Racing into a different era

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Sebastian Priaulx is a teenage Formula 4 driver with a bright future, but how would he cope with a classic Lotus Cortina formerly raced by Jim Clark?

There’s a momentary pause. What was a jovial, bouncing teenage demeanour just a second ago has suddenly come to a shuddering halt. Just to take a breath. Reflect. And, mostly, appreciate the magnitude of the current situation.

This is often the point where reality bites. When the thought process can flicker between the reassuring, energetic excitement at the prospect ahead, to the self-doubt of wondering if what’s about to happen is actually even a good idea… and then back again.

It’s a still, quiet day at the Goodwood Motor Circuit. The track seems almost deserted, and there’s a feeling of flying under the radar. Sitting in the paddock with a silent grace is a single, gleaming 1965 Lotus Cortina. Within its cockpit, the air is still as both its occupants drink in their surroundings. One in particular.

The sun glints off the pearl white bodywork, and then catches the lurid orange, iridium visor adorning the crash helmet of 17-year-old single-seater driver Sebastian Priaulx, who – right now – is living the dream.

THE AFOREMENTIONED MOMENT’S pause was prompted by some fatherly advice from triple World Touring Car Championship winner Andy, who is seated alongside his son. The line was delivered slowly, in a calm and reassuring tone, but regardless weighted with both the excitement and emotion required to drive one fact home.

“Jim Clark once held that very steering wheel, he once sat exactly where you’re sitting, saw what you’re seeing. Pretty special, isn’t it?”

There’s a glint in Andy’s eye as he says it, studying Seb’s silent expression, just waiting for a reaction.

That fact alone would be enough to stop many of us in our tracks, and it did for Priaulx Jr too, who felt those words far more than many teenagers would. Priaulx Jr is no newcomer to motor racing. He’s currently competing in the British Formula 4 Championship, having graduated from the Ginetta Junior series after deciding to follow in the wheeltracks of his famous father.

But this ex-Clark Cortina is a very different prospect. Here, we have a driver of a very modern, cutting-edge generation, sat in a racing machine 36 years his senior. It’s an interesting contrast. How can a young man, so accustomed to an electronically optimised world bathed in carbon fibre and semi-automation, possibly fathom comparatively ancient racing technology such as a floor-mounted four-speed H-pattern gearbox?

“With modern single-seaters everything has to be so precise. With cars like these you almost always have to second-guess the oncoming slide”

A clue to the answer arrives with the rasp of 1.6-litre twin-cam Lotus engine. She’s up and running and Seb, after his brief mental regroup, is raring to go, with Andy seated alongside him for the ride.

‘She’ in this instance is a rather special example of Lotus Cortina. Registered JTW 498C, it is one of three factory Team Lotus cars to compete in the 1965 British Saloon Car Championship. The drivers that year included Clark, John Whitmore and Jack Sears. In fact, the bonnet still bears Sears’ preserved signature.

Clark wasn’t a winner with this car – chassis BA85E 424567S – but did score pole position and fastest lap during the ’65 season-opener at Brands Hatch, before a loose wheel curtailed his progress. But regardless, this Cortina has more than enough pedigree and connection to the Jim Clark legend to be almost intimidatingly special.

It has been extensively restored by leading Cortina specialists and has been in the care of JD Classics, but is now on its way to auction carrying an eye-watering reserve. But prior to it going under the gavel, we’ve got an afternoon to plunge a promising young driver back in time to see how Clark and company operated.

THE ENGINE MAY have sprung into life at the simple twist of a key, but the process of pulling away is notably delayed. Eventually, the Cortina noses its way into the empty pit lane.

“I spent a fair bit of time just trying to get it in gear!” Priaulx Jr smiles. “I thought I’d found first, but it hadn’t gone all the way into the gate because it’s a very long-travel H-pattern box, and I’m really not used to that. Ijust wanted to be smooth and not break anything!

“Then there’s the clutch – you push it down a long way and then bring it up and nothing, nothing, nothing… something! And you go. It’s nothing like the hydraulic clutch we have in the F4 Mygale. That’s like a switch, you’re either on it or off it and there’s no slack. Then the engine started spluttering as it started moving, but Dad told me that’s normal for a 1960s race engine warming up, but it had me worried. It felt like I was kangarooing away, but once we got it rolling it felt great.”

Bunny-hopping to an initial crawl aside, Seb ventures out for what were also his first-ever laps of the Goodwood circuit. It doesn’t take him long to figure out how different the handling characteristics of a 53-year-old Cortina are either.

“It would be so edgy around here at about 80mph,” he says. “The Cortina would have undoubtedly been a really good car in its day, and classic cars like this really have something about them. Compared to modern cars they just slide across the surface, with a fraction of the grip a modern car has. It’s like drifting through every corner, which is actually very tricky, especially when you factor in that you’d probably lose most of the brakes after the first lap.

“Modern cars have come a long way, but they’re not easier or harder to drive – they’re just different. We have a lot more technology in F4, and everything is more accurate. We’ll have a very specific corner turn-in point and an apex point, and sliding a car will lose you a tenth or more, and we hardly have to turn the wheel because the cars are so responsive. Whereas in this car you have huge amounts of lock and play in the steering and the gearchange feels a bit like stirring porridge. I was thinking about trying to heel-and-toe in it and how hard it would be, because the pedals are quite far apart, so it would definitely take a lot of practice and skill.

“You’d have to have a lot of commitment to race around this track. The Cortina’s got no seat belts, no roll cage – it’s basically a road car, and this track would be so fast, yet the drivers would think nothing of going flat-out around it wearing open-face helmets. It says something about their bravery and how the fear factor has changed over the years.

“The laps definitely gave me a great insight into what the drivers did back then – and how hard they worked. When you see old archive footage of races, the cars always look so sideways and slow, but when you’re trying it you realise how close to the limit those guys were. It was really amazing.”

