On the road with Simon Arron

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Not just the British GP

Silverstone, July 2-5 & Oulton Park, July 4: F1 qualifying or Morris Minors in Cheshire? A fairly easy choice…

Time was that Britain’s annual motor racing showpiece would have the weekend pretty much all to itself, with few if any concurrent fixtures. But no more. This year, the ninth round of the Formula 1 world championship clashed with the Masters Historic meeting at Donington Park, a BRSCC/HRDC Oulton Park clubbie, VSCC Shelsley Walsh, the 360MRC’s six-hour enduro at Snetterton and doubtless a few things I’ve overlooked. Somebody asked whether such a glut of fixtures might affect Grand Prix attendance, but 140,000 through the gate on Sunday answered that…

Silverstone’s infrastructure might have been stripped of soul when a second paddock was built in an adjacent county to the first, but its most important element – the grey bit bisecting the kerbs – remains a thing of delight. And if you consider modern Formula 1 cars dull to watch, chances are that you weren’t attuned to the posture of the two Toro Rossos on Friday morning. Almost every time Carlos Sainz or Max Verstappen loomed into view, they’d have a front wheel locked or a rear stepping out of line, a couple of kids blending the spirit of the 1970s with the downforce of the modern age and creating a potent cocktail (even though one of them isn’t yet old enough to drink such things).

There were a number of bygone touches, too, not least Friday morning’s traffic meltdown – caused, I’m told, by truck drivers ignoring ‘no through road’ messages on the A43, and thus ending up on country lanes in the circuit’s immediate vicinity.

Fellow writer Peter Windsor turned up in a period Williams shirt, an affectionate tribute to the 30th anniversary of Keke Rosberg’s 160.958mph pole lap – an occasion I remember for several reasons, not least the intermittent rain showers during the session. At one point I took shelter beneath the Woodcote grandstand, whereupon I trod on an old plank and a rusty nail pierced my right foot. The pain will forever be logged in my memory alongside Rosberg’s average lap speed.

For all the forecasts of doom surrounding F1, the Silverstone atmosphere was a match for anything conjured during the Mansell years – recalled always for their extraordinary effervescence – and the race proved both tense and unpredictable, a fine complement to such a vibrant backdrop.

Even so, on Saturday morning I slunk westwards along the A43, away from the traffic diversions, and within two hours was perched in the Oulton Park paddock, eating (rather than photographing) yet another café breakfast. Also on the menu? Two Formula Ford races, two for BMW Compacts, four for VW Golfs of various antiquity and a gloriously diverse Historic Racing Drivers Club double-header, featuring everything from a Daimler SP250 and a Fiat 850 Abarth to a brace of Vauxhall VX4/90s and most of the Austin A40s BMC ever produced.

Highlights included a wonderful, three-way Post-89 FF1600 battle between Josh Fisher and the McArthur brothers, David and Tom, with Fisher getting the nod by a tenth, and the brio with which the Jordan family’s winning A40 was handled by British Touring Car Championship star Andrew (sharing with father Mike).

His pace robbed the race of its competitive zest, so far was he ahead after a couple of laps, but if his were the only car in the field it would still have been worth the trip.

*****

Electric avenue

Battersea Park, June 27: Circuit racing returns to Greater London after 43 years

It’s an odd sensation, taking a familiar stroll across the London Victoria concourse, listening to the usual tannoy pronouncements about train delays, signal failures and wildebeest herds wreaking havoc on the line at Herne Hill, then walking not to the office but to a motor sport paddock.

Bernie Ecclestone has long expressed interest in running a London GP – a nice notion, but terminally impractical (try getting across the capital when there’s a cycle event running for one afternoon, then imagine the disruption multiplied by a factor of several). In its maiden season, however, Formula E succeeded in racing close to the city’s heart by annexing parkland rather than public roads.

London hasn’t wholly been devoid of motor sport since Crystal Palace hosted its final car race in September 1972. Most oval stadia have perished, but Wimbledon survives, corporate karting thrives and a slice of Crystal Palace has been resurrected for an annual sprint.

Formula E has been more divisive than most recent racing inventions, but it has been cleverly packaged. Set the cars loose around the broad expanses of Thruxton or Silverstone and they would look painfully slow, but just as Monaco looks like the quickest circuit on the F1 calendar from trackside – because proximity increases the sense of speed – so FE cars look dramatic within the slender concrete alleys that constrain them. Around Battersea the cars’ body language was exquisite, helped by drastic cambers, surface bumps (one of which had to be flattened overnight, to prevent cars joining the Heathrow approach path) and the wholesale absence of grip. The audience included current F1 Felipes Massa and Nasr, FIA president Jean Todt and double world champion Emerson Fittipaldi, possibly the only man in the paddock who’d competed at London’s last circuit. “I have happy memories of racing at Crystal Palace in both F3 and F2,” he said. “It was short, but incredibly technical. I absolutely loved it.”

Enhancements are needed, of course. At some points around the track, spectators could have done with improved elevation in order to see more than a passing roll-hoop, but given the scepticism that preceded the project it was well run (by MSVR) and organised.

One trusts it will be given a second chance, although an active on-line group is petitioning for a break clause in the five-year contract to be activated to prevent any repeat.

I was too young – and much too far away – to cycle to Crystal Palace in its heyday, but it was a privilege to witness Battersea Park’s inauguration, whatever might happen next.

*****

Earth, wind and fires

Cholmondeley, June 11-12: It might generate fewer headlines than other events of similar stripe, but don’t be fooled by its low profile

On first acquaintance the grass looks lush and smooth, but within a couple of laps the vintage scramblers have churned it up and your eyes and camera lenses are filled with dust.

It’s precisely one year since last I stood and watched the discipline, and time away isolates you from its realities. Dry mouth apart, though, the Cholmondeley Pageant of Power is a great place to be – an unsung gem with a wonderful spirit.

Despite jet-ski gymnastics, air displays by both Eurofighter and Vulcan and a sumptuous array of stuff with wheels, things did feel a little scaled down for the event’s eighth running. One sponsor’s late withdrawal meant no TV coverage (and no giant screens on which the crowd – and commentators, come to that – could follow the action), while the Sinsheim Museum’s once staple supply of automotive eccentricity has not been seen for a year or two. There were ample compensations though, not least Malcolm Ricketts’ wedge-shaped Lotus 58 F2 car and Michael Hanson’s ex-Jo Bonnier Lola T70, having its first run following a meticulous rebuild by CGA Engineering. There had been counter-claims about ownership of the Bonnier car, but after a lengthy stint in a North Wales barn this chassis’ provenance has now been established. Driver Mike Smith was saddled with Le Mans gearing, but it would have been a joy to behold even had it trickled around at tickover. Which it didn’t.

Close by the hump-backed bridge, which has become the 1.2-mile sprint course’s signature feature, a local buzzard circled overhead for most of the weekend, a sign perhaps that even local wildlife recognises a good place to watch. Tony Worswick (Jordan 194) was perhaps most spectacular on his first passage – a touch too much so, it transpired, as he struck a straw bale on his second and incurred sufficient damage to preclude further participation. Hillclimb regular Gary Thomas (Force PC) eventually set fastest time, although Andrew Smith (Cooper T43) merits special mention for defeating newer and more powerful machinery in the Historic F1/Single-Seater class (in which Worswick was due to participate).

Every year, the event’s running is accompanied by stories that its future might be threatened by its position on the edge of a financial precipice, but so far all such alarms have proven false.

Long may they so remain.