Saloon car racing at the Group 2 International level is now a professional branch of the sport with large sums of money expended on thoroughly modified production saloons by works teams, a variety of commercial interests and wealthy individuals, through even the latter usually have part of their costs paid by a sponsor of some sort. Group 2 regulations came into force at the beginning of this year (previously International saloon events in this country were run under Group 5 regulations) and they demand that at least 1,000 cars have been produced. This is the requirement which Ford are at present fulfilling with the sale of BDA Cosworth-engined Escorts to the public.
Many of the spectators at British club meetings seem to have misunderstood the above paragraph and we are often asked why it is that 2.1-litre Escort Twin-Cams and Rover 4½-litre V8s cannot compete in the International meetings. Apart from the obvious change in engine capacity –or in some cases even type of engine, e.g., V6 in an Escort –the bodywork of these club-racing saloons is considerably lighter than their Group 2 counterparts, which have four seats and more stringent bodyshell regulations. In practical terms this means that Group 2 cars have far more of the original bodywork left, though usually the bootlid/engine cover and bonnet will be of fibreglass.
Perhaps the most interesting paragraph of the FIA regulations covering this subject is one which says that optional equipment may be recognised, so long as there is a minimum production run of 100 units to equip 100 cars, and that the parts are listed and freely available from a dealer. The components which can be changed under this ruling include cylinder heads, gearboxes, suspension components (so long as the original type is retained), lightweight coachwork and many other fundamental bits. Now one can see why Group 2 is such an expensive form of facing, as in order to be competitive a team running a Mini will need an eight-port cylinder head, while a Ford Escort should ideally have a five-speed gearbox (ZF), dry sump lubrication, and coil springing in addition to the standard cart-spring leaves. In fact, the works 1.300 c.c. Escort GTs, prepared and entered by Team Broadspeed, also have new cylinder heads, not of the crossflow variety, with Tecalemit Jackson downdraught fuel injection. Fuel injection is also on the eight-port-headed Mini-Cooper 1275 S types and by many of the leading Escort T-Cs, the latter mostly getting their equipment from Lucas.
Looking specifically at the Group 2 events held in Britain one finds that there are 12 round of the RAC Saloon Car Championship, of which only three remain at press time–the last round being at Brands Hatch on October 18th. However, the Champion has already been decided as only the best eight performances count.
There are four classes : up to 1,000 c.c., 1,001 – 1,300 c.c., 1,301 – 2,000 c.c. and over 2,000 c.c. This year’s winner, W. “Bill” McGovern, driving a Bevan prepared and entered Sunbeam Imp, came from the small class. This is the second year running that the Champions has come from this division and it is also the second time that Ford, who were the only British manufacturer to officially contest the title, have been robbed of victory through not having a reliable “tiddler” entry. McGovern had very little worth class competition and the 998 c.c., Weber-carburated Imp with an estimated 107 b.h.p. scored not only six class wins but was also able to beat the less highly-tuned 1,300 c.c. Cooper S types. In past seasons the up to 1,000 c.c. cars have provided a lot of the spectacle with Alan Fraser-prepared Imps taking on Broadspeed and Superspeed Anglias, both teams receiving works assistance. If this Rootes victory provides a more competitive entry in this division for next year then so much the better, for only Michael Freeman in the AM Graphics-backed Imp with a Hartwell modified engine and Vincent Woodman in the Broadspeed-assisted Export Escort could really be said to provide any opposition.
The next division also suffered this year as British Leyland no longer back the tyre-smoking 1275 Mino-Cooper S types which used to battle with the words Escorts in the 1,001 – 1,300 c.c. class. Now John Fitzpatrick in the sole works Escort uses soft 350 compound Dunlop tyres and nearly 150 b.h.p. to such good effect that Gordon Spice in the Arden Cooper S has very little opportunity to get within grappling distance, unless the track is wet, in which case the Mini seems to be supreme. Arden have developed a light alloy eight-port cylinder head for the S type, but unfortunately this was not homologated until later in the season, and the BL engine is still not giving enough power to prove competitive once more. Even with the 12-in. diameter wheels (homologated in 1969), the Mini still has problems in transmitting power effectively to a dry track. Looking at the inspired efforts of Spice to bridge the power gap by hurling the blue Mini on to three wheels and tail sliding the f.w.d. device out of any sharp curve, it is easy to see that there is a big gap between the Escort and Mino now. Unless BL homologate an extra engine and even larger wheels it is difficult to see this situation being reversed.
