British F3/GT Silverstone 2010

This was a day which had promised much and had initially offered more than a little frustration. I had been due to travel down to Silverstone with a friend in the Elise, taking part in a paddock display which also allowed for a lap of the Grand Prix Circuit during the lunch break. Sadly the Elise was malfunctioning and as it was 6am, I didn’t spot the fairly basic fault in the induction system (a 5 minute fix at worst). So we ended up in Paul’s VW van, bisecting the country in less noisy surroundings and at significantly lower expense than expected. It did hurt seeing/hearing all the other supercars (whether the Elise qualifies as “super” remains moot…) take to the track, but that’s life with a handbuilt sportscar, I suppose.

However, it wasn’t intended to be a day of self-indulgence, this was about the British national racing scene showcasing its wares on Silverstone’s Bridge layout – eschewing the new GP circuit. The headline races were for the national F3 and GT Championships, which both hung in the balance. This was complemented by the usual rough and tumble of VW, Formula Ford, Ginetta and MX5 support races.

The Ma5da MX5 Championship is a real success story of recent years and the durable racers often seem bonded together, such is their fondness for side-by-side action. Blessed without masses of grip, but evidently a very progressive, balanced chassis, it is great to see real racing – and most of it respectful. Time has passed and, as with the VW races, I have entirely forgotten the race result but thoroughly enjoyed both of the day’s encounters. The VWs didn’t disappoint either and Woodcote remains a great place to watch this varied grid as the FWD chassis tipped their inside rear wheel high in the air. A neat contrast with the mid-engined GT cars from later in the day, which were lifting an inside front exiting Club corner.  Ten on ten to Dziurzynski brother (absent from the race entry on this occassion) in his Corrado who seemed to be adopting a nice four-wheel drift into Woodcote with no little elegance. Great fun as always!

The Ginetta Challenge race occurred at a rather inconvenient time, being as we were at the entry to Stowe bend and some distance from an unobstructed view of the track. As a result, we sat back to enjoy the new G40 tackling the massed ranks of the old G20. Ginetta old hand Dominic Pettit did a good job in the G40, but the G20 still looks to be the quicker machine for the time being. One must applaud the ambition of the little equipe from Leeds who routinely churn out excellent little sports GT racers.

Formula Ford rarely produces a bad encounter and Silverstone stayed true to this ethos with a typically combatant race. The main story of the season being the championship battle between the Scotts Pye and Malvern. Malvern came to Silverstone with a 37 point championship lead, but the momentum belonged to Pye. Malvern defied the formbook and his 12 race winless streak to take the day’s first encounter, with Josh Hill the second. Josh was also looking good in the traffic at Brands Hatch in the DTM supporting races in September. Whether he is F1 material remains to be seen, but he certainly has his father’s spirit in battle.

The big news in F3 in 2010 was the utter domination of the championship by Frenchman Jean-Eric Vergne. Aboard a Red Bull-sponsored Carlin Dallara, he opened his account with a victory at Oulton Park back in April and didn’t stop winning thereafter. By August, he was in a position to become the first Gallic British F3 champion. In consumate fashion, he did just that. While his form has been mesmeric, one must wonder whether he has faced the depth of opposition which some other recent champions have had to contend with. Jaime Alguersari had Oliver Turvey to contend with, for example. Even so, his excellent F3 form has continued during a couple of late-season appearances in WSR so he looks like a tip for the future and well done to him – he did everything which might have been expected, and then some, taking more victories in a single season than any of his forerunners.

If F3 was a Vergne rout, then the British GT Championship really exceeded all expectations. Running a single 2 hour race instead of the usual shorter double-header format, this was one to savour. The largest and strongest field of the season made for an awesome spectacle as a rolling start kicked off 2 hours of fine sportscar racing, which came to a head with about 20 minutes to go. Several drivers made one-off appearances in this race and we were treated to the two Trackspeed Porsches, the Jones twins’ Ascari, the Lester/Simonsen 430 and Darren Turner’s DBRS9 all closing on one another towards the finish. With talent of the calibre of Richard Westbrook, Allan Simonsen and Darren Turner, this was a battle royale all the way to the flag. These guys really showed their class over the might of Silverstone’s fast corners and the current crop of GT3 cars is a stella one. With Mosler, Ford GT and sundry G4 entries additionally, this was a feast for eyes and ears. Eventual champion David Ashburn took the win with Glynn Geddie, but only by a matter of seconds from Simonsen, after the matching Porsche of his rear-gunner, Westbrook, faltered as he approached the line. It was a genuine grandstand finish and a superb advert for the championship which is rebuilding itself after a disappointing 2009. Here’s hoping for more of the same in 2011 when United Autosports look likely to bring in their Audi R8 LMSs full time, as well as the new AMG SLS of the Jones brothers. Sounds like fireworks…

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.