Is this the future of sports-car racing?
Just over a year ago, in April 1977 to be precise, the first round of a new British formula was staged at Brands Hatch. Called Sports 2000 and sponsored by SodaStream the soft drinks concern, it made a better spectacle than many had predicted. A lot of people involved in motor racing had dismissed the arrival of the new sports car formula as fated front the start, a seemingly inevitable repeat of the short-lived FF100 series. Furthermore, it was asserted it was the offspring of an unholy union between Motor Circuit Developments and the racing car manufacturers, though only Lola were interested of the familiar names. In fact 1977 turned out to be a good inaugural season with one point separating Wolverhampton’s winning, and affable, John Cooper from the much-publicised Divina Galica at the close of the championship. Both of them were in Lola T490s, as was equal third place man Chris Alford, but the man he tied with drove a Tiga 77 SC (product of a Reading-based company headed by Tim Schenken and Howden Ganley) as did the man in fourth position, John Brindley.
Now, pardon my showbtisiness parlance, the 20-round SpdaStream Sports 2000 Championhip 1978 is drawing “rave reviews”. Reading the weekly sporting press one finds up to 20 cars taking the grid, often with the first half dozen or so recording practice times within the same half-second bracket. There had been four rounds in 1978, when this was written (the photographs are of the fifth round at Donington Park) and they had resulted in an easy opening victory for John Webb (no relation) and his Tiga, while the newer Lola T492s of Frank Sytner and John Brindley had won the other victories, Sytner taking two wins. He was robbed of a third win only a few laps front the finish of the Oulton Park Championship round.
Having digested the contemporary accounts of Sports 2000’s success we decided to investigate at first hand. The car that so nearly won last year’s series, Divina Galica’s Lola T490, is still conducted under the Kelly Girl sponsorship, but by Juliette Slaughter, and we were able to drive this car at Brands Hatch. For comparison, and because it is typical of the latest and apparently most competitive armament for 1978, Caltex metallurgist Les Loushin’s Lola T492 was also kindly made available for assessment at the same session. To make sure that I was able to interpret the experience John Brindley accompanied me to the Kentish test session. As he had been involved in the formula from the start, driving the Lola T490 prototype before the series began last year but opting for a Tiga, and has a wide racing experience that covers a racing debut in a Bugatti-Hoiden (in Australia on a dirt track too…!) as well as diverse saloon cars; it was to be an interesting test commentary.
First, back to basics: what is Sports 2000? The name and the formula owe a great deal to the so-called “Super Ford” or Formula Ford 2000 single-seater racing series. The regulations have much in common, the cars using the same 2 litre s.o.h.c. Ford engine normally found in Escort RS2000s, Cortinas or Capris. They also tend to use the same Hewland Mk. 9 transaxle, single plate clutch and the four speeds incorporated within. All-round wishbone independent suspension, with parallel radius rods at the rear, four-wheel disc braking by solid discs (inboard-mounted at the rear) and a rim width restriction of 6 and 8 in. all round, though the wheels can be any lightweight aluminium or magnesium alloy, unlike the steel-wheeled FF1600s.
The big difference. between FF2000 and Sports 2000 is in the basic chassis, for the single seater carries mandatory space frame construction while the sports car and you can get a second seat alongside the driver with ease has a monocoque chassis. The single-seater is allowed the kind of aerodynamic aids you expect on such a car today rear wing and a nose cone extending out to the front wheel track width, while the Sports 2000 has the all-enveloping body you would expect of its name.
For 1978 the only significant change in the regulations for 1978 Sports 2000 was the adoption of transistorised ignition: Piranha and Lumenition are both well represented now, and they have contributed a little more towards the prize fund as well. Unlike most other British racing formulae, there is only the one Championship to contest. At each of the 20-rounds a £250 prize fund operates with £90 offered for a victory. The oil Companies and Dunlop, whose tyres must be used in Sports 2000, have also added some bonus payments to the series. During the season competitors will travel to most of the well-known British circuits and will include only one “super round” that is much over the usual 30 mile 15 to 20 lap sprint.
