Oulton Park Gold Cup 2010

The adoption of the Gold Cup nomenclature for Oulton Park’s premier annual historic race meeting adds a gravitas which befits a meeting in full maturity. From tentative beginnings it is now a major sporting draw locally and attracts bumper entries on track, as well as enormous crowds and many local car clubs. A grateful beneficiary of the Cheshire Lotus Owners’ Group’s kind hospitality, an early morning sprint around the Cheshire lanes was welcome and a fine convoy of Loti descended on Oulton. Sadly a slightly late arrival meant there were cars spread over a wide distance, rather ruining the effect of the club stand but how fantastic to be at Oulton on an August Bank Holiday and not suffering the usual precepitous weather!

Perhaps the Gold Cup’s first hero to me in its HSCC guise was Flavien Marcais who danced to victory in the headline race for Formula One machinery in the sonorous BRM P180. While the event no longer features a race for 3.0L F1 cars, this was a day of epic performances in exceptional machinery.

The Guards Trophy’s battle for racing sports cars was opened up to “Big Bangers” for the first time. What a treat to see McLaren M1Bs going toe-to-toe with Lola T70 and Lotus 30 against the hordes of small capacity prototypes from the usual suspects – Chevron, Ginetta, Elva, et al. Andrew Smith looked the form man in his T70 Spyder, looking resplendent in the sunshine, but mechanical maladies stimmied his challenge early on. He returned to the track to turn in some spectacular lap times, to the delight of the crowd. Recollections of Denny Hulme wrestling a similar car in period around the great track duly aroused, even among those of us only old enough to picture the scene from photographs. At the end of a long race it came down to Andy Newall in the JCB liveried Chevron B8 being chased by the Minshaw clan’s similar car. In the end, Newall held on to take a worthy victory but it was a genuine grandstand finish with superb performances from both protagonists and the big bangers duly vanquished.

The HSCC always lays on a few track demonstrations to showcase cars from different eras and this year saw the turn of Group C. While the mighty sports prototypes of the 1980s never officially raced at Oulton in period, the bubble cockpits put one in mind of the Prosport 3000 battles which brought a young Peter Hardman to our attention in the last century at the great track. Far from one-make facsimilies, however, the HSCC had gathered a Jaguar XJR9, a brace of turbocharged Nissans and the unique Cougar C26s. The pace was respectful, rather than shocking but the sound of that epic 7.0L V12 in the Jaguar is nape-prickling; juxtaposing with the wastegate swooshing of the turbo cars. Today’s diesel Audi and Peugeot LMP weapons, as dramatic as they undoubtably are, simply do not cut it aurally compared to their ancestors.

Also out on track was Sir Stirling Moss. This most remarkable of men may appear a little more frail as a result of his horrifying lift shaft fall but he remains sharp, charismatic and the darling of the crowds everywhere he goes. He was running a few laps in the Ferguson P99 four wheel drive Formula One car which he used to take victory in the contemporary Gold Cup in 1961. He followed a camera car, producing shots for a wonderful feature in Motor Sport magazine, but still taking time to wave to the appreciative crowd. A very evocative sight, and one can only hope that the P99 retains a public profile despite its recent sale as it remains most beguiling.

Back to competition and Sir Stirling has given his name to a trans-European race series for 1950s sportscars and sports racers. The outstanding car/driver combination was the Lister Chevrolet of Jamie McIntyre which simply bludgeoned the opposition over a one hour race. With seismic V8 thunder from side-exit exhausts, his gentle drifts lap-after-lap out of Knickerbrook were a delight to behold. Despite opposition of the quality of the Minshaw T61 Birdcage Maserati and a plethora of D-Type Jaguars, as at the Goodwood Revival three weeks later, McIntyre was untouchable. In spite of the dominance at the front, Oulton was blessed with a full grid of beautiful racers from diniuitive Lotus 15s to upright Aston Martin DB2s. We look forward to more of the same in 2011.

The fastest cars of the weekend feature in the Derek Bell Trophy which focuses on historic F2 and F5000 machinery. While 5.0L Chevy grunt usually counts for much, around the swoops and sweeps of Oulton nobody could touch Richard Evans in his pretty ex-Fred Opert F2 Chevron B40. The big bangers of F5000 were left breathless as he crushed the field to win by 30secs in the 12 lap encounter – this was emphatically man and machine in perfect harmony. Even so, the spectacle of the old warhorses thumping their way up Clay Hill always leaves an impression, and the Formula Libre battles of David and Goliath enthralled.

