On the road with Simon Arron

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Postcard from Kent
Brands Hatch, July 13-14: period cars in a perfect setting at the HSCC Historic Superprix

The morning is still fresh, my journey little more than a mile old, when Radio 5 Live imparts news of developing traffic jams on the A27 close to Goodwood. For several years now, the Festival of Speed and HSCC Historic Superprix have occupied the same weekend, a perplexing conflict that dilutes the marshalling pool in vaguely adjacent catchment areas. There are moves afoot to avoid such clashes in future – but a major rival attraction, just 75 miles away, has never blunted the Historic Sports Car Club’s pulling power. This year it ran 18 races for 14 categories and attracted about 420 cars.

The Brands Hatch Grand Prix loop is possibly the finest of all stages for the 1960s/1970s machinery that dominates the HSCC portfolio, for the circuit’s landscape has changed relatively little since such cars were new. It’s worth wandering beyond the familiar left-hander at Surtees to explore the distant territories of Pilgrims Drop, Hawthorns, Westfield, Dingle Dell, Sheene Curve and Stirlings: there are few concessions to modernity out here, just a fast, flowing circuit surrounded by woodland and nature. When the air isn’t filled with the rasp of a passing Cosworth BDG or similar, the green woodpecker’s call dominates.

Most modern venues have purpose-built paths that provide easy access for media and officials: if you have a trackside tabard for the full Brands Hatch, though, much of the perimeter requires a sense of adventure and you’re likely to return with calves bearing evidence of the prickly undergrowth.

On the contemporary Formula 1 calendar, only the ‘ancient monuments’ of Interlagos and Suzuka retain such features – and are all the better for it.

The cars weren’t the only things familiar to circuit habitués of previous decades, for the same applied to many faces. On the Saturday I set out to locate Patrick Watts, a driver I’d first met 30 years earlier when he graduated to the British Saloon Car Championship (a campaign I covered in full, when the term ‘touring car’ was still a couple of seasons from adoption). I found him enjoying a paddock café lunch with fellow veterans Sean Walker and Ian Flux. The latter was mildly narked to have been bumped back from third to fourth in the closing moments of qualifying for the Martini Trophy, in which he was racing Walker’s elegant Osella PA3.

“You’re still on the second row,” said Walker. “I know,” replied Flux, “but third feels as though it means something…” It’s heartening to see the competitive juices flowing freely in a 57-year-old. Failing fuel pressure would knock Flux out of the opening Martini race – and force him to miss the second because the car required stripping down to establish the cause.

Watts recently acquired the Peugeot 406 he raced in BTCC events during the late 1990s and this marked his second debut at its helm. The car is eligible for the Super Touring Trophy, the HSCC’s latest initiative, and Watts faced bygone sparring partner John Cleland, who wheeled out his freshly rebuilt 1997 Vauxhall Vectra. Tim Harvey should have been there, too, to share his old Ford Sierra RS500 with Paul Smith, but had instead been diverted to Goodwood.

Watts took pole by almost three seconds, but retired early from the opening race with a loose wheel (Cleland dropping out at the same stage with a suspension breakage). On Sunday they came through the field to finish first and third respectively, separated by the previous afternoon’s winner James Dodd (Nissan Primera). The Super Touring Trophy won’t be everybody’s idea of ‘historic’, but the cars and cast have crowd pleasing potential. And besides, we’ve reached something of an impasse in terms of historic racing’s development, with so much of the sport having gone down the one-make route during the past 20 years (does anybody think current Formula Renault chassis are ever likely to be recycled?), so all new avenues merit exploration.

The Festival of Speed might have the social cachet, but Brands Hatch’s GP circuit provides the perfect backdrop for older cars – and Super Tourers looked the part, too. The HSCC Historic Superprix is, quite simply, one of the finest things on the UK’s crowded motor sport calendar.

Is this the best value in British motor sport?
Mallory Park, June 25: Wednesday testing, one of domestic circuit racing’s unsung bargains

The silence is broken by some purposeful spanner-rattling and, to the right, a gentle burble as somebody tries to tease a little operational heat into a Bizzarrini Iso Grifo’s V8.

I contribute to the soundscape by clanking cutlery against porcelain during consumption of a classic Mallory Park breakfast – egg, hash browns, mushrooms, beans and a mug of tea for about a fiver, culinary nirvana that suits a terrace table on a sunny morning such as this.

You’re never quite sure what might show up for a midweek test at Mallory. In the relatively recent past 1970s Formula 1 cars were not uncommon, but owners have taken their custom elsewhere as the circuit tries to minimise noise levels – part of its recent battle to stay alive. At the time of writing, talks are ongoing between operator the British Automobile Racing Club and Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council, which wants to restrict circuit usage to 92 days per annum – insufficient, the BARC says, to maintain viability. HBBC has also voted to take court action against the circuit for alleged breaches of a noise agreement laid out in 1985, but the quest for a two-way compromise continues.

And so, in the meantime, does testing: cars in the morning, motorcycles/sidecars in the afternoon and members of the public are welcome to watch for £3 per head.

There might not have been any Grand Prix cars, but the trucks and trailers carried everything from a couple of Fun Cup cars to Aaron Scott’s Porsche 962 via assorted Formula Juniors, Alice Powell’s F3 Cup Dallara and a Lotus Cortina. There was a pristine Chevron B34 Formula Atlantic car, too, chassis number 35, used in period by Paul Henry Racing in North America and having its first run following restoration by Ken Thorogood of Universal Racing Services. It was discovered in a shed, but you’d never guess as much from its present condition. Jon Finch will campaign it in HSCC Historic F2 and Derek Bell Trophy events for the season’s balance.

There’s a change in ambience as the car contingent moves out around lunchtime and a Ford Transit fleet arrives to disgorge its two- or three-wheeled cargo (including some old GP bikes). Fragments of conversation are audible above the two-stroke philharmonic: “I’m fine, thanks. I still can’t bend my leg properly, but I’ve been cleared to race…”

At least half the paddock seems to have a permanent limp.

Mallory was long since tamed for the two-wheeled venue, with the insertion of bike-only chicanes before the John Cooper Esses and Devil’s Elbow, but it’s worth hanging around because reduced approach speeds do precious little to dilute the spectacle.

There might be better ways to spend three quid, but right now I can’t think of any.

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