The first of 16 rounds of the 1981 British Hill Climb Championship took place on Sunday, April 12th at the attractive Devonshire venue, Wiscombe Park. Early season, new car vagaries caused a large number of non-starters, resulting in only just over 80 competitors coming to the start line on a chilly spring day. Nonetheless, the competition in most classes was close, even if the hill was rather too slow for any records to fall, and the organisers and sponsors (Aston Martin Owners Club and Pace Petroleum) must have been pleased with the day’s proceedings.
After rain the previous night followed by early morning mist, Wiscombe’s tree lined upper reaches took a long time to dry out, which, in turn, created a certain tactical lethargy amongst the more experienced competitors who were all angling to practice with the track in the condition it would be in during the competition. Thus practice started in a rather desultory fashion and finished rather later than planned, leaving little time to inspect the cars in the paddock before the first competitive runs.
Class 1, for Special Saloon Cars under 1,300 c.c. was a close run thing between 1980 Haynes Leaders Hill Climb Champion, Charles Barter, and former Champion, John Meredith, the decision going to the latter with a time of 44.33 compared with Barter’s 44.52. Both were driving Hartwell Imp derivatives. The larger Special Saloon Car class was left wide open when current record holder, Jim Thomson, mounted the bank at the left hand corner only yards after the start, recording 66.08. Fastest after the first runs was Mark Spencer in his very handsome, black, 2.2 litre engined RS2000 Ford with 49.29, but Tony Howell took his Mini up in 47.77 on his second run, setting Jim Thomson quite a challenge, which he met with a very tidy climb in his 2.3 litre Vauxhall Chevette to record 47.39, winning the class. Spencer was third, his second climb taking 48.34 secs.
Class 3 for GT and Modified Sports Cars, under 1,300 c.c., contained only three competitors, all using Imp power. Fastest after the first runs was Simon Brookman’s Ginetta with 49.93, but on the second runs Ian Sargent managed 49.55, with his Clan, to win the class. The large GT and Modified Sports class was, in contrast, very popular, containing a number of Aston Martins, a batch of Sunbeam Tigers and no less than six Gilberns, and every car with the possible exception of Oliver Walker’s Lightweight E-type Jaguar looked fit for use on the road. With such a range of machines, the times were spread across a wide band, top honours falling to Paul Channon’s immaculate and very handsome AC Cobra with 47.40 – perhaps this result is not surprising when one knows that Channon has completed over 200 timed climbs of this, his local hill. Second was the equally attractive “Sphinx” Jaguar of Paul Weldon, this Allard bodied ‘D’ type Jaguar engined car recording 48.23 followed closely by Andy Simm’s 48.33 with a 4/4 Morgan. Fastest of the Aston Martins was the DB4GT of David Heynes with 52.07, best Gilbern on Handicap was Nicholas Vandervell’s Invader with 56.49 and quickest Sunbeam Tiger was Richard Day on 52.8.
The fifth class, for under 1,600 c.c. Clubmans and Sports Racing Cars, went to the Mallock of Charles Wardle and Jim Robinson, the former winning with 42.04 to Robinson’s 43.19. Third in this all-Mallock class was Alex Grenfell on 43.52. The over 1,600 c.c. Clubmans class was rather poorly supported and was boosted by the entry of two pre-war sports racing cars, in the form of the Monza Alfa Romeos of Tony Taylor and David Shute, Taylor’s best time being 54.67. Of the other three competitors, Graham Priaulx from Guernsey made the fastest time in a very impressive second climb recording 40.86 with his 2 litre Tiga SC80.
Classes eight and nine were for racing cars under 1,100 cc. and between 1,100 and 1,600 c.c. respectively, the Imp engined Harrison of Alan Cox leading the smaller class after the first runs with 43.78, but losing position to Russell Ward’s March 773 on the second runs where Ward climbed in 42.48 secs. to Cox’s second time of 42.78. Martin Bolsover and David Gould had the larger class sewn up between them, their collective slowest time being over two seconds ahead of their nearest rival. The decision went to Bolsover, with 40.15 on his second run with his new Pilbeam MP51 while Gould’s Ford BDA-engined, self-made Terrapin recorded 40.87.