A short walk around to the new spectating area at Druids offered a new perspective on a familiar circuit. The FF1600 drivers gave a worthy account of themselves carving a smooth arc through the quick double-apex right hander. A field which included 1988 BTCC champion and Frank Sytner and former Grand Prix driver Ian Ashley was left vanquished by the young Darren Burke. Having won every round of the HSCC championship in 2010, surely this is a man who deserves a leg-up to achieve greater things. Let us hope that any proposed move onto the contemporary single seater ladder proves successful. The breath-taking speed he carried through Druids compared to his opposition suggests a bright future.

The Guards Trophy GT race packed an enormous number of varied cars into its traditional mini-enduro format. Jon Minshaw continued the pattern of dominance with his Lightweight E-Type. This same car has seen victory at Silverstone, Donington Park and Spa during an action-packed 2010 campaign. Behind him, the hordes of Healey 3000s, E-Types, Marcoses Triumph TRs and MGs proved as entertaining as ever with lurid powerslides the order of the day. The valiant efforts of little Lotus Elites and 26R Elans to overcome the might of V8 TVRs seems only to become more fascinating with the passing of time. In the end, though, this was always going to be Minshaw’s race to lose.

A wander back from the Knickerbrook outfield to the paddock towards the end of the day neatly coincided with furious action on the rally stage as an array of forest-dwellers skidded their way around the tight twists of Oulton’s answer to Kielder. From lumbering Rover SD1 to lithe Minis, the sliding, three-wheeling antics served only to highlight the fine miscellany present over the weekend. The paddock cleared as tired competitors tried to avoid the Bank Holiday rush but the atmosphere remained; it is genuinely heart-warming that the circuit I call home offers such a fine historic event. While it lacks the glamour of Goodwood, its intimacy and the resplendent parkland circuit offer one of the annual highlights of a hectic domestic racing scene. Long may it continue.

MSVR – Cadwell Park 2010

It’s been ages since I wrote up a race meeting and have a pretty severe backlog to wade through. On that basis, I’ll keep it short and sweet.

A journey to Lincolnshire’s Cadwell Park is always to be relished. Despite failing dismally to find the glorious lanes which so entertained me during 2010’s previous foray, it was a treat to find myself wandering the informal paddocks as weekend racers fettled their steeds.

MSVR must be commended, not only for the tremendous management of Cadwell, but also their roster of superb clubman’s race series. Every series would appear to field large grids and unusually close racing. Clearly this is one of UK motor racing’s great success stories.

As a committed Lotus enthusiast, four races for the burgeoning Elise trophy would be a daily highlight. They did not disappoint with some epic racing from front to back. The usual contenders – Kirby, Speller, Williams, et al – all featured in great lead contests. Williams’ attack on Exige-mounted Speller ended in drama when his roof made a dramatic bid for freedom sending him into a lurid spin out of Charlies. As luck would have it, a gentle meeting with the tyre barrier freed the car of its flapping roof and he was able to continue, but the sting was taken out of the race. Later in the day and the heavens opened, flooding the track casuing even the most committed to tip-toe on their dry-biased rubber. It is at such moments that the spectator must be grateful for Cadwell’s natural arboreal cover which allowed for uninterupted viewing. A final race smash in damp conditions off the start line which claimed five victims didn’t seem to reflect a day of fine, combative racing from a series which must rank as one of the UK’s finest.

If the Elise Trophy reveals the MSVR’s closest racing then perhaps its Production Saloons offer the greatest miscellany. Bringing to mind the National Saloon Championship of the 1990s, this brings together all manner of production touring cars – from E30 BMW M3 to purring Jaguar XJS via Renault 5 GT Turbo and Mk I Ford Escort. This is a spectacle to be savoured. While anyone who witnessed the Group A BTCC of the 1980s will never be in any doubt as to the potency of the Sierra Cosworth, perhaps Colin Tester’s domination of a twisty circuit and treacherous damp conditions came as a slight surprise. In stealth black, his Cossie took on and beat all comers in both races, despite strong opposition. A highly impressive perfromance and more of the same was to follow at Oulton Park the following month.

BMW and VAG marque championships also featured full grids and these cars always show themselves off best around tighter circuits where a lack of outright power is masked by keen direction change. The front-wheel drive challengers in the VAG Trophy luridly three-wheeling through Halls Bends never lost its drama.

