On the road with Simon Arron

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Tight course, curry sauce

Wiscombe Park, July 30: Devon is notorious for its narrow lanes, but with careful planning they can be put to competitive use

My journey began in 2016, at the Silverstone Classic qualifying day, and concluded circa 1976, in a remote corner of East Devon. I’d been transported from an event too vast to be staged at any other UK venue, but where petite classics aren’t always easy to appreciate beyond the circuit’s vast run-off areas, to the garden path of a Gothic country estate, whereon even a Ford Anglia looked slightly too large for purpose. But Wiscombe Park has been hosting hillclimb events since August 1958 and readers of this magazine should be familiar with one of the venue’s original architects: Denis Sargent Jenkinson.

Traipsing the land in pursuit of motor sport, one becomes accustomed to roadside signs enticing drivers to stop and buy asparagus, cabbages or potatoes (often with a rogue apostrophe): en route to Wiscombe, ‘cider next lay-by’ looked a more compelling reason to pause.

Being unfamiliar with the terrain, I peeled upon arrival through what looked like a promising gate… and found myself seconds later at the top of the 915-metre course, which drivers were presently exploring on foot. One of them asked for a lift to the bottom. “I’ve not been here before,” he said. “It all looks a bit narrow, so it’s probably just as well I’m not allowed to run nitrous injection…” This turned out to be Jeffrey Way, who competes in a 1978 7.5-litre Camaro.

The paddock, like that at many hillclimbs, is a slope of grassy wonder, which means a degree of effort is needed when manoeuvring cars manually. There are no permanent buildings, but dog-eared huts function perfectly well and are far more representative of our sport’s essence than a three-tier motorhome will ever be. It’s also an extraordinarily friendly place – I’m not sure I’ve ever known so many random strangers wander over to chat about cars or cameras – and early in the morning, before engines are primed, the whole area resonates to the sound of nearby sheep. Bucolic bliss, then.

Run by Woolbridge Motor Club, it was a day of competitive run-offs for those in several lower-key series, with practice for drivers who would the following afternoon be chasing British Hillclimb Championship points. Consequently, the entry featured everything from virtually standard Peugeot 106s to the no-holds-barred single-seaters that give this branch of the sport its appeal: colossal power expertly exploited within improbably tiny confines. Series leader Scott Moran might have been absent, but the sight of his rivals sashaying between the trees will stick awhile in the memory. You didn’t even need to be able to see the cars to savour their presence: standing in the woodland towards the top of the hill, the echo of blipped throttles, locked brakes and trick exhausts provided adequate intoxication.

The red flag flew a little too frequently – a symbol of Wiscombe’s challenging nature (particularly at Martini, the final left-hander that follows a long straight) – and at some point my left shin was savaged by an unidentified insect with 5.7-litre teeth, but such trifles could not remove the day’s gloss. Getting the most from the venue requires a fair degree of walking, but it would be a lovely place to take a stroll even were it not blessed with Ford Escorts or the spaceframe delights of a Maguire Mini – a 1970s racing staple that remains competitive in this domain.

A cake competition was judged during the lunch break (something that probably wasn’t happening simultaneously before German Grand Prix qualifying at Hockenheim) and a two-tier catering system was in place, with marshals having their own priority queue to ensure they could eat before returning to their posts – a nice touch that respected a breed whose contribution to the sport is all too often overlooked.

On which note I am pleased to report that one of the great northern delicacies – chips with curry sauce – is likewise available in East Devon… and very good value at £3.50. 

When two worlds collide

Cadwell Park, July 24: Formula Ford makes its maiden appearance on a VSCC bill – and not before time

The contrast could hardly have been greater. When last I visited the Vintage Sports-Car Club’s annual Cadwell Park meeting, in 2014, the rain had been so violent that it was bouncing from the asphalt and returning more or less whence it came. This time, sun cream was a more useful accessory than waterproof trousers or Gore-Tex boots.

The Cadwell paddock looks ever resplendent when busy – and especially so when packed with bygone machinery. It isn’t every day, though, that you’ll see a 1957 Kurtis Indycar emerging from the scrutineering shed adjacent to a Reynard FF82 Formula Ford chassis. But it is increasingly common for promoters to sell a couple of programme slots to other interested parties, to help balance costs, hence the Luna Logistics Classic FF1600 Championship became the first of its kind to grace a VSCC meeting. The subsequent reaction suggests it might not be the last, either.

The day began with a customary Cadwell fry-up and featured lots of close racing bisected by a leisurely lunch (sausage, chips and vanilla ice cream, albeit not all at the same time). Only two of the three entered ERAs survived into the afternoon – Mark Gillies was quickest in R3A, but it broke during practice and left Nick Topliss clear to win the opening scratch race in R4A – but one alone would be sufficient to stir the soul on a circuit such as this. Other highlights included a splendid squabble between Justin Maeers (GN Parker) and Tom Walker (Amilcar), the latter prevailing after Maeers faded in the slipstream of endless passing and repassing, and Julian Grimwade’s victory in a 22-strong race for Frazer Nashes and GNs. Grimwade, Eddie Gibbs and Maeers were separated by just 1.3sec when the red flag appeared after Ian Bingham rolled without injury at The Mountain. The result was declared after three laps, but each of them had been a treat to behold. Won by Fred Harper’s aforementioned Indy Kurtis (possibly not the ideal tool for Cadwell), the event for front-engine pre-61 racing cars featured a terrific battle for fourth place between Bill Tuer and Hamish Bibby, the pair of them 0.4sec apart after eight laps that underlined the ability of three-wheeled Morgans to corner perfectly capably on just two. The 500cc F3 drivers provided the day’s closest finish, Mike Fowler (Cooper MkV) pipping Xavier Kingsland (Staride) by six hundredths (VSCC timing runs, rather charmingly, to only two decimal places).

Featuring 1979 European Formula Ford champion John Village (who ran as high as fourth until engine trouble intervened), the FF1600 race was a spectacular complement to the aforementioned.

Back at the wheel following a recent leg operation, Mike Gardner (Crosslé 32F) fought firmly but fairly at the head of the field with Adriano Medeiros (Van Diemen RF80). The two swapped places constantly until Gardner ran wide at Mansfield late in the race and slipped to third, behind team-mate Ghislain Genecand (Crosslé 25F). “It was completely my mistake,” Gardner said, “but I’m not really bothered because it was a great race and I love driving here. I’ve really enjoyed seeing the VSCC cars, too. I’ve never previously attended one of their events and the cars are absolutely fantastic to watch. I hope we’ll appear with them again in the future.”

One suspects he isn’t alone.

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