Donington Park Revived!

The first weekend in September promised no let-up from the intense summer of automotive indulgence. Saturday 4th September offered the return of racing to that most evocative of venues – Donington Park. Having been saved from possible extinction by incumbent Kevin Wheatcroft, the Masters organisation was charged with returning four-wheeled racing to the Park. Greeted by sunshine, though customarily little warmth, it was a pleasure to find oneself back at a circuit which I fist visited as a pre-teen in 1995 for the Karcher BPR Global GT Championship.

Rather comfortingly, little had apparently changed compared to the last couple of meetings of 2009, when there remained that bemused optimism that maybe, just maybe, Simon Gillett could pull that rabbit from the hat – a Grand Prix at Donington Park. Having disappeared into the sunset, Gillett had left something of a mess behind him, with Donington still looking as much deserted building site as race circuit. While its dilapidation is sad, the motor racing enthusiast could once again rejoice in observing cars at speed around a circuit which boosts a history now almost 80 years old.

In deference to that history, the Masters had put together an exciting race card offering a fabulous mix of old sports, GT, touring and Grand Prix racers. Sadly, the opening race of the day was missed but as the warhorses from the World Sportscar Masters took to the track nothing could wipe the grin from my face. A representative field of big-banger and small-capacity sports racing machinery put on a fine display, with the primary interest being the fierce competition between Roger Wills in his McLaren M1C and Oliver Bryant in the family Lola T70 MkIIIB. Every lap, the pair hammered into Redgate as one with Wills relishing the McLaren’s huge torque with lurid powerslides on the exit. Bryant was more controlled, but the Lola equally dramtic with monster Chevrolet power of its own. After 30 minutes of action, it was Bryant who crossed the line first, and what a magnificent start to a day of racing.

More sports racing cars followed with the Interserie Revival/Proto 70s showcasing heavy metal from the late 1960s and 1970s. Group 7 challengers from the Can Am and Interserie butted heads with 2.0L and 3.0L sports prototypes. The end result was never in doubt though, as Rick Hall scampered into the distance to win at a canter in Brazilian Abba Kogan’s wailing Matra MS670B. Frank Bradley was valiant in attack behind in the March 717, but even the enormous power of the March was unable to make an impression, though he convincingly beat Rick Hall in the second of the Matras. While the racing may not have been edifying, the sound and spectacle of high-revving 3.0L engines overlaying the off-beat thump of the big-capacity V8s was a treat in itself; one might never grow bored of that glorious Matra V12.

A frantic race for pre-1966 saloon cars saw a classic scrap between a brace of Alan Mann Lotus Cortinas and the BMW 1800TI of the McInerneys. The Cortinas displayed that most distinctive handling trait – oversteer on the entry, apex and exit of Redgate. Even from the first lap, cars were taking to the dusty hard-standing on the outside of Hollywood as the road pitches down into the Craner Curves and a precedent was set which continued throughout the race. A representative grid of Minis, Mk II Jaguars and Austin A40s provided dicing all the way down the field. Leo Voyazides won the bout by 20 seconds once pit stops had shaken themselves out, with his sideways style once again winning many fans.

Between races were interspersed a number of demonstration runs for machinery of all kinds. Historic karts and bikes offered an alternative viewpoint, but fast laps from a variety of historic racing cars were the highlight. Featuring a handful of Tom Wheatcroft’s favourite Grand Prix machines from his own collection, the crowd was wowed by Vanwall, Ferrari and Lotus, among a host of famous names. Enthusiasts of enclosed wheels weren’t ignored and the glorious Ferrari 512S lapped with a selection of Super Saloon and Modsports heroes. While it is a fine balancing act trying to avoid being all things to all men, the day offered a fascinating glimpse of the sport’s rich history.

 The day’s fastest action was reserved for the 3.0L Grand Prix cars of the period 1966 – 1983 when Cosworth’s DFV offered a hitherto unseen miscellany to the sport. A tremendous field of pretty and indecently rapid machinery put on a fine display; that crisp V8 bark so evocative as it echoed around the parkland. The battle at the front was a close one, with Steve Hartley and Rob Austin aboard a pair of Arrows and Bill Coombs in his Tyrrell 009 all in with a shout. By the chequer it was Austin who had emerged victorious but once again these cars proved that wheel-to-wheel racing between high-powered single seaters is perfectly plausible, as the Hartley and Coombs had so eloquently proven at the Silverstone Classic earlier in the summer. Stirring stuff indeed.

A exciting field for the Sports Racing Masters encounter was left depleted by a first-lap incident which eliminated the Wills McLaren, Watson Chevron and Monteverde Lola T70. Red Bull design chief and ardent historic enthusiast Adrian Newey appeared pirouetting down the Craners in dramatic fashion but emerged unscathed and continued to lap rapidly in his GT40. At the front, however, the brothers Buncombe looked unruffled in their own GT40. Chris and Alex are the offspring of Jonathan, a club racer of some merit during the 1970s. His talent appears to have rubbed off and a stellar drive left them a handful of seconds ahead of the Minshaw clan, who won the unofficial Chevron class.

The final race of the day was the Gentlemen Drivers’ Over 3.0L enduro, scheduled for 2 hours running into the autumnal dusk. A striking sight, and ferocious noise as the pack descended on Redgate for the opening lap. Clear favourite was Jon Minshaw piloting his Lightweight Jaguar E-Type, whose neat style contrasted with three foot long flames from the side-exit exhaust of the Jag. His adversaries were at the mercy of reliability and the speed of their co-drivers. Father and son Cobra pairing Graham and Olly Bryant were able to salvage second, though one must attribute that mostly to Olly, who entertained on a level only matched by Rob Hall who found maximum grip on the grasscrete outside the Old Hairpin, kicking up the dust every lap. Proper cars and proper drivers, with the likes of Simon Hadfield, Gary Pearson and Mark Hales also putting in superb drives aboard a range of beautiful and mellifluous GTs from the 1960s. A wonderful way to finish a long and hugely enjoyable day back at Donington.

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.