Brave old world

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201

Our track tester is accustomed to historic racing success in Lola T70s and Lotus Cortinas, but a Chevron B42 represented a step into an altogether more challenging domain: that of peak-era Formula 2

Whether you’re a modern or historic racer, getting your backside in a single-seater is a true rite of passage. It’s something I’ve done once before, back in 2001 when I was invited to compete in a round of the Formula Palmer Audi Championship. I’d experienced slicks before, but never wings, nor push-to-pass boost buttons, an open cockpit or open wheels. Or indeed the Brands Hatch GP circuit. It’s the steepest learning curve I’ve ever attempted to climb. Until now.

In the last few years I’ve raced all kinds of historics, but until this year an old single-seater had been beyond me. Not in aspiration, but in opportunity. All that changed when Peter Auto launched its Euro F2 Classic Championship for 2017, to run alongside its roster of GT, touring car, sports-prototype and other races. Rather fortuitously the friend with whom I do much of my racing owns an eligible F2 car and was happy to let me use it. Game on!

The Euro F2 Classic championship is open to 1.6- and 2.0-litre F2 (and Formula Atlantic) cars from 1967 up until 1978 – the last season before F2 cars went to full ground-effect aerodynamics. It’s a cracking era, encompassing the delicate, wingless cigar-shaped cars built by famous names like Lotus and Brabham through to the aggressively squat, bewinged machines built by manufacturers such as March and Chevron.

‘My’ car is a Chevron B42 – chassis B42-78-14, built for the 1978 season and raced in European F2 by Giacomo Agostini, arguably the greatest motorcycle racer of all time. After a glittering career on two wheels, in which he won no fewer than 15 world championships, ‘Ago’ decided to pursue a career on four, just as John Surtees and Mike Hailwood had done before him. He was 36. Hardly ancient, but a bit long in the tooth to tackle a whole new kind of motor sport, let alone electing to make his debut in European Formula 2 – at that time the most competitive single-seater series of all and an unrivalled incubator for nascent F1 stars.

Chevron’s reputation for making quick and competitive single-seaters was well deserved and the B42 was a striking evolution of the successful B40. It was powered by BMW’s magnificent 300bhp M12 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine – the best F2 engine of its era – and combined with his natural inner confidence you could forgive Ago for feeling he was set for strong first season. If only he knew what was to come…

It’s fair to say his stellar two-wheeled talent didn’t transfer to four. Perhaps if he’d taken the time to learn his craft, instead of pitting himself against the brightest young single-seater stars of the Seventies, he might have stood a chance. Instead he struggled. Often just to qualify, as these were the days when grids were so big you had to earn your right to race. To be fair the B42 never proved a match for the March 782, but seven DNQs from 11 attempts must have been humiliating for a man for whom winning on two wheels had been as natural as breathing.

An eighth place at the Nürburgring Nordschleife revealed something of his inner steel, but still he failed to score a point all season, even after switching from Trivellato Racing’s Chevron to a March 782 run by San Remo Racing for the Hockenheim finale. Far from a magic bullet, he brought the March home 16th. Meanwhile, Ago’s countryman Bruno Giacomelli took his works March 782-BMW to eight poles, eight wins and six fastest laps to secure the European F2 title in imperious style.

Ago’s stinker of a season doesn’t paint an especially flattering picture of the Chevron, but both Derek Daly and Keke Rosberg won races in B42s. In period the March always managed to find more grip, especially at the front end, so a well-driven March with a decent set-up will still be the class of the field in 2017. That said, as is often the way with historics, continued improvements in set-up have helped the Chevrons to shine a little brighter, and past results in other historic F2 races suggest the ex-Ago Chevron should be in the mix, though worryingly this rather depends on me.

At first glance it’s impossible not to fall for the B42. It’s a really good-looking car and from the moment you first drop down into its cockpit it feels perfect. And I mean perfect. Even to a tin-top yobbo like me. The view ahead is pinch-yourself fabulous – fat front slicks attached to delicate double-wishbones that rise and fall as though breathing in time with the Tarmac. Rather awkwardly the dark perspex screen bisects your eyeline, but you soon learn to look beyond the obstruction. Glance down and the cockpit view is dominated by your hands gripping a side plate-sized steering wheel, and the dinky little tacho that reads all the way to 12,000rpm with a redline set at 9800.

To the right-hand side sits a stubby gearlever that snicks through the five-speed dogleg gate of a Hewland FG400. Threaded either side of the steering column and deep down into the pop-riveted aluminium tub are your legs. Further ahead, somewhere between the front wheels and the nosecone, are your feet, which have to flit between an old-fashioned array of three pedals.

