Autosport International 2013

I’m in Birmingham, it’s snowing and I’ve got a hangover. It can only mean one thing: time for the annual trip to the NEC for Autosport International. Since I was seven years old this has been an annual tradition. Of course back in 1991 I wasn’t so conversant with the inebriating properties of premium lager and snow seemed exciting, rather than inconvenient.

I sold out and gave up driving to ASI a few years ago when the privilege of parking on an unmade, stony, puddle-ridden car park attracted a tax of £8. Now, travelling by train seems something of a luxury – and of course affords the opportunity to read the event preview in Autosport on the way down. Sadly nobody was handing out paracetemol and Irn Bru on the train but I was in great spirits as I arrived. Despite the internet cynics, I enjoy ASI each year and it’s a great way to get one’s head around the forthcoming season, chat to a few folk and build the excitement for another thrilling year of motor racing ahead.

Due to a multitude of other commitments, this was to be something of a whistle-stop tour of the show and I immediately failed to approach it in my usual meticulous manner. Rather than walking each isle in turn, ensuring blanket coverage of every stand, I instead darted from one shiny attraction to the next in a fashion more reminiscent of an excited puppy chasing tree trunks to frequent than a diligent racing enthusiast on the hunt for automotive news.

Still, there was very much to see and do. As usual there were several big displays to enjoy. Motosport News showcased important cars from the career of the much-missed Richard Burns. Spanning his whole career, these ranged from rudimentary Peugeot 205 to glorious 206 WRC, via a gallery of glorious rallying machinery. It was a touching reminder of quite what a loss he remains7 to the sport. I will always fondly remember the shoot-outs he and Colin McRae enjoyed each year at Goodwood in Subaru and Focus respectively – with Michele Mouton chasing them in her SWB Quattro. How times can change so suddenly.

Elsewhere, the venerable Historic Sports Car Club had laid on a feast of British Touring Car greats from the earliest days of saloon racing in the UK through to the present day. Nearby, Dunlop showcased several of 2013’s contenders from MG, Audi, Proton and Toyota. The NGTC regulations are really working and the grid in BTCC today is a colourful and varied one. It is no longer necessary to look back to the 1990s Super Touring years to reminisce about the good old days – the action and the cars are tremendous today.

The varied and incredibly successful career of Sir Jackie Stewart was lauded was a wide array of important cars from his time at the top, with the cars arranged in front of John Delane’s period Tyrrell transporter. It was a salient reminder of the variety of machinery drivers raced back in the 1960s and 1970s. JYS was a winner in touring cars, sports cars, GTs, F1, F3 and Tasman – often in the same meeting: quite remarkable. It was doubly pleasing to see one of the Stewart Grand Prix cars from his brief career as an F1 team owner. To rise to a race-winning team owner within three seasons was an achievement every bit as impressive as anything he achieved in the cockpit.

A big grid of contemporary F1 cars evoked the spirit of Grand Prix racing. The SKY Sports F1 team wandered between them, taking questions from the crowd. This was proving extremely popular with David Croft holding court while Ant Davidson and Johnny Herbert offered their expert insight. This kind of access to the stars is one of the major draws for the public and Crofty made a special effort to field questions from younger members of the audience; some of whom were more probing than their elder neighbours.

Looking around the halls there was too much to summarise in a short blog, but of course there were highlights. Group C/GTP Racing revealed three Lancia LC2s resplendent in matching Martini liveries. Slowly Sideways featured a number of dramatic rally heroes, including Ari Vatanen’s Peugeot 405 T16 – the very car which was stolen on the Paris Dakar. The new Bentley Continental GT3 prototype looks brutally menacing in the flesh and should steal spectator hearts when it takes to the track later this year.

Stealing headlines, however, was the launch of the new Radical RXC coupe. Looking like it’s taken a wrong turn off the Daytona banking and ended up in the West Midlands; this is Radical’s effort to enter the GT marketplace. Available as a road car with a Ford V6, in spite of its dramatic sports prototype looks, this is a more genuine GT effort than the equivalent G55 from Ginetta. With proper dowforce and tiny doors evidently inspired by a Jaguar XJR-14, it looks a compromise on the road, but promises circuit dynamics far beyond the reach of every conventional supercar out there. A version employing the tiny V8 from the SR8 promises to turn the experience up to 11. It looks absolutely fantastic.

There was more buoyancy apparent elsewhere among the UK manufacturers. Lotus had a low-key stand compared to its 2012 effort – but more realistic. In the post-Bahar era, the new Exige V6 is seen as an important step to building the brand after the demise of the bold, but moribund, five model plan. Both Exige V6 Cup and V6 Cup R editions were available to pore over at ASI. Intended to sate the appetites of track driving Lotus enthusiasts the Cup editions turn the Exige experience up a notch – and then another. They look wholly fit for purpose, though there is no disguising the slight additional bulk over the previous generations of Exige. According to a Lotus representative at the show, a new Esprit may or may not be forthcoming. Either way, for the foreseeable future, the Exige V6 and its derivatives promise to be the fastest and most extreme Lotus road cars available.

