Magical history tour

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With an outstanding field of entrants spanning five decades and a thrilling selection of events, this year’s Tour Britannia reached a new high

By John Davenport

How’s this for a recipe ? Take four sunny days in September, select four racing circuits, a hillclimb and six stage venues, and gently add an assortment of 45 racing cars built between 1930 and 1976. When all this is ready, ensure that your event is administered with good humour and that the cars’ crews are well fed and watered. The result? Sheer motoring pleasure.

The recent Motul Tour Britannia, the third since the event was revived, was a great success for all the reasons outlined above. It also provided an exciting battle for the lead as well as several other close contests further down the field. The eventual overall winners, John Grant/Charles Elwell, had to fight hard in their Chevron B16 against a powerful challenge from the Porsche 911 Carrera RS crews of Nick Whale/Sally Wood and Howard Redhouse/Richard Shaw, both of which led at some point. Behind these three were a brace of Lotuses, the Series 3 Seven of Joe Twyman/Oliver Bryant coming home ahead of the Elan of John Sheldon/Lesley Stevens. Sixth place overall was taken by Geoff Lister/John Davenport in a Porsche 911 RS, while Paul Howells/Neil Primrose finished seventh in another 911, clinching the Index of Performance and so winning the Motul Tour Britannia Trophy.

In the first race at Brands Hatch, it was pole sitter Grant who took the lead from Redhouse, but by a mere handful of seconds after an ongoing clutch problem in the Chevron forced him to start in third gear. He then faced an uphill struggle before narrowly winning the race. Whale was unhappy with his RS’s handling and was headed home by Twyman. The Talbot 105 of Gareth Burnett/Maurice Hamilton stopped with a loose rotor arm, while Nick and Mary Faure suffered engine failure in their Porsche 356. They were, however, later able to join the regularity competitors in a Healey 100/4. The stages – all tackled twice – at Brooklands and the Longcross test facility, with its Alpine swoops, enabled Redhouse to remove Grant’s small advantage and take the lead at the end of the first leg by a mere tenth of a second. It looked almost as if Grönholm and Loeb had been writing the script! Whale, happier now with his car, was third, just three seconds adrift, while Twyman was now behind Sheldon, the young pair not quite staying with the Elan on the stages at this point in the event.

Day Two started with a visit to MIRA, where Whale tacked his colours to the mast by setting two fastest times and promoting himself ahead of Grant to second place. John and Chris Clark had been sixth overnight with their lightweight E-type. They slipped temporarily to seventh behind Lister’s Porsche after MIRA, but later recovered with strong races at Mallory Park to regain their position. At Donington, the amazing ex-Arturo Merzario Alfa Romeo GTAm of Richard Frankel/Peter Flood continued to dominate the first racing grid but there was a surprise in store for the second grid when, to their amazement, they saw the Donington marshals walking off just as their race was about to start. No industrial action this; just an insistence by the new Donington management – and Renault GB – that the Tour Britannia stick precisely to the terms of its contract, with no possibility of compromise to fit in with everyone’s needs.

It certainly helped to have a pleasant luncheon at Belvoir Castle after that little disappointment. Later in the day, the second grid was given a second race at Mallory Park to make up for it and a magical formula, devised by Sporting Director Fred Gallagher, was applied to the times to give a ‘virtual’ Donington result. The stage at Belvoir proved to be quite tricky for Kim Taylor Smith/David Cooke in the superb Ferrari 250 GT TdF, as they spent a couple of minutes appreciating the scenery. At Mallory, it was clear to Tony Fall/Yvonne Mehta that there was something amiss with their Datsun 240Z’s clutch, which was slipping. The fault was eventually suspected to be a gearbox oil leak. The races should have given Grant a clear lead over his Porsche-mounted rivals but once again the Chevron clutch caused him to start slowly and, though he again won the race, at the end of the second leg his lead over Whale was just four and a half seconds. Twyman and Sheldon were now tied in fourth place.

The third and last morning brought yet more sunshine and a tricky stage in the grounds of Cholmondeley Castle. The morning dew nearly caused disaster for Whale on his first run as he almost spun negotiating a hairpin and two gates, but was still second-fastest to Callum Guy/Neil Dashfield’s 911 RSR. Other bits of the stage caused problems, especially the bridge-into-fast-left just before the end. Redhouse put two wheels on the grass on his first run while Robi Bernberg/Steve Winter went off completely, popped out their 911’s windscreen and did the rest of the event with an abundance of fresh air. Cholmondeley was a bit too much for the MGB of Caroline Betts/Celia Drabble, who strayed into a field. Next car along was the Chevrolet Camaro of Richard Lloyd/Alan Rivers, who stopped to see if assistance was needed while the stage was halted and the rescue crews called in.

