Sprites

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Sprites

Gremlins

THE PLAN WAS TO GO TO GOOD WOOD NOTJUST TO SPECTATE BUT TO RACE AGAINST FOUR Fl CHAMPIONS AND SOME OF THE FINEST DRIVERS IN THE WORLD. AND IT ALL WENT PERFECTLY TO THE MOMENT THE FLAG DROPPED. BY ANDREW FRANKEL

t was, I think, the drivers’ briefing that was the best moment of all. There we sat, all of us in a portable box listening attentively to the words of an evidently extremely official person standing at the front When I was sent to an exam factory in a scarcely successful attempt to add a few A-levels to my name, we used to learn History in an identical room. My classmates, however, had changed. Gone were the distracted faces, eager to learn about anything not

called the Petition of Right, the smell of spent Marlboros and the scrape of chalk on blackboard; now we were attentive, brighteyed and ready to learn. The uniform had changed too: torn jeans and T-shirts offensive to sight and smell were now triple layer Nomex. I can’t remember many with whom I failed to learn history but I’m unlikely to forget any time soon those who sat with me at the driver’s briefing for the Goodwood IT celebration race on Sunday 19th September. The Formula One World Champions were Sir Jack Brabham, John Surtees, Damon and Phil Hill while names no less auspicious dotted the room: Derek Bell, Jackie Oliver, Bobby Rahal, Patrick Tambay, Jochen Mass, Richard Attwood, David Piper and Danny Sullivan were just some of them. And, of course, some bloke called Stirling Moss.

I was there with Chris Clegg, owner of the Austin-Healey Sebring Sprite which we had recently qualified a defiant last on the grid. Looking at the engine sizes listed down the final column of entries in the programme, our’s was the sole cubic capacity to fail to stretch to the usual four digits. And if it seems ridiculous to be racing such a car against Ferrari GT0s, Aston Project cars, Shelby Cobras and Jaguar E-types this is only because perspectives have changed. Back in the early ’60s when John Sprinzel created the Sebring Sprite, racers drove all types of cars and the list of those who could regularly be found behind the wheel of Sprites is as long as it is impressive. Stirling himself, Bruce McLaren, Pedro Rodriguez, Innes Ireland, Steve McQueen were all Sprite racers, while our car’s most regular occupants were Stirling’s sister, Pat and the prodigiously talented Paul Hawkins. And even we were not slow. Compare the times of our Sprite not to those in the TT but, instead, to some more representative machinery found elsewhere on the bill and you would find lb-, Goodwood Revival 1999: Some (4’the greatest drivers in history gatherfor the pre-race bri4.ing. Editor was to drive Healey Sebring Sprite but all wentfarfrom according to plan

our Sprite would have outpaced every Mini Cooper at the meeting, some of the Lotus Cortinas and even a 4.7-litre Ford Falcon.

Even so, that was not what Goodwood was about. We were going to come last and knew it. A Corvette that looked within reach had been inconsiderate enough to blow up and looked unlikely to start, the Lotus Elites were just out of reach and while one Ferrari 250SWB looked likely in one session, when we compared the times of both its drivers to ours, we were nowhere near.

Happily, Chris and 1 had long ago decided that this did not matter. There was no championship to be contested, no points to be fought over. We just wanted to race and if there were others against whom we could race, so much the better. Until this moment, the weekend had had a charmed quality,

something which neither the often terrible weather nor the Sprite’s unlikely addiction to oversteer ever seemed likely to spoil. Historic racing has a magical quality wherever you watch it and whatever the cars but, from the moment Ray Hanna’s Spitfire came skimming over the bails at the annual cricket match on the Thursday night, none there doubted for a moment that the greatest event on the calendar was underway. The very first race ofthe meeting, the Woodcote Cup, set a standard from which the programme rarely, if ever, faltered. In the rain Ludovic Lindsay drove Remus, the pale blue ERA made famous by Prince Bira, to a perfect victory. Every inch of it even when the angle of car and direction of travel bore precious little relation, looked

so assured that the heroically charging Gregor Fisken in his CooperBristol never looked likely to challenge him. Best of all was Barrie Williams, back in third, driving a bright yellow A-type Connaught. I’d see him streaking down the straight and, instead of turning into the corner as usual, the car would appear to spin, only to be stopped halfway through its seemingly inevitable rotation by some invisible force. It would stay in this semi-spun state until the corner opened out whence it would snap straight, and charge up to the chicane, driver banging encouragement on the side of the body. Barrie, for those who do not know of him, is now in his sixties. The race to remember, however, was the Richmond and Gordon Trophies race for Fl cars from 1957-61, held in conditions so

appalling it would have been stopped at many other circuits. But this is Goodwood and the show went on. The winner was rarely in doubt as John Haiper’s BRM P25 steered fluently to victory through the puddles but behind, how the battle raged. The eye of the storm was Nigel Corner’s Ferrari Dino which was being driven with something approaching wilful abandon in its pursuit of Harper and then Derek Bell’s Cooper-Maserati. If having a engine of rather less than 2-litres was supposed to handicap Bell in a race for 2.5-litre cars, no-one had told Derek. He hadn’t even sat in the car for a year but drove as if it were his everyday transport, exploiting the mid-engined advantage to the full. But the real story was further back. Willie Green driving the ex-Fangio Maserati 250F was driving with his usual guts, sawing

