Superleague qualifying day – Brands Hatch 2010

July 31st and the first annual jaunt to beautiful Brands for the Superleague qualifying day. We usually stop over at the Thurrock West Premier Inn and once again a cardboard cut-out of Lenny Henry greeted us upon arrival in the glamourous Thames Gateway hostelry. An early start permitted arrival in time to see the small Group C field take to the track for their opening session. Standing out past Pilgrim’s drop at Hawthorn the air was moist as the track slowly dried. All the pilots were being cautious, not wanting to risk their valuable machinery so early in the meeting. In spite of this, Group Cs look fabulous at any speed and the noise of Cosworth-motivated Spices contrasted with the barrel-chested timbre of Don Miles’ Group 44 Jaguar XJR5 and the might turbocharged Nissans. Great to see former series champion David Mercer back at the wheel of a Spice SE90C – he was on tremendous form, apparently losing none of the speed he showed during the revived Group C’s early years.

The Superleague boys were out next and the cautious approach of the owner-driver Group C field was immediately apparent as a full grid of single seater stars launched their full talent and 750bhp at Brands’ sweeping Grand Prix circuit. As the pack circulated at speed, a dry line was quickly evident and the entry speed into Hawthorn was mighty; little stabs of throttle to balance the car before unleashing the wailing V12 as they went hammering towards Westfield; sound echoing around the woodland. The good news was the pace of local favourite Craig Dolby who was on top form on his first appearance on the full GP loop, having spent much of his formative career racing on the Continent. We wandered round to Westfield which proved equally fruitful viewing. The entry speeds are high but there is a wicked bump just on the exit of the corner which the drivers were handling with some aplomb as the unloaded inside wheel was pitched in the air and the revs rose as the grip reduced. These cars are so spectacular to watch with loads of grip but even more power delivered from that raucous and incredibly loud V12.

A short walk back towards Pilgrim’s drop and the bridge to watch the Lotus Cup Europe runners hit the circuit which was now pretty much dry. The 2-11s are no longer permitted in the UK’s domestic series, but make a fine sight in its European euqivalent and for us members of NYLOC it was great to see one of our members, Gavin Kirby, showing fine form in his 2-11. With the best of the runners from the UK making an appearance as well as the best of the Europeans, it was wonderful to see so many variants of our own car out there on track. Gavin ended up on pole.

Following a natural migration towards the paddock we watched the GP Cup from Druids where a fine selection of GTs brought back memories of the British GT Championship from the 1990s with a huge miscellany of different cars; not all conforming with the SRO’s rigorous homologation of GT3 and GT4. Seeing a Venturi for the first time in many years was a treat, as was Chris Randall’s mighty Lotus Europa which was proving an extremely useful tool around Brands’ topographical challenge.

One more untimed practice session to watch from the outfield between Druids and the deceptively slow and tricky Graham Hill Bend. A rare mistake from 2010 champion-to-be David Rigon who skipped across the gravel and made heavy contact with the barriers of Druids. There was some excitement among the partisan crowd as Craig showed majestic form and set the session’s fastest lap with an apparent degree of ease setting himself up nicely for the timed qualifying session.

Last thing before lunch and the day’s only race – for Formula Junior. These cracking little cars are limited to 1100cc, yet they employed Grand Prix technology at a time when those F1 cars were only of 1500cc capacity themselves and really are quick. With no aero and a narrow track they can actually race one another too. It was all looking too easy as John Milicevic streaked into the lead at the start and looked untouchable, pulling away from the rest of the field with beautiful controlled drifts through Paddock Hill Bend. He was chased hard by fellow Cooper runner Andrew Wilkinson though and the paid ended the race half a minute up the road from their nearest competitors. All through the field though strong battles ensued and, despite their lack of pace relative to the modern stuff, the diminuitive FJs remided the crowd of what made the formula so popular in period.

The second Group C session and a dry track at last. Those runners who had ducked out of the first session on the basis of poor weather were out on the circuit and our vantage point as the cars dropped down into Paddock Hill allowed them to show off serious downforce and sheer power. Highlight of the session was Nathan Kinch in the mighty Spice SP92 with a 1.20 lap only 7 seconds off the fastest of the Superleague runners. Mammoth Chevrolet engine bellowing towards Druids, he showed the class which brought him to the lead of the Le Mans support race earlier in the year. Pole was his by a comfortable margin, desite Mercer’s best efforts in his Spice.

Qualifying for the Superleague Formula headline race followed the football theme, with heats, quarter finals and semi finals before a final head-to-heat battle for pole. On paper the system sounds confusing compared to a traditional format, but trackside it is exciting with a genuine sense of excitement as the best drivers whittle themselves down. Form man Craig Dolby had shown great pace earlier in the day and he looked a good bet for the pole. It was disappointing, therefore, to see him knocked out by a stunning lap from Marcos Martinez, who went on to claim the number one spot from John Martin by a whisker. The knockout format is really good fun and challenges the drivers to consistently produce strong laps – you can’t just pit for fresh tyres and have another go. One does wonder whether this might suit Sebastien Vettel with his single-lap heroics.

And with that it was time to hit the road, as West Sussex beckoned and a jaunt to August’s Goodwood Breakfast Club for further automotive indulgence.