On the road with Simon Arron: Symphonie Pastorale

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Prescott, June 24: First visit of the year to one of the UK’s prettiest sporting institutions. To have left it quite so long was, frankly, idiotic

By definition all British hillclimbs are grass-roots events, yet some are more so than others – and here was a case in point. Prescott’s Midsummer Mélange meeting was no national championship event, nor even its slightly lesser Midland counterpart, but just an assembly of enthusiasts united by a common passion. And besides, Prescott’s paddock is ever a thing of beauty – no matter what happens to be parked beneath its verdant canopy. Especially so on a day such as this, when it was possible to sit on the restaurant terrace and savour an alfresco fry-up while a volley of Lotus Elans buzzed past at the dawn of their first exploratory ascents.

Once upon the hill – any hill, come to that – the trick is not to look at the running order, for so to do risks diminishing the sport’s constant capacity to surprise. First of the day is what looks like a Mini Cooper Traveller, something BMC never made in period. Turns out that’s exactly what it is. “When I was younger,” says Andy Clarke, the man at the helm, “I always felt this was a car that should have been made. So when the chance arose, I built one myself. I restored a Traveller that came unseen from eBay and mated it to a proper Oselli 1360 Cooper engine of known provenance.”

It was beautifully turned out and very different, but then different is actually quite normal at hillclimbs. The same applied equally to Martin Rutter’s modsports-spec Fiat X1/9 – replete with the navy and yellow livery that once graced many a factory 131 Mirafiori. And then there was Jeff Allan’s Nissan Leaf, which I failed to photograph at the first time of asking because I was at the exit of a blind corner and simply didn’t hear its approach. There were bikes and sidecars, too, so from atop the course the soundscape was a blend of ravens, two-strokes gently being primed and the Gloucester Warwickshire Steam Railway’s distant hiss. Even without 1128 yards of challenging asphalt at its core, this would be a magnificent location for a weekend stroll, a picnic or just to stand awhile and breathe in the essence of unspoilt Britain.

And Prescott did seem more challenging than usual on this occasion. I’d seen a Lotus Elan Sprint slither over the edge at Semi-Circle, happily without damage, and heard several Esses mishaps from a distance. When I arrived there to watch, the first incoming Mazda MX-5 spun… and two of the next five cars crashed. Long after I’d moved on, the Armco would continue to emit tell-tale symphonic clanks from time to time.

It might have been a low-key event, but that didn’t translate to a shortage of commitment.

AMERICAN ENGLISH

Brands Hatch, June 10 & July 2: From Steppenwolf to an utterly ludicrous calendar conflict

“Turn the bloody music off…” Not the kind of thing one expects to hear from a UK racetrack punter – especially when the most prevalent notes were those struck by racing V8s, but I have a feeling he was referring to Born To Be Wild as it struck up over the PA. Personally, I found it complemented the occasion perfectly.

American SpeedFest V was similar in content to its forebears, headlined by a EuroNASCAR entry featuring (among others) 2000 NASCAR champion Bobby Labonte, 2002 Indy 500 pole-sitter Bruno Junqueira, 1993 Le Mans winner Christophe Bouchut and 1991 Formula Ford Festival winner Marc Goossens. Passably diverse, then.

The cars are a tad wide for Brands, but they look the part and are but a fragment of an event that is more than a race meeting. Track action is supplemented by BMX stunt shows, live music, a fairground, car displays and “American-themed food”, though the latter wasn’t really news as racetracks have sold burgers pretty much since the cow’s invention.

In short, the SpeedFest has morphed relatively quickly from being good idea to a worthwhile family staple.

Some of the support action didn’t quite fit (there were no Legends, which have appeared on the bill in the past and should be compulsory), but Bernie’s V8s were wholly appropriate and absolutely marvellous. Once drivers had been out to practise (39 of them chasing 34 grid spots), I received a text from art editor Cogman, watching from somewhere near an ice cream van: “That has to be the best grid of cars ever…”

He had a point. As well as the stuff you expect (Shelby Mustangs, TVRs, MGB GT V8s, Corvettes and the odd Allard), there was Michael Saunders’ fleet Mk1 Escort, with subtly modified shell and a 4.7 V8 somehow crammed beneath the bonnet.

A much better idea than the 1.3 De Luxe that Ford brought to market in 1968.

“Turn the bloody music off…” Not the kind of thing one expects to hear from a UK racetrack punter – especially when the most prevalent notes were those struck by racing V8s, but I have a feeling he was referring to Born To Be Wild as it struck up over the PA. Personally, I found it complemented the occasion perfectly.

