It is almost as if contestants try a little harder during a Jubilee year (remember McIntyre’s 100 m.p.h. TT lap?) for in the seven events so far held towards the Shell/RAC Hill-Climb Championship, now in its Silver Jubilee year, the course records have been broken at every hill with the exception of Doune where the rain proved the winner. Indeed David Hepworth’s Bouley record was gained in spite of sporadic outbreaks of rain which left the track damp in parts. It is now 25 years since Motor Sport reported Raymond Mays’ Championship victory in great detail and although since then hill-climbing has fallen behind circuit racing in popularity it is still a sport with some very impressive machinery and some very loyal followers.
Of the five original hills four are still in use but there are now thirteen rounds, held as far apart as Doune in Scotland, Craigantlet in Ireland and Bouley Bay in Jersey. One hill, the BARC’s Gurston Down in Wiltshire, has joined the Championship for the first time this season. Quite a number of drivers are concentrating all their efforts on these rounds with some of the best and most competitive cars ever seen on the hills. Whereas once there were set ideas as to what constituted the ideal hill-climb equipment, matters have now changed and nearly every driver has a different formula for getting to the top as quickly as possible.
The end of last season saw nearly all the top drivers change their mounts with one notable exception, David Hepworth, whose loyalty to his last year’s car has paid off with a very commanding lead in the Championship. He is still using the Hepworth Special that brought him the Championship in 1969 which uses a one-off Ferguson 4WD system, designated P159. The Championship-winning Oldsmobile engine was discarded at the beginning of last season in favour of a more powerful 5-litre Chevrolet which, with its Weber carburetters, gives 400 b.h.p. Having come a narrow second to Sir Nicholas Williamson last year Hepworth is making no mistakes this time, with record-breaking wins at Shelsley Walsh, Bouley Bay and Barbon, the latter achieved with his engine held in place with the use of three Jubilee clips after an engine mounting had been damaged during the class runs. The Shelsley record was particularly notable, for ten years after Tony Marsh had become the first man to get below 35 seconds on this historic hill, Hepworth, on the last run of the day, broke the half-minute barrier—the first driver ever to do so.
Hepworth’s main challenger is the reigning champion Sir Nicholas Williamson who, after a year of throwing a McLaren around, has returned to a small Brabham; this time a BT35X with a Cosworth FVC engine. This car is particularly suited to the tricky hills as Williamson’s victory at Great Auclum (where he beat Hepworth by a mere 1/100th of a second) showed. However the start of the baronet’s season was marred by the habit the car had of breaking its driveshafts. This meant that he was unable to get into the Championship runs at Prescott, although at Shelsley Walsh when they broke during the class runs he was able to replace them in time. His record-breaking run at Wiscombe was all the more creditable as they were breaking up at the time and he only risked one run.
The first man to use the 1800-c.c. Cosworth FVC sports-car engine on the hills was Tony Griffiths who is another Brabham BT35X customer this year. However, he has now got a very exciting motor in a lightweight 5-litre Repco, originally intended for the BT17 sports racer, which had been lying around Brabham’s workshops for a long time. The whole car—basically an F3 chassis—weighs only 1,100 lb., with the engine giving 480 b.h.p. Outright success has so far eluded the chairman of the Midlands Automobile Club but he came very near to challenging Hepworth on the MAC’s own hill at Shelsley Walsh.
Another interesting and quick Repco-powered car is Mike MacDowel’s. This ex-works Cooper F2 driver has now gone into partnership with former 4WD BRM driver John Cussins to form Team Cusmac, MacDowel doing all the driving. Their unique car has a Formula Atlantic Palliser chassis suitably modified to take a 740-series 3-litre Repco V8, producing 330 b.h.p. After winning both the Doune rounds last year MacDowel did it again in the wet in June, this being the Palliser’s best result to date. MacDowel escaped what could have been a nasty accident at Barbon when, as he was about to go out for his Championship runs, a spectator noticed that a bottom wishbone had cracked, and warned him. Another Palliser will soon join the hill-climb circus for Ferrari exponent Jack Maurice is having a similar car prepared to accept the engine and gearbox from the Tony Marsh 4WD Special which he has heavily crashed.
