The Walkinshaws at Spa


I wonder how many of you tuned into the interweb or some other medium to keep pace with events in the 24-hours of Spa over the weekend?

I can’t say I did, but looking at the highlights it seemed an interesting race, enlivened by typical Francorchamps weather, no fewer than 10 safety car periods, a field comprising cars from 11 different manufacturers and names including Bruno Senna, Alex Zanardi, Bernd Schneider, André Lotterer, Mike Rockenfeller and Lucas Luhr in the winning BMW Z4. Of the 57 car entry, just 32 were still around on Sunday afternoon.

Sadly one of them wasn’t the MRS GT Racing Nissan GTR. It retired before the three-hour mark, its driver crashing out and bending the chassis, one of many to be caught out by the fickle weather. That driver was one Sean Walkinshaw (below), whose surname will be familiar to everyone reading this column. It was his first 24-hour race and, by his own admission, the biggest challenge of his motor racing career to date.

Spool back 34 years almost to the day and you’d have found another Walkinshaw lining up to start the same race. Except while Sean’s dad Tom was already well known as both a driver and a team owner even in 1981, before the race his chances of coming anywhere at Spa probably looked even less likely than Sean’s. For under his command was a Mazda RX-7 (top) whose tiny rotary engine qualified it to race in the under 2.5-litre category alongside a bunch of Ford Escort RS2000s and a couple of Audi 80s.

Unfortunately, of the 55 cars who qualified to start, no fewer than 33 were in the over 2.5-litre class, one populated by monster Ford Capris, BMW 530is and, yes, a load of 5-litre Chevrolet Camaros too. And it’s not as if they were racing around Monaco: the layout of Spa then differed only in detail to how it is today and then as now, it was a circuit that required power to negotiate successfully.

And likewise the weather had a particular part to play in the outcome of that race. In what must rank as one of the most notable examples of a single David duffing up an entire army of Goliaths, Walkinshaw and his co-driver Pierre Dieudonne pulled off one the most unlikely victories in touring car history while, at the same time, providing Mazda with hitherto by far the biggest win in its history. The journey from Belgium to France – where 10 years later Mazda became the first and, to date, only Japanese manufacturer to win Le Mans (once more assisted by a British driver in the form of Johnny Herbert) – is direct.

So what kind of car was this RX-7? Some silhouette racer, related only by badge and wheelbase to the fizzy but hardly ferocious road car with which it shared its name? On the contrary, the car was remarkably standard, and certainly compared to how different is a modern GT3 car like Walkinshaw junior’s to the road car from which it is derived, the RX-7 was in little more than showroom specification.

The RX-7 of Marc Duez, Jeff Allam, Chuck Nicholson and Win Percy, which finished fifth

So what kind of witchcraft allowed this little Mazda to pull off such an improbable win? Two reasons I knew already: the weather was helpful to smaller, lighter cars and in Walkinshaw and Dieudonne the team had a world-class line-up who could be counted upon to extract 110 per cent from the machinery. The third factor escaped me until recently when I reported to the Blyton Park circuit for a rendezvous with the exact RX-7 that took the flag that day.

I’m going to save the bulk of the driving impressions and the thoughts of Monsieur Dieudonne for the test that will shortly be published in the magazine, but suffice to say for now that the two drivers not only achieved a very great deal that weekend, but would have had an extremely good time doing it.

As for the younger Walkinshaw – his dad was nearly 35 when he won the Spa 24 hours, Sean is just 21 – there is all the time in the world to come back and get the job done.

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