On the road with Simon Arron

Life in the fast lane

Snetterton, August 1: some old-fashioned club racing with a contemporary twist

Time was that Snetterton, though hospitable, felt like one of the most remote places on earth.

From the fringes of south-east London, you’d dawdle through grimy suburbia, find breathing space on the M11 and then join the mostly single-lane A11 with its tapestry of trucks and tractors. But no more. The A11 is now a fully functioning dual carriageway and the circuit lies about an hour closer to the capital than once it did.

As ever, the UK was overrun with options as August dawned. VSCC Prescott? The Classic Sports Car Club at Mallory Park? Hugely tempting, both, but in the end I opted for the now almost neighbourly Snetterton. It was my first fixture of the year with the 750 Motor Club, whose presence is ever obvious from the manner in which competing cars spill over into public parking areas because few paddocks are large enough to accommodate them. And this, remember, is a realm in which vans and trailers dominate still. Large transporters remain a long way from invention and one suspects that will ever be so.

The café is almost as busy, its tables surrounded by orange-clad volunteers feasting on fry-ups. Best to do likewise, really… and then walk off a few calories with a stroll to the outside of the ‘Searpin’, as locals refer to Montréal, the hairpin on the site of the corner originally known as Sear. Standing on a strip of grass that has reclaimed part of the old A11, whose fading centre line remains just about visible, it feels as though you’ve entered a nature reserve rather than a racetrack, with two buzzards circling overhead, birdsong drowning out the circuit PA and butterflies adding a vibrant splash to the Norfolk hedgescape.

Racing cars do little to disrupt this pastoral idyll. The bill blends several of the 750MC’s one-make staples – Mazda MX-5s, Renault Clio 182s, Locosts – with categories encouraging rival low-volume manufacturers of a type that once formed the sport’s British backbone. Most grids have a common, binding feature – they’re full – and the racing is uniformly lively. Yes, there are one or two runaway victors, but hardly a race passes by without several cars squabbling vigorously for one of the minor places, whether that be third or 23rd.

Providing entertainment isn’t the exclusive preserve of those at the front.


Eastern promises

Cadwell Park, July 26: rain wreaks havoc with a new two-wheel festival, but the right bits are all in place

The tone of conversation tells you this couldn’t be anything other than a bike meeting. The paddock is stirring slowly, but already a couple of elderly blokes are chatting audibly about the painkillers they use to counter the consequences of bygone injuries.

A queue of peckish marshals extends far beyond the door of the main paddock diner, so instead I take breakfast at a cabin annex. MotorSport Vision boss Jonathan Palmer has long been known for his attention to detail – something that extends, happily, to the provision of proper HP Sauce in many of his cafés. Much better than the generic brown sludge some like to pass off as acceptable garnish and perfect complement to a sausage sandwich…

The inaugural Cadwell Park International Classic was conceived following the success of the circuit’s 80th anniversary meeting one summer earlier, when a sizeable crowd turned up to acknowledge the venue’s suitability for two-wheeled competition.

This new event was themed very much around classics, both bikes and riders. Star turns included world champions Jim Redman, Giacomo Agostini and Phil Read, the latter pair demonstrating MV Agustas, plus John Cooper, Roger Burnett, Mick Grant, John Reynolds and others, while Dave Hailwood rode his late father Mike’s Honda 4 during one of many parades. Quite an infusion of sights, sounds and scents: why pay a fortune for a small bottle of Chanel when a dab of Castrol R is at least as seductive?

Conquering Cadwell is one thing, the weather quite another. Although the second – and principal – day of the meeting dawned brightly, the forecast looked grim and organiser MSVR heeded the weather radar.

Formula 1 TV schedules militate against the deployment of common sense, hence the 2009 Malaysian GP being allowed to start on the cusp of a storm, leading to the race’s abandonment when the crowd had watched barely half what it had paid to see.

In this instance, all warm-up sessions were scratched and the race schedule moved forward in order to maximise use of a dry track. The weather, though, can be an insuperable foe. The morning was blessed with full fields and much close racing – the sight of classic superbikes pawing The Mountain air with their front wheels a particular highlight – but lunchtime drizzle precipitated a significant deterioration in conditions. Following the break, only a handful of bikes turned out for events that should have featured grids of 20 or more. Parades were cancelled and race distances shortened, but even this conservative approach couldn’t prevent riders from falling and the chequered flag fluttered for a final time by 3.15pm.

The weather might have become hideous, but the idea is right, the location perfect and the potential enormous.


Sterling Castle

Chateau Impney, July 11: renaissance time as a bygone sprint morphs into a hillclimb

The recipe might not sound too promising – a paddock in a hotel car park – but this simple truth is a touch misleading. Completed in 1875, the establishment in question is Chateau Impney, whose architectural flourishes have little in common with the average Travelodge.

Diverse antiquity gathered in the shade of its spires, to compete in a forward-looking hillclimb that harked back 48 years, to the previous running of sprint events within the grounds of Chateau Impney. The property is nowadays owned by the Spollons – a family long steeped in motor sport. Located close to junction 5 of the M5 and but 16 miles from the ancient magnificence of Shelsley Walsh, the setting looked perfect. Sometimes, things feel right before a wheel has so much as turned.

An early call went out over the paddock Tannoy – “Does anybody please have a spare set of overalls, size 44-plus?” – but teething problems were always likely to extend beyond forgetful entrants. A few minor delays were inevitable, but for the most part things ran smoothly – except down at the first left-hander, where several competitors slithered straight on, or else just misread the layout, and underlined the necessity of early sighting runs.

In front of the chateau, meanwhile, a female mallard was desperately trying to coax her chicks from a pond – but all were too small to make the leap. Eventually, a plank was supplied to facilitate the family’s escape – soon after which they all trudged through a hedge and, wholly predictably, walked across the track. Proceedings were briefly interrupted while a marshal ushered them from the flight path of passing Bentleys…

The entry was awash with dimensional contrasts, everything from Duncan Pittaway’s crowd-pleasing 1911 Fiat S76 – basically a fireworks factory on wheels – to 1930s Austin 7s and Mini Coopers, but the cut-off point was strictly 1967.

Down in one of the outer paddocks, Jason Shalders’ 1966 MGB was thus vaguely eligible to stand among its peers – although it looked unlike any B of previous acquaintance. Officially known as the MGB GT3, this bewinged creation will when finished be powered by a 4-litre twin-turbo V8 with a target output of more than 1000bhp. The objective? To break the Nürburgring Nordschleife lap record for road-legal cars, which might not have been on the British Motor Corporation’s agenda at launch in 1962.