Dickie Meaden: Passion for the past, high hopes for the future

Nostalgia. We all love it. Can’t get enough of it, in fact. At least if the worldwide explosion of Goodwood-inspired retrospective events is anything to go by. These and the transformation of classic cars from charming, unreliable old money pits to gilt-edged investment-class assets.  

I often joke that historic cars are the future, but casting all flippancy aside it’s not as daft a statement as it sounds. Especially as top-end contemporary motor racing is prone to mire itself in crises of environmental, regulatory and risk-averse conscience, or ties itself in Balance of Performance knots. Is it any wonder the appeal of road and race cars from a simpler, slower and more straightforward age seems to grow exponentially? 

I’ll confess there comes a time in life when it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of saying everything was better in the good old days. But if that’s backed up by supporting evidence there’s nothing wrong with that assertion. Lessons can always be learned from the past. In any case, making the time-served transition from bright young thing to Grumpy Old Man is one of the great curmudgeonly pleasures of advancing middle-age, whatever your passion or interest.

As a fortysomething bloke who watched them first time round, the growing reverence felt for Group A, Group C and even GT1 and SuperTouring brings some welcome solace. Unfortunately, and I’m a little ashamed to admit this, it also seems to come with a creeping apathy and cynicism towards some of today’s premier categories. 

As the pinnacle of the sport, Formula 1 is easiest to knock. I catch myself doing it, even though I know it serves nobody to look backwards. Truth be told, if I’m going to nod off after a good Sunday lunch I’d rather it was to the scream of a Ferrari V12, BMW V10 or Cosworth V8 than today’s droning V6 hybrids, just as I wish the aerodynamicists had their wings clipped so drivers can showcase their car control more graphically. But as a faithful fan I try to remain optimistic the racing will come good. Sadly, if word from testing proves correct, F1’s Brains Trust could have scored yet another own goal.

It’s a sad testament of circuit racing’s premier series that it leaves someone like me feeling conflicted at best, despondent at worst. Sadder still that looking elsewhere does little to stop me railing against the way things are. For instance, what was wrong with obliging manufacturers to build race or rally cars that were closely related to the metal you and I could buy, aspire to own or even just dream of seeing one day? That was the essential magic of Group A, the mythical quality of Group B and the enduring legacy of GT1.  

Instead we get Balance of Performance contrivances that make modern GTE, GT3 and GT4 racing more a battle of blatant sand-bagging, hobbling, lobbying and secret high-level motorhome machinations than genuine merit-based competition. It makes for big grids, but what do the results actually mean? A Porsche Cayman GT4 wouldn’t see which way a McLaren 570S went on the road, yet we’re supposed to swallow both those cars trading paint in British GTs. It’s a nonsense on pretty much every level. And don’t even get me started on this year’s mid-engined Porsche 911. 

The one glimmer of hope in recent months has been the revamped WRC. For the last decade or so it has suffered from the dominance of Citroën, VW and freakishly talented Frenchmen called Sébastien. Things became predictable and the cars never connected with me on a meaningful level (refer back to my homologation whinge), but the WRC could have become a backwater if it weren’t for Citroën and Volkswagen standing by the sport when manufacturer teams were thin on the ground. 

Now, thanks to a big change in regs we have more manufacturer squads fielding ballsy new machinery and driven by re-energised crews excited by the opportunities that come from faster cars and the attendant challenges they pose. 

Monte Carlo was mega, Sweden was spectacular and Mexico gave us a Kris Meeke victory. All captured our imaginations and even gave us a Toyota win, which is brilliant for the sport. Yet all too predictably the FIA appears to be doing its best to turn a hugely promising start to the season into a farce by saying the extreme breed of cars it sanctioned are, er, ‘too fast’. 

Of course nobody wants to see a return to the dangers and tragedies of the Group B era, but nor do we want to lose epic WRC stages or see them neutered with straw bale chicanes. What did the FIA expect when they signed-off cars with more power and DTM-style aerodynamics? Perhaps I’m out of step with these nannying times, but I’m of the opinion the drivers and co-drivers get paid big money because they are the world’s best. Danger goes with the territory, in rallying more than anything short of motorcycle road racing. Danger is also a part of spectating and, dare I say it, it’s that visceral sense of not being penned behind debris fencing that makes the whole ritual of rally spectating uniquely exciting. The thrill, and the jeopardy, are real. 

I hold no nostalgia for the lunacy of rally cars driving through parting seas of spectators. This madness is thankfully well behind us, but unless you clear the forests and roadsides of all spectators the chance a car will crash and injure or kill someone – through driver error or mechanical failure – is always there. It’s a thankless task reconciling risk and safety, but if  the WRC is santised too much it surely loses the essence of its appeal, both to fans and crews.       

Look beyond F1 and the special stages and there’s cause for me to suppress my inner grinch. As a life-long fan of endurance racing it pleases me that the World Endurance Championship (WEC) has been enjoying a purple patch. The WEC’s LMP1 category has enjoyed epic rivalries, mind-blowing technology and blistering racing thanks to teams, cars and drivers that are every bit as extraordinary as the legends of Group 5, Group C and GT1. The loss of Audi is a big blow, but hardly the fault of the category. 

A few rungs down the ladder the GT racing calendar is crammed with 6-, 12- and 24-hour races, from Dubai and Daytona in January through to Abu Dhabi’s Gulf 12 Hours in December. Fans and drivers have never had more on their plates, even if the cars are little more than silhouettes of their road-going counterparts (see my homologation rant…).

Here in the UK the BTCC has been at its rough-and-tumble best for a number of years. I struggle to like the cars (you know the drill by now), but the continuity of technical regs and race format makes for proper edge-of-your-seat meetings. Add support races brimming with fresh new talent, plus excellent free-to-view terrestrial television coverage and the BTCC package is a blueprint for how to create accessible entertainment for the casual fan, yet build something credible and engrossing for the serious enthusiast.

Am I a hopeless nostalgic? Despite all the frustrations with the way things are I’d prefer to think I’m a hopeful nostalgic. Historic cars might be the future for some of us, but historic moments are made in the present. That’s why I was awake in the wee small hours on March 26 to watch the Australian Grand Prix, just as I’ll be hoping the FIA allows the new breed of WRC cars to run to their full capabilities. Top-flight motor sport has its flaws and frustrations, but it’s also what makes me tick. Come what may, here’s to a memorable season.