This is single-seater racing as it used to be. Generous mechanical grip supplemented by modest but meaningful aerodynamic downforce. Sharp responses, punchy motor, snappy manual transmission. Minimal mass, maximum driver input and the promise of immediacy, precision and pure excitement that’s on a different level to anything I’ve ever raced before.

The trade-off is a level of trepidation I’ve not felt since first trying a Lola T70. Part of that is your mind running wild (I think we always tend to imagine things to be scarier than they are), but there’s also the unfamiliarity of the driving environment, the open cockpit, the open wheels. Oh, and the fact it’s one rung below Formula 1. Bluntly, it’s a big jump and totally different from the historics I’m used to racing.

My pre-season nerves aren’t helped by the fact the Euro F2 Classic Championship starts at Peter Auto’s Spa Classic meeting. That’s Spa as in Francorchamps, the F1 drivers’ favourite and home of the instant deluge. I love the circuit and know it well, but I think maybe ignorance is sometimes bliss. At least it is when knowledge means knowing the plunge into, up and over Raidillon should just be flat in top if you’ve got your eye in. Oh goody.

The Spa meeting is upon me before I know it. I’ve only had time for a shakedown run at Blyton Park to make sure I’m comfortable and the car is running well. It would have been nice to spend a day at Donington or Silverstone, but such is life. Anyway, at least the weather forecast looks decent so I should manage some steady, settling laps during the 20-minute free practice session, followed by qualifying.

Spa has other ideas. As if by magic, moments before our practice session the blue sky blackens like a bruise and biblical amounts of rain are dumped onto the hot, dry circuit. My stomach ties itself into knots, but as someone used to touring cars, GTs and closed sports-prototypes, I’ll concede it’s an alien but rather excellent feeling driving out from a warm, dry pit garage and into the maelstrom.

Spirals of water flick up from the front and rear wheels as the F2s file along the pitlane. Raindrops patter on my visor and I feel my senses wind themselves up as eye-stinging exhaust fumes mix with the soft, earthy scent of springtime petrichor. It’s one of those vivid, conflicted, pixel-perfect moments you never forget, largely because although your insides are screaming “What the hell am I doing here?” you know the answer is simply “This…”

Merging onto the track just after La Source I find sheets of water that seem to slide their way down the steep incline towards Eau Rouge. Right now our shakedown at a hot, dry Blyton Park feels like scant preparation, but there’s nothing for it but to wind cautiously through the gears and get on with it.

At times like this you either settle quickly or stiffen up and struggle. I’m not ashamed to say my arms and shoulders are wooden, tense from trying to read and react to the most responsive and communicative car I’ve driven. The spray isn’t helping my cause. It sounds like a cliché, but in the worst of it you really do rely on sound more than vision. It’s a horrible, disorientating feeling as you chase a roiling, roaring white wall down the Kemmel Straight. Your eyes are on stalks searching for the glow of a rain light and your ears are locked to the hard, constant blare of the car ahead in a high gear on full throttle. I’m not sure I like this.

With 20 cars on track it’s not as though I have to sit in a ball of spray, but in a strange way it feels like something I’ve got to do, just to get it over with – a true if somewhat brutal baptism – but after a lap or two I drop back and find some space. It’s still raining hard, but at least I can concentrate on getting a feel for the car. First impressions are amazement at the amount of straight line traction and how planted it feels through the faster corners (that’ll be the wings, then), but these positives are laced with nerves at the way the car rises up over the deepest standing water on the Kemmel Straight and the approach to Fagnes.

Despite the rotten conditions continuing into qualifying, it feels great to get some laps under my belt, but I know I’ve only scratched the surface. A fact reflected in my qualifying seventh of 19 cars. Adding insult to mild disappointment, it’s not until I come back to the pits that I’m aware several litres of ice-cold water have collected in the base of my moulded seat. I try to put some kind of positive spin on this, but quickly decide there’s nothing good about sodden pants.

The following day brings sun, which is great because it’s our first race. With the set-up changed and blocky wets swapped for smooth slicks, another near-vertical learning curve awaits. Still at least I can see where I’m going, and with no fear of aquaplaning off on the straights I can enjoy the full-throttle rush of winding the M12 through the gears.

It romps through the first four ratios, but begins to run out of puff in fifth as the aerodynamic drag begins to pull like an invisible anchor. It still feels like we’re shifting as the braking area for Les Combes approaches. No wonder as we’re doing a good 150mph or more. This is the first time I’ve truly tasted the B42’s performance and I have to say it’s intoxicating. And all thanks to the brilliant BMW behind me.

