The Italian job

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Inspired by a touring car legend and infused with his car’s Italian spirit, ‘Ricardo Meadioca’ drove the race of his life at Goodwood

Of the races on the Goodwood Revival’s packed card, the St Mary’s Trophy is a firm favourite with drivers and crowds alike. It follows an unusual format in that the final result is decided over two races – one for pro drivers, the other for owners or a non-professional guest driver nominated to race in their stead. The St Mary’s also switches between pre-1960 and pre-1966 periods, and there have also been special St Mary’s races for Minis and Austin A30s/A35s. If you’re a tin-top fan it’s the best race of the weekend, possibly the season.

This year heralded the return of the pre-60 grid. Brimming with a gloriously eclectic mix of machines, from diminutive cars such as the rear-engined BMW 700 Coupé to monsters such as the colossal Ford Thunderbird, it also featured more traditional favourites such as the Mk1 Jaguars, Austin A40s and the fabulous lone Alfa Giulietta Ti I’d been invited to drive by its very generous owner, Geoff Gordon.

The brainchild of Historic Racing Drivers Club (HRDC) founder Julius Thurgood, the St Mary’s Trophy encourages cars built to a special St Mary’s Trophy specification designed to foster spectacle and tee up some classic battles between unlikely foes. Performance-enhancing concessions include being allowed to run cars at 95 per cent of their original kerb weight (this figure includes five gallons of fuel) and run engines up to 25 per cent bigger than standard, so long as they come from the same family. In the case of ‘my’ Alfa, this means a 1.6-litre four-cylinder twin-cam in place of the original 1.3. There’s also some freedom with suspension linkages (but no rose-jointing on original parts), and brakes can be upgraded from drums to discs if there are period parts available from models made by the same marque. It’s a bit like today’s Balance of Performance in GT racing, except the objective is mild souping up rather than dumbing down.

Added spice comes in the form of a stellar line-up of current and ex-professional drivers, who all do battle in part one on Saturday, leaving the non-professional owners and guests to have a right old dust-up the following day. Qualifying mirrors the race format, with separate sessions for each driver, and the final result is an aggregate of each pair’s efforts. The twist is that the aggregate isn’t based on finishing positions, but total time taken by each car across the two races.

Geoff Gordon and I are thrilled to learn I’ll be teamed with touring car legend Steve Soper. In recent years I’ve raced against Steve in the U2TC championship and at the Goodwood Members’ Meeting (both of us in Mk1 Lotus Cortinas), but I’ve been a fan of his for as long as I can remember. Hugely enthusiastic about racing at Goodwood, Steve is a great sport. Something which is very apparent in his enthusiasm to join us for a pre-Revival test day, and also in embracing the spirit of Gordon’s driver naming policy when he christens his Italian alter ego Stefano Soperio. Modest to a fault, our Steve. And me? A jammy journeyman by the name of Ricardo Meadioca.

THE WEATHER is rotten for part one qualifying, and Steve is clearly grappling with a problem that makes the Alfa a horrid handful. Finding himself in an uncharacteristic P15 at the end of the session, he could be forgiven for slamming the door and stomping off. It’s a mark of the man that while he’s sure there’s an issue with the rear suspension (it turns out to be the disconnected rear anti-roll bar catching on the axle under load), he offers constructive feedback and scrutinises his own driving for faults: hallmarks of a class act and a thoroughly decent bloke.

Qualifying for part two is wet, but it’s not raining so the track is drying with every lap. Tricky conditions, but with the suspension issues fixed the Alfa flies on the ever-improving track and I’m thrilled to see P1 on the pit board as the session ends. That said, I know Mike Jordan’s A40 is still on its final lap and could well pip me to pole, but in a rather surreal moment I catch a glimpse of some in-car footage on a big screen while I complete my slowing-down lap. Beamed live from his A40 as he crosses the line, his body language suggests anger rather than joy and my pole time remains unbeaten.

The following day means St Mary’s part one. Weirdly I’m more nervous in the build-up to the start than I would be if I were driving. Steve delivers a typically fighting drive, surviving an early coming-together that pushes the right-rear bodywork onto the wheel, before eventually climbing nine places to take a hard-won sixth at the flag. With some big-name retirements, including Mike Jordan’s son, Andrew, we’re still in with a shout of overall victory.

