A six hour surprise

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After 27 editions the 750 MC’s 6-hour Relay is an established annual outing for the biggest variety of racing and road vehicles to share the track in Britain. A triumph of the handicappers art, it is designed to bring together the entire spectrum of British racing outside the pure single seater categories. The relay is a credit w the memo, of 750 MC founder-member Holland Birkett, whose surname is often used in the official title of the race. This year’s 6-Hour Relay had to be moved from Silverstone to Donington, owing to resurfacing work at the Northamptonshire track. The late change in date (to October 8th) and venue did not prove the bad omen that we had expected. Even the foul weather, predominantly rain after foggy morning practice, couldn’t prevent an absolute classic in the history of these relays, handicap teams fighting all the way from start to finish. On distance covered The Porsche Superstars set of beautiful 911 derivatives beat the Exotics by six laps. In the handicap war victory went to the Allen Crankshaft team by less than a minute, on the same lap as the Historic Lotus Register men, after both teams had led three hourly results sheets apiece.

For the writer the whole event was a great surprise. Recruited into the Allen Crankshaft Team of road cars (all with larger engines, thanks to Mr. Allen’s parts) he had expected to spend a quiet day surveying the machinery on hand and postulating various theories of how useful this type of event is to the continuance of motor sport. Perhaps there would be the occasional sortie out on to the track, but it would all be in the name of quiet research into the potential of a 1.6-litre Fiat X1-9 that I was to drive. On ordinary Michelin ZX road tyres this joint development between Radbourne brother Geoff Anstead and Gordon Allen was to see if the 1.6-litre unit -further developed over another car I tested for Motor Sport some months ago -would stay together under racing conditions. The instructions were a delight, “just hammer the engine as hard as you can, we’ll strip it down afterwards and see how it has taken it. Don’t worry about the revs, with that nitrided crankshaft and the short stroke, it should take 8,000, no trouble at all.” That Mr. Allen and most of the team’s first attempt at the relay should end in a victory was a bonus. We did learn a lot about our 1625 cc. Fiat, and other members of this interesting saloon melange, which comprised a 1,330 c.c. Mini, an 1,812-c.c. VW Golf, a pair of 1.6-litre Alfa Romeo Alfasuds and a 1,295-c.c. Mini.

We were managed by Allen’s works manager, John Newman, timed by Helen Whiting, and credited with 46 laps initally. After practice this was amended to 35 credit laps, one less than our rivals on the Historic Lotus Register. The scratch team were the Porsche Superstars: Charles Ivey in a 3-litre racing Carrera, Tony Wingrove in a 2.7 Carrera and John Cooper in his roadgoing Turbo equipped with roll cage. The first team on handicap, with the lowest number of credit laps were the Exotics. Here Martin Morris had brought his flat -12 Alfa Romeo 33TT World Championship-type sports racer along. Amongst others in the same team was John Beasley, who drove a 4.7-litre McLaren-Ford M1 to the fastest time in the speed trap, 129 m.p.h.

That speed reflects the nature of Donington: it is much tighter than tradition and spectating would ever make you suspect. It is also a more difficult track for such a mixed bag of cars, pared to the Silverstone Club “triangle”. I was recruited after driving a 3-litre Capri at the circuit in July, when I was astonished how many of the corners were second gear in that 220 horsepower saloon. Blind brows immediately in front of these tight corners are part of the menu. The quickest corner is a superb downhill left (part of Craner Curves) and it is here that as a driver you see the third and fourth gear brave ones lifting wheels as they swoop down toward the looming righthand Old Hairpin…, which is rather quicker than its name suggests.

Back to the event. While waiting for the Fiat Is go through the friendly but efficient scrutineers I marvelled at the assortment around me. Naturally, considering who the organisers are, there are plenty of 750 and F1300 cars from the club’s own formulae. In general the standard of presentation seems to have improved quite a lot, though there was one distorted sports racer that frightened me every time I saw it out on the circuit, the front bearing a distinct resemblance to a monstrous crab.

Porsches abounded, not only the obviously useful 911s (another 911 team actually finished third on scratch using three 2.7s and 2.2-litre S) but also a team of 356s were present and driven (rather bravely I thought) through the wetter sections of the afternoon. Another strong Porsche runner during the day came from dealer Peter Lovett, who had his 2-litre ex-hillclimb 915 on hand, one of many to be converted to Spyder bodywork for this use.

To look around the paddock is to be sadly reminded of the variety of sports cars Britain has produced. There were two Aston Martin Team, who were destined to finish sixth and seventh on scratch, the AMOC combination of five DB4S and a 5 ahead of the same models listed to Team Superstat, who had David Preece on hand in a car that had been driven by Sylvia Rouse. There was a team of Ginettas, all G4s, save Jonathan Dodkins and his open G12. The modified MGCC Team featured three B V8s, including the highly modified Stratstone example, piloted by former Lotus Clubmans ace, Tim Goss. It was nice to see the MG name Beer appearing as well, in this case Malcolm, who was also V8-propelled.