How much it all costs varies sharply according to each team’s backing. The Lolas I tested were prepared, together with a third car for Brindley, all by one man so the costs were split three ways, and offset by a number of sponsors. One ingenious idea that team have adopted is a double-decker trailer pulled along by a flat-back Ford Transit, thus transporting three cars on one fuel load. Australian Peter Macdonald prepared all the cars, working from a large warehouse in Hammersmith: his calibre can be judged from the fact that he has also taken responsibility for a pristine low mileage Vincent Black Shadow motorcycle.
When they were announced in 1977 Lola’s T490 models cost £4,750. The price for a new T492 is £5,250, but it does feature some desirable improvements that many owners of the older Lola are incorporating rather than buying a new car. That price includes everything but the engine, which can cost anything from £900 to £1,200, according to the specialist who converts it for racing work, when it will have a dry sump lubrication system.
The engine supply situation is particularly interesting at the moment with the Lolas of Sytner and Rod Gretton depending on units from Titan (who have always supported this category after winning an FF2000 Championship title in 1976); Brindley, Webb, former Grovewood Award winner Nick Adams, and John Trevelyan use engines provided by “Sammy” Nelson’s Wiltshire concern. Another leading Lola runner (like Gretton a former TVR Prodsports driver), Chris Alford has engines either from Competition Engine Services, or Middleton.
All the engines will have been stripped and rebuilt along familiar “blueprint” lines, but they operate with the aid of few high performance parts. The single twin-choke carburettor remains on the production manifold, though there is a new exhaust system and the lack of an air filter, supported by some internal carburation work, to take advantage of the allowance to hand-finish the cylinder head porting and match it to the manifolding. The dry sump system helps with the improvement from Mr. Ford’s 100-odd standard horsepower to the 126-128 b.h.p. anticipated average amongst the Sports 2000 front-runners. To judge from the test, maximum torque is at least as good as standard, but appears at slightly over 4,000 r.p.m. for this application. In their initial development work Titan discovered that the engine liked to be kept between 60 and 70 degrees C for maximum efficiency: their research showed a loss of up to 9 b.h.p. if this figure were handsomely exceeded, as is the norm in other production racing engines.
The T490 body actually traces back to a period of 2-litre sports car racing for a European title: then they would be propelled by over 260 b.h.p. emanating from a four-valve per cylinder racing engine. The monocoque is similar to that used for that more powerful parentage as well, but the construction is abbreviated to that of three quarter monocoque, having tubular space frame for the engine bay. The chassis is made in aluminium NS4 alloys, riveted and bronze or argon-welded in respect of this structure, and the tubular steel rear subframe. Finally it is nickel-plated and stove-enamelled; the only jarring note is to discover that what appears to be solid monocoque leading out to align with the downward curve of the front wheelarch GRP plastic top-section is actually a rather cheap and nasty L-section of aluminium. More for style than practicality? However, that T492 side monocoque panel will absorb considerable “bumping and boring” and can be replaced far less expensively than before.
The T490 is 11 ft. 5 in. long and 5 ft. 5 in. wide. From ground level to the top of the sensible crash-protection hoop — which is braced diagonally and by leading rods to the main cockpit hoop beneath the instrument panel — measures 2 ft. The car should weigh close to the minimum specified weight of the formula, below 9 cwt. The minimum weight is actually 480 kg., and Lola have to ballast the cars artificially to exceed this specified figure.
The GRP plastic body lifts off in two sections, the front hiding the radiator and sturdy front cross-members, one of which acts as the support for the inclined gas-filled shock-absorbers. The steering rack is mounted above the driver’s shins and the front anti-roll bar describes an arc above the triangulated wishbones, attaching to the trailing edge of each front wishbone. On this model the brake and clutch master cylinders are easily accessible through the slot in the front bodywork.
The open cockpit is exceptionally spacious by competition standards and has a very business-like air with its stark glassfibre bucket seat, full harness (with crutch straps), the right hand gearchange, and oi in. diameter steering wheel. On the T490 the rear section covers all the mechanical parts and incorporates both an air box and a full-width aluminium sheet that can be adjusted vertically. The suspension can be adjusted quickly in camber, castor, toe-in/out and ride height.
Juliette’s T490 has been modified from the original specification only in respect of an auxiliary water radiator (placed on the left of the engine bay) and uses the T492-specification coil springs, which are harder than the originals. Bigger brakes, also a feature of the T492, are still on order from the factory: there is no limit on solid disc diameters and the Tiga has even larger brakes than the latest Lolas. Fast adjustment of braking effort front to rear is also catered for by means of a balance bar and a small wheel controlling the spring-loaded mechanism.
