Grand prix or grass roots?

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There were other options while Silverstone hosted the British GP

Fresh motor sport venues are ever a treat – and by rough calculation Gurston Down became the 104th I’ve visited across six continents during the past 50-odd years. If ever Antarctica awakens to racing, I’ll do my best to get there, too…

LYDDEN HILL

The whole nation appeared consumed by buoyancy as I threaded towards the M20. England 2, Sweden 0; World Cup semi-finals; sense of overachievement; all other radio news apparently cancelled…

Virtually deserted roads were a handy by-product – dark matrix forebodings about delays on the A249 near Detling (due to the Kent County Show, a pageant celebrating farming, the countryside and rural life) were wide of the mark… unless I was just stupidly early, which is always a possibility.

And while I love football at every level [editor’s note: he supports Altrincham], I’d contend that many other things in life can be at least as uplifting as whatever the national team achieves. And driving into Lydden Hill’s throwback paddock is among them, especially on a day such as this. The Classic Touring Car Racing Club had 11 months earlier brought circuit racing back to the venue, after a couple of fallow summers, and returned on July 8 with more of the same: four grids, eight races and terrific diversity that extended from an MG Midget and Sunbeam Stiletto to a Saab 9000 and Rover P6, although the latter reversed off the grid before its first race and wasn’t seen again. Practice commenced at a leisurely 10.30am and the final race was flagged off just before 4pm – despite the odd delay. Civilised, in a word.

The day began beneath the gentle thrum of a paraglider, which looped around the circuit a couple of times before moving on – perhaps the pilot was assessing the impact of recent circuit improvements. Not much ever seems to change at Lydden, but since last season the old scrutineering bay has been converted into an agreeable alfresco cafeteria at the paddock’s heart. It’s unlikely to earn a Michelin star any time soon, but chips with mayonnaise for £2.50 seems a fair deal. You could almost be in Belgium (although, come to think of it, you almost are in Belgium)… The appalling old loos have gone, too. The building’s exterior shell remains, but the fittings within are now actually usable.

Positives, both.

Racing commenced with painful lassitude: Luke Allen (Honda Civic Type-R) averaged only 50.84mph to win the opener, much of it having been spent behind the safety car after what looked a simple recovery operation – to tend a stranded Renault Clio – proved to be anything but. And it took so long to arrange the grid correctly for the first Group 1 race that it seemed the curfew might strike before the lights went out.

Once the meeting got into its stride, however, it was worth the wait, partly because Paddock Bend remains an exquisite showcase for any racing car with a bit of suspension articulation and particularly for an old-school confrontation in the first Pre ’66 encounter: power and girth vs momentum and agility. Alan Greenhalgh (Ford Falcon) led away, but Tim Harber (Mini) refused to cede and almost got his nose ahead on a couple of occasions.

Much of the competitive tension dissolved when the Mini expired after 11 laps, but the pair had encapsulated their sport’s true essence.

 

OULTON PARK

The itinerary listed an event for ‘Sevens’, but kilometres of tubular protection were a clue that these were Caterhams rather than anything one might have expected. Here we had a Mini Festival with lots of MINIs but no proper Minis, a peculiar concept indeed.

I can’t recall when last I witnessed a meeting on Oulton’s Island Circuit – it might have been when I raced there (perhaps ‘drove’ is a better word) more than 30 years beforehand, but the chaotic nature of 2017’s corresponding fixture on the Fosters layout was presumably a catalyst for change. There were certainly fewer red flags and safety car interludes this time, but ‘fewer’ is not the same thing as ‘none’. There were two stoppages within the first 10 minutes of JCW MINI Challenge qualifying, although things were subsequently calmer in the races.

Won by Rob Smith and Ant Whorton-Eales, both JCW races were corkers – close, hard and fair, something of an exception on a day when poor entries took the sting out of other MINI events. Oliver White enjoyed a straightforward Heritage Formula Ford double and Danny Winstanley cruised to two Caterham victories.

It was a pleasant enough meeting, set to a soundscape of buzzards screeching overhead, cows lowing in the fields beyond Knickerbrook and a band playing The Waterboys covers on the paddock’s fringe (their melodies carried all the way to the Island hairpin), but it was just missing a certain something.

Minis, mainly.

 

BRANDS HATCH

It has been a summer of heritage within the West Kingsdown suburbs, but then that’s often the case.

The Historic Sports Car Club’s traditional Legends Superprix had a slightly different feel this year, with only the Derek Bell Trophy providing any meaningful noise.

It’s a season or few since 3.0-litre Formula 1 cars graced the event, but Historic F2 was absent this time – cars ran instead at the Masters meeting in May – although a bespoke Formula Atlantic class within the DBT was a welcome addition. History records the Brabham BT40 and March 73B as racing cars, but I’d counter that they qualify equally as sculptural art.

HSCC staples such as road sports were likewise missing – and Super Touring had been dropped, a reflection of the apathy that seems to accompany any meeting that isn’t the Silverstone Classic or Oulton Park Gold Cup – but the Pre ’61 and Pre ’66 F1 entries were excellent. In the former, an intense second-place Sunday duel between Rod Jolley (Lister Jaguar) and Will Nuthall (Alta) highlighted historic competition at its very best – and Brands Hatch’s butterfly-rich landscape was the perfect, pastoral backdrop.

Fast-forward a fortnight and the Classic Sports Car Club played host at the sawn-off version of Brands; the appeal of its approach can be gauged from the packed entry (311 cars in 11 categories, with as many as eight reserves in one instance).

Some of its formulae remain conceptually blurry – the Ford Capri and Talbot Sunbeam Lotus almost certainly qualify as Future Classics, although the jury remains out on the Alfa Romeo 33 – but the bottom line is that there is scope, somewhere, to accommodate almost anything.

It was nice, too, to see Baby Bertha being flung around in the prescribed manner, regular historic front-runner Andy Newall taking the helm and coaxing Gerry Marshall’s old V8 Firenza to a third and a second in the Wendy Wools Special Saloon/Modsports races.

The opening day catered for relatively modern machinery, the second was tailored more to those who fell in love with Lotus Cortinas when they were about four years old.

That’ll be me, then.