Morgans abounded (mostly four-cylinder), as did Spridgets and Alfa Romeos. I was especially taken by the owner’s club entries under the Alva and AC marque names, though the AC entry was only that of reserves and did not contribute anything more rnaterial than a few nice examples of the breed in the paddock. The Alvis completed fewer laps in greater discomfort than any other team or so it looked from my comfortable perch in the rain. The Alvis drivers may have been singing for joy rather than grimacing at the spray!

So, the full allowance of 24 cars, each representing a minimum of three cars in the team, were lined up for a normal grid start at midday on a grey Saturday. I did not expect to be “on” for some time, and so enjoyed the luxury of watching some motor racing. The first lap was just like the average hard British club sprint race, except for the incongruous spread of shapes throughout the field. Representing the Exotics in a Porsche Carrera, well known dealer Brian Classic found himself caught out several times by his Porsche Carrera during the day, including two enlivening spins in the opening lap!

Unfortunately the second revolution caught Tirn Goss in the V8 MG a pretty comprehensive swipe and by was in within the opening laps, straightening up the mauled front a the wide-wheeled GT. Thereafter Goss drove in such entertaining sideways style that he earned a special commendation from the commentators for his performance.

The race settled a little on the dampish track with Ivey’s Carrera leading over the second Porsche Tearn’s 911 of Adrian Yates-Smith. Our team’s opener was Peter Baldwin in the bigger engined Mini, said quiet gentleman being the outright winner of two major British saloon car championship titles this year. 1I1 the time you read this, he will probably have secured a third! The team’s little green Mini lay seventh initially but dropped back to eighth s he surprise Mini FWD tactics wore off on his opponents. Both Baldwin and Kitchen, in the better of our two 1.6 Alfasuds were equipped with radios, and the equipment was transferred later on to a pair of our other cars, proving extremely useful. I did not use the equipment, the consensus of opinion being that had more than enough to be thinking about, and that the 96-b.h.p. Fiat was heavy enough, without extra burdens.

Although we were lying a strong second at the close of the opening hour on handicap of course, the Porsche Superstars had already pulled two laps out on scratch over The Exotics – the Baldwin Mini was now in and we were relying on an anticipated short stint from Peter Kitchen’s Alfasud. As with Baldwin, Kitchen provided a real flyer, more than a match for many of the cars on racing tyres and making up great chunks of time on our Lotus rivals. The latter team had real speed mainly vested with former Mini • racer and speed shop proprietor Roger Friend in a Lotus Elite used regularly for British championship club racing. Unfortunately for this branch of Lotus, the Elite had a secret flaw that shows up over 30 laps around Donington: the brake fluid boils.

We were not a, more fortunate, for the Alfasud came in even before our expectations of faded brakes, when by head gasket blew. That left us to field Autocavan proprietor Geoff Thomas, driving in his first race for to years. In fact his bright yellow Golf was to prove our saviour, even though the exhaust manifold broke and a front wheel was falling olily he brought it in to change over to J.W. and the little blue Fiat.

In practice I had used tyre pressures of 31 lb. rear and 28 lb. front, and this guess proved fine while the track was dry. I expected to be out for some time after our team manager had dashed from the Golf to me with the red strip of Velcro that acted as a relay baton on this occasion: a simple and effective system, even at speeds of over 100 m.p.h.

However, this first stint was cut very short by rain descending rather more heavily. We had not expected the car to be much good on a greasy surface, and this apprehension was more than justified. Eve, corner produced large oversteer slides as I took my foot off the brake and tried to turn in.

As the rain increased my friendly Fiat turned into an unpleasant rogue. After just to laps I was thinking of calling it a day. By this stage we were fighting for every second with the Lotus register boys, and I had visions of Baldwin’s racing wet-weather shod Mini waiting for me in thy pits. Guilt overcame my pride and I signalled that I would come into the pits the next time. In an effort to try and find some more speed in a straight line, I let the engine run through the hiccup on the normal 6,500 r.p.m. red line and left the twin 40 mm, twin choke DCN, Webers to feed the now wailing engine ’til 7,500 r.p.m. Changing at this point allowed just 5,000 r.p.m. in fourth, the speed building to little over 95 m.p.h. by the time I had to brake for the chicane, the slowest 2nd gear obstacle on the course.

Feeling thoroughly chastened I opened the door to Mr. Allen to apologise. In fact they had signalled for me to come in a,way, sending out Dick Adams in the other Mini, wearing slicks on the front and Dunlop road going radials at the rear! That did not Is very long either, the car spinning twice on its debut lap. It was time to get serious again and Baldwin’s Mini set off. The little green Mini sped round at enormous speed, but also not t’or very long, a suspected head gasket failure pulling it out and sending our rallying Alfasud and Nigel Rosser into the fray.