That there are other competitive 1,300 c.c. cars on the Continent is obvious, the Alfa 1300 GTA and Renault Gordini being prime examples, but there was only meeting this year, the Tourist Trophy, which we reported last month, in which one could see the foreigners, in action.
Stepping up a class (1,301 -2,000 c.c.) brings one into the preserve of Ford Motor Company as a flock of Escort Twin-Cams indulge themselves in enjoyable family battles and rob each other of an Escort saloon car title! Throughout the season W. Blydenstein, backed by Shaw and Kilburn, the Vauxhall dealers, has looked after an immaculate Vauxhall Viva GT driven in flamboyant style by “Gerry” Marshall. In spite of a claimed 180 plus b.h.p. the Tecalemit Jackson-injected car is unable to cope with the fleeter Escorts, which boast at least as much power and a lighter bodyshell. Early in the season it looked as though the privately-entered BMW 2002s might present a threat, but in spite of power output claims in excess of 220 b.h.p., none of them really featured while the hotter Escorts were running : most of them, and there were three, are up for sale after striking insurmountable braking and/or handling problems, the very qualities which are often praised in road tests. All of which goes to show how different Group 2 racing is !
Finally, we have the 2-ltire plus cars and one soon learns that to have any chance in the class, and therefore usually for overall victory plus a decent stake in finishing money, a team needs an American breed which will have been prepared for, or already raced in, the Trans-Am series organised by the Sports Car Club of America (SCAA), which caters for “Pony Cars” of the Mustang, Camaro, Firebird or Javelin genre. The capacity limit in these SCCA events is 5-litres and so one finds that the most competitive American cars in England have 5-litre V8 engines giving anywhere between 425 British b.h.p., to the American claims of 470 horsepower and over. The most successful of the imported “Ponies” has been Frank Gardner’s Motor Racing Research-entered Boss Mustang 302 (backed by Ford), which is almost certain to take second place in this year’s Championship after a fine record of outright victories. Unfortunately the Tourist Trophy offered double points to RAC Championship contenders and this is where Gardner lost so many points to McGovern in the Imp. The car looks Brutal rather than pristine and when Gardner has a go it is unbeatable for noise, spectacle and efficiency.
In the same division Brian Muir has a Malcolm Gartlan-prepared and Wiggins Teape-sponsored Chevrolet Z28 Camaro, which gleams more than Gardner’s Mustang, but doesn’t seem to be able to quite get to grips when both cars are fit. Recently Dennis Leech, a West Country garage man, has been giving Gardner a hard time using another Boss Mustang. Leech appeared last year with a Falcon and showed that once he had conquered his own wildness and inexperience with this type of saloon, he had courage and skill. He has had troubles with the Mustang, mainly overheating the engine for one reason or another, but has also had the consolation of leading Gardner on occasion and practising faster : unfortunately Leech’s car is nothing like so reliable as Gardner’s and we have yet to see a race-long duel between them. Roy Pierpoint, like Gardner a former national Saloon Car Champion, drives a W. J. Shaw Camaro, but so far this year it has failed to impress, mainly because the handling characteristics are not as Pierpoint would prefer. In fact, the big banger saloon entries have been unusually well supported this year with David Piper or Prophet usually to be seen in a 5.3 (formerly 5.7) –litre Camaro looked after by South African Beach Buggy entrepreneur Pierre Du Plessis; martin Birrane in his 7-litre”Tunnelport” Mustang appeared midway through the season but is currently contemplating a sad pile of engine components and trying to replace them with something more suitable, while Martin Thomas also has a Mustang of the old style, sponsored by Ovaltine, which usually finishes behind the competitive Escorts. The latter car is prepared by SRG Racing at Biggleswade and was raced some time ago by Yardley Team BRM’s Mr. Oliver.
As I close this article I have just returned from Thruxton where in practice a Broadspeed Cosworth BDA-engined Escort, with Group 2 running gear, and piloted by Gardner, took pole position with a time 0.2 sec. faster than Leech could manager in the Mustang ! Not surprisingly, the BDA broke its differential and was unable to race. In spite of the fact that the Cosworth parts for the 16-valve are not likely to be freely available (and therefore all homologated) before 1971, I would think this is a significant development which would see the Giant Killer battles of small car versus huge car one more to the delight of the crowds.–J. W.