at £6 including a finely brewed cuppa, but the hash browns were a touch underdone, the fried eggs just a touch too firm.

And in this respect Mallory, of all venues, has a certain reputation to maintain.

Images: Simon Arron