That wasn’t the answer really either. While they frantically tried to repair the Mini – which they did, only to subsequently find it was losing water from a is radiator leak this 1.6 Alfa proved a lot less sorted than Kitchen’s car. Obviously there was something pretty desperately wrong as the times plummeted toward the late min. 50 sec. and the Lotus Historic team started to get away.

There was nothing for it. The gallant Golf, our last quick FWD machine was having a missing carburettor intake bolt replaced, and some attention paid to the worrying habit of loosening off front wheel nuts when hard pressed. So the Fiat was rescued from outback Donington’s massive stone paddock ad wheeled into place.

Sitting down to watch the rain dribbling steadily down the tinted screen was not an uplifting moment. I remembered to have the tyres let down a link, and the fan to cool the carburettor induction area was switched permanently on: even with the raised rear engine cover, the heat builds up to an inefficient level without this extra fan and associated ducting. Determined to just stay on the road until they could get the Golf mobile, I set off.

I had taken a look at the three hour result sheet and noted we were behind the Lotus team, so whenever I saw anything that looked like a Lotus in front I made a special effort. Invariably some poor Morgan owner wondered why this fool in a Fiat wanted to plunge by just here but the exercise was working. I had forgotten completely about the dramas of the previous stint, for it was easier to drive in the soaking wet than the slime that prevailed earlier. In fact the Fiat was back to its normal incredible standards of roadholding, and quite unimpressed by the occasional submarine spell in the wake of that flat-12 Alfa Romeo.

Compared to a front-engined conventional sports car the big advantage seems to lie under braking for a corner. ‘The Fiat has four-wheel discs of course, but it was still outstanding in slowing for the chicane from high speed with not a trace of weave, unless a muscle-bound Porsche was scurrying by just as the brakes were applied, breaking up the airstream. Exiting the chicane I now used 8,000 r.p.m. and this helped toward consistent times slightly better than the Lotus people were managing at that stage, though the twitches as I applied full power in second gear probably negated much of the advantage gained with such high revs.

In short the little car fitted into Donington’s diminutive corners neatly, and I thoroughly enjoyed the second outing. When Allen had another FWD machine ready to go they called me in, but this time well pleased at our progress. While we analysed how the brakes had been improved by the removal of the front dirt shields for extra cooling, and the way the engine had performed at a steady 180 F plus, the Autocavan Golf was ready to re-emerge.

Then all I could do was watch the final hour. The Fiat was ready to go, but we also had the largely untried t.3 Mini, into which Baldvvin had stepped in case of any last minute hitches. The Golf stayed out circulating in very creditable times (below 1 min. 45 sec. with the least sign of a drying track) but it didn’t look as though this would its enough for us. The Lotus Elite of Roger Friend was closing in. With about 20 minutes to go the Elite was past for the lead on handicap. The very next lap it was slowing, ready to retire with the brakes boding once more. The lightly bearded Friend got out of the green car with a grin and said, “that’s it, no more we can do.”

He was absolutely right. The Golf sounded a little rough from a broken exhaust but it was more than a match for Michael Wheatky’s beautifully restored Lotus Cortina, which had suffered both the dynamo dropping off (true nostalgia!) and an inoperative clutch. Clerk of the Course Gordon Connelly dropped the chequered flag at six p.m. Our little Golf struggled into view around the chicane with considerable decorum (compared with some of Mr. Thomas’ superb earlier returns to his peak rallycross form!) to take our handicap win.

Our car had covered 205 laps, plus 55 credited. The Lotus Historic Register had the same total number, both of us a tribute to the abilities of handicapper Robin Birchall. We were 27 laps adrift of the justly self-styled Porsche Superstars, filling ninth place on scratch, a lap behind the Jaguar E-type team.

As an event I enjoyed participating very much indeed, but would emphasise that it is designed for participation rather than spectating, owing to the handicap. However, between secretary of the Meeting Brian Cocks and commentators Brian “model shop” Harvey/Neville Heath I was surprised to find I did always know what was going on. The results were by computer arid were available far faster than at a conventional race meeting.

Two memories will remain. First somebody commenting how abrasive and grippy the Donington (spelt wrong on the RAC signposting to the circuit) surface is. My mind was full of images relating to spinning Porsches and many other unfortunates caught as the conditions changed. Then there was the following conversation on our radio.

Crackly voice: “hello, hello, have you got some wets?”

Team manager: “You’ve got them all on, twit!”

Crackly voice: Expletive deleted. Team Manager: “Who is that?” Crackly voice: “Team 13. I am B”

Team Manager: “Good luck son we’re team 12!”

It was that sort of day out. Long may it serve as good sport, and a useful nursery for aspiring long distance drivers. – J.W.