On the road with... Simon Arron

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Dirty Hurry
Lydden Hill, February 22: European Rallycross drivers gather for pre-season testing

Lydden Circuit presents a Festival of Motor Sport: racing cars, bangers, karts and rallycross.”

I have the programme still, dated May 31, 1976. It was one of my earliest trips to Lydden — and the venue hasn’t greatly changed during the subsequent 37 years.

Back then the paddock was packed with Commer vans, Minis and open trailers, but that pleasing clutter has temporarily been replaced by pantechnicons of the kind that dominate the modern motor sport landscape.

It’s pre-season test day for the European Rallycross Championship and Lydden is the sport’s spiritual home. From this year, the series has been taken under the wing of marketing company IMG, whose reputation was forged in blue-chip sporting arenas with headline names from golf, tennis and suchlike. In more recent years, though, IMG has entered niche markets: it has overseen the evolution of the FIM Speedway World Championship and, among other things, looks after the Chinese Touring Car series (peculiarly, the last category in which Ma Qing Ha raced before stepping up to Fl, as a reserve firstly for HRT and now Caterham).

The format will be familiar to anybody weaned on John Taylor’s Haynes of Maidstone Ford Escort, the four-wheel-drive Ford Capris of Roger and Stan Clark, Franz Wurz’s VW Beetle or the Daf Coupes of the de Rooy brothers, Jan and Harry.

A series of qualifying heats (reinstated this season, to replace a “round robin” format) precedes semi-finals and a six-car final. Races are equal parts brutality and brevity the reason the sport was embraced by TV directors of yore. Remember how they might broadcast the opening few laps of the British Grand Prix… before panning away to cover horses circling a parade ring at Haydock Park?

There are a few key differences in the ERC this year, with 15 drivers one of them former World Rally Champion Petter Solberg tied to central contracts in the main Supercar class. They will contest each of the nine rounds alongside wild-card entries, plus drivers from the subsidiary Super 1600 and TouringCar divisions.

The field includes a customarily strong Nordic presence, plus Citroen D53 driver Timur Timerzyanov (the first Russian to win an ERC title), two Belgians, a Frenchman and two Brits. Absent from press day through illness, 26-year-old Liam Doran (son of Lydden leaseholder Pat) drives a D53, while Dumfries racer Andy Scott, 56, awaits his new Peugeot 208, with 2-litre turbocharged engine developing approximately 600bhp.

Scott won a British motocross title in 1973, as a 16-year-old, but retired from racing in the early 1980s. “By the time I was 25,” he says, “I felt my body couldn’t take much more of a pummelling.” He settled to develop a commercial fishing business and help raise a family, then chose rallycross when he made his competitive comeback six years ago.

“I wasn’t a circuit racer in my biking days,” he says, “and always enjoyed the loose. I looked at rallying, which seemed to be great fun, but I also wanted something that enabled the family to be more involved. On a rally I might see them occasionally at a service area, so from that perspective rallycross was a much more practical option. It’s pretty furious on the track, but drivers tend to travel around together and people are prepared to help if you get stuck. There’s a good atmosphere.”

He has steadily established himself as a front-runner on the international stage and believes the 208 built by MTechnologies in Clermont-Ferrand gives him a realistic shot of challenging for the crown. “I don’t see why not,” he says. “That is the target and the car should be capable. It will be tough, but I think it’s great that a driver of Solberg’s calibre has signed up. The more we get like him, the merrier.”

The series commences at Lydden Hill on March 31-April 1 (a couple of days after this edition of Motor Sport is due to hit the shelves), then takes in Portugal, Hungary, Finland, Norway, Sweden, France and Austria before concluding in Buxtehude, Germany, on September 21-22.

In the longer term, IMG’s objective is to create the first FIA World Rallycross Championship, but a more pressing goal is to restore rallycross’s television footprint and globally so, rather than its historic role as an intermittent feature of Saturday afternoon British TV, just before the wrestling.

Back then, rallycross was the perfect complement to drab Saturday afternoons and the reason, surely, that hot, buttered crumpets were invented.