We’re so inured to big power outputs that a little more than 300bhp doesn’t sound any great shakes. Likewise, 9800rpm pales compared to more recent times when 20,000rpm was commonplace in F1. This does the M12 a huge disservice, for it’s fabulous. In fact I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the best four-cylinder motors you could ever have the pleasure of driving.

Everything about it is special. From the hard, ear-splitting bark that resonates around the airbox and hammers from the exhaust to the delicious razor-sharp throttle response that makes every blip a lesson in precision, it’s everything you’d hope a small capacity naturally aspirated race engine would be.

Race one passes in a bit of a blur. It’s great fun to be out in a car this quick on a circuit as special as Spa, but it’s also rather overwhelming because I’m making things up as I go along.

Looking for the limit of a historic touring car or GT is pretty easy, because you find them at sane speeds. You feel the roll and slip begin to build early, so you know what to do before you need to do it. In the F2 finding that limit is like reaching for something perched on an awkwardly high shelf. At first you can’t even see what you’re looking for, but then you see how fast the leading pack piles into Pouhon and you realise how much the car has in reserve.

Track time is precious during a race meeting. You simply don’t have the luxury of building up to things as you would in a general test, so you resign yourself to being slow and frustrated (not a palatable option, to be honest) or over-reach yourself in the hope at least getting a sniff of that elusive limit. It’s demanding. Exciting, too, especially when you make a big step forward, but like all complex challenges, once you’ve broken the task into big chunks you then have to break each of those down into smaller and smaller pieces.

After an initial flurry and some early attrition the first race is a bit lonely, but I feel like I’m getting on top of things and fourth place means a second-row slot for race two. Then the dreaded moment comes when you look at the time sheets, and find you’re still seconds off the ultimate pace. Worse, you have no idea where to find them. At least until racing driver instinct kicks-in and the excuses begin to flow. To be fair, this is my first proper go in an F2 car. We’re running a base set-up and used slicks, as there’s no point wasting a fresh set while I’m still stumbling around the foothills of that bloody learning curve. You see? Convincing, aren’t they? And yet despite their plausibility, deep down I’m a bit lost and unsure what to expect from the second race

Can we talk about standing starts? They might be commonplace in modern racing, but historics tend to favour rolling getaways because they’re less risky and easier on the machinery. In bigger, heavier cars they never feel that tricky, but in a lightweight single-seater with big, fat slicks, sharp clutch and a paucity of torque, it’s a devilish thing to nail. This could explain the chronic tremble in my left leg as I do my best to keep the clutch just below its bite point as I wait for Spa’s familiar red lights to go out. It never feels this hard when I’m watching the Grand Prix.

The difference between a fluffed start (my first was a pig) and a great one is like night and day. Instead of floundering and scanning your mirrors knowing you’re going to be mugged into the first corner, your focus is solely on who’s ahead of you. In my case Martin O’Connell, Matthew Watts and Martin Stretton.

Safely through La Source and right on the lead trio’s tail we charge down the hill towards Eau Rouge. It’s such a good feeling to just be racing rather than thinking too hard about what I’m doing in the car. Resisting the impulse to brake at the foot of Raidillon I try to blend smoothly out and back into the throttle. It feels much (much!) faster, but still I lose ground. Thankfully the slipstream along Kemmel helps close the gap. I’m too timid on the brakes into Les Combe and immediately O’Connell’s pale blue Chevron zips away by a length or two.

There’s no place to hide in these cars. Mistakes are punished and caution instantly exposed, but at least we’ve dropped the rest of the field so my mirrors are clear. Ahead I can see Stretton’s 782 slice through Les Combes, closely followed by Watts with a small gap to O’Connell in third. I’ve had some great, close races with Martin in sports prototypes, so I’m trying to carry more speed and stay with him, but can’t seem to get the front-end to bite.

By the exit of Pouhon the lead pair have stretched away a little, but I’m still in touch with OC and hopeful he’ll drag me along and have a bit of a dice. Then as we power towards Stavelot there’s a bang and I lose all drive. The clutch has gone. There’s no more empty feeling than killing the engine, sticking your arm up to warn those behind and coasting to a marshal’s post. All that adrenalin with nowhere to go.

I always knew racing an F2 car would be demanding, but I hadn’t reckoned on how complete the challenge would be. Summoning the balls to brake later and corner faster is one thing, but developing the sensitivity and mental processing speed to understand what the car is doing is the bigger test.

It’s always risky to make a definitive statement, but here we go: in my experience no other type of historic racing car offers more speed for less outlay, nor distils the thrill and wonder of driving a racing car into a purer or more potent experience. Historic F2 has long been the racer’s choice. Now I know why.