A cursory glance at the online timetable for the meeting had revealed races for the rather cruelly-monickered “VW GIT” series. This proved, sadly, to be untrue and an enormous grid of Mk II VW Golf GTIs battled furiously instead. Intentional or otherwise, the misnomer raised a smile. Sadly the final GTI race of the day provided a salutory lesson that motorsport can never be considered a safe pursuit. In almost 25 years of attending race meetings, I have never before seen fire in the aftermath of a smash. On the circuit’s fastest section, the Park Straight, two of the protagonists clashed resulting in a ferocious and violent accident with the tyre barriers, leaving both machines horribly contorted but their hapless pilots mercifully unhurt. When enormous flames erupted from the stricken cars it was a genuinely sickening moment and not something to be forgotten in a hurry. The charred remains of a now banana-shaped Golf in the paddock offered a stark reminder that this beautiful sport can still be a cruel mistress. Thank goodness that both drivers were shaken but otherwise unscathed. Of course, the usual plaudits must go to the marshalls and safety teams who dived upon the accident in their usual fashion – British motorsport will forever owe these men and women a debt of gratitude for their dilligence.

And so it sounds like a slightly negative end to an otherwise fine day in the Lincolnshire countryside. However, having gleaned that the VW drivers were safe, there was some deliberation over whether to remove the roof for the homeward journey. Despite warnings of rain from my pal Rob, I decided to continue sans soft top. As I followed him North towards the M180 I could actually see him laughing in his car as the rain started. And subsequently continued with unabated ferocity leaving me utterly soaked. A gently amusing way to end a day which served to neatly summarise up our magnificent domestic racing scene – great racing, rain and the clubman’s spirit. I wouldn’t swap it for anything.

Donald and Jean

This rather charming photo was kindly donated to me by Jean Wales, whose father was the great racer and record holder Sir Malcolm Campbell. The picture depicts Jean playing with her brother Donald, who himself became a holder of world speed records on land and water, like his father. The car illustrated is based upon the 1928 Bluebird III which became an LSR record holder at 207 mph.

Prodrive / Gaydon Trip

The British winter can be an unsettling time for the motor racing enthusiast. As the circuit racing season comes to an end and only the bobble-hatted rally fans dare venture out. The 2010/2011 winter seemed only to further discredit itself with virtually unprecedented levels of snowfall drowning the country and leaving sportscars safely garaged but under-used. When early January presented a break in the weather, it was time to re-enthuse oneself with all matters automotive – a boys’ trip out in a proper sporting motorcar.

A 6.00AM alarm call is never really welcome, especially when the January dawn is still some hours away. But slumber was soon rejected in favour of excitement, for today we were heading first to Prodrive in Banbury and then later to the Heritage Motor Centre in Gaydon, and doing it in dad’s rather special new car; itself dormant for several weeks.

A little about our conveyance: Despite Ford’s claims during the last Century about the Capri, I suspect for most men, an Aston Martin is “The car you always promised yourself”. Collected in October, but sadly little used since then, the V8 Vantage is as beguiling a motorcar as I have yet experienced. Blessed with a remarkable extruded and bonded aluminium chassis and motivated by a magical 4.7L V8 engine, there was never a moment on our south-bound journey when one might have wished to be sat in any other machine. The coarse yet crisp timbre as the revs rose through the gears leaving the toll booth on the M6 seemed worth the financial sacrifices in itself.

The decision to take the Aston on this particular trip carries a little more depth than simply the pleasure derived from the car itself. Prodrive is owned by David Richards, who himself heads the consortium which owns Aston Martin Lagonda, sited at Gaydon. There exists a delightfully symbiotic relationship between the two companies, with Aston Martin Racing working out of the Prodrive workshops, which prepare its many race cars.

Prodrive takes the business of its fine racing history very seriously and has recently taken the step to open up its own Heritage Centre to the public. This is a remarkable series of cars, which offers a glimpse of what this company has achieved in its 27 year history, on road and in the various disciplines in competition – GT, rally, Formula 1 and touring cars. It is here where we start our tour of the premises, led by Jackie, a lady who bubbles with an enthusiasm for her employer which verges on the obsessive. She clearly adores working there and her knowledge for her subject is remarkable. The collection changes depending on the cars which are available, but for our visit we were treated to Subaru World Rally Cars from McRae and Burns, Le Mans winning Aston Martin and Ferrari GT1 cars, the revolutionary P2 prototype road car, one of Jenson Button’s BAR F1 weapons and the 2000 British Touring Car Ford Mondeo, of the kind which took Alain Menu to championship glory, as well as iconic Rothmans sponsored Porsche 911 and Metro 6R4 and Bastros BMW E30 M3 rally contenders – a diverse group which serves only to scratch the surface of the group’s proud heritage.