the wheel from lock to lock in a straight line, just to keep the car on the road. Most eyes, however were yet further down the grid as Jack Brabham’s Cooper T53 slowly caught, and passed, the Moss 250F. By now the weather was so foul you only needed to look at these soaked septuagenarians to know that, now as then, they are different Others were peeling off the track and into the pits as the water got to either the driver or the machinery but not these two. By the flag, the battle had been resolved in Stirling’s favour, the Great Man coming home fourth behind Harper, Bell and Green. He had qualified in 16th place. Those around me in the grandstand were awestruck, one leaning over and whispering, “they don’t lose it, do they…”

And when the cars returned to the pits, the applause for those on the podium was as nothing compared to the spontaneous ovation afforded the man in the white helmet who’d come fourth.

Chris Clegg and I were unlikely to be receiving ovations anytime soon. Not only did we have substantially less power than anyone else, we also represented that rare beast, an entirely amateur team in the TT. By the time Chris pointed its pretty little nose U p the pidane for the first laps of untimed practice, he had done barely half a dozen laps of Goodwood in his life and I had done even fewer in the Sprite. I knew only the track, Chris knew only the car; and we were about to race four World Champions. The prognosis upon Chris’ return from practice was less w?

good still. The session was conducted in heavy rain and Chris described his laps as “just about the most unpleasant motoring experience of my life.” The Sprite may not have had much power but it was not without spirit In all respects bar one it was a terrific car to drive. It steered well, stopped brilliantly and performed better than any car with so small an engine had a right. The only problem was it wanted to spin. Everywhere. Tales of it going sideways just where you really did not want it, at the flat-out Fordwater kink for instance, did little to make me want to climb aboard. Fortunately for me, the track was merely damp during my first practice but from the first kick into oversteer at Madgwick on the opening lap to the final exit of the chicane, the Sprite was guaranteed my undivided attention. In fact, it’s handling was

schizophrenic: the undulations would start it sliding and you learned there was no need even to catch it; just keeping up with the tail with the steering made it drift beautifully. It was the bumps you had to watch, as the Sprite changed direction over these with the speed and certainty of a bullet ricocheting off a building.

Qualifying, however, was dry and Chris and I set about hacking our times down, using more revs, track, brakes and less imagination. Soon the little A-series engine was flicking round to 7000rpm on every change of its sweet, straight-cut box, whisking Chris round in a fraction over lmin 48sec and me in just under 1min 50sec, my session being stopped short by Aston Martins, including the beautiful Project 212, flying off the track.

We were where we expected: last but not by so much as we’d feared.

For the race we gambled on dry settings. Chris would drive first so that if something happened at least he would have had something of a race and I’d bring it home. His start was superb, muscling inside one of the Elites as the field streaked through Madg,wick. But as they thundered through at the end of the lap, of the Sprite there was no sign. Eventually it appeared, misfiring, and pulled into the pits. The engine was cutting out, though putting the fan on seemed to cure it. Chris roared back out into the race but never even made the first corner. The engine died and the car pulled over onto the grass, its race run almost before it started. It was not a good moment for me so God knows how Chris

felt. The chance to race here is rare enough and the opportunity to do so with those mentioned earlier is unique. Once traced, the fault that was our undoing was so piffling the thought of it still makes my stomach tighten; but we were not to know that at the time.

The race itself was, perhaps, less memorable than others that day, the E-type of Nigel Corner retaining its title, though with Mark Hales sharing the drive in place of Barrie Williams. Nevertheless, the sight of seeing what is probably the most beautiful collection of cars ever to take part in a single race, with the cream of racing history at their wheels is one that will live with me, as it will with all other who were there, for years to come. And as for the Glover Trophy, the race for F1 cars of the late ’60s, I hope it is remembered for more than the accident from

which Sir jack Brabharn was fortunate to emerge. There were those who said this race should not have happened; after all 3-litre F I cars never raced here, precisely because they were deemed too dangerous. The track is safer now but as those now facing repair bills will attest, it remains exceptionally unforgiving by modem standards.

I will choose to remember it for Geoff Farmer, in the miraculously restored Rob Walker-livened ex-Jo Siffert Lotus 49B, howling around the track to victory, for Derck Bell behind the wheel of a screaming Ferrari 312 and for seeing an Eagle Weslake race for the first time in over 30 years. At its wheel was Ben Liebert, a man I have known for over half my life. When we were young and very

stupid, we’d borrow his grandmother’s MGB and my father’s Citroen 2CV and race each other through the lanes, the power of the fon-ner usually but not always telling over the handling and brakes of the latter. I wonder whether what we did then was any less dangerous than anything that went on at Goodwood last weekend. To be honest, I rather doubt it. So Goodwood is over for another year and Chris and I will have to wait and see if we make the cut next time around to complete the Sprite’s unfinished business. In the meantime, race or no race, 1, alongside the 85,000 others who were there will have the memories of what remains, for me, the greatest motoring event on earth. And for the next year, at least, that will have to suffice. C3

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