The 7-gallon aluminium safety fuel tank and 1 1/2 turns lock-to-lock steering are common to both Lolas, but there are a lot of detail changes between the models elsewhere. The most important, in theory at any rate, is the provision of two side-radiators in the later model. Because the engine does like to keep cool this change has been forced by the motor’s needs as much as any aerodynamic or handling considerations. Consequently the T492 has slightly revised bodywork: at the front there is no longer an orifice for the radiator, while the rear not only has the necessary venting for the radiators, but also carries small wheelarch flares in glassfibre and has two rear splitters of air-stream, instead of the single vertical plate referred to earlier.
I am indebted to Juliette Slaughter for a closer appreciation of the money needed to compete in this category. In presenting figures to potential sponsors she expected a trailer to cost £200; entries £340; an entrants’ licence from the RAC, £120; the mandatory Dunlops £450 per season (mostly dry-weather covers); £100 for gearbox spares, including dog-race replacements; £40 expended on brake pads; £30 needed to replace all the Rose Joints upon a secondhand car; a probable average of £400 to rebuild the engine… in this case it depends entirely how competitive you want to be — I was told that the front-runners, scratching for the last tenth of a second, would probably need a rebuild every four to five races; petrol during the season could well account for £300; hotels £250 and off-track insurance £100 per season. The latter covers all-risks save those of actually competing. Labour costs were minimised in Juliette’s case, but she still expected to spend £1,800 with a further £350 apportioned between mechanical preparation time and petrol for 12 days’ attendance at various functions for two sponsors: the cost of track-testing was quoted at £100, but since she works for one of the motor racing circuit concerns, it would be reasonable for a serious privateer to double that figure.
The above proves that even the days of comparatively cheap competition are past, but there are a lot of people enjoying modern racing, and they obviously find ways of participating that every first-hand competitor does through experience. Aside from the obvious bodywork changes involved in converting the T490 front-radiator model to the T492-side-radiator layout, the newer T492 has a bigger braking capacity thanks to thicker discs and larger calipers; increased spring rates and a larger diameter front roll bar, still of tubular section like its predecessor, but offering 20 percent increased roll-stiffness.
Lola had actually built 29 chassis for Sports 2000 when we contacted them, but in the works were chassis numbers to take them over the 30-production mark. It was pertinent to note that the formulae is about to be launched in America, and that the same chassis has already proved capable of absorbing the 190 b.h.p. offered by Cosworth’s 1.3 litre BDH engine in alternative American trim.
It was not the first time I had driven a Lola Sport 2000 model so I quickly settled into, surroundings that might look the same in either the older T490 or the latest T492, but which were actually very different in the case of the test cars.
Common to both were simple on-off pull-knob ignition control; fire extinguisher button; simple Smiths water temperature gauge and starter button, all mounted on a neat black PVC-covered dash-panel. Juliette Slaughter’s car retained the standard small diameter Smith electronic tachometer and straightforward oil pressure gauge where the newer model had a non-standard, and much bigger Jones American rev-counter, complete with tell-tale, and a combined oil pressure/oil temperature dial. In fact the oil temperature gauge scarcely budged all day, while both cars were running about 55 degrees C water in the overcast drizzle that uncharitably persisted just the duration of the test, thereafter conditions dried out considerably, of course.
The really important differences in the cockpit came from matters of personal preference though. Untouched since Divina Galica showed she was just as good, if not rather better than 99% of her male club-racing opposition, the steering wheel was laid practically against the plastic cockpit surround. This, coupled with an increased rake to the glassfibre bucket seat, coloured both my impressions, and those of the experienced Brindley who drove both cars as well in the same session on the shorter 1.2 mile Club Circuit at Brands Hatch. The latest Lola also had a small plastic screen atop the glassfibre cockpit surround, and this cushions a stranger taking a ride in the wet to a disproportionate degree, again colouring my impressions, for it is far easier to concentrate when you are comfortable, and can see where you are going.
A grey drizzle, an open car, and the thought of others tucked cosily in the Brands Clubhouse were perhaps not the ideal circumstances in which to assess Sports 2000. My previous encounter had been in even worse conditions at Snetterton in the original T490 prototype, and that was on thoroughly unsuitable tyres. Bolstered a little by this thought I pressed the button to be promptly rewarded by the rather dull raspberry that characterises the mildly modified Ford-based formula engine.
