Racing lines with Dickie Meaden

Historic cars may slide, but standards shouldn’t

After the furore surrounding Sebastian Vettel’s wheel-banging hissy-fit with Lewis Hamilton in Baku, driving standards (or their absence) have been a hot topic of conversation among the wider racing community. Apart from the very occasional blip, it’s rarely a cause for concern in historics. 

Some of this can undoubtedly be put down to drivers doing it for pleasure, rather than fighting for their careers or a place in the history books. But with its increasing profile and growing competitiveness, the good conduct of drivers in historic motor sport is due to more than the rather misplaced notion of a passive ‘after you’ attitude. That most cars are raced by their owners is, I believe, a big factor. It means they’re raced hard, but tend not to be driven like they’re stolen. It’s an attitude mirrored by those in the fortunate position of sharing drives with some of these owners, myself included. Unlike modern motor sport, where the cars are closer to tools of the trade, historic cars are treasures to be enjoyed and cherished. 

Maturity plays its part, too. If you’re successful enough to buy a few nice old cars and take them racing, the chances are you might be sporting the odd grey hair. Not that middle age is necessarily an indication of increased maturity (far from it, in my case), but there’s a reason why you don’t see colossal first corner pile-ups in the style of a Clio Cup or Ginetta Junior race. 

Then there’s the small matter of safety. Mercifully, old racing cars aren’t the fiery death traps they once were – and thanks to improved roll cage design they don’t fold up quite so readily, either. Still, strapping yourself into an old racing car comes with the tacit acknowledgement that you’re more likely to hurt yourself if you have the Big One. Unsurprisingly this tends to foster a collective sense of self-preservation and a desire to stay out of the barriers.  

Funnily enough, while everyone outside the paddock tends to fixate on the sky-rocketing values of classic cars, I don’t think the price tags attached to historic racers are as big a factor as you might expect. A Ferrari 250 SWB might be worth £10m, but should the worst happen it doesn’t cost anywhere near that much to mend. Not that I’d want to foot the bill for fixing a stoved-in tail or bent nose, but crashing an old racing car is not like dropping a Ming vase or Fabergé egg. 

Which brings me neatly onto one of the smarter methods employed by race organisers to ensure we all play nicely. It’s long been the case at Peter Auto meetings that, in the event of a coming-together where one driver is clearly at fault, the culprit is expected to pay for half the cost of repairing the car he or she hit. 

It’s a very grown-up and civilised solution – and Patrick Peter reminds his drivers about it at the start of every race weekend. It’s not a legally binding agreement – it’s more of a metaphorical handshake deal – but if you cause an accident and don’t cough up it’ll likely be the last time you participate in one of Patrick’s events. As his are among the best on the historic racing calendar, it’s a very effective deterrent.

Some races are worse than others. Predictably it’s the touring car races that can be a bit ‘elbows out’, but even this is more due to the parity of the cars than any wish to shove your rival off the track. The Spa Six Hours is another one that’s pretty hairy, but much of that is down to the sheer number of cars on track (the grid starts halfway down the hill towards Eau Rouge and snakes back beyond the Bus Stop!) and the speed differential between the pace-setting GT40s and the tail-enders. There’s also the fickle Ardennes weather and the challenge of racing at dusk and into darkness. Its reputation as the toughest event in historic circuit racing is well deserved.

The mix of drivers has been shifting for years in historics. Where once there was a clear majority of resolutely amateur racers – the gentlemen drivers for which the sport is renowned – there’s now a growing band of professionals, from retired stars who do it for (serious) fun, to younger ones for whom historics offer an additional revenue stream. It’s this influx of talent and experience that has brought greater racecraft and a more dynamic spectacle. And yes, the racing is harder, but believe me this has led the rest of us
to raise our games.

Throw in the super-quick owners (of which there are many) and the hugely experienced preparers such as Martin Stretton, Simon Hadfield and Gary Pearson and you have die-hard historic racers who are every bit as quick as your Sopers, Pirros and Kristensens. That’s an awful lot of talent at the pointy end of the grids, but still the racing remains clean.  

Unlike modern racing, if there are collisions its rarely when dicing for position. Rather it’s almost always when faster cars are lapping slower traffic. Ask the overtaking drivers and they’ll point the finger at the drivers of slower cars for misjudging the closing speeds or simply not paying attention to their mirrors. I’m inclined to concur, but having raced fast and slow cars I’m obliged to point out it can also be because the driver of the quicker car has made an impatient or imprudent lunge. Overtaking is always a shared responsibility,
and one that historic racers tend to take seriously.

The circuit with the most to lose from bad or dangerous driving – and therefore the one that places the greatest emphasis on drawing attention to it – is Goodwood. Lord March’s headmasterly addresses at the Members’ and Revival briefings are observed in a hushed atmosphere, the respectful silence broken only by collective ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as we’re played a video of crashes and near misses from previous meetings.

As a competitor the great joy of Goodwood is its speed and unchanged layout, but this period purity comes with attendant risk and a palpable weight of responsibility. There have been more than a few big ones at Goodwood over the years, including some terrifying crashes at last year’s Members’ Meeting, but only a tiny minority have been due to combative driving. 

That said, I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn when I say there’s a sense of everyone holding their breath at the start of a Goodwood meeting, one that’s let out only when the last race reaches a safe conclusion. You can’t legislate for a stuck throttle or sudden brake failure, but the greater fear is not wishing to be the one to cause an avoidable accident. Least of all one that puts the life of spectators, marshals and fellow drivers in jeopardy,
or leads to the withdrawal of Goodwood’s competition licence.

That fear is a healthy one.

Nevertheless, I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that as the cars continue to get quicker and the lead battles become more intense, something has to give. A nudge or a rub that might result in a harmless spin at Silverstone has potentially catastrophic consequences at Goodwood. We all get a bit giddy from time to time, but passes on the grass and BTCC-style nerfs shouldn’t be tolerated, no matter how exciting they appear or how uneventful the aftermath. The cars and the racing are thrilling enough without allowing that line to be crossed.

Ultimately I have faith in historic racing’s ability to self-police. If you compete in old cars you have a deep appreciation for the machines, respect for your fellow drivers and a genuine passion for the sport. It’s a sentiment that’s shared up and down the paddock. Vettel’s petulance has no place here.