The passage of time

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Are historic racing cars quicker today than they were in period? Goodwood could provide the answer. Tim Scott pores through its data in a bid to discover the answer

The Goodwood Revival has brought new levels of authenticity to historic racing. Scrunch up your eyes and it’s not hard to imagine that you’re watching Parnell, Moss or Clark in their prime.

Certainly a lot of the drivers — be they leading lights of the historic racing scene or professionals enjoying a weekend jaunt — take the cars close to their limits during the weekend’s races. And because the track is essentially unchanged from its heyday (the chicane was inserted for 1952) a direct comparison between the laptimes set by the stars of yesteryear and today’s pace-setters can be made.

Using only fastest race laps (to escape testing mythology), we’ve picked four of the best-known designs to compare. It’s an inexact science, and there’s an incalculable number of factors involved, but using broad strokes there are some interesting results — some quicker, some slower.

ERA (Types A, B, C and D)

August 1953: Graham Whitehead (1min 39.0sec)

September 2001: John Ure (1min 31.3sec)

The archetypal British pre-war single seater, ERAs played an active part in Goodwood’s nascent years and were winning races as late as 1954. Most have been active ever since and this has played a major part in them gaining the most speed over the years: John Ure’s best time (in a 1.5-litre car!) is almost 8sec quicker than the best non-Revival lap.

ERA preparation expert David Morris explains the huge gain: “There are many factors. People have developed the engines a lot over the years — new cranks, better cams — and these cars undoubtedly have more power now. Tyres are also key: the Dunlop L-section tyre used now was not around in the ERA’s day — and they’re worth 2-3sec a lap on their own.

“Cars are better prepared now. They’re used so much that parts have to be remanufactured, and they benefit from modem advances. It’s little chunks of time, but it all adds up.”

Aston Martin DBR1

September 1959: Stirling Moss (1min 32.0sec)

September 2001: Peter Hardman (1min 29.2sec)

Is there a car more central to Goodwood’s heritage than the DBR1? Winner of the track’s Tourist Trophy world championship rounds in 1958-59, Stirling Moss’s best race lap was eclipsed by him in qualifying (1min 31.2sec), but even that’s still not quite as quick as Peter Hardman has managed using the winning chassis today. Like many of the top 1950s sportscars, DBR1 has got quicker over time.

“With this car I think that the set-up is very important,” explains Hardman. “I have been driving it for eight or nine years now and we’ve probably got it better dialled-in than the works team ever managed.”

As is standard practice with a famous car, the original engine is stored and the replica version is built with a new block and heads, and so is slightly more powerful.

Tyres are a big factor, too: “We use Dunlop L-sections. They are copied from those of the period, but they’re better made now.”

Cooper T51

April 1960: Stirling Moss (1min 24.0sec)

September 2000: Rod Jolley (1min 25.6sec)

Innes Ireland’s new Lotus 18 proved a cut above Moss’s Cooper during the Glover Trophy at the 1960 Easter Meeting. Although Stirling squeezed everything out of the T51 – he lopped 4sec off the lap record as the 2.5-litre formula reached its zenith his chase was to no avail.

The T51 is a popular model today. The T45/T51 of the spectacular Rod Jolley has been consistently one of the quickest cars at the Revival meetings, and his best lap is less than 2sec off Moss’s mark.

Nowadays well-built engines and improved tyres are constant factors, but for Jolley it’s also about familiarity.

“The main reason I can get close is that the car fits me like a glove,” he says. “Jack Brabham only drove this car four or five times and I’ve driven it for 10 years. I know it far better than any of the original guys did and I’ve honed the set-up over time.”

Ferrari 250 GTO

June 1963: Graham Hill (1min 27.4sec)

September 2001: Mark Hales (1min 31.8sec)

The beautiful 250 GTO provides a fascinating case of a car that no longer laps anywhere nearly as quickly as it did in its heyday. The model famously won the Goodwood TT in 1962-63, beating the Lightweight Jaguar E-types and Project Astons. In the Revival meetings of today that’s no longer the case.

Mark Hales, aboard Nick Mason’s example, has recorded the fastest GTO race lap in recent times, but he is still 4sec shy of Hill’s best. It’s a topic that Hales has researched extensively.

“Of course, we’re comparing to world champion drivers,” he says, “but there are reasons for the gap being so big. A major one is tyres. In their day the GTOs had bigger rear tyres — crucial for a car with a lively rear end — but these are simply no longer available.”

The supremely valuable GTOs do less racing than most rivals, which in turn accounts for their having less development. A well-prepared Jaguar or Aston engine these days produces more power than it used to, but that is not the case with the Ferrari. “There’s been little development,” says Hales. “The factory had engines that were better than they are now — they would push the boundaries on compression with the aviation fuel they had, and they used more revs than we do. I take the car to the limit, but have to be cautious in traffic — which is a real factor at Goodwood. Back in the Sixties the drivers were not bothered if they dinged a panel or two or maybe even worse.”

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