The four-speed Hewland literally did snick into first, rather than the graunch that often occurs when selecting first from rest, so I was off to a good start in the newer T492. Even by the second corner, Druids complete with change in surface and a coefficient similar to Sch we know what, I was enjoying the experience. As with John Morrison’s Super Vee, I found this open Lola immediately manageable (more so in fact, owing to the torqueier motor) and really enjoyable to drive hard within a very short time.
The small Lola-embossed wheel fed back the tendency for the car to understeer as we entered the second gear Druids, but also allowed fast Correction of the tail, which was sliding out of line as we accelerated fully on the way out. As third gear slid home easily, and was used before entering Graham Hill Bend (all used to be South Bank, but we ought to move with the times…), the Lola would twitch every once in a while when asked to transmit power through a changeable combination of water and dry exit. On what is now called Cooper Straight the Lola flicked toward 6,000 r.p.m. before turning left through Surtees. As at Paddock, it was noticeable that the braking was always powerful, so powerful you constantly wondered why you had not applied them later and harder.
That was not the case at Clearways. Turning hard right in third gear after a comparatively fast approach is bound to lead to problems, especially on the third-gear switch to the right. Completed at comparatively low r.p.m., the Sam Nelson engine picking up on full throttle from 3,500 or even less, Clearways showed all the tendency toward understeer that you would expect. Using second gear makes sure that, when it slides away from you it at least does so controllably at the rear, but costs time overall, this incurred as much by the extra gear-change as anything else. Once the tachometer passed 4,000 r.p.m. and the car had slithered well past the Clearways apex, it was possible to just balance it on tip-toes in a constant slide to the outer edge of the track.
Once travelling in a straight line, third gear swiftly buzzed up to the limit of 6,500 r.p.m. and fourth was engaged. The ride along the main straight at 110 m.p.h., or so, seemed exceptional and was comparable with those lowered Ford Fiestas assessed on the same track in last month’s Motor Sport. Paddock is a little less daunting these days, but from our lower viewing point and with the rain sploshing around a dark-tinted visor (the only one available: one’s surroundings looked as ominqus as a fog-bound Witch’s Cauldron), Paddock demanded all of the respect needed before it was artificially eased. The dryer inside line seemed particularly bumpy and both Lolas could be bounced a little wide here. That set them on course for a very slippery exit, glistening evily, even through my dim appreciation of the path ahead. Once the car had coped with those ripples though, it stayed on course with tremendous stability through the rest of this demanding downhill bend. On a flying lap the entry to Druids was not quite the delight I recounted for our first lap, as it was possible to lock the front wheels if the brakes were applied in earnest much after the Dunlop Bridge. Thankfully, the car responded to an easing of brake pedal pressure and control could be regained in an instant. That “Moment” and a deliberate attempt to assess the power-on and off characteristics around Druids, convinced me that genuine and effective parameters of this Lola design are to provide a safe car for customers of mixed abilities to handle. That it is also a competitive car is obvious from the results sheets this year.
The lady’s machine was sampled just as vigorously, probably lapping rather faster than the 65s or so that recorded in my first damp stint with the T492. This was because Mr. Brindley took the T492 out at the same time so that I could progress a little and see how a front-runner in this formula proceeds. He observed afterwards, “it all looked fine sliding out of Druids… then I’d say you’d got your hand caught up in the body correcting the slide.” I presume he then shut his eyes firmly and passed this unsteady combination, for the view became even darker from the spray of his car ahead. Generally I found that there was little difference between the cars — John says there is a good chance a blindfolded driver, even of his calibre, would not distinguish between the pair. Certainly the T490 can still be competitive against the current opposition, but more and more are being converted toward the T492 specification. The Burton engine was not quite as flexible as that Nelson unit in the newer car, but I could feel little difference at the top end when following Brindley, while he was in the Loushin Lola.
Sports 2000 could lead us to a renaissance of sports car racing, but even if it does not have that wide-reaching effect the cars are providing excellent racing and attracts many Clubmen who were suspicious of the category when it was first announced. It is possible that power will be increased toward 160 b.h.p. next season. That move, and another competitive chassis from someone of the stature of March or Chevron would be welcome. — J.W.