National Racing Review

It has been a year of development, controversy and near-peak excitement, rather than a season of out-and-out classic motor racing on the national club scene.

On the whole grids have been full – in the majority of cases near to over-flowing – and competition has been keen and fierce. It is, perhaps, a sign of the slightly easier times in which we live that there appears to have been no dire shortage of sponsors. From the professionally promoted Aurora F1 series downwards all the major club championships have been well supported financially.

At anything other than Aurora level, however, the racing appears to take place before empty spectator banks and grandstands dotted here and there with the hardy (and wealthy?) few. This season has seen an alarming fall in spectator attendance at club meetings and no-one can seem to pinpoint just why.

Is there simply too much racing? With anything up to five or six meetings taking place over each weekend during the summer months spectator interest becomes diluted, especially when some of the top national meetings charge quite exorbitant admission fees. It is a strange anomaly that while the demand for more meetings is very strong from an ever-growing band of competitors, the majority of enthusiasts simply do not appear to want to watch club racing.

Is the racing too boring and uninteresting? On the face of it the answer must be no. With so many one-make formulae, or formulae relying on restricted engine modifications, more cars than ever are racing wheel to wheel and the quest to appease team sponsors with results has brought a fair deal of controversy, which always gives people plenty to talk about, and “off-stage” drama to the sport.

The influence of increasingly popular participation sports must also be seen as a possible reason for the number of racing spectators. And the boom in such diverse motor sport variations such as stage rallying and short oval racing has surely had an effect. At the top national level the lack of “name” drivers has proved a disappointment. At the beginning of the season loud noises were made by promoters and organisers promising Grand Prix and star drivers in both Tricentrol RAC Gp. 1 saloons and the Aurora AFX British F1 Championship. Looking back over series records, however, it becomes clear that not one Grand Prix driver drove in a Tricentrol round, and the only appearance of a regular Grand Prix entrant in an Aurora round was Brett Lunger’s at Zandvoort.

For all the ill-conceived criticism and doubts which greeted the new British F1 series at the beginning of the season, however, the racing, standard of preparation and, on the whole, crowd figures, were not to prove disappointing. MCD, upon whose circuits the majority of rounds were run, admit that at only two meetings throughout the year were attendance figures lower than expected. Certainly there was always room for more spectators, even at the Bank Holiday Brands Hatch meetings, but the series did go a long way towards proving that F1 is really what everyone wants to see.

With rumbling, smoking F5000 machines now a thing of the past, the reliability factor of the DFV-powered F1 cars and the sprinkling of F2 “class contenders” was good. Grids, however, were never over-full and on more than one occasion we were down to single-figure runners following just a couple of retirements.

There was no doubt about the pace-setters in the Aurora F1 series. Following on from their success in the 1977 Shellsport Gp. 8 Championship with a Surtees TS19, Melchester Racing bought a McLaren M23 for veteran Tony Trimmer – and the combination proved almost unbeatable.

At a Snetterton race early in the year Trimmer won by a complete lap. In a superb Mallory Park round he started three-quarters of a lap behind everyone else after stalling, only to finish a brilliant second right on the tail of the winner, Bruce Allison. The car, prepared by Allan Charles in one of the pits at Brands Hatch, proved ultra-reliable. Trimmer proved a driver who could get the best from his machinery without pushing to the very limit, the team were simply the best in the championship and with two rounds to go Melchester clinched their second “Gp. 8/F1” title.

But they did so not without their share of off­track problems. Money was the big problem. At the start of 1978 the anonymous “Melchester” backer threatened to pull out unless further support could be found, and it was only a hastily arranged deal with Marlboro that had Trimmer entered at Zandvoort. In the end Charles Clowes switched allegiance from the Cooper-Hesketh team to Melchester and the team saw the season out, although not before Divina Galica had hired the McLaren for the penultimate Thruxton race.

The rest of the regular entries lived very much in the shadow of Melchester Racing. Even the purpose-built March 781Ss of the Mopar/Tit Bits/Ultramar outfit failed to live up to their promise. In theory the idea was good. Because of the comparatively shorter race distances involved in Aurora racing, there was no need for a chassis designed to take the full Grand Prix fuel load. So the March compromise was to fit the F2-based 782 chassis with a stronger bulkhead to take a DFV, the F1 suspension from the 761B and one or two other strengthening modifications. The cars proved fast in the hands of Guy Edwards and Bruce Allison but also fragile. Retirements were many and victories few, although Edwards’ win in the Oulton Park rain and Allison’s hard­ fought win at Mallory were both well-earned.

Although it never met with consistent success, the Jack Kallay-run Dellioti team provided the series with a lot of interest, notably with drivers Geoff Lees and the South African lady, Desire Wilson.

Whatever car Lees drove, be it the team’s Ensign, a March 781S which they hired on a one-off basis, or the F2 Chevron B42 Hart, he proved extremely competitive. Indeed he was actually walking away with the penultimate Thruxton round in the F2 machine when a backmarker got in the way and he went off. After the wealthy Italian, Giancarlo Martini, had taken the Ensign to victory at Donington, Wilson took over at the helm and quickly proved to be enthusiastic, determined and not without some skill. Her efforts were never rewarded with a win, but she could prove the dark horse next year.

Of the others the Spaniard, Emilio de Villota, never found his form of 1977 in the Centro Asegurador McLaren M23 and one-off M25, while Bob Evans scored an Aurora debut win at Zandvoort in the Cooper/Clowes Surtees before switching to the team’s ill-handling Hesketh 308Es. A solitary BRM P207 appeared regularly in the hands of the Belgian, Teddy Pilette, but even a late re-vamp with a lightened monocoque failed to end a dismal run. Even Louis Stanley, who attended nearly all the early meetings, was noticeably absent as the season drew to a close.

The F2 class was won on sheer consistency by former BRM driver, Mike Wilds. He drove the neatly prepared Graham Eden Ralt, very much a family affair but a successful one nonetheless.

Following so soon after the dramas of 1977 and the classic confrontation between Derek Daly and Stephen South, the 1978 F3 season was rather anti-climactic. Once again two drivers stole most of the limelight, but the fact that one of them was a Brazilian whose domination of an over-crowded programme became all but complete by the time the season ended seemed to dull much of the interest. That Brazilian was Nelson Piquet, a name that will become as familiar to future generations of Grand Prix followers as the name of his great fellow countryman, Emerson Fittipaldi, is to past and present generations.

Piquet’s dedication, skill, and perceptiveness are the hallmarks of his success. Under the direction of a hard-working and efficient Australian team manager, Greg “Peewee” Siddle, Piquet radically modified and developed his brace of well-financed Ralts and, after an incredibly extensive test programme, went on to win over half the season’s national F3 races and became the first driver to win on every circuit promoting an F3 round.

Traditionally the more prestigious of the two National F3 Championships, the BP series went to Piquet with two rounds still to run, although Britain’s Derek Warwick, also in a Ralt, salvaged some honour for the host country by taking the Vandervell title.

Warwick, a former World Stock Car champion and European Formula Ford champion, started the season in terrific style with five wins from six starts. What proved to be a disastrous decision to switch to a March 783 chassis was his undoing, however, and only after several weeks of non-­finishes and poor results did he begin to rival Piquet again once he had switched back to the Ralt. By then, though, the damage had been done and the success and glory that British F3 can bring, and which served Derek Daly so well after his 1977 triumphs, went this year to Piquet.

The Brazilian was quickly snapped up by that most astute of F1 entrepreneurs, Bernie Ecclestone, and has already had one outing in a Brabham in preparation for a full season as Niki Lauda’s No. 2 in 1979.

The only driver ever to worry the Piquet/Warwick domination of F3 was another Brazilian, Chico Serra, who graduated into the 2-litre Formula after a brilliant season in Formula Ford. With Sadia backing, Serra’s two March 783 chassis were run by the highly professional Project Four concern of Ron Dennis. What might have been a fine finish to the year was wrecked, however, when Serra had a very big testing crash at Mallory Park just before the August Bank Holiday. He emerged from a totally written-off car with no broken bones, but a “bruised brain” kept him away from the circuits for almost two months and the temperamental young driver lost a lot of vital ground on his two main rivals.

Home interest in the National F3 programme really had never been smaller. Only Warwick proved a regular front-runner although brief appearances by Philip Bullman and Nigel Mansell suggested the situation might well have been brighter had the two Britons found the necessary sponsorship. The Unipart team, run this season by David Price and using March 783 chassis powered by Swindon-tuned Dolomite Sprint engines, were a disappointment. The team’s drivers, Tiff Needell and Ian Taylor, and latterly the New Zealander Brett Riley, all gave of their best but the nationalised sponsors were more interested in promoting road shows and other publicity projects rather than concentrating on getting the right results on the track. For everyone involved it was a year of frustration upon frustration.

The one big thing that the National F3 season did prove more than anything else was that there is nothing mystical or better about the European F3 circus. The expense of travelling around Europe, plus a good deal of hassle with warring tyre manufacturers, does not necessarily mean the star drivers have any better chance of progressing than their British counterparts, who get more publicity right under the noses of the people who count and matter. Winning in Britain has certainly proved fruitful for Daly and Piquet, and with a new single British F3 Championship planned for next year the competition should be keen and fierce.

Keen and fierce competition was certainly the hallmark of the 1978 Tricentrol British Saloon Car Championship. For the second successive year, however, it was a series decided not on the track but in an RAC committee room. Once again a series which produced some of the best racing of the year was totally ruined by in­fighting at Belgrave Square and a complete lack of administrative finesse and tact.

The only good features to arise from it all were some splendid memories of wheel-to-wheel Capri battles, and a truly worthy overall champion in Richard Longman, a man who quite literally “came back from the dead” to take the series in a Mini GT.

Homologation anomalies, rose-jointed and stiffened suspensions and “street legal” engine modifications of dubious origin were the by-word in ’78, and accepted as the way of life by organisers and competitors alike. Until, that is, the RAC’s Technical Commission stepped in and threw out of the window what was tantamount to a gentleman’s agreement “not to rock the boat” with an eleventh-hour disqualification of, among others, Richard Lloyd’s VW Golf GTi, the only car that could challenge Longman for the title.

The disqualifications arose from the sealing, at the August Donington race, of the Gordon Spice Capri, Tony Dron’s Dolomite Sprint, Richard Lloyd’s Golf GTi and Longman’s Mini. At the time all four cars were in contention for the title. The findings of the Technical Commission were not made known, however, until five days before the final round at Oulton Park, with Lloyd and Longman, now the only two fighting for the crown, putting the finishing touches to their preparations for that vital event. Broadspeed, who prepare Dron’s works-entered Dolomite, Spice and Lloyd have all protested vocally both the findings of the commission and the timing of their release. Only one man has emerged from the mess with any honour – Richard Longman.

Following  a road accident on his way back from a race in 1975, Longman was declared clinically “dead” twice after suffering massive heart attacks. He fought back, though, and after three months’ intensive care was back on the road to recovery. After a couple of exploratory races towards the end of 1976 Longman fought a season-long class battle in 1977 with Bernard Unett, the latter going on to take the Tricentrol title. This season he remained faithful once again to the Mini, and with two cars to chose from at almost every round, has easily proved the most consistent runner in the Championship.

Towards the end of the season Rex Greenslade began to prove more of a class threat in the ever­-improving Alfasud, and with more homologated “special” parts on their way from Italy it would appear Longman has got in just in time.

Irish eyes not onfy smiled, they positively glistened on the Formula Ford scene. The National circus, with barely a couple of years’ respite since Derek Daly and David Kennedy first burst on the scene from Dublin, were sent reeling again as Kenny Acheson, Bernard Devaney and Michael Roe swept in from the Emerald Isle.

Young Kenny Acheson proved the outstanding driver of the year. With backing from RMC and a works-assisted Royale RP24, he won the newly instigated RAC Championship, the Phillips Championship, and at the time of going to press was about to go for the hat-trick in the Townsend Thorenson series.

Bernard Devaney, a protege of Derek Daly and the ubiquitous Derek McMahon, got into the groove too late to provide a Championship threat, but at the wheel of the works PRS – a new firm about whom we will be hearing a lot more – proved a consistent winner and, perhaps, the man most  likely to “make it”.

The only ray of hope for English supporters was the performance of 23-year-old Peter Morgan in a one-off Lola. He won the Esso series with a late season flourish. Even the Dunlop Star of Tomorrow Novices Championship went the way of a Canadian in the form of the colourful Rob Zurrer, a driver who worked on the North Sea oil rigs in order to finance his racing.

At least, however, Formula Ford was comparatively free from the squabbles and protests which have blighted it in the past. The formula still provides the most consistently entertaining motor racing, and, if anything, has strengthened its claim to being the first rung on the ladder to stardom.

The same cannot be said of FF2000 Formula Ford’s bigger brother. Although interest in the 2-litre class remains high, driving standards were comparatively low, as the highly experienced Syd Fox, who won the Lord’s Taverners series in an ageing Palliser affectionately known as TON – The Old Nail – would testify. A South African by the name of Mike White was able to start late in the year but still do enough with a Delta to take the BAF crown. One of the season’s biggest disappointments was David Leslie, a determined driver from Carlisle, whose almost boundless enthusiasm went unrewarded with an uncompetitive Van Diemen.

Sports 2000, on the other hand, was a success. Once again the overall standard of driving wasn’t that high, as the one or two “class” drivers who made the occasional appearance, such as Ian Taylor, proved. Generally, though, the racing was close, with BMW dealer Frank Sytner emerging the overall Sodastream champion.

The one problem with Sports 2000 was the almost complete and utter domination of one marque, the Lola T490/492. John Webb persevered for a while with a modified Tiga, but the Lola was the car to have to win. Tiga, the company run by Tim Schenken and Howden Ganley, are set to make a fresh foray into the sports car class, though, and 1979 could well see Sports 2000 become one of the most popular forms of racing with both competitors and spectators alike.

Rather an important amalgamation took place towards the end of the season between the flourishing Clubmans Register and those involved with Sports 2000. Both forms of racing cater more for the “weekend racer” rather than the rising star, but the kind of spirit being built up by the driving force behind the movement, Stuart Glass, can only bode well for everyone involved in club racing.

The Clubmans title itself went to “B” class competitor, Malcolm Isaacs, after main “A” class contender, Alan Webb, was banned from several vital races following an on-track dismeanor.

Club saloons continued to provide variety, although the state of the art in Special Saloon racing reached a new high. The Whitings, Nivens and Dickinsons continued to do battle in the big classes with their superbly turned out ferocious monsters, but in the smaller classes purpose-built Minis and Imps abounded in close and often controversial style. So controversial, in fact, that leading driver John Homewood went as far as to withdraw both his Imp and all the points he had scored in the Hitachi series as a protest on the lengths some rivals were going to in order to win.

There was very much an “old pals act” in Production Saloons, with Derek Brunt (BMW), Tony Lanfranchi (Opel) and the irrepressible Gerry Marshall in a super spectacular Dolomite Sprint doing their best to provide some entertaining racing, although the support from the smaller class let the side down somewhat.

One-make formulae continued to spread with the introduction of what should have been a promising Porsche 924 Championship. While the intentions were good, however, the whole thing, like one-make formulae in general, fell a bit flat despite Tony Dron taking the Championship crown.

Modsports racing was highlighted by the performances of various Davrians, particularly the example of Bob Jarvis, which proved quite an embarassment to its more powerful rivals. Prodsports was wracked with argument about tyres and engine modifications, although the sight of Morgans, TVRs, Elans, Europas and Midgets all doing battle in tyre-squealing style was truly memorable.

Despite the obvious lack of potential for sponsorship, the true “clubby” formulae – F750 and F1300, Classic Saloons, Formula Vee and Historic racing – continued to flourish with more and more enthusiasts seemingly wanting to fill the grids rather than the grandstands.

Which brings us right back to the beginning. What can be done, and what is being done, to lure spectators back to motor racing? Unfortunately it appears next season’s calendar is going to be just as crowded as this year’s, with the added “attraction” of the return of Atlantic racing to this country. There will be three major single-seat championships, Aurora F1, Vandervell British F3, and Hitachi Atlantic, vying for custom from both competitors and spectators alike. Tricentrol will once again back the British Saloon Car Championship, where hopefully the series will at last be decided upon the track, while commercial interest in other forms of club racing looks solid. Once again, it will be a good year for the competitor. D.P.S.