IT’S AT THIS point that Priaulx Sr switches seats for a go in what is one of his all-time idol’s cars. Currently a factory Ford GT driver in the World Endurance Championship, Priaulx is no stranger to historic racing, having competed at the Revival Meeting on several occasions since 2011.

“When I started racing I had role models, and people like Clark and Stirling Moss were it for me, those guys were heroes,” he says, immediately burying his foot exiting the pits to flick the rear at a lurid angle before neatly collecting the slide.

“Cars like this must be so alien to kids now. The modern cars all behave so differently. The steering is so positive and the brakes and clutch are like a switch. Then you have something like this, where you have 20 degrees of steering angle slack either side of centre and a soft brake pedal that only starts to work halfway down the travel, and even then doesn’t really stop the car as you’d like. Add in a tyre that doesn’t like multi-loading and you have such a different driving style. It’s another world. But it’s great fun, and you can see from the outside that the drivers are enjoying themselves, because sideways was fast back then and you could show your skill, and your character, with cars like these.

“I always talk to Seb about his steering inputs as he has a habit of over-correcting. What I loved about Jim Clark was that he was one of the smoothest drivers of his time. You can see his onboard videos where he turns the car in with one steering input, absolutely no unnecessary movements, and would just drift through a corner from turn-in to exit. Jackie [Stewart] was the same, they were big into precision, simple steering. It probably stemmed from the tyre technology of the day and how poor the cross-plies were back then. You could either brake or turn, but not both at the same time, so being smooth on the steering would have given you more grip. With modern single-seaters everything has to be so precise and you can’t get out of shape. You hit every apex and the car flows. With cars like these you have to be more forward-thinking and almost always have to second-guess the oncoming slide.”

Another defining factor of the Cortina’s heyday was the versatility of its drivers. Clark, for example, raced this particular car while also carrying out his other duties for Lotus – skipping the Silverstone BSCC round to lead the marque’s challenge for that year’s Indy 500 as Pole Day clashed with the domestic tin-top schedule in May. Clark would win Indy later that month, two months before also winning the British Grand Prix, during which a non-championship saloon event was held. If that wasn’t enough, Clark also won the 1965 Tasman Series title aboard a 33B and was a serial winner in Formula 2.

JTW 498C was campaigned alongside its sister chassis 496C and 497C, with drivers swapping between the cars throughout the ’65 season. Clark couldn’t win that year’s championship due to his commitments elsewhere, but he did find time for five more outings after that Brands Hatch opener. His first win should have come in round three at Snetterton, but for a collision with Sears causing costly bodywork damage. Clark dominated at Goodwood aboard 497C and also won at Crystal Palace before being excluded from round six at Brands. An off at Bottom Bend caused a puncture and ended his hopes of glory but, undeterred, Clark starred that weekend, shattering the lap record in what had by then become an exhibition outing.

His weekend was capped when he was excluded after one of the Team Lotus mechanics was called to change his car’s ignition terminal when it later stopped out on circuit, earning expulsion for an engineer working on the machine away from the pits. Not that Clark would have cared much by that point.

Clark’s saloon campaign was capped with a third win in the finale at Oulton Park. He finished second on the road but inherited top spot when Jack Brabham’s Ford Mustang was excluded for running non-homologated valve springs. Despite skipping rounds, Clark still scored three wins from his six races with Team Lotus’s BSCC programme, finishing seventh overall in the points and third in Class C. Hardly a bad haul.

“I think racing in different disciplines was how the drivers of the time got their miles,” says Andy, reflecting on the hectic schedules of Clark and his rivals. “Drivers like Jim would win a Grand Prix on a Sunday, and then be in the Cortina on Monday at Brands Hatch. Whereas now these kids have so much testing, plus tools like simulators, and it’s all so disciplined. They don’t have the time or the need to try something else.”

But would Seb prefer to have the range of racing options that drivers like Clark did?

“Driving cars like this is a great insight, but now I think racing has changed,” he says. “Now everything is so focused, especially in single-seaters where the goal is purely F1, and when you’re in F1 you probably don’t want to go and drive anything else. I’d love to drive more cars like this, but when you’re fully committed to things like single-seaters it’s very demanding. When there are 20 Grands Prix a year and a hectic travel schedule, how can you do it all? It was perhaps different back then, with less travel and fewer time pressures.”

And then what of the Jim Clark name? Does his legacy still hold such a significance for a driver who was born 33 years after the Scot’s fatal accident at Hockenheim?

“Just to hold that steering wheel… it put the biggest smile on my face,” reflects Priaulx Jr. “To be in the same position as a motor racing legend: it’s just a pinch yourself moment.

“Sometimes you don’t really appreciate it when you wake up in the morning that you’re a racing driver and you get to do these types of things. So many kids my age aspire to and would love to go racing, and I’m lucky enough to be able to go and do it, and it feels normal to me. But when you think about it, it’s not normal at all. You forget about the privilege of it, especially when you have tough times and troubles. Experiences like this ram home how special this sport can be.”

“You get lots of special memories from this sport, and this is very much one of those”

THE FINAL WORD comes from Andy, but we only get it after a lengthy process of father-and-son selfie shooting with the Cortina along the iconic Goodwood pit straight.

“We had a bit of a moment on the grid before the photos,” says Andy. “I put my arm around Seb and just said ‘Mate, if you ever gave up racing, you wouldn’t have these moments.’ You get lots of special memories from this sport, and this is very much one of those. Motor racing is a tough business and there’s a lot of emotional baggage that comes with it, but moments like this – seeing Seb sat there and explaining to him the gravity of the situation, that he was holding the same steering wheel as a racing legend – those moments are just priceless.”