Nearby in the vast caverns of the NEC was Caterham. As a company there is a certain swagger about Caterham right now. Whether the Seven is selling in greater numbers than before I couldn’t say but there is a conviction about them which may have Lotus sweating. In Tony Fernandes they appear to have found a pragmatic owner and the new partnership with Renault/Alpine promises much. On their stand it was a pleasure to see the new R600 Superlight. Slick-shod and supercharged, it offers monumental performance, even by Caterham’s own lofty standards. Next to it posed the SP300.R, the Lola designed step into Radical’s mini LMP back yard. It’s a bold but logical move and by building an ascendency of cars, it enables Caterham loyalists to grow as drivers with the marque they love.

The junior single seater ladder gained a new rung, while another rung changed profile. The first public viewing of the BRDC and MSVR’s Formula 4 weapon was informative. While the Ralph Firman designed car is conventional to look at, it is small and should offer great value racing for aspiring young drivers with support slots at high profile events like DTM. Formula Ford 200 is a new concept for FFord: the UK championship is back on the TOCA package and the EcoBoost car has spouted wings. It looks modern and much more cohesive in the flesh than pictures suggested. The EcoBoost engine sounds great and from the trackside the cars look a more serious challenge to drive than the older Duratec machines. A Ford representative predicted grids of 18-20 cars in the UK championship and, as the Duratec class is dropped, EcoBoost must stand on its own feet. I hope the two series find their own place in the market and aspiring racers’ needs are met – it remains to be proven whether a slicks and wings formula is the best option for drivers taking their first steps out of karts.

Of course there were scores of other fascinating machines out there at ASI. From off-roaders to radio controlled cars via dragsters, karts and autocross. There were infinite stalls to empty one’s wallet and infinite girls for men to pose awkwardly with. It was Autosport International and we all know what to expect. I enjoyed it and now it’s time to look forward to Race Retro where the Lycra-clad girls are conspicuous by their absence, but men with grey beards ponder valve timings and carburettor jets. These shows are imperative for the motor racing industry and part of the rich tapestry of our sport. It wouldn’t be winter without them.

Goodwood Breakfast Club – Continental Classics

A truly disastrous day out! Decided to treat my beloved mother to a morning at Goodwood for her birthday. Having bravely sailed our way to Goodwood we discovered the place rainy, cold and mostly deserted. Still, at least you didn’t have to fight to get your lens in front of the cars. Remarkably several owners of interesting machines had still made the effort and there was the usual cordial Goodwood atmosphere. The chap (or lady chap) who brought out his stunning Ferrari 250 GT Lusso deserves special plaudits.

On the way down south we called in at the London dealerships for an ogle at Hexagon and Fiskens’ stock. Drool-worthy.

Ottawa Auto Classic

Bit of a Canada special over the next few blogs to try and cover everything during a 2 week holiday culimating in the amazing Canadian GP.

We ended up in Ottawa for a family wedding and were surprised and delighted to discover that the Byward Market area of town was holding its annual Auto Classic – an informal classic car show – that Sunday. As I’ve mentioned before the usual car park-type events are not really my thing, but I found this event to be quite delightful. The cars are displayed in six separate batches around the town, with the main area being along a street crowded with bars. A stage was set up with a rockabilly band playing. It was refreshing to bring this kind of activity to the people and hold it in the centre of town. It seems so often in the UK that the classic car scene is a slightly marginalised, dare one say, geeky, one. Here, everyone was getting involved, from old folk to (what looked like) gangsters, crusty punks to middle class mums. It was fun and a nice antidote to the usual fodder, though it was comforting to see a Triumph TR6; just like home!

I’m afraid my knowledge of American muscle cars is somewhat limited so won’t offer captions but there was all sorts of exciting stuff on display.

Goodwood Breakfast Club Supercar Sunday 2011

Immediately after the Donington Historic Festival, we hit the road, bound for West Sussex. A short sleep at a B & B and we were off to Goodwood’s best-attended Breakfast Club – dedicated to the Supercar.

While everyone’s definition of what comprises a “Supercar” differs, every interpretation must surely be covered by all the remarkable machinery on display. From the 1996 Japanese GT title-winning McLaren F1 GTR to delicate Ferrari Dinos via Iso Grifo, TVR Sagaris, every conceivable Porsche, Aston Martin and Lamborghini. A display of cars so remarkable it’s hard to find the words to describe. While “car park shows” are not normally my thing, the sheer scope and variety of wonderful automobiles is worth the long trip down south.

It is so pleasant to see families with the dogs enjoying a morning out. I love seeing the reaction of young lads as their eyes fall upon a car they’ve only seen before as a bedroom poster. I don’t think that buzz of being in the company of an F40 or a Zonda ever loses its appeal, and to appreciate all this fine machinery at Goodwood is the icing on the cake.