The over 1600 c.c. racing class was the best subscribed, and promised the most excitement with all but one of the top ten from the 1980 championship entered. Roy Lane suffered from fuel feed problems with his March in practice, and was all set to share David Harris’s Pilbeam, but managed to effect repairs to the Hart engined car in time. Richard Fry and Edward Williams had purchased Rob Turnbull’s Pilbeam MP41 during the week before the event and substituted this car for the Ralt they had originally entered, which meant that Turnbull was without a drive.
Alister Douglas Osborn was running a large capacity (3.6-litres) experimental Cosworth DFY engine, reputedly producing 530 b.h.p., in a 1981 built Pilbeam 47B incorporating improved rear suspension and altered side-pod profiles. David Franklin, on the other hand, had completely removed the aerodynamic side-pods from his BMW engined March. Chris Cramer, 1980 Champion, was using an ex-Formula 2 Toleman TG 280, running on Pirelli tyres and Martyn Griffiths’ car consisted of the monocoque from Harris’s old Pilbeam MP 42, but equipped with a complete set of new components and powered by a 2.5-litre Hart engine. Harris himself was running a Pilbeam MP 50, again Hart engined. An unfortunate non-starter was Chris Dowson with his ex-MacDowell Brabham BT 34 – some valve collets had broken and he was unable to obtain and fit spares for this 5-litre Repco engine in time.
First competitor to break the magic 40 seconds (for the day the record stands at 36.40 to Chris Cramer) was James Thomson, the twenty year old son of Jim Thomson (winner of class 2) who has taken the hill climb world by storm this year with his very rapid progress in his Hart engined Pilbeam MP 40, recording FTD at a number of venues. His first climb at Wiscombe was 39.18, which gave him the lead at the end of the first climbs, the only other competitors getting below 40 seconds being Douglas Osborn (39.60), Harris (39.64) and Griffiths (39.53). By the time the second climbs were taking place, the track was somewhat faster, enabling Thomson to reduce his time to 38.62, Douglas Osborn to 38.85 and Harris to 38.81. Lane improved on his first run time to bring him into the under 40 second bracket with 39.49, and Griffiths was close to his first run with 39.87, the class thus falling to James Thomson.
Thus the qualifiers for the top ten run-off were:
Priaulx (Tiga SC 80) – 40.86
Dungworth (Malcolm) (Pilbeam MP 22) – 40.57
Franklin (March 782) – 40.41
Harvey (Max) (March 792) – 40.29
Bolsover (Pilbeam MP 51) – 40.15
Griffiths (Pilbeam MP 46) – 39.53
Lane (March 812) – 39.49
Douglas Osborn (Pilbeam MP 47) – 38.85
Harris (Pilbeam MP 50) – 38.81
Thomson (Pilbeam MP 40) – 38.62
Cramer had had an unfortunate day, haying recorded an uncharacteristically slow time on his first climb with his new car which is obviously still very much in the testing and improving stage, and hitting the bank on the first corner on his second ascent. Not discouraged, he agreed to give the commentary for the top ten runs, which got underway with 41.68 to Priaulx and 41.25 to Dungworth„ indicating that the cool, late afternoon breeze had slowed things up from the earlier conditions. The only improvement on qualifying time was made by Franklin with 40.31, and at the end of the first round. Thomson was still ahead with 38.65 to Douglas Osborn (38.89) and Harris (38.92). As the cars returned to the paddock for the final climbs, it was interesting to note that Douglas Osborn was weaving all over the track in an attempt to warm his front tyres, while others were warming the rear tyres by spinning the wheels in short bursts. Commentator Cramer made the point that it is no good having hot rear tyres with cold fronts, as this makes for an unbalanced car, far better to have both warm.
The tyre spinning antics obviously paid off, albeit to a limited extent, as the final climbs showed improvements. First to break Thomson’s first run time was Douglas Osborn with a climb in 38.57, despite a rather untidy exit from the first corner, but Harris promptly managed 38.29. Would Thomson be able to eclipse this to record another FTD? Driving in his usual neat style, he made a valiant attempt, but was in fact a tenth of a second slower than his previous time with 38.74, leaving Harris the winner of this, the first round of the 1981 National Hill Climb Chimpionship.