Having applied an uncharacteristically sensible lift-and-coast approach to my, er, ‘enjoyment’ of the legendary Revival Ball on Saturday night, race morning dawns with a mercifully clear head but decidedly fizzy stomach. Over the years I’ve got better at controlling my pre-race nerves, but big occasions still get me going. And there’s no bigger occasion than the Goodwood Revival. Especially when you’re starting from pole…

Thankfully St Mary’s part two is before lunch, so there’s not too long to wait before getting suited up and wandering down to the assembly area. This is one of my favourite places in the world. Full of colour, camaraderie and nervous energy, it’s a time for hugs and handshakes before getting strapped in and channelling that bubbling anxiety into your driving.

Geoff hasn’t raced the Alfa for a year, and without the benefit of extensive testing we’ve been adapting the set-up all weekend. The problems that hampered Steve’s efforts in Friday’s wet qualifying are behind us, but we’re still trying to find a balance between the car’s natural tendency to sit down at the rear and poke its inside front wheel in the air, and taming the oversteer it develops when we run it stiffer at the back. With Steve’s feedback, changeable weather and knowing we’ll have one helluva fight on our hands with Mike Jordan, we elect to disconnect the rear anti-roll bar and let the tail squat and front wheels wag.

It really is an extraordinary feeling as you trundle up the start-finish straight and assume your position on the grid. The crowd is massive: a tunnel of tweed and smiles that towers over you from the grandstand on the left and viewing platform above the pits on your right. Close enough to pick out individual faces and hear shouts of encouragement, there’s surely no more intimate venue in motor sport.

ALL RACES AT Goodwood start with the drop of a Union Flag. With clutch depressed and first gear selected, you bring the revs up and try to stop your shaking left leg from fluffing the launch. The instant the starter’s arm drops we’re away, the Alfa’s twin-cam just in the sweet spot, rear Dunlops spinning but still driving us forward. Thank God for that.

A quick snap into second and I’ve got my nose ahead of Mike, but my upshift to third is a stinker. It actually slots back into first, but I dip the clutch before the engine gets buzzed to oblivion and quickly find third, but in that instant Jordan nips around the outside while the tiny rear-engined BMW 700 Coupé of Richard Shaw dives down the inside, the pair mugging me on the entry to Madgwick.

After a bit of sawing right and left Jordan and I get by Shaw and make a break from the Mk1 Jags, which is a relief as both Justin Law and Grant Williams are very handy in their Coventry buses. I’ve raced against Mike and his A40 a number of times, and we’ve always had a blast. No quarter given, but always treating each other with absolute trust and respect. At Goodwood more than anywhere else, this is the only way to race.

Things quickly settle over the next few laps, Jordan and I in line astern and never more than a few lengths apart, aside from the second lap when I let the Alfa get away from me through Fordwater and rallycross along the narrow strip of grass run-off on the left.

Back on the tarmac and amazingly still in second, it’s impressive to see how much speed the nimble and beautifully tied-down Austin can carry into Madgwick, No-Name (the fast right before St Mary’s) and Woodcote. It’s also encouraging to discover the little Giulietta has excellent drive once it’s settled into those same corners, and appears to be quicker through St Mary’s and getting all-important drive out of Lavant. It’s also got the legs on the Austin in a straight line. We appear to have a race on our hands.

Or at least we did, until Neil Brown suffers a heavy crash on the entry to Woodcote. His beautifully prepared Austin A35 is a sorry state, but as Jordan and I drive by at reduced pace under waved yellow flags it’s good to see Neil has emerged unscathed. A few moments later the safety car is deployed. Understandable as the A35 will take a while to recover, but hugely frustrating for it means the hard-won gap to the menacing Jags has now evaporated. It’s also a great shame to waste precious minutes of the race. I’m beginning to think we’ll spend the rest of it following the safety car, but then it switches off its roof lights and the race is on once more, with six minutes added as compensation.

WHAT FOLLOWS IS without question the best race I’ve ever had. Mirrors full of Jags, windscreen filled with A40, it’s a non-stop battle for every second of every lap, always using every inch of track and sometimes a few feet of grass. It’s great to race against Mike, but also massively frustrating because he hardly, if ever, makes a mistake. You can get the perfect run on him out of Lavant, but he knows the car and circuit so well he always seems to be in just the right spot to thwart your efforts, or make you go the longest of long ways round.

The Giulietta’s 1.6 twin-cam is an absolute screamer. Before the race, its maker – Dave Ashford of Brunswick Racing – was at pains to reassure me it will soak up serious punishment: “Don’t be shy with the revs. Especially if it means you can hold a gear rather than have to make an upshift just before a braking area. Just keep it pinned!” I solemnly swore to leave no rev unused.

That said, I can’t help but wince when it proves more effective to hold third all the way into Lavant, and sometimes fourth all the way to Woodcote or No-Name when trying to draw alongside Jordan. At times there is a danger of burning out the blue shift light, but the motor feels smooth and sharp, and crucially is still making power, even at 8500rpm.

