Racing lines: November 2017

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Historic racing cars are faster now than ever they were in period, so what can be done to control escalating performance?

There’s an unseen battle being fought in historic racing– and it’s fiercely contested both on and off the track. But it’s not what you think. Indeed it’s probably quite the opposite. The fight is to make the cars slower. You need to understand just how quick modern historics (I know, the phrase ‘modern historic’ is a paradox) have become in recent years. To do that you need to compare period lap times with those set now.

That’s not as simple as it sounds, because very few circuits – one, actually – can claim to have retained its original configuration over the last half century. That this same venue – Goodwood – sits at the heart of the historic racing scene makes the comparisons all the more valid.

Have a rummage through Google for archived race results and it really is startling how much quicker cars are in 2017 than when they raced as state-of-the-art machines back in the day. Tin-tops provide an excellent illustration. In the 1963 St Mary’s Trophy, Graham Hill lapped his 3.8 Mk2 Jaguar in 1min 39.0sec. At this year’s Revival, Frank Stippler’s best effort was in the 1min 34sec range. In 1964 Jim Clark took pole with a 1min 35.8sec in his Lotus Cortina. In qualifying for the Whitmore Cup last year I put a Lotus Cortina on pole with a high 1min 29sec. Proud as I am of that achievement, I ain’t Jim Clark.

So why are cars so much quicker? And what can be done to rein them in? To answer the former question you only need to look at a few grainy black and white images. The cars aren’t fundamentally different, but the way they sit when stationary and, more tellingly, their stance when loaded through a corner reveals a lot. As a breed historic race cars are much more expressive than moderns. They lean and slide, hop and twist, dive, squat, spin rear wheels and lock fronts. In period few were more exuberant than the aforementioned Mk1 Lotus Cortina. We’ve all marvelled at shots of Clark, Sears and Whitmore three-wheeling in dramatic style, outside rear wheel squashed into the arch while the inside front hangs in the air.

As fans we look at those images and think ‘awesome’, but if you’re a chassis dynamics expert blessed with half a century’s knowledge you say something about diagonal pitch, measure the car, run some simulations and arrive at a set-up that tames the handling traits for which those cars were famous. And of course they corner much more quickly as a result.

Today’s historic race cars are driven hard. With the possible exception of GP cars, probably much harder than they were in period. Not because drivers of the day couldn’t push them to the limit, but because they knew the cars would break if they did. Modern materials and machining processes mean engines can generate more power and the transmissions can handle it, while brake pad and shoe materials bite more and fade less.

There was a time not so long ago when even the most significant historic competition cars would race with the same engine that propelled them to their landmark victories. I’m sure there are still a few cars like that. You can normally spot them because they’ll be towards the back of the grid, pulling 1500rpm less through the gears. Nowadays it’s possible to have an all-new motor for pretty much anything, so owners can take out the original engine and place it safely on a shelf – history preserved so the cars can race on.

Whether some of these engines are of greater swept volume is one of the most contentious topics. As it’s not practical to open up engines for detailed inspection it’s very hard to police. I don’t think anyone believes the paddock is free of bored and stroked engines (I’m sure it was the same in period), but neither are they as prevalent as some suggest.

Improvements in safety also play their part. Roll cages offer protection and stiffen car structures, while full harnesses, bag tanks, proper racing seats, Nomex suits and carbon-fibre helmets are developments yesteryear’s drivers didn’t enjoy. Smoother, safer circuits and shorter races also encourage harder, faster driving.

Promoters and organisers haven’t been standing idly by. Lots of methods are being tried, from rev limits and a variety of control tyres to increasing minimum weights and raising ride heights.

All are effective in the short term, but just like modern branches of the sport, good intentions can easily become mired in politics and bureaucracy. The FIA controls the issuing of all-important Historic Technical Papers (HTP), which confirm each car is in period-correct specification, but motor sport’s governing body doesn’t have the same blanket control of individual historic series. Most agree this is a good thing, but given the main race promoters all tend to run their series as benevolent dictatorships, finding consensus on how best to tackle the speed of the cars is problematic.

Is there an answer? Bluntly, there has to be. I love racing as much as anyone, but sometimes drivers need protecting from themselves. Similarly it would be a brave preparer who pinned their business on the principle of building cars that are slower than they were last season…

Perhaps it’s time for promoters, preparers, racers and, if necessary, the sport’s governing body to sit down and discuss the issue, before the glorious tightrope we tread in the desire to go faster actually becomes a knife-edge. Until that happens we can be sure of one thing: the pace race will continue.

Dickie Meaden has been writing about cars for 25 years – and racing them for almost as long. He is a regular winner at historic meetings