However, currently ahead of all these except Hepworth is Roy Lane who has, so far, scored in every round. Having “hitched” lifts last year in both Williamson and Bob Rose’s McLarens, Lane was sufficiently impressed to replace his unreliable 4WD TechCraft with an M10B. This smart orange car is powered by the Alan Smith-tuned 5.5-litre Chevrolet V8 from David Good’s M10B. Good’s car is now in the hands of Richard Thwaites who showed much promise last year in a Brabham-Buick BT18 and is now handling this large car very creditably. Thwaites has sponsorship from Halifax workwear specialists Packmail. Lane’s experience means, however, that he is currently the fastest of the McLaren drivers (Bob Rose still has the one he used last year). His season started off in fine style with a win at Prescott since when the competition set by Hepworth and Williamson has been just too quick. But he has turned in some very creditable performances being adept at greatly improving on his second runs especially at Bouley where he was appearing for the first time and at Great Auclum where his handling of the McLaren was a tribute to his skill on this incredibly tight 440-yard hill.
The list of competitive machinery extends probably further than it has done in the history of the Championship, Tony Harrison and Jonty Williamson, vintagent and large car exponent, is running. The former’s car is surely not suitable for this kind of event but Harrison has taken over the mantle of Phil Scragg in trying to get a sports car as high in the table as possible. The car in which he is currently lying ninth is a Can-Am type McLaren M12 powered by the 7.2-litre engine which was used in last year’s works reserve Can-Am car. It is painted a similar hue to the works ones and McLarens have their eye on the jovial Harrison, Mrs. Pat McLaren accompanying the team to a non-championship event at Gurston. Jonty Williamson, vintagent and large car exponent, is running the ex-Martin Brian Cooper-Chrysler T81B, scoring at Prescott and Wiscombe. Other contenders include two Brabham pilots both of whom have been out of hill-climbing for some time and have chosen 1971 to make a comeback.
Malcolm Eaves has chosen a 3.5-litre Buick to power his BT21C and this is usually good enough to net about sixth or seventh place for him, his most disappointing event being Great Auclum where he was half a second slower than his old times. Nevertheless this friendly Birmingham driver is going very well considering that he has been out of the sport for three years. Mike Hawley, another Midlander, has decided that, like Williamson, a small Brabham suits his temperament; not for him the “big bangers”. He is proving this for in the two rounds since his return he has taken nine points and shown why he used to be such a force in hill-climbing. His mount is basically a Formula Atlantic car, comprising a Brabham BT35, powered by a Brian Hart-tuned twin-cam with a claimed 184 b.h.p.
These then are the men who are following in the footsteps of Mays, Allard and Abecassis. This year may appear to be turning into a two-horse race but in terms of record breaking and hard driving it is one of the best. The days of the Cooper twins have gone for ever and b.h.p. has become an all important factor. Hepworth is currently showing that the addition of 4WD helps but there are surprisingly far fewer of these cars on the hills now, especially now that Jack Maurice is turning back to 2WD. Williamson’s victory last year gave some the idea that the sheer power of a F5000 car was the answer but Brian Nelson’s win at Craigantlet last year in his F2 car gave rise to the present Williamson/Hawley school of thought that a small good ‘un was perhaps it. Whatever the answer, this year’s cars are some of the most exciting and the competition has become so fierce that to stay at the top the really quick men are being forced to break records week after week. There is little chance for those who cannot, as was shown at Barbon where four drivers, Hepworth, Griffiths, Lane and Thwaites, got below David Good’s existing record. This is all the more amazing when it is considered that two of the top runners weren’t even in the Championship runs, Williamson having given this event a miss and MacDowel’s cracked wishbone having prevented him from getting to the line.
The Championship looks to be going Hepworth’s way but only the best eight results from the thirteen rounds count and at the moment Williamson, having scored in two fewer rounds, is 19 points behind. As there are ten points to be gained from a win and an extra bonus for getting below the old record Williamson, although in third place, must be looked upon as Hepworth’s most dangerous challenger as second-place man Roy Lane is 13 points behind Hepworth, having scored in as many rounds. Now sponsored by Shell for the third year running this year’s Championship is one of the best. Let us hope that the next 25 years follow in a similar vein.—I. R. W.