What is remarkable about this start to the tour was that we were left entirely to our own devices in the Centre and told to properly explore the cars, take photos and even sit in them if we wanted. The conceit of the Lotus owner has never bitten so hard. Figuring that the contortianism required to access and egress an Elise would be sufficient to allow graceful progress into and out of the glorious GT1 Ferrari 550 was a significant mis-judgement. While I savoured the experience of sitting in a car I had seen pounding the race tracks in the FIA GT Championship for many years, there came a kind of rising panic that I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to emerge from my temporary carbon fibre haven. With dignity thrown out of the window, and muscles used which I never realised I had, I was deposited on the ground unceremoniously, but with no little sense of triumph. What a machine though – unutterably beautiful and powered by a mid-front mounted V12, this car still displays its ALMS scrutineering stickers from a works campaign in the States. The very chassis on display took GTS class victory in the 2003 Le Mans 24 Hour race.

A break for coffee and biscuits was welcome after unexpected exertions before we accompanied Jackie into Prodrive’s engineering heart. First to the development area where gearbox, engine and damper assembly and testing takes place. A privileged opportunity to explore Subaru WRC boxer engines and gearboxes and a chance to chat to the technicians and engineers who make it all possible. Housed in the same area are the engine test bays and we were taken into the control booth where computers monitor and govern racing engines. Here they are able to program entire races into the computers and test the motors over the full range of stresses they will experience over a race. The engines are started with a mouse click, before the throttle openings for the race track are perfectly rendered and repeated for a race distance. There are two test cells, with one control booth, and we were able to see the very readings and parameters the engineers themselves use to observe behaviour. Before we entered, the blinds came down on the viewing panel into bay number 1. This, apparently, is housing the engine for the brand new Aston Martin LMP1 car, which Prodrive hopes will take the fight to the might Peugeot and Audi diesel prototypes next year. Its configuration has yet to be announced and despite some light-hearted probing, there was no way we were going to be allowed to find out. Despite the remarkable open access on our tour, there were to be no secrets shared, sadly.

Next stop was Aston Martin assembly. A small workshop housed V8 Vantage racers in GT4 and GT2 specification – all painted white. The GT2 machine has progressed well enough to take class victory in last year’s Silverstone 1000kms and it was fascinating to explore the car and chat to the guys who make them. With oil tank over the rear axle, huge cooling for the transaxle and an impossibly low engine mounting, this is a very serious car, and so it must be to take the battle for class wins to the likes of Chevrolet – with its mighty Corvettes – BMW’s M3, the evergreen Porsche 911 and Ferrari’s new 458. Of particular interest was the final checking and assembly of a GT4 Vantage race car for a customer. The hand-over ceremony was due the following day in the Heritage Collection and technicians were working through an exhaustive list to ensure the car was perfect. It certainly looked the part, though much work remained for the busy team.

Into the adjacent workshop and it is a feast for Subaru enthusiasts. Prodrive (with a little help from McRae, Burns, Sainz and Makinnen) created the cult of Subaru in the UK and a variety of WRC and Group N Imprezas were available for us to explore – from a bare shell ready for transformation to a remarkable early WRC car which was recently shipped over from Uganda. This grubby and tatty machine had lain dormant for 10 years, only the warm, dry climate keeping it from rotting to dust. It had come back home for a total rebuild – and it needed it. There was some banter about emerging spiders and scorpions, though one suspects this might become rather real when the technicians commence work.

And so the tour continued, allowing us remarkable access to the facility. We inspected the new LMP1 wiring harness, welding on the new Mini Countryman shells, a bare V8 Vantage chassis – a chance to savour that same aluminium network of extrusions which makes the road car such a delightful companion – the fabrication workshops, suspension turrets formed from single billets of magnesium in enormous computer-controlled lathes and even David Richards’ own Morris 1000 nestling in a corner. Apparently his AM Rapide (which was visible, and utterly filthy elsewhere on the site) doesn’t suit Cornwall so he purchased the Moggy and allowed a group of apprentices to refurbish it to his exacting standards for use around the lanes of the South West. All the while, we were fed information and allowed very privileged access to one of the UK’s great enginering success stories. In fact, motor racing doesn’t even tell the full story – you’ll have to attend yourself to learn it all!

