Changing landscapes

Brands Hatch, March 8-9: mainland circuit racing resumes… on two wheels only

It wasn’t always thus. The dawn of March was once a symbol of winter’s completion: time to don gloves, scarf and stout walking boots, then set co-ordinates for Silverstone and the opening round of the British F3 Championship (when it spanned the whole season, rather than merely four months).

This would be the classic, triangular Silverstone club circuit, whose paddock could be accessed only by driving across the track between practice sessions. If you arrived a little late, you’d sit on the Grand Prix loop, close to the Woodcote chicane, watching F3 or Clubmans cars flash by a few metres ahead. I first attended such a meeting in 1983, when David Leslie qualified his Magnum 833 on pole and Ayrton Senna beat Martin Brundle in the race, setting the scene for an epic, year-long tussle. At the time I was a Motoring News staffer and that week’s paper carried a photograph of the Brazilian spinning during practice, the only error he’d made all day: he wasn’t best pleased by such a selection, if memory serves.

Back then the circuit’s press box was situated in the old Dunlop Tower, to the outside of Woodcote. In the intervening years, reality and atmosphere have been sacrificed for the sake of televised convenience and few modern media centres offer any view at all over circuits – that in the Silverstone Wing among them. Progress? Not really.

Silverstone is windswept at the best of times, but those early F3 meetings always seemed to have extra bite… up until 1986, when the event – scheduled for March 2 – had to be cancelled due to the area being snowbound. In 1987 the campaign began a couple of weekends later, at Thruxton: it was still reassuringly cold, but didn’t feel quite the same.

In 2014 there was no car racing scheduled for the UK mainland until March 22 (Donington Park), but the bike brigade kicked off a couple of weeks beforehand at Brands Hatch, with the opening Thundersport GB meeting of the year. It would have been rude not to pop in, really, to watch an object lesson in how race meetings should be run – 34 races over two days, several of them featuring Barry Sheene’s son Freddie (making his mainstream UK debut in a pleasingly low-key manner, bereft of tiresome media fanfare). The balmy heat was unexpected, the ferocity of competition less so.

It felt good to be back.