More than three months without racing is no big deal in the overall scheme of things, but it still felt good to be trackside again…
MSVR Masters Race Days
Donington Park, April 2-3
The outbreak of summer a few days beforehand proved brief, so T-shirt and shorts were restored hurriedly to the wardrobe. It might have been a later start to the racing season than usual, for the obvious reason that the country was more or less in a state of extended hibernation, but 3deg temperatures and biting winds ensured that Britain’s first race meeting of 2021 had the authentic ambience of Silverstone circa March 1983.
A little more than 10 years have passed since Donington’s reopening, in the wake of the catastrophic bid to bring the British Grand Prix to the East Midlands (a project that succeeded only in taking the venue to a state of virtual collapse). It was a Masters Historic meeting that brought the circuit back to life in September 2010, on a track surrounded by a sea of mud, but the efforts of the previous management and, more recently, MotorSport Vision mean Donington has never looked better.
Just a pity that spectators weren’t allowed in to watch…
One or two entries were a little thin on the ground, a situation not helped by international travel restrictions, but it mattered not. The sonic accompaniment to my journey north – Camel, Santana, Yes, Buzzcocks, John Coltrane and more – might not have been to everyone’s taste, but I defy anybody not to enjoy the melodic rumble of a Lola T70 being driven hard.
The opening Masters Historic F1 race ended in confusion, with Steve Brooks’s Lotus 91 suffering a spectacular engine failure and creating a smoke cloud so dense along the pit straight that leader Mike Cantillon (Williams FW07C) and others were completely unable to see the chequered flag. It was in there, somewhere. Brooks was classified fourth, a lap in arrears, but the car could not be repaired for day two (when Cantillon triumphed again).
Callum Grant won Saturday’s opening Historic F2 race in his Formula Atlantic March 79B, thanks to realistic period unreliability sidelining the quickest F2 runners, and the Pre-66 Touring Car race was an absolute hoot, a riot of opposite lock, close racing and widespread mischief. Several leading drivers were penalised for failing to respect track limits (the low chicane kerbs aren’t exactly a discouragement), but about half the field seemed to spend almost as much time off the track as they did on it. Victory went to the Lotus Cortina of Marcus Jewell and Ben Clucas; the crowd would have loved it, had there been one.
The best human-interest story of the weekend came in the Classic F3 race, in which Sean Hollamby made his category debut at the wheel of a March 803. The car began life as an 80SV Super Vee and his late father Olly raced it in 1980. Having spent 18 months trying to buy the thing, Hollamby Mk2 collected the car one week before the meeting, had a satisfactory test during the build-up, qualified sixth… and then spun on the opening lap before eventually finishing seventh (and fifth in race two).
His smile told you all you needed to know. “Prior to the test,” he said, “I last sat in this when I was 14.”
Classic Sports Car Club
Oulton Park, April 10
London had been crossed and the M40 lay just ahead when Spotify’s random muse selected Talk Talk’s Such A Shame, soundscape to the summer of ’84, the first in which I’d become immersed in international motor racing as the European F2 schedule introduced me to the engaging majesty of Pau, Vallelunga and Enna-Pergusa.
There was vintage drama and vintage racing across the board at the Historic Monaco GP, as Jean Alesi's Ferrari 312B was taken out of the lead
It’s a song that always takes me back to that year, but on this particular morning it was part of a voyage to yet more distant times – a first visit of the campaign to my boyhood stomping ground, to appreciate the CSCC’s customarily vast, diverse grids (everything from Ford Anglias and Escorts to a Corvette C5 and almost as many TVR Tuscans as were ever built in Blackpool). En route, it was nice to see a number of cars being trailered towards Cheshire on the morning of the event – something of a rarity nowadays, and an engaging throwback. The only downside – again – was the absence of a crowd, which felt especially odd given the packed nature of the paddock. Pub gardens were set to reopen to the public two days hence, but it wasn’t permissible to have a couple of thousand people dotted around an estate the size of Oulton Park? Utterly baffling. (See also every other UK meeting until late May.)
There were only six races, but at 40 minutes apiece the timetable was tight… and, inevitably, the occasional delay – not helped by the fact persistent rain had turned more or less to snow by late afternoon – led to the final two having to be shortened.
In the first of those, Nick Swift delivered the day’s finest cameo. Having lost his pole time for exceeding track limits during practice, he started 14th and worked his way into the lead by lap two. Rookie co-driver Giles Page wasn’t on Swift’s pace – and let’s face it, few are – so the duo eventually finished fifth as Chris Watkinson headed a Mini 1-2-3.
That opening salvo had, though, been brilliant to behold.
5 Nations British Rallycross Championship
Lydden Hill, April 14
It was pandemic circumstance that reduced the BRX to a single-nation series in 2020 – it boiled down to a couple of meetings at Lydden Hill, after scheduled rounds at Knockhill, Pembrey, Mondello Park and Valkenswaard had to be cancelled.
This year, with luck, there will be rounds in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, with a Benelux finale at Spa-Francorchamps… in early December. If thermal Nomex has not yet been invented, it will almost certainly be needed by then.