The ebb and flow of the race mean there are moments when I’m totally focused on attempting to pass Jordan’s A40, others when I’ve made a mistake and the Jags are on my tail. There is no respite and we are all absolutely on the limit – breathless, brilliant, bonkers stuff.

Having repeatedly tried moves at Madgwick, Fordwater, No-Name, Lavant and even (somewhat optimistically) the chicane, it is clear that my best hope of taking the lead will be outdragging Jordan down the straight and passing him into Woodcote. This is easier said than done, because he clearly has a reserved parking space on the racing line, but a small wiggle from the Austin midway through Lavant loses him some precious momentum and the Alfa’s extra power helps me pass him before the braking area.

I’ve known for some time that there are few tougher or more stubbornly competitive drivers than Jordan. If there’s a gap of more than half an inch he’ll be sliding through on the inside (or around the outside), so I complete the pass and gently squeeze across to take my line. I can’t see him, but there is a palpable sense of proximity, followed by the faintest of touches as the nose of the A40 just brushes the Giulietta’s tail. I let the Alfa run around the outside in an effort to give Mike some racing room. Just as well, as he is engaged in an epic and somewhat grassy save. You could barely get a feeler gauge between us, but the move sticks. We live to race another lap.

WHEN YOU’RE the hunter you never want the race to end. When you’re the hunted you’d sell your soul to see the chequered flag. There can be only a couple of laps left, but the fight is far from over. This much is clear when I lose the tail of the Alfa through Fordwater. It is a massive moment – full left lock at what the Racelogic data logger later reveals to be 104mph – followed by an equally critical unwinding of lock to avoid spearing off across the aerodrome. While my brown-Nomex moment unfolds, Jordan is back in the lead and the Jags are snapping at my heels.

By some miracle I still hold second place, but Jordan has pulled the biggest gap of the race. Then, like a gift from the gods, we catch a pair of backmarkers on the approach to Lavant. They act like a road block, snagging Jordan right in the heart of the corner and killing his momentum. With his path obstructed I get a perfect run and manage to box him in, passing him and the backmarkers on the right while the A40 cleaves between them on the left.

Exiting the chicane there is no sign of the chequered flag, which means I have at least another lap to survive. Mike is driving like a man possessed and I know the A40 is great through Madgwick: a combination that pressures me into another mistake. The Alfa steps sideways, runs wide and drops off the cam, forcing me to downshift to third, then back up to fourth. The ensuing drag race towards Fordwater – which we tackle two abreast – is won by the A40, so yet again I cede position and slot in behind as we slide through No-Name. This is getting ridiculous.

Having three-wheeled as fast as I dare through St Mary’s, all now hinges on a sweet run through Lavant and a clean pass into Woodcote. The Alfa hunkers down perfectly, powering though with minimal fuss and maximum drive. There is a gap on the left of the straight before the kink. Jordan moves to defend but, with the nose of the Alfa now nudging level with the rear wheel of the A40, he has two options: keep moving across and fire me off, or hold his line and let us both tough it out into Woodcote. Mike being Mike he takes the latter course.

Even now the fight is still far from over, for just ahead are two more backmarkers. Typically we catch them slap-bang in the braking area for Woodcote. I slip by the first of them before we turn in, as does Mike, but the second car (driven by Dragon’s Den entrepreneur Theo Paphitis) could scupper everything if I can’t get by before the chicane bottleneck. I do so with space to spare, then look in the mirrors to witness Mike pass Paphitis in the middle of the chicane! It’s a move I’d have previously believed impossible, but it’s been that kind of race.

With the chequered flag fluttering ahead, I cross the line whooping and punching and clapping like a fool.

Aaaaand… relaaaax.

THE SLOWING-DOWN lap is very SPECIAL. A moment to bask shamelessly in my own glory, naturally, but also time to reflect on what’s led to this point: the tireless energy and enthusiasm of the HRDC’s Julius Thurgood; the vision, commitment and generosity of the Alfa’s owner, Geoff Gordon; first-rate car build and race preparation by Raceworks Motorsport; sage set-up advice, great company and heaps of inspiration from Steve Soper. Sorry, Stefano Soperio.

Having returned to the start line and clambered from the valiant Giulietta, it is time for some photos and interviews. But not before one of the Revival’s best-known and most coveted rituals: “Are you a cigar man, sir?” asks Goodwood’s ceremonial sommelier.

“Not normally,” I reply, “but today I think I’ll make an exception…”

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