American SpeedFest V was similar in content to its forebears, headlined by a EuroNASCAR entry featuring (among others) 2000 NASCAR champion Bobby Labonte, 2002 Indy 500 pole-sitter Bruno Junqueira, 1993 Le Mans winner Christophe Bouchut and 1991 Formula Ford Festival winner Marc Goossens. Passably diverse, then.

The cars are a tad wide for Brands, but they look the part and are but a fragment of an event that is more than a race meeting. Track action is supplemented by BMX stunt shows, live music, a fairground, car displays and “American-themed food”, though the latter wasn’t really news as racetracks have sold burgers pretty much since the cow’s invention.

In short, the SpeedFest has morphed relatively quickly from being good idea to a worthwhile family staple.

Some of the support action didn’t quite fit (there were no Legends, which have appeared on the bill in the past and should be compulsory), but Bernie’s V8s were wholly appropriate and absolutely marvellous. Once drivers had been out to practise (39 of them chasing 34 grid spots), I received a text from art editor Cogman, watching from somewhere near an ice cream van: “That has to be the best grid of cars ever…”

He had a point. As well as the stuff you expect (Shelby Mustangs, TVRs, MGB GT V8s, Corvettes and the odd Allard), there was Michael Saunders’ fleet Mk1 Escort, with subtly modified shell and a 4.7 V8 somehow crammed beneath the bonnet.

A much better idea than the 1.3 De Luxe that Ford brought to market in 1968.

The point has been made before – and will doubtless be made again (almost certainly by me) – but somebody, somewhere, needs to persuade racing organisers to stop this happening. On the same weekend that the HSCC ran its Legends of Brands Hatch Superprix, there were major historic events at Magny-Cours and Monza, plus the Goodwood Festival of Speed, VSCC Shelsley Walsh and a tempting vintage motorcycle meeting at Cadwell Park. Small wonder Brands numbers were down.

The Formula Ford entry might have been better yet, had it not been for that clashing French championship race, but even so there were 49 cars to help celebrate the category’s half-century – 50 years to the weekend that it was launched at the same venue. In 1967 BARC clerk of the course Grahame White had started the maiden FF race, won by Ray Allen (one of many former racers present), so it was appropriate that he should do so again. He did it with a Union Flag, too. “I thought it would be nice to return to the old-fashioned method,” he said, “and nobody objected when I suggested it at the briefing. Some of the younger drivers had never done a flag start before, but we had four races in two days and not once did anybody move too soon.”

The fastest 12 cars in qualifying went straight into the main race, while the other 37 took part in a heat to determine the remaining 26 finalists. Sam Mitchell (Merlyn) triumphed on Saturday, while on Sunday Cameron Jackson (Lola) won the B race from 10th on the grid… and the final from 13th. Quite some drive, that.

Other highlights included Adrian Reynard’s first FF2000 race in 38 years, at the wheel of the very car he had raced in 1978 (“I sold it for £3,000, with engine – far too cheap,” he said, before finishing 13th), Chris Goodwin’s Lotus 23B sashaying through Westfield and the woodland echo chamber amplifying the sound of a pitch-perfect DFV propelling the Leo Voyazides/Simon Hadfield Lola T282.

The only sour note was that Mark Colman broke an ankle when his Chevron B8’s throttle stuck open and pitched him heavily into the Paddock tyre wall, bringing the Guards Trophy to a premature end. I wish him a speedy recovery… and hope European race promoters will come to their senses with parallel haste.

BAKER’S DOZEN

Oulton Park, June 14: the unofficial Mazda MX-5 Festival

Roberts Bakery roundabout, Rudheath. As local landmarks go it ranks among the more obscure, but there are good sight lines on the approach – an open invitation to perfect one’s trajectory en route from Altrincham to Oulton Park. My mind’s eye retains clear images of a pale blue Vauxhall Chevette rotating gently on its roof ahead of me, having failed to do just that circa 1980…

This was the first time in many years that I’d started a car journey to Oulton from my home town (so 20-odd minutes away rather than 200 miles) and it felt as uplifting as it did mildly surreal. On the surface this was a routine BRSCC clubbie – 13 races, nine of them for Mazda MX-5s – but the upshot was more appetising than that recipe might sound. It was a fine showcase for close racing (FF1600 and Scottish Fiestas/antique Ford XRs made up the card) and an excellent advertisement for the sport. It also confirmed an unwritten rule that MX-5s can hit tyre walls with improbable force, rebound and then carry on as though nothing untoward had happened.

There were 82 Mazdas in the paddock and strong entries in the other classes, though collectively they took up relatively little space – a by-product of the van-plus-trailer approach to motor racing.

The old ways are often the most efficient.

IMAGES: SIMON ARRON & MSV/TOM ARRON

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