…in February, at least. Things that caught the eye while the sport was mostly still dozing
Blame the ‘Beast from the East’, Storm Emma and their consequent snowdrifts. This month’s column should have featured the Tour of Cheshire, a historic road rally ripe with Opel Kadetts, Lancia Fulvias and suchlike (plus a Nissan Cherry), but March’s Siberian dawn put paid to that. It wasn’t so much the state of the route, more that crews – and marshals – were in some cases unable to get beyond their front gates to attend. Plan B was to add the Donington Stage Rally to the mix, but that also fell victim to the weather. In February, fortunately, temperatures reached a relatively balmy zero…
Before Motor Sport had any involvement with the event, I would attend Race Retro because it was a useful social hub and reminded me of old-school industry shows – for instance those staged in London during the early Eighties, when small stands featured endlessly diverse machinery and were populated mostly by enthusiasts (with the occasional salesman thrown in). Stoneleigh Park recreates that ambience. Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre might be more efficient, as befitting a venue attached to both an international airport and a mainline railway station, but it can’t match Stoneleigh for soul. Nor does it come close.
And then there’s Race Retro’s live rally stage, an object lesson in how to take an unpromising slab of flat asphalt and transform it into a theatre of vibrant endeavour, something I’d never previously had the opportunity to watch. The breadth of the entry helped – everything from Renault 5 Turbos to a Range Rover Evoque via a current Ford Fiesta R5, but so did the event’s nature. It wasn’t competitive, but many of the passengers were prize winners and drivers wanted to give them a day worth remembering. There was scope for cars to stretch their legs – and for humans to demonstrate their hand-to-eye co-ordination. Some flicked sideways at every opportunity, because they could, while others were a paragon of precision and sustained momentum.
Alister McRae was engagingly spectacular in late brother Colin’s old Subaru Legacy and double world champion Miki Biasion drove both Lancia Fulvia and Ford Sapphire Cosworth, though it took him a while to get going in the latter. “At first I didn’t realise it was right-hand drive,” he said, “so I got in through the wrong door.”
A fulsome apology to any Beckenham residents who might be reading this. It was me who fractured the crepuscular silence at about 5am on February 18, as I cleared a deep frost from my screen ahead of a trip to Norfolk. Blame my desperation to get to Snetterton and tuck in to a paddock café breakfast.
What followed was an uplifting journey along almost deserted roads, the sun turning mist-dappled fields a spectacular shade of orange as it rose somewhere above Holland (approximately). The temptation to stop and take a few photos was strong, but apparently you’re not allowed to park on the M11… Suppressing any such urges, I pottered ever eastwards and passed a pleasing assembly of van-drawn trailers – a classic motor sport cocktail that’s alive and well if you attend the right sort of event. And the Snetterton Stage Rally is one such.
The Keatsian landscape rather contrasted with the competitive reality, a racing circuit adapted for purpose by sprinkling unsightly marker cones hither and thither. The aforementioned breakfast had to be eaten quite briskly, for the paddock access roads formed part of the route and it was important to avoid entrapment for the sake of being able to move around the site. Of all circuits in the UK, Snetterton is most in need of a footbridge across its pit straight.
This stretch of East Anglia can feel a little bleak in June, so the chances of it being anything other than Arctic in February were nil. But it was evidence of the sport taking another small step away from hibernation – enough to create at least a hint of a nice, warm feeling (except, perhaps, for the microlight pilot who circled the venue a couple of times as cars lined up to take the start of the opening stage – it was bloody freezing where I was standing, so I dread to think what it was like up there).
The event attracted a decent crowd and 83 crews, a significant proportion – as ever – in ‘modern’ Mk2 Ford Escorts. There were some pleasing exceptions, though, not least a Vauxhall Chevette and – appropriately, as the whole thing was organised by the Anglia Motor Sport Club – a Ford 105E.
During the previous round of the MSVR Motorsport News Circuit Rally Championship, at Brands Hatch, the Escorts had been able to keep pace with more potent machinery as the twistier stages allowed their inherent agility to compensate for any lack of top-end power. With longer straights that reflect its airfield roots, Snetterton theoretically suited more recent machinery – and Chris West/Keith Hounslow (who collectively sound a bit like a tube station) duly took victory in their Peugeot 306 Maxi… albeit only five seconds clear of intermittent leaders Ian Woodhouse/Jason Leaf, first of the 14 Escort crews that followed. John Stone’s swift 2.5-litre Fiesta (below left ran in the top three until its retirement after the fourth of eight stages (the third had to be abandoned, after one Escort spontaneously combusted), while the lone Anglia of John and Laura Cooledge made it to the finish in 51st position overall, 19th in class.
Anything with such distinctively sculpted C-pillars surely makes the world a better place.
The image above appears not because it is a particularly good photograph (it isn’t), nor because it illustrates the grassy magnificence of Oulton Park’s bygone paddock (it does), but to underline the way that perceptions have changed.
I have lately heard several people question whether the new Masters Endurance Legends series, for cars active between 1995 and 2012, has any place on a historic racing programme, but such timelines are nothing new.
On March 8 1975, there was a historic sports car race (clue: somewhere in Cheshire) featuring two Ford GT40s, less than six years after the model’s most recent Le Mans win, and one Lola T70 (examples of which had finished first and second in the 1969 Daytona 24 Hours). I don’t recall anyone questioning the validity of their presence: it was just nice to see such cars being used in such humble surroundings. The modern equivalent would be somebody bringing an Audi R18 e-tron quattro to an early-season clubbie.
The shot here was taken slightly later, in August 1977, and shows the JC Bamford-owned Ford GT40 driven by Willie Green. A scan of the ’75 programme entry apart, it’s the best period evidence I have available. Two years beforehand, my father wouldn’t have trusted me with his hand-me-down Pentax Spotmatic…
Images: Simon Arron, Lyndon McNeil