And so we were back to the Heritage Centre for a few final photos and a nose around the small shop. In total, we were on site for three and a half hours and enjoyed Jackie’s undivided attention for that time. It really was a wonderful way to enjoy a peak into what makes one of the world’s great engineering concerns tick. We’ll be keeping all digits crossed in the hope that the Mini and the new LMP1 cars enjoy success next year.

By now it was lunchtime and we were ready to press on to our next destination. Only a junction up the M40 from Banbury is the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon. During the Second World War, Gaydon was a bomber base, and continued to be so after the end of hostilities, housing the V-bombers. Following decommissioning, it was purchased by British Leyland, who formed a test facility to match that of General Motors at Millbrook. The site now houses Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin, as well as the old BL collection of cars – now the Heritage Motor Centre. Unfortunately dad’s own car wasn’t able to visit the Aston premises itself, but it felt right that the car was back where it was first created, and perhaps the opportunity to visit the AML factory will prevail in the future.

The HMC is an enormous, circular, mock-Art Deco building which houses not only a remarkable collection of static exhibits, but also workshops and significant conference facilities for lucky delegates. Following much-needed refreshments, we explored the sizeable collection of cars. Being born in the 1980s, the history of British Leyland is a virtually impenetrable maze of take-overs, mergers, acquisitions and industrial action – with some car production thrown in along the way. So much potential and yet for someone of my age, it sometimes feels like there is little to get excited over in terms of actual output. It wouldn’t be over-stating things to say, however, that we are enjoying something of a purple patch in British car production at the moment. This country can claim world-beating products from Jaguar, Morgan, Bentley, Rolls Royce, Land Rover, Lotus and Aston Martin.

The HMC celebrates these current success stories, as well as innumerable previous triumphs and flops from history – from the mundane to the remarkable. There is a tremendous selection of relatively ordinary family cars which illustrates a timeline of British car production, which even allows the inclusion of a Toyota Carina, due to their production facilities in the UK. Photos of the enormous Longbridge plant seem almost spooky, but clearly there is also much to celebrate today – with the monumental Rolls Royce Phantom produced at Goodwood in Sussex and a fascinating selection of modern Aston Martins, including the V12 Vantage RS prototype which shoe-horned the DBRS9’s 600bhp racing engine into the svelte Vantage bodyshell as a prelude to the road version on sale today.

Of most interest to an enthusiast for racing history is the competitions area. This is a disparate selection of racers from the UK. From that great flop of the last decade – a Jaguar R4 F1 car – to a TVR T440 GT2 racer, this isn’t exhaustive, but highlights some fascinating vehicles. The two most significant displays of BL competition history are the MG record cars and the Monte Minis. The MG record cars driven by Capt. George Eyston, Sir Stirling Moss and Phil Hill are akin (as one might expect) to scaled-down LSR cars – junior Railton Mobil Specials, if you will. They set records which still raise eyebrows today: 250mph in the 1950s with just 1500cc. All three of the Monte Carlo winning Mini Coppers line up as well. These tremendous little cars too victory in the arduous, snowy rally in 1964, 1965 and 1967 in the hands of luminaries Hopkirk, Makkinen and Aaltonen. The 1966 Monte was won on the road by another Mini, before the entire podium, and the fourth placed Lotus Cortina was disqualified on a lighting technicality, allowing Citroen to win. You couldn’t write the script…And so it will be fun to see how the new BMW Mini we saw down the road at Prodrive is able to compare to the illustrious record of Issigonis’ iconic BMC original.

In an adjacent area sat some of the great prototypes and show cars, from the BL era, as well as more recent efforts. From the Triumph Lynx to the strangely alluring Rover SD1 estate – so many oddities history has almost forgotten. A brace of gas turbine powered Rover prototypes caught the eye. Having recently inspected the famous JET 1 in London’s Science Museum, this pair offered Whittle’s jet engine a more practical home. These were numbers three and four, including a vaguely rakish coupe profile. A snapshot of a time when jet travel looked to be the future of personal mobility on the roads, as well as in the sky.

By late afternoon, we were sated; bristling with automotive fact but also aware that slowly the museum lights were dimming and the staff there were ready to shut up shop. The prospect of hitting the mad Midlands’ motorway network at rush hour didn’t seem quite so arduous knowing we were to be doing it in the glorious Vantage. A day to take stock of the UK’s place in automotive history and consider the future – it looked pretty good from where we were sitting.