The last race meeting was at Oulton Park on the full circuit. The first excitement came when Fall was black-flagged in practice for missing the chicane at Knickerbrook. During the race, the Ted Williams/Chris Clarkson Chevrolet Corvette was tapped from behind coming out of Old Hall on the third lap and had a lurid moment which lost him several places, all of which Williams recovered before the end of the race. The outrageously fast Mini Cooper S of Harvey Death/Elaine MacLeod raced with its gear lever retained by a judiciously applied pair of mole grips. Out in front was Grant, who had seen his lead reduced to just four tenths of a second after Cholmondeley but left the circuit with a 24-second gap to Whale. A big loser at Oulton was Clark, who ran throughout the race with an engine that was short of electricity thanks to the fact that the cooling pump for the differential had been left on, flattening the E-type’s battery.

Just a hillclimb at Loton Park and a stage at Weston Park remained. At Loton, Adam Wiseberg/Robin Eyre-Maunsell provided some good TV coverage for the RTE crew when they took an experimental line on the last right-hander, dared to go where no hillclimb car had gone before and arrived back at the bottom of the hill with the Porsche still parked on top of a traffic cone. 

Grant and Whale were aware that only a mistake by the Chevron driver could alter the result. Despite setting two fastest times at Loton, Whale could only reduce the gap to 18 seconds and, with the second of the Weston Park stages cancelled after the Frazer-Nash of Patrick Blakeney-Edwards/Andrew Hall had rolled into a ditch, Grant’s task of staying ahead was made even easier. From Weston to the finish outside Coventry at Coombe Abbey was a short run and by that point the celebratory champagne was already being uncorked.

This Tour Britannia had been had been a truly agreeable experience, combining as it did the essential pleasures of racing and rallying in an atmosphere in which, thanks to the organisers, the competitors and their needs were given the highest priority.

Motul Tour Britannia results

Driver/Co-driver

1. John Grant/Charles Elwell

Chevron B16

2. Nick Whale/Sally Wood

Porsche 911 Carrera RS

3. Howard Redhouse/Richard Shaw

Porsche 911

4. Joe Twyman/Oliver Bryant

Lotus 7 Series 3

5. John Sheldon/Lesley Stevens

Lotus Elan

6. Geoff Lister/John Davenport

Porsche 911 RS

7. Paul Howells/Neil Primrose

Porsche 911

8. Richard Lloyd/Alan Rivers

Chevrolet Camaro Z28

9. Mike Newman/Alec Newsham

Jaguar E-type

10. Callum Guy/Neil Dashfield

Porsche Carrera RSR

Highways to heaven

The road routes chosen for this year’s Tour combined with a wealth of classy hardware to take the event to a new level, says Andrew Frankel

The downside of taking part in the Regularity section of the tour was not having to cruise around Donington, Mallory, Brands and Oulton, but having to watch with ill-concealed envy as the competition entrants gave it the lot.

But away from the tracks, and once the Tour had cleared the south-east (a region every competitor I spoke to said they’d be delighted to avoid in future), we embarked on the best three days of driving I’ve ever enjoyed in England. The organisers proved that, with careful planning, it is still possible to exercise properly high- performance classic cars for hour after hour in this country on beautiful and largely deserted roads.

Everything about the Tour smacked of quality. In the Regularity section the entry was a mobile classic car show of the highest order. John Ruston’s Talbot 105, the oldest car by far in the event, led from the front in such style that the pursuing fleet of lightweight RS 911s usually arrived just as John was getting the tea. Ferrari was represented by Julian and Adam Taylor’s beautiful Dino and Sarah and Justine Moody’s immaculate Daytona. There were MGs, XKs, Escorts, a Bristol 401, Lancia Fulvia HF and even a Ford Bronco truck. The only person to cross the carpet from competition to regularity was legendary Porsche racer Nick Faure, who broke his 356 racing with his usual gusto at the first event at Brands Hatch, and within hours had found and bought an astonishingly original Healey 100/4 which he used in Regularity for the rest of the event.

But the quality did not extend merely to the cars and the routes chosen for us to drive along: all were driven to the highest standards, too. Despite some often extremely brisk driving, in nearly 1000 miles of motoring I saw no dodgy overtaking, no lack of consideration towards other road users or breaking of village speed limits. It gave you the confidence to indulge your passion in the company of others.

The regularity sections were fine as far as they went and enjoyed by all but, with just one short section per day, many felt more could have been made of them. Perhaps one before and after lunch, with longer routes, more secret checks and average speeds that varied within each section would have offered a yet-greater challenge to those wishing to do more than simply enjoy the drive.

Overall, however, there is no doubt that the 2007 Tour Britannia, with its blend of great roads, circuits and test venues – followed by fine hospitality and excellent company – has finally turned this competition from a fledgling sideshow on the international motoring calendar to a main event, worthy of consideration from teams based not just in the UK but in Europe and the rest of the world, too. 

John Ruston, a stalwart of these events, put it thus: “This year’s Motul Tour Britannia has come of age and is now at the same level as the top three main events in Europe – Tour Auto, Tour España and Milano Classico.” The Moodys gave it 20 out of 10, while Stanley Gold, chairman of the board of the University of Southern California and a former director of the Disney Corporation, said simply: “The event has been spectacular, fantastic; the best! It’s our first visit, it’s just our style and we’ll definitely be back next year.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.