This was the official pre-season test and it felt just as such things used to, with – in some instances – freshly painted cars bereft of liveries, names or even numbers. It was also a useful opportunity to be reacquainted with the paddock café’s epic chips & mayonnaise cocktail…
Lydden is by no means as muddy as it was when rallycross was born here more than half a century ago, but it is otherwise little altered – and some of the cars retain a sense of familiar antiquity, not least Simon Hart’s Haynes of Maidstone-flavoured Mk1 Escort and James Harrold’s VW Beetle, the same car his late uncle Peter raced many years ago.
At the opposite end of the evolutionary scale, British Touring Car Championship star Matt Neal and serial Olympic gold medallist Sir Chris Hoy were among those on hand to test the Ford Fiesta-bodied STARD electric rallycross car developed by former World Rally Championship driver Manfred Stohl (and eligible to race in this season’s BRX).
It is audible in terms of tyre noise and the clatter of gravel upon inner wheel arch, but the power unit was quieter than whinnying horses in an adjacent meadow (and, indeed, a couple of pheasants that were being particularly boisterous somewhere nearby).
As a bundle of kinetic energy, though, it created a wonderful spectacle as it bucked around on the loose.
A torque show, one might say.
Historic Sports Car Club
Snetterton, April 17
In truth, the racing wasn’t particularly close – one of the fiercest battles of the day was that between a buzzard and a crow, above the Wilson hairpin early in the morning – but some of the driving was of an exceptionally fine standard.
One of the most successful domestic racers in 2020, Cam Jackson started where he left off by winning all five events in which he took part – two victories apiece in Classic and Historic FF1600 (aboard Van Diemen RF80 and Winkelmann WDF2 respectively), plus one in Formula Junior (Brabham BT2). And if he happened to be out front, on his own, he’d simply start throwing the car around, because he could. Andy Smith (March 783) adopted a similar approach en route to winning the opening Classic F3 race.
The most interesting ‘new’ car was perhaps the ex-Beppe Gabbiani Chevron B38 of Neil Jenkins, running at the back of the Classic F3 field as he adjusted to his recent acquisition. Run by Simon Hadfield Motorsport, which was responsible for a recent restoration, it looked absolutely pristine. “Beppe apparently started the 1977 F3 season with a red B38,” Hadfield said, “but he trashed it at Monza so his dad went out and bought him this blue one. We put a picture of the car on Facebook when we finished the rebuild and he responded straight away.”
The next task, surely, is to give the Italian a run in it?
NG Road Racing Club
Brands Hatch, April 18
In recent years, it has been tradition for Brands Hatch’s racing season to commence with a volley of motorcycle meetings, but a couple of the smaller organising clubs have folded of late and Covid wiped out March 2021. Even so, the year still began on a blend of two and three wheels, courtesy of NG Road Racing and its clutch of well-supported championships.
Remember when car meetings used to be organised by such as the Peterborough Motor Club, Nottingham Sports Car Club or Mid-Cheshire Motor Racing Club? The NG in this instance stands for North Gloucestershire, though with events all over the land and more than 600 competing members it is less parochial than that might sound.
Among the many privileges associated with a trackside tabard, one of the greatest is being able to stand to the inside of Surtees (South Bank Bend, to those of a certain age) when bikes are tearing past, the quickest riders canted over with eyes looking through you, glued firmly to some apex a few seconds in their future.
The racing varies from fiercely combative to intermittently processional, but the fusion of body language between rider and machine means bike racing can never, ever be categorised as dull.
And in the slipstream of this marvellous spectacle, it was time to dash home to catch the F1 highlights and watch live Indycar action from Birmingham (Alabama, unfortunately, rather than a revived version of the Superprix course in the West Midlands).
It’s what Sundays are for.
MG Car Club
Brands Hatch, April 24-25
To anybody out there that thinks motor racing ‘isn’t as good as it used to be’, please reconsider. The MG Car Club might be more than 90 years old, but its events remain an energetic blend of big grids and fine racing, with a healthy dollop of suspension travel thrown in.
With the enforced cancellation of its planned Silverstone opener in March, the MGCC’s season began instead at Brands Hatch, with several of its own championships running alongside Equipe Classic Racing’s excellent and expanding portfolio.
The first morning was subject to a series of unfortunate interruptions – it didn’t help that some gearbox oil-coated Paddock Hill Bend during practice for the MG Trophy – but once the meeting got into its stride it showcased some of the very best of British club racing, with some epic tussles between such as Ford Falcon, Ford Mustang, TVR Grantura and MGB as different parts of the track played to contrasting individual strengths.
Last year’s Formula Ford Festival winner Rory Smith was out in a Turner Mk2 in the first Equipe Pre ’63 race, his effervescence perhaps matched only by that of Mike Williams, who overcame late pre-weekend engine dramas (and a quick spin at Graham Hill Bend) to take a brace of MG Cup victories in his 1.8-litre Metro.
And no, you wouldn’t have found one of those in a period Austin Rover sales brochure…