Amateur racing at its best (and worst)

Historic Racing

The Spa Six Hours. Sounds glamorous doesn’t it? Sounds like it should be stock full of low slung slices of exotica staffed by snake-hipped professional drivers who’ve just passed their GCSEs, wearing kaleidoscopic helmets and carbon fibre underpants. But it’s not. I know this because I’m an overweight middle-aged man with a four-year-old white Arai, fresh back from taking part in it. This is how it actually works. For us at least.

The Spa Six Hours is a race for pre-1966 production based sports and touring cars. So anything from a Ford GT40 to a Mini, a Lotus Elan to a Ferrari 250GT SWB, an AC Cobra to an MGB can take part. And plenty do – there are well over 100 entries, also including Jaguar E-types, Porsche 911s, Ford Mustangs, Austin Healeys, Alfa GTAs and so on.

The Frankel weapon au choix was a Ford Falcon, which parked next to an Elan 26R is as a blunderbuss to a sniper’s rifle. Now here’s the thing: whatever you might think from looking at this vast lump of Detroit iron, the reverse is almost certainly true. Reckon it weighs more than your house? Reckon again: Ford homologated some very lightweight parts for this car in period so it actually weighs less than a VW Golf GTI. Think it handles with all the elegance of a Labrador on black ice? Wrong again – it’s no fan of hairpins but though the quick stuff it can scare the life out of more sporting machines.

And finally, of course, it will be mechanically indestructible. Won’t it? No again. Before this weekend I’d done this race six times, three in fragile Alfas all of which sailed around with no trouble at all, and three times in the Falcon. In 2011 wheel bearing failure detached a wheel and threw me off the track at Les Combes. In 2012 we had rocker failure after two hours, and last year the transmission broke after the same amount of time.

Why did we go back for more? A triumph of relentless optimism over pervasive realism I guess, plus the promise of beer, banter, a look around the old circuit, chips at the Friterie de Masta and the prospect of at least some very fast driving at my favourite circuit.

Very fast? The Falcon has the same engine as a GT40, save the wet sump below and four barrel Holley carb above. We have around 450bhp in a car that weighs less than a new Mini Cooper S. So yes, very fast.

The team was me, my brother Richard who owns the car, and one Chris Harris who’s another motoring hack who does videos and drives cars annoyingly quickly – he and Anthony Reid damn near won the Goodwood Revival TT race last year.

Of course we broke the car again a week before the race in testing at Silverstone. More rocker bother, and the fact we appeared to have unlocked the chassis set up was scant consolation. I’d have rather finished the race on a shire horse than retire on a pedigree stallion.

So come qualifying we decided to stroke it round. Use 6000rpm where we’d have used 6500rpm in the past, keep off every kerb, change gear slowly and nurse it through the event. As a result we qualified in 68th place, about 20 positions lower than last year. But for the first time, the car actually felt good on the track.

Because I’d sulked the most about not getting a proper drive in the last three years, I got to go first and was happily picking off the odd 911 here and Mustang there when I drove into one of those walls of water you find only at Spa. Only then did it occur to me that the thing none of us had ever done was drive the Falcon in the wet.

Once again its behaviour was the reverse of what you might expect. Instead of seeking solace in the arms of the nearest Armco barrier, the big old bus simply knuckled down and got on with it while others threw themselves at the scenery. I was having a fabulous time duffing up everything that ventured into the Falcon’s path, including somewhat improbably two GT40s when, 90 minutes into a two hour stint the safety car came out, followed somewhat inevitably by a pitboard with ‘IN’ written on it. Still, from 68th on the grid I handed the car over in 39th place and had laughed myself silly in the process.

My brother did 90 minutes too, the plan being for Chris to run as long as the 120-litre tank would carry it – between 2hrs and 2hrs 30min depending on the weather – and then I’d get back in and bring it across the line somewhere in the top 20 overall and runaway winners of the class.

Fat chance. Chris managed one lap before returning to the pits with the reasonable excuse that its back end was on fire. In technical terms the rear brakes were buggered. But it took 40 minutes to realise we couldn’t fix them there and then and another 10 to cap off the offending corner and send Chris back into the race on three brakes, a limitation he didn’t even notice now it was raining again. So in the end he spent the last 90 minutes of the race scaring other competitors with his and the Falcon’s mutual addiction to oversteer in the wet.

In the end we came 75th, and were this any other race we’d have been appalled. But this was the Spa Six Hours and the Falcon had finally finished it. It felt like a win. Or at least a podium. OK, then at least not a total bloody disaster.

Chris has said he’s never going to race the Falcon again, so naturally we’ll all be back next year and the year after. And some time between now and the time failed ECGs bring our racing careers to a close, the Falcon will run perfectly from start to finish. And insane though it sounds, I know that in that moment, it will all have been worthwhile.

 

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