12 months on from Modena Cento Ore
(The Power Rangers have seemed to let themselves go)
It has been 12 months since my last lot of scribbles, a lot has happened since, some good things and some which are not so good.
Last August we had four cars on the top of a sunny Brecon Beacons mountain. It was time for the Mewla Rally on the Epynt military range, notorious for its blind jumps and high-speed narrow roads and everyone that competes wants to come back. The sort of sadistic desire that you cannot explain! We all started off well, myself and Lee led the historic class and lying inside top 10 overall with Ben Gill lying third in class. My starter motor failed, no problem I thought, I will simply avoid stalling it….except of course if you spin in "the German village" section, Noooo!
We had to take our belts off and push start whilst a marshal stood in front of the car until we were belted up again. That incident dropped us to 25th. By the lunch halt we were back up to 12th overall and had overhauled Ben and on our way, only for the axle to break with 2 stages left... When I say break, the prop-shaft was off on the floor and there was a hole in the axle big enough to hide a rabbit!
Where the axle had failed it was just after a right hand bend on the notorious Burma road, and the ensuing failure liberated a couple of litres of oil on the road, resulting in the next car doing the best “Bambi on ice” impression that I have ever seen, with the drivers eyes flicking from side to side as if he was watching a tennis match. After he had gone from lock to lock, he at least had the spare capacity to merrily continue on his way with a toot of the horn! By this time Lee had run down the road to slow down the remaining cars, but once again, Ben had beaten me!
In the middle of 2019, we were given the amazing opportunity to prepare the Chris Evans SWB to race in the Revival meeting.
After a rapid preparation of the car and changing all mechanical parts in less than 3 months, it was decided that the drivers for the car were to include the competent James Cottingham (luckily for him, this time there would be no RS1600 Ford Escorts to trouble his Le Mans Daytona!) and he would be joined by multiple Le Mans winner and current formula E competitor, Andre Lotterer.
I had a test day at Goodwood with James who drove the car confidently, although being an original steel bodied car, it was never going to be as fast as a competition variant of the same model.
I arrived at Goodwood on the Thursday night and met with Andre and his friend Marcel Fässler, who were both new boys to the Revival meeting.
I thought it would be a wise idea to let Andre have a few miles in the SWB before he tried doing 140mph with 30 other cars on a unfamiliar circuit and so we headed off into the Sussex countryside with me sitting on the floor of the car - on a very hot exhaust. The planned one mile turned to two and then ten! Clearly if there ever was a guy that fell in love with an old car, it was Andre.
Qualifying was ok, albeit James got caught in traffic and Andre was looking for the flappy paddles to change gear! Andre was feeling his way as he was very unfamiliar with a 1960 car with a 4-speed gearbox and inadequate brakes. James on the other hand was much more familiar with the style of sideways synonymous with driving old cars and was chosen to start the race.
James is naturally competitive and will always look for a gap (even if sometimes it is not quite big enough!) and as I have raced against him in the past myself several times, know he is a fast starter. We also felt Andre maybe better at bringing a tired car home, as so many Le Mans victories would have taught him a lot. Emanuele Pirro (a multiple Le Mans winner) has driven for us many times and on one occasion the clutch pedal broke on an E type Jaguar we had entered in the TT race. Post-race he said "soon I realised that my left leg was doing nothing and so I decided to use it as if I was driving a go kart, left foot braking" He went on to set the fastest lap of the race and won the race with no clutch, driving quicker than with the clutch! That is a Le Mans guy for you!
Anyway, James starts from 8th position and after a blinding first few laps is up to 3rd position, a sterling job, with consistent lap times - fantastic. We pulled him in early, not because he was too slow, but because you cannot change the driver under a safety car, so strategically decided to change drivers, whilst lying in a comfortable third position. The ensuing rapid eleven second driver change was to put us right back in contention at the end of the race, with some of our rivals taking up to 30 seconds longer.
Game on we thought, let's see what Andre could do. Remember, he had never driven a car for me before, so I had no idea what to expect, but already on his first flying lap he was the quickest SWB! The guy was really on it, actually catching the guys in front and faster than James. Naturally we started to get high hopes, only for an image of the car to flash up on the big screen flying across the grass at incredible speed, a slow motion replay from 5 seconds earlier, showing the left rear tyre rapidly deflating at over 130mph. Despite a quick tyre change, it was not meant to be and we were back down the field in 13th, although he has now had a taste of historic action – does Andre want to try again?! Oh boy, you better believe it!
308 Group 4 at Goodwood
As 2019 concluded with long dark evenings, drizzle and frosted windows it time was for vacation! On Boxing Day we flew to Singapore for the New Year’s Eve fireworks, then Malaysia, ending with a few weeks in Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh Monday morning traffic is a sight!)
As we arrived back at the beginning of February, Neil had hired Brand Hatch circuit to test the 308 GP4 and works GR4 Escort. Ben Gill joined us with his Escort and really all I can say is that I hope by now that Brands have forgiven us for the gravel traps!
Bjorn Waldengard on his way to victory on the Acropolis Rally in 1979.
Ready for the event, Neil kindly loans his 308 Group 4 car to Lee and me to do Goodwood. We had a few teething problems with the car, but we still won our class, even taking an outright stage win despite no clutch and a bump start off the line - I will take that!
More importantly, I finally finish ahead of Ben! Neil was also out in new ex Ari Vatanen Escort, wow! This means that Neil, Ben, and Ian all have identical cars, watch this space!
Exercising 250 SWB on track
After 27 years of taking cars to the Tour Auto in France, this year, for the first time they allowed a replica 250 SWB to compete. (The reality is that for years unwittingly they had allowed replicas of Cobras, GT 40s and other cars to run, so this outcome was probