Something for the Weekend
Only a lucky few managed to race at the Goodwood Revival meeting and Andrew Frankel was one of them. He reports on a weekend from heaven in a borrowed Frazer-Nash
As an idea it was as simple and elegant as any I’ve had. And had it actually formed in my own mind rather than someone else’s altogether I’d have good reason to feel rather smug about it. Sadly, it was not an idea I could even afford to have as I did not have the wherewithal to do anything about it. Happily, however, Frank Sytner did.
It was Frank’s idea that saw me take my place in a gently trembling line of drivers as we faced the Le Mans start for the Freddie March Memorial Trophy, the first race of the day on Sunday, 20th September, race day at the Goodwood Motor Circuit Revival Meeting. It was Frank’s car too, one of only three Frazer-Nash Sebrings ever built, veteran of three Le Mans and one Goodwood Nine Hour race in the hands of its first owner, the well remembered Dickie Stoop. As I stood there, cursing the commentator for providing for the crowd such a precise image of the nervous feelings shooting through my brain, my mind flicked back three days.
This was Thursday. Then as now, sun shone as I climbed aboard the Sebring in London, bound for Goodwood. This was the key to Sytner’s idea: Not only should I practice, qualify and race the Sebring, I would also drive it to the circuit just as it would have been over forty years ago. On the lanes that led to the track past Guildford, Milford, Chiddingfold, Petworth and on to the circuit, it showed me how the definitive fifties sportscar should behave. The point was not to prove how quickly it would go down the straights or around the corners nor to show how effectively its brakes would lose speed – all that and more would be discovered on the track; my purpose was simply to enjoy the ride, sample a little local ale on the way and present the Sebring to the scrutineers on time.
Having spent decades as an immobile display at the headquarters of its owners, AFN, it was stalled up for the last year’s Festival of Speed but has only received any detail attention since it was bought by Sytner. Even then, Ian Nuttall, who carried out the work, simply made sure it ran, stopped and steered as it should; compared to today’s regular historic racers which have benefitted from season after season of attention and development, this Sebring is a museum piece. It is also absolutely original. That said, it performed beautifully on the road. The 2-litre twin-cam six started with a crisp burble and idled evenly as it warmed through. Once up to temperature, it pulled from little more than idle in each of its four gears and revved enthusiastically with a beautifully musical bark.
Hours before we even got to Goodwood, I knew the Sebring and I were going to get along. On the journey down to Sussex, only the race-car sharp clutch gave any hint of this car’s true purpose in life.
The starter held up a One Minute board and thoughts of leafy lanes fled from my head. I had several problems to contend with, far from the least of which were my goggles which were so steamed up it was a miracle I could even see the starter’s rostrum. I wedged a fire-proofed finger between eyelid and glass and wiped them clear for the tenth time. As for the start, I had prepared as best I could. I’d heard a hundred stories of how the Le Mans start had been made easier in the past from simple tricks like rotating the ignition barrel through ninety degrees and removing the light bulb to make it look switched of to door-operated starter motors; I settled for leaving the car in gear, the door resting open.
The flag fell and, according to talent, we sprinted or stumbled across the track. I was quite pleased with my performance; I didn’t fall over, my feet found their way around, not through, the steering wheel and my fingers twisted the key, then punched the starter in the right order. I still can’t quite figure what happened next. The ‘Nash leapt forward while the C-type Jaguar beside me seemed to shoot backwards. I remember thinking how dashing a Maserati looked as it bellowed past, all four wheels on the grass and wondering if I’d be able to avoid another Jaguar which had decided to devote its considerable power to hurling itself broadside across the track in front of me. The result was, by the time the pandemonium had died down and we’d formed up behind the course car that the RACMSA’s regulations stipulated would lead us for the first lap, I reckon I’d just about managed to maintain my position.
Then an Aston blew its back axle on the start-line, bringing the red flags and the knowledge we’d have to go through the whole gut-churning process again. My mind wandered enviously back to practice.
I’d appeared at Goodwood with something approaching a trump card, knowing it better than any other track, with close to a thousand laps of experience accumulated in ten years testing there. Yet the first half-hour session was almost an entire waste of time. Someone had kindly laid a slick of oil over perhaps three-quarters of the track’s length which had emulsified nicely on the damp surface.
The Sebring and I went skating. For a racing car it’s very softly sprung but oil is oil and the Dunlop racing tyres never stood a chance. Even when you learned where the oil was you still had to drive across it at every corner. For half an hour thirty 1950s sportscars slithered around the track fully ten seconds off the pace. Even so, the Frazer-Nash felt better than any car with such a torpid recent history deserved. It revved hard to the 5500rpm limit, steered as well as any car of its era I have driven and, despite the conditions, contrived not to scare me at all.
We qualified on Saturday in perfect conditions. Ian Nuttall had told me to drive three gentle laps to warm up the tyres, brakes and shock absorbers and use the time to find the space for a quick fourth lap when it was reckoned the car would have optimum performance. Being unable to count, I set my fastest time on lap three, enough to qualify 18th. I was not disheartened: With just two litres I was never going to stay with the big Jaguars, Astons and Ferraris that made up the bulk of the field. Of the comparable opposition, only Amanda Stretton’s Le Mans Replica Nash lay well ahead, a placing easily explained by the fact her car had a much better driver at the wheel.
Besides, for me qualifying was curtailed by the needle of the water temperature gauge heading alarmingly into three figures. Ian Nuttall and his ever smiling and helpful two-man crew were on hand to help and discovered a two inch split in the header tank and some air-deflecting mesh behind the front grille. The car was repaired but we could only hope we had found the problem.
The second Le Mans start went less well. To be absolutely honest, it didn’t go at all. I got across the track and into the car but when I hit the button there was just the familiar chugging of the starter motor. The field had reached Madgwick before the marshalls’ muscle power coaxed the engine into life. I have never been more glad for a pace car as I was able to catch the field quickly but as we streamed up the pit-straight for the second time and into the race proper, there was no denying I was in the final place. Bog last in other words.
Oddly, I was in a state of near euphoria. With nothing now to lose and a great deal time to win back I set about the back of the field, leaning on the Sebring as never before. Twice every lap, on the approaches to St Mary’s and Woodcote I found myself easing off the throttle an age before reaching the braking point as the Sebring ran out of revs in top gear; and at the exit of St Mary’s and the chicane I found power being uselessly spun away by a lifting inside wheel. In the quicker corners, though, it felt magical, shimmering through Madgwick, sliding gently, flattering furiously and taking the Fordwater kink with right foot buried in the firewall.
Even if the Sebring had survived all twelve laps it would have been all over too soon. In the event, the water temperature which had spent the first four laps Hovering between 90-100 degrees Centigrade, headed into the red, sending the Sebring into retirement on lap five by which time I’d effectively recovered my original qualifying position. A blown head gasket is suspected.
None of this mattered, not even at the time. If the Sebring had lasted just half a lap, it would still have afforded me memories not simply of racing at Goodwood, but also of racing at the greatest historic race meeting ever staged, anywhere in the world. As it was, was able to drive to the circuit and then practice and race a car I came to regard as the essence of how a British sports racing car should feel.
I spent the rest of the meeting watching with 80,000 other spectators, as slack-jawed as any for the spectacle and magic that the combination of one man’s vision, a few brilliant lieutenants and an army of hard workers had created.
And as I look now back at it now, I realise that, with more than a tinge of sadness, weekends don’t get much better than that.