An old favourite is back – and not just swallows fly at Shelsley Walsh
It isn’t the most famous corner named Paddock in Kent, but as a showcase for older cars’ fluid body language it has few peers. And it was nice to see it restored to its proper purpose, for August 12 heralded the first car race meeting at Lydden Hill for more than two years.
Inconveniently located it might be (unless you happen to live in Canterbury, Dover or France), but Lydden has always been worth the trip and is presently trying to re-establish itself on the nation’s sporting conscience. World RX has been taken away (though the 2017 posters remain) and drifting – a staple in recent years – seems to have, well, drifted, which leaves track days, the occasional motorcycle event, a couple of national rallycross fixtures and, hopefully, a growing number of car meetings from next season.
The Classic Touring Car Racing Club was at the helm for the venue’s ‘rebirth’. It was curiously uplifting to pass a trailer-borne Alfasud en route – and even more so to see a Mini Countryman special saloon in the paddock. Such things, surely, are among the principal reasons for the world’s invention…
“I caused a bit of an internet storm last year,” said Countryman driver Bill Richards, a Lydden veteran. “I won the Fastest Mini in The World race at Brands Hatch in ‘Bessie’, my old Metro. That triggered lots of complaints, because it wasn’t really a Mini, so I did a bit of tape measurement, found the Countryman was the same length as a Metro and made a new body to drop onto the chassis.” Result: no more complaints. A split hydraulic pipe sidelined the car after a couple of practice laps, so he popped home to collect his steel-shelled Mini Clubman and obtained dispensation to start from the back. As you do.
In an era when tight timetables and overly obsessive use of red flags tends to compromise old-fashioned concepts such as lunch, this was a refreshing throwback. With five healthy grids of cars racing twice apiece, practice was over by 11.00 to create a civilised two-hour break – albeit peppered with historic kart demos and classic car parades.
On a day ripe with Vauxhall Firenzas, Morris Minors, a Saab 9000, a Ford Cortina Mk2 and at least a whole year’s production run of Escorts, much of the racing was good – though admirably tough refereeing was required when Honda Civic drivers AJ Owen and Luke Allen tangled at Paddock. Owen shoved his rival through the corner and off onto the adjacent rallycross track, as a consequence of which he was excluded from both the race result and the balance of the meeting. Stewards at other events, take heed.
Escort drivers Pete Winstone and Jason Christie demonstrated how things should be done, competing fiercely but fairly while but a couple of millimetres apart – a perfect illustration of grass-roots racing’s essence.
Mathematically it was possible for Lamborghini Huracán drivers Phil Keen and Jon Minshaw to wrap up the British GT Championship in Kent on August 6, but… “Just you watch,” said one leading entrant. “The way the Balance of Performance parameters have been moved around, I’d be amazed if anything other than a Bentley won today.”
And so it came to pass. The Continental GT3 might not be at its best in the wet, leaving the Team Parker Racing entry of Rick Parfitt and Seb Morris sixth on the grid, but Parfitt worked his way efficiently to the front in the dry and built a safe advantage that Morris was able to maintain during the race’s second phase.
A bigger talking point, though, was the championship’s future shape, following the announcement that GT3 and GT4 cars will race separately from 2018. One doesn’t foresee a problem filling a GT4 grid, but GT3 numbers have been dwindling in the face of high costs: championship promoter SRO hopes it will be able to draw at least 16 entries, but there were only 10 on the 29-strong grid at Brands. The sight, sound and sophistication of a contemporary GT3 is a perfect complement to the wooded contours of Brands Hatch (ditto Oulton Park, come to that) – a breath of fresh thunder that needs to be retained on the domestic calendar. Most of Kent shook whenever a Continental passed by – and the tremors might well have been felt in Bruges.
The diversity within the GT ranks (10 marques present) highlighted the one-make nature of the support categories. In times of yore, F3 cars were distinguishable by a flat-sounding engine note that vacillated whenever a rear wheel rode a kerb. Nowadays, they tend to smell of burning wood as a consequence of bottoming out through Paddock. Enaam Ahmed (profiled in Motor Sport, May 2015) won two of the three races and would wrap up the BRDC F3 title later in the month, with a victory at Snetterton.
And there was a fortuitous escape for VW Scirocco racer Paul Ivens, the innocent victim of a chain-reaction VAG Trophy shunt that sent him toppling across the infield. Most of us love cars that have drinking straws for A-pillars, but – no matter how good modern rollcages might be – there are times when a stouter frame is also a distinct advantage.
One assumes there were swallows twittering aloft when Shelsley Walsh exhaled its first internal combustion vapours 112 years ago, but irrespective of historical accuracy they make a splendid welcoming committee as you peel into one of Britain’s – actually, make that the world’s – most original sporting theatres.
The occasion? The Championship Challenge meeting (August 13) – a celebration of 70 years of the British Hillclimb Championship, complete with a gathering of many past title winners and their steeds. They completed a traditionally diverse tapestry extending from a P-reg Subaru Impreza estate via the customary assembly of Caterhams to Keith Bristow’s gorgeous Ralt RT1 (a bygone winner on French hills in the hands of Christian Debias).
For most of the past champions, participation amounted to no more than a gentle lunchtime demonstration sans casque – a pleasing contrast to the vim of the current BHC pace-setters, who challenged the mind’s perception of what’s possible on a strip of asphalt barely any wider than the average domestic staircase. Will Hall (Force) took FTD, covering 1000 very steep yards in 23.21sec, while Trevor Willis (OMS) was clocked at 148mph through the Esses speed trap. Think about that for a moment… then ponder that Scott Moran had been 3mph brisker at the same point the previous afternoon. Small wonder that swallows gather to watch.
On paper the ingredients looked ideal. The Fosters Circuit was pressed into service for the only time this year on August 19, for another in MotorSport Vision’s summer series of Mini Festivals, and its tight confines tend to keep cars closely knit.
Sometimes too close, perhaps.
I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced a race meeting quite like this. It began with the first practice session being red-flagged, due to a stray MINI running amok at Old Hall, and continued in a similar vein thereafter. The safety car driver probably completed more laps than anybody else on a day of constant interruptions. Ironically, the first (and just about only) race to run without significant delay was the first for the MINI Challenge’s Cooper Pro/Am classes, which took place during a deluge that should have caused havoc, yet somehow didn’t. The changeable weather might have played a part in the chaos, but there is always the option of driving to the conditions.
There was some very good racing – Se7ens and Miglias will ever be a delight to watch, despite their relative antiquity – but that couldn’t mask the fact that there wasn’t very much racing…
Images: Simon Arron