That gentle touch
Brooklands, February 3: the VSCC’s annual New Year Driving Tests give a favourite location a little added lustre

This will doubtless set me up for a lynching, but there is an aspect of bygone Brooklands I find troubling.

It’s true that anybody was at liberty to join the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club, but not many had the means. Its period slogan — “The right crowd and no crowding” — has always been portrayed as a badge of honour, but I’ve often wondered how much more potential talent might have been tapped had the approach been more socially inclusive. Such questions cannot, however, mask a keen truth: I love the place.

British motor sport has escaped relatively lightly in terms of being squashed by developers. Quite a few stock car stadia have been converted into housing estates or shopping centres — and I’ll never forgive whoever it was that transformed the Longridge circuit, near Preston, into a caravan site — but Donington Park survived many years of disuse prior to its rebirth in 1977 (although it had a narrow squeak as recently as 2010), the Aintree GP circuit is largely intact (even though its last race took place 49 years ago) and Goodwood remained sufficiently serviceable to be reopened in 1998 after a 32-year pause.

There is rather less of Brooklands, of course, but its essence survives at the heart of a sprawling Surrey business complex, and few motor sport locations — active or otherwise — are infused with quite such soul.

There is a world of difference, of course, between John Cobb lapping the Brooklands Outer Circuit at 143.44 mph in his NapierRaiIton and somebody trundling smokily up the banking in an Austin 7 during a modernday driving test. The point is, though, that the extant bits of Brooklands — from test hill to car parks via the banking’s mossy remnants — are used to examine precision, skill and judgment.

The paddock bristles with cheerful conversations about tappets, compression and axle ratios, there’s the quiet-moments option of sidling away to study fascinating bits of aeronautic history and most cars are handled with great vim.

What’s more, family heirlooms are as likely to be driven by son or daughter as they are by mum, dad or granddad — a generational shift that suggests they will continue to be used in this way for years to come.

The right crowd, you might say.

Bring out the old, ring in the new
Goodwood Circuit, March 4: old-style club racers choose an appropriate venue to have a good natter and blow away the cobwebs

It was mildly tricky to find a third event for this month’s column, because the motor sport calendar’s tapestry has changed. It was once the case that British F3 would commence at Silverstone on the first weekend in March, but there was always the risk of snowy cancellation so things were eventually pushed back.

And so, then, to Goodwood, which is staging a pre-season track day for the Historic Racing Drivers Club. The period Tesco — a popular feature at Revival Meetings — slumbers behind locked shutters, but the mood is engaging.

Note the emphasis on “track day”: this means passenger rides are allowed, competition licences are not required and overtaking is permitted only at certain points and in particular circumstances. It is, though, a chance for drivers to give cars a welcome workout and they are released one at a time from the pitlane, in batches of six. “The atmosphere is very different from hardcore testing,” says HRDC race director Julius Thurgood, “but people were keen to get back together after the winter break, to meet up, chat about the year ahead and see any new cars. That’s part of the community spirit we try to engender. Goodwood is perfect for a day such as this, because you feel the atmosphere as soon as you drive in.”

The HRDC’s objective has always been to recreate club racing in the manner of old and today’s gathering — which attracts almost 40 cars — is ripe with variety. Cortinas and Minis have long formed historic saloon car racing’s backbone, but it’s refreshing to see Brian Arculus’s 1957 Hillman Minx steaming through Woodcote, inside front wheel never more than fractionally in contact with the kerbs.

The cocktail embraces everything from Geoffrey Marsh’s Aston Martin DB4, out in the hands of Michael Mallock, to Tony Hall’s Vauxhall VX4/90, Norman Grimshaw’s Wolseley Hornet, Piers Townsend’s Daimler 5P250 and Guy Harman’s Fiat 1500.

Petrol-headed chef James Martin is having a run in Andy Harrison’s Mini Cooper S. “He’s clearly trying hard,” says Harrison. “The circuit is extremely cold but you should see the front tyre temperatures he’s been generating.”

Track-day protocol, it seems, is rarely a barrier to commitment.

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