On the road with Simon Arron

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Past and presence

Thruxton, August 14: An object lesson in contemporary diversity… and preserving the soul of the Seventies​

The media’s sense of perspective seemed somewhat skewed as I headed in a south-westerly direction, the news agenda placing British capture of a bronze Olympic medal before events of arguably greater significance, but alongside the A303 a more orderly world lay ahead.

Noise considerations have long restricted Thruxton to fewer racing events than most UK circuits, but their content is invariably worthwhile. The host on this occasion was the Classic Sports Car Club, which is fast becoming a byword for progressive, sensible race promotion. The lines might be slightly blurred when it comes to pinpointing eligibility for some of its categories – Modern Classics are defined as pre-1999 sports and saloons, Future Classics as those from the 1970s and 1980s, so technically you could do both in the same car – but that doesn’t matter greatly. The club’s motto is ‘motor sport for cars of all ages’, so you might find a VW Golf pitched against a Lotus Esprit, or a TVR Tuscan against Triumph Dolomites and Ford Sierra Cosworths. The bottom line is that grids are full, disparate and, despite obvious performance differentials here and there, provide a great deal of close racing.

As is customary on Thruxton Sundays, there was time for a single qualifying session before the circuit fell silent for 80 minutes as a courtesy to the local church service. That allowed time for a sausage bap and a few laps of the paddock, which contained another fine CSCC initiative: the Special Saloons & Modsports revival series (which has been mentioned here once or twice before, but with good reason). It occurred that I probably hadn’t seen machinery of this kind at Thruxton since the early 1980s, when cars such as David Enderby’s Volkswagen Karmann Ghia and Brian Cutting’s Sunbeam Stiletto bestrode the earth.

Today things seem even more combative than they were back then – the three races almost produced as many different winners, until Honda CRX driver Thomas Carey made an error that allowed veteran Ian Hall (Darrian) to clinch his second victory of the weekend – and anything that accommodates a 600bhp Ford Anglia and a 6.1-litre Morris Minor-Chevrolet can be a force only for good. Note that winners are demoted to 11th on the grid for the subsequent race – one of a series of innovative penalties the CSCC deploys to keep things competitive.

The first race after lunch – for the Meteor Suspension Open Series, basically Formule Libre for anything that looks like a Caterham or else has doors – attracted about 40 starters, the slowest of whom were still leaving the assembly area as the quicker qualifiers were drawing towards the grid – time-consuming, perhaps, but also a symbol of success at a time when so many championships struggle for entries (in early September, a 90-minute Britcar race at Snetterton attracted five starters – each of them in a separate class).

And then there was the XJ Restoration/Toyo Jaguar Saloon & GT Championship. Thruxton has changed little since it reopened for car racing in 1968 (after briefly being operational during the early 1950s) and is all the better for its veil of originality. Its chicane, though, was never really designed to accommodate a single XJ6, let alone several at the same time.

English heritage

Oulton Park: August 20 & August 25-27: Mini mayhem and a hardy perennial that requires just a little pruning​

Bookended by trips to Cheshire, the week began chaotically and ended amid a fug of mildly flawed elegance.

There are nowadays two competitive Mini Festivals in the UK, one at Brands Hatch and the other at Oulton. The recipe was simple enough – lots of upper- and lower-case Minis, plus a couple of guest races for stuff produced by the VW Group – but at times the circuit perimeter looked like a battle zone due to driving standards that might have been acceptable at Belle Vue Stadium but were rather less so here.

Awaiting one 30-car field to appear over the horizon towards Cascades, the second corner, we were greeted by a pack of approximately three, many of the rest being scattered randomly in the area of Old Hall. That race was inevitably red-flagged and rescheduled for later in the day, but a subsequent contest continued behind the safety car – despite the presence of several rescue vehicles by the track’s border, following a multiple pile-up during which championship leader Charlie Butler-Henderson had been flicked into a somersault.

When finally it broke out, some of the racing was excellent – particularly among the Mini Se7ens, the UK’s most durable one-make racing series and, aged 50, arguably the finest.

***

One week on, there was no shortage of Minis in either paddock or parking zones as enthusiasts gathered en masse to support the Gold Cup, now part of the Historic Sports Car Club’s portfolio (among many classics on display I spotted a Saab Sonett – there can’t be many of those roaming freely in the UK).

This is an event that borders on the marvellous, but yet…

There were two painfully thin Formula Junior fields, which could easily have been merged (good though it was to watch Benn Simms chucking around his Merlyn Mk5/7 in pursuit of double winner Andrew Hibberd’s Lotus 22). The separate Guards Trophy sports and GT were similarly ripe for combination. That would have freed up time to accommodate an extra race or two (perhaps for the road sports categories, which are consistently lively) or else to allow further demonstrations (on the Monday Andy Middlehurst did a lunchtime run in his ex-Jim Clark Lotus 43-BRM, below). 

The Derek Bell Trophy was pleasing on both eye and ear, but could have done with a few more entries, and the Historic Grand Prix Cars Association field looked lovely but lacked strength in depth (Lotus 18/21 driver Peter Horsman qualified on pole by 1.4sec, won both heats and collected the Historic Gold Cup, awarded for the first time this year). The Historic Touring Cars and Formula Fords set the racing standard, as often they do… but were in action only on the Monday.

It’s tricky to achieve a perfect balance in a world of congested heritage – major events at Zandvoort and Goodwood followed in Oulton’s immediate slipstream – but the Gold Cup was historically a special event and with a little careful thought it could be so still.

Antiques roadshow

Prescott, August 5-6: reasons for an early alarm call, number one in a series

The directional contrast could hardly have been greater. The southbound M40 was blocked by an overturned caravan, the northbound A40 virtually bereft of anything bar
my tatty – but mostly trustworthy – Fiat Punto. To bisect the Cotswolds at sunrise is ever a pleasure, a reminder that driving in the UK can be enjoyable – so long as you get the timing right.

So early had my alarm been set that I reached Prescott ahead of many competing cars (and, indeed, several minutes before the paddock café opened for breakfast). At the appointed moment, though, it was lovely to clutch a coffee on the terrace and watch all manner of mechanical oddments filter through the paddock gate.

Prescott isn’t so much a Vintage Sports-Car Club staple as a showpiece, an annual highlight of the UK motor sport calendar – and the size of the audience reflected as much – ditto the entry, with more than 300 cars taking part. The first of three days featured an event on the full 1127-yard hill (a long, good Friday, you might say), while the other two were based on the 880-yard alternative (a course only the VSCC uses nowadays, but then it has been doing so since 1938).

Barely had practice started than it had to be stopped to allow the track to be cleared of an oil slick that ran from top to bottom – and triggered a terse PA announcement about competitors making sure their cars were tight and fully fit for purpose. A broad coat of cement dust proved neither deterrent nor impediment, Nick Topliss setting a new VSCC hill record (49.52sec) at the wheel of ERA R4D. The day was also significant for the appearance of former club president Tony Stephens in R4A: it was his 250th competitive event at the helm of an ERA.

The change of route caught out several competitors, who bore left rather than right on Saturday morning, but the spirit of the event remained unchanged (as, indeed, did the result, with Topliss going on to set fastest time in 40.83sec). While talk about Formula 1 cockpit haloes and canopies has lately absorbed much ink in the mainstream media, this is a world bereft of roll-hoops, run-off areas, safety belts or, indeed, much press coverage.

Happily, such factors tend not to dilute the competitors’ boundless commitment.