Matters of moment
or the throng at Silverstone, Lewis Hamilton’s joyful crowd-surfing in the wake of his fourth British Grand Prix victory will mark the high point of another glorious motor sporting summer, and rightly so. The world champion connects with ‘his’ public in a manner that surpasses even the heady days of Nigel Mansell, and in an era so often characterised by sullen restraint the scenes of unbridled ecstasy warmed the heart. Good old Silverstone.
But away from the Formula 1 main stage, I’d wager Motor Sport’s readers will have found their own alternative moments by which to best remember the summer of 2016. For many – me included – the sight and unforgettable sound of a V16 Auto Union returning to the world’s oldest active motor sport venue 80 years on from its debut will surely top anything else.
In June 1936, Britain trembled at its first experience of shock-and-awe European Grand Prix racing when Auto Union sent its ‘Bergkönig’ Hans Stuck and a short-chassis C-type not to a race circuit but to Shelsley Walsh, for a crack at the 1000-yard hill’s record. This was a long way from the Grossglockner and pre-dated by more than a year the first of Donington’s two ‘Silver Arrows’ Grands Prix – such was the draw of fabled Shelsley back in the 1930s. Meanwhile, Stuck had his own special affinity with the picturesque climb.
He’d first been lured to Worcestershire in 1930 when in an Austro-Daimler he set a new hill record, his mark of 42.8 seconds standing for three years. Now the bonds of friendship forged with Midland Automobile Club secretary Leslie Wilson drew him back, this time in a car that to British enthusiasts must have appeared as if from another planet, never mind the exotic mists of continental Europe.
Typically, the British weather would quench some of the zest. Dry practice runs on the Friday allowed Stuck allegedly to dip below the record, but come the weekend inevitable rain thwarted his attempts to do it for real. Instead, Shelsley’s own unofficial monarch and current record holder, Raymond Mays, stole the German thunder by setting FTD in his 1.5-litre ERA, his 41.6sec easily eclipsing Stuck’s time set at the end of an increasingly damp afternoon.
Still, the result couldn’t lessen the significance of the occasion, as Motor Sport’s report from July 1936 captures perfectly.
“Given good weather Stuck and his Auto Union should have provided a perfect climax to the meeting, but with every inch of the hill soaked with rain, he obviously was going to have a stiff task even to equal Mays’ time on the smaller ERA,” reads our unattributed report. “From the top of the hill the low pitched rumble of the 16 cylinders could be heard, then ‘he’s off.’ Colossal wheelspin from the line all the way up the hill, with the tail swinging about in dangerous proximity to the high banks on each side of the road, and under these conditions Stuck could do nothing more than give the throttle an occasional dig, which produced either a fresh bout of wheelspin or occasionally a tremendous forward spurt. He treated the S-bends with the greatest respect, and an attempt to give a touch of throttle on the last stretch brought about further unsteadiness as he
crossed the finishing line, time 45.2sec. It must have been a great disappointment after coming so far, but Shelsley weather is no respecter of Bergmeisters! The car, or rather the back-axle, was so wide that Stuck was unable to use the return road, but received a great reception as he toasted (sic) back down the hill.”
Eighty years on Hans-Joachim Stuck, Le Mans winner and cult racing hero in his own right, found himself in the same car, tracing the wheel tracks of his father. Happily, Shelsley was bathed in sunshine this time, although I won’t have been alone in feeling a cold shiver as the A-U made its climb.
In an era when the hill record stands at a barely comprehensible 22.58sec, this return was never going to be about the clock. Stuck, in his familiar ‘EU’ blue and gold-starred helmet, trod carefully despite that wide rear axle and double-tyre configuration made famous by his father.
“When I drove up here for the first time I was aware this was a piece of history so had to be careful – and of course I am a piece of history too!” he reflected afterwards, with a wistful smile. “But on the way back I had a little time to relax and see how the people were reacting to the car, and I’m not ashamed to say there were some tears in my eyes. It was a very precious moment, driving my dad’s car.”
The Classic Nostalgia meeting also featured a Group B rallying celebration that alone would have drawn healthy crowds. Quattros, Lancias, 6R4s and many more squirmed their way to the top, driven by period stars such as David Llewellin, Jimmy McRae and Russell Brookes, the latter reunited with his evocative Andrews Heat For Hire Opel Manta 400. Then to cap it all, Stuck returned, this time giving a UK debut to Audi’s slab-sided ‘silhouette’ IMSA S4 GTO (left) that
he’d raced in South Africa’s Wesbank Modified Series in 1992.
But it’s the cherished memory of a Grand Prix icon’s V16 howl that will linger the most as summer turns to autumn. For commentator Toby Moody, who more or less grew up on Shelsley Walsh and learnt all he knows from his father John, this was the culmination of a long-held ambition to bring the Silver Arrows back to a venue little changed in its rich 111-year history. Toby, Mark Constanduros and the rest of the MAC team had every right to feel a swell of pride, and they along with Audi UK and Audi Tradition, who brought the car from Germany, deserve our thanks for an unforgettable weekend.
Crowd-surfing from the beanpole Stuck wouldn’t quite have cut it in this corner of England, but here was proof that ecstasy and high emotion can move just as strongly in other, less demonstrative ways.