(Almost) six hours of Spa magic

GT40s led all the way in one of the heritage racing's annual highlights

The contrast between the order, control and theatre of the Goodwood Revival and the general disorder and chaos of the Spa Six Hours, one week later, could hardly be starker. One is a one-and-quarter-minute thrash, the other a high-speed rollercoaster of saving moment after moment, any of which could end painfully against the barriers.

Off track it’s similarly a world apart. The eclectic paddock of Spa, with GT40s squatting in garages beside MGBs, Elans and 911s, being squeezed into the narrow historic pits that once held the same cars 50 years ago or else nestling beneath pop-up gazebos, is a world away from the staged period paddock of West Sussex. There’s no pomp, no circumstance, just old-fashioned racing between some grand old racing cars.

Safety cars and delays in earlier races meant the Spa Six Hours failed to live up to its name – a late start and a 10pm curfew meant it was more like the Spa Five Hours 10 Minutes. But it could go on for days and never grow tiresome.

A mere 115 cars lined up, down and around La Source for the start, with no fewer than eight GT40s at its head.

A snap of oversteer out of La Source for the third-placed Dickie Meaden dropped him to fourth and allowed Georg Nolte and Chris Ward to break away. A lap later Meaden was back in third, but Nolte and Ward were already into the distance before a wheel weight problem twice sent Meaden shuddering to the pits, leaving it a two-car race.

So big was the field that the leaders were making their way towards the braking point at the end of the Kemmel before the tail had even entered La Source on the opening lap, and backmarkers were in play by lap three. Watching the leading two GT40s scything through traffic was breathtaking at times, the pair splaying either side of cars at Raidillon almost every lap. The traffic played into Ward’s hands and he capitalised to lead. “The Nolte car had too much pace at the start,” he said, “but by the end of the first stint we led by a minute and a half.”

There was entertainment throughout the 115-car field, with the Mustangs belching out flames under braking, the Falcons sawing in and out of every bend, the MGBs and Elans slipping and sliding all ways. And the traffic… there was just so much to navigate.

A flurry of safety cars proved disruptive during the middle stages of the race, and a slow fuel stop for the Ward/Andrew Smith GT40 allowed Frank Stippler to lead in the Nolte car. It’s all down to the luck of the draw at refuelling times, for it’s not done in the pits but at the petrol station at the foot of Eau Rouge. Queues are likely at peak times.

Things evened out during the second stops. The Nolte car was this time delayed and Ward and Smith took the lead into the darkness and carried it to the flag, looking utterly spectacular sliding out of La Source, lit up evocatively by the lapped cars.

The margin when the flag fell was the best part of a lap, and Ward and Smith had their second win of the day in the combined Woodcote Trophy & Stirling Moss Trophy race.

“The car was faultless throughout,” said the victorious Ward. “It means a lot to have won, especially after Goodwood. It goes some way to making up for what happened at the TT.” He’d been stripped of a race win at Goodwood following contact with the Cobra of his Spa team-mate Smith.

Third was inherited by the Wright/Wolfe/Gans GT40 after 2015 Spa winners Roger Wills and James Littlejohn retired late on. Wolfe and Gans, who won the TT seven days beforehand at Goodwood, later took their AC Cobra to victory in the Pre-66 GT race after the Bryants were penalised for overtaking under yellows.

REBORN ERA DAWNS

Earlier on in the cool autumn sunshine, the Masters Endurance Legends series made its bow – a tantalising one-off race before a full season in 2018. A Peugeot 908X and Audi R8 were the headline acts, ably supported by a Pescarolo, a brace of open-top LMP2s, the Rollcentre Dallara and a gaggle of GT cars including three Venturis (right).

It was the first European outing for the R8, owned since 2009 by American Travis Engen. “I’ve been racing it in America and it’s probably done 40,000 miles. I’ve never run it in the rain, though,” he said. Until Saturday, that is. The green flag lap started in the dry, but the day’s only spate of drizzle set in and put the mockers on the race. Kriton Lendoudis, sharing the Peugeot with Nicolas Minassian, suffered a spin at La Source and then pitted for wets, while the R8 continued to tip-toe around until things dried out. When Minassian took over the Peugeot it began to fly, but not enough to unlap itself, so the modern LMP2s reigned with Sean Doyle and Jonathan Kennard finishing one-two.

The tentativeness of the amateur drivers made for an odd sight as the P1s failed to cope with P2s with pros within. But it bodes well for the concept’s future, and the R8 is a confirmed entry for 2018.

