On the road with Simon Arron

Street cars named desire

Vila Real, June 24-26: in a changing world, something old is also occasionally something new

The EU referendum result was just breaking as the taxi arrived to take me to the Gatwick battlefield, which seemed far more volatile than usual at 5am – a fusion of package tours, one assumes, rather than a knee-jerk rush to go and live elsewhere. “I saw this coming,” said the cabbie, “and changed my holiday dollars a few weeks ago – I knew we’d go into financial meltdown if this happened, but I got a good deal.” Chuckling, he added that he’d actually voted to leave. Everybody else’s pounds, meanwhile, were now worth about 30 per cent less than they had been only a few hours beforehand.

I’d last flown to Porto in 2010, as part of a convoluted planes-and-trains exercise that also embraced Shanghai, New York, Lisbon and Heathrow – a return trip from the Chinese Grand Prix that lasted six days, courtesy of a volcanic eruption in Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland. Things were much simpler this time: a two-hour flit in an orange Airbus, followed by a 60-minute cab ride to Vila Real, whose streets have hosted racing – on and off – since 1931. At 2.8 miles, the current version of the track is shorter than the 4.44-mile original and has been shorn of bygone features such as level crossings, or narrow bridges with sheer drops into rivers, but remains highly spectacular. As on many street circuits, overtaking is easier said than done – I witnessed only one successful manoeuvre all weekend, executed perfectly by factory Honda driver Rob Huff, plus another that ended with the passing car getting briefly ahead before skating into the barriers – but as a theatre in which to appreciate the racer’s art it has few peers.

Vila Real’s future appeared bleak after the struggling local economy caused competition to cease in the wake of a brief revival – as a venue for domestic events – between 2007 and 2010, but in 2015 it was reborn for the umpteenth time with the arrival of the World Touring Car Championship. There were major international fixtures here in the past, but none had formal status of such magnitude. “I knew it might be a bit of a risk bringing the championship to Vila Real,” said promoter François Ribeiro, who has previously described the venue as a ‘European Macau’, “but the reaction has been incredible. I’ve had lots of complete strangers coming up to me in the streets, thanking me for bringing motor racing back to the town.” He concedes that a couple of passing places would be useful, but is looking at options for the future – including a rallycross-style ‘joker lap’. 

The atmosphere was a template for all international motor races, with teams being as sociable as they were competitive and a packed, boisterous crowd standing only a metre or so behind the guardrails in many places. The rooftops of adjacent buildings provided handy viewing platforms, too. Alongside some straights, spectators walked immediately behind the barriers – a necessary throwback to allow people access to their front doors while cars were on the circuit. In some ways the mood was reminiscent of Grands Prix in Germany during Michael Schumacher’s heyday, with almost everything being cheered – from race winners to the local driver who was forced to abandon a battered Honda Civic next to a roundabout that doubled as a chicane.

Perhaps it helped that local favourite Tiago Monteiro won the main event in a rather tidier Civic, resisting race-long pressure from Yvan Muller’s works Citroën C-Elysée, but he wasn’t so sure. “Even if I hadn’t,” he said, “I think the support would have been similar because people here are just so passionate about racing. I mean, we have engines, we have earplugs and I could still hear people shouting during the last few laps. That was the only time I lost a bit of focus!”

Briton Tom Chilton (Citroën), who finished second to Dutch namesake Coronel (Chevrolet Cruze) in the reverse-grid race, added: “It is very hard to overtake, but that’s the only downside. For the rest it’s full of action, with lots of tyre smoke, a bit of drifting in fifth gear on the limiter and a couple of 140mph corners… It’s awesome.”

By rough calculation, Vila Real was the 93rd motor sport venue to which my wanderlust has taken me (although I might have forgotten a couple) and it was definitely among the most engaging – not so much for the racing, perhaps, but in terms of location and ambience. A couple of Ford Escort-rich historic races embroidered the whole very nicely, too.

The WTCC’s current contract runs until 2017 and there is no sign that it will not be renewed, but given the circuit’s tumultuous past it might soon be worth booking a flight to northern Portugal, just in case.

A culture of clashes

Brands Hatch, July 1-3: a fresh look for a popular old favourite​

The Historic Sports Car CLub has always been beset by clashes for its annual showpiece on the glorious Brands Hatch Grand Prix circuit, but separation from the Goodwood Festival of Speed seems not to have helped. This year, in its new guise as the Legends of Brands Hatch Superprix (supported by Motor Sport), it coincided with the Masters Festival at Donington Park (which appeals to the same demographic) and the Formula E finale in Battersea Park (which puts a strain on local marshalling resources). There was nothing that could impact upon the entry, though, with 475 competing cars causing the paddock to expand into public parking areas.

Highlights included three full Formula Junior grids (more than 100 cars in all, Chris Alford leading several of them, top), which were separated according to whether they had front-mounted engines, drum brakes or discs. The race for the latter initially produced a fabulous slipstreaming contest for second to fifth places as Andrew Hibberd (Lotus 22) broke clear to win by a couple of seconds. With the party starting early as FJ builds up towards its golden jubilee in 2018, promoter Duncan Rabagliati invited several significant guests including top-line racers Howden Ganley and Kurt Ahrens, the latter of whom laid a commemorative wreath at the spot where former sports car team-mate Jo Siffert perished in 1971 (right). A nice touch, that.

Hibberd added a couple of Historic F3 successes to his weekend haul, in an ex-Chequered Flag Brabham BT18A, while other multiple winners included Michael Lyons – two apiece in both Surtees TS9 and Volvo S40 – and Simon Hadfield/Leo Voyazides (Lola T282 and AC Cobra). The duo also took their Shelby Daytona Cobra to a class victory in the Guards Trophy – won by Michael Schryver/Ben Mitchell (Chevron B8) – and finished first and second in the historic touring car race, with Voyazides’s Ford Falcon pulling clear of Hadfield’s Cortina.

A word, too, for Mark Charteris, who has a habit of taking his Clubmans Mallock to outright victories in rain-hit Derek Bell Trophy events. This time he qualified on the front row, ahead of all bar Lyons, in the dry… He finished third in the opening race to maintain his status as one of British motor racing’s great unsung heroes, although he retired early from the second. Mark Dwyer (March 742) and Richard Evans (Chevron B42) took a Historic F2 race win apiece – and such were the races that set this event apart, a chance to see 1970s single-seaters on a circuit that is in many ways greatly unchanged since they were new.

And then there was Rod Jolley, third in both HGPCA F1 races, whose helmsmanship of a Cooper T45/51 (complete without roll-hoop, above left) was a joy to behold. Rarely straight, and using three wheels more often than four, his artistry was on its own sufficient to justify the cost of admission.