If it’s worth staying up for the main event, it’s also worth hanging around for the following day – though few do. Sunday’s opening ‘one-hour’ – won by the Bryants’ Morgan – brought together a wide mix of saloons and GTs, before a stunning array of ’60s and ’70s sports-prototypes blew any bleariness from the campers with their wall of sound at the start. It was Leo Voyazides and Simon Hadfield who claimed victory in a Lola T70, adding to their Historic Sports Car Club win the day before in the Gitanes T282. Eric Mestdagh’s GRD won the event’s concluding HSCC race.

Loïc Deman and Michael Lyons shared Masters Historic F1 wins, while the Andrew/Max Banks Alfa twice denied Steve Soper’s Cortina in the U2TC races, the second time by just four tenths. Sam Wilson (Lotus 18) doubled up in the Historic Grand Prix Cars Association races, Graeme and James Dodd dominated the Jaguar celebration and Mike Gardiner and Phil Keen (Ford Falcon) won the fog-delayed Pre-66 touring car encounter.

NEW PRE-63 GT GRID

Following a successful season for pre-1966 cars, the team behind Equipe Classic Racing are launching a new initiative for pre-1963 GT and sports cars in 2018.

The series will cover FIA Period E and some early Period F cars. The provisional 2018 calendar has eight races, including Silverstone Grand Prix, Donington, Brands Hatch, Oulton Park and Zandvoort.

Running at all the existing Equipe GTS events – which provides what the organisers call “a competitive yet gentlemanly” series for pre-66 cars – the pre-63 races will follow the same 40-minute format for one or two drivers, with mandatory pitstop. Eligible cars include Austin Healey 100, 3000 and Sprite. Jaguar E-type (Period E) and XK, MGA, Morgan, Lotus Elite and others. The new grid will run to FIA Appendix K specification. FIA papers are welcome but not mandatory.

John Pearson, Equipe Classic Racing Partner said: “This grid is a natural extension to Equipe GTS and we think the car choice will produce some very close racing. The ’50s and early ’60s represent the last period of production cars that could be driven to the racetrack and then to work on Monday. The later cars were more developed and cost far more to run today.”

RETRO RALLY CARS

Rally cars spanning four decades will be the warm-up act before cars from the World Rally Championship arrive in the grounds of Cholmondeley Castle on the Saturday of the Dayinsure Wales Rally GB (October 28).

Building on the success of the inaugural RallyFest in the grounds of the Cheshire castle, cars from the 1960s to the 1990s will entertain the crowds ahead of the arrival of Kris Meeke, Elfyn Evans and Sébastien Ogier for a special stage on Britain’s round of the World Rally Championship. It will be the rally’s only competitive mileage outside Wales.

Before the arrival of the WRC crews at 15.30, cars from four decades of rallying history will be in action on the 1.1-mile asphalt stage. The line-up will range from Minis and Ford Escorts from the 1960s and 1970s to later Group A, Group B and WRC cars. Examples of the Lancia Stratos, MG Metro 6R4 and Subaru Impreza will all be demonstrated.

The event has become Cholmondeley’s only motor sport activity this year, following the cancellation of June’s Power and Speed event, which would have used the same course.

“Everyone loves historic rally cars, and it was no surprise that they proved to be hugely popular with the thousands coming to Cholmondeley last year,” said Ben Taylor, managing director of the Wales Rally GB. “We are now serving up an even more comprehensive collection as part of what will be a much enhanced RallyFest.”

ROVER’S RETURN 

An ex-Steve Soper Rover Vitesse, once saved from a scrapyard in Holland, has been returned to immaculate condition and raced by Ken Clarke, the man who originally built it for Tom Walkinshaw Racing in 1983.

Clarke, who is a renowned Rover touring car expert after his time with the Walkinshaw team, took ownership of the bare shell a decade ago and has rebuilt it into an immaculate racer. Finally this season, Clarke has raced the Hepolite-liveried Rover in the Historic Touring Car Challenge.

After being raced by Soper in the 1983 British Saloon Car Championship, it was used as a show car by Bastos but then disappeared. It was found when a Dutch Rover enthusiast in went to buy an engine from a scrapyard.

“Had he not turned up when he did, it would have been crushed,” said Clarke, who completed the final stage of the rebuild by refitting the original steering wheel. He had been given that as a memento at the end of the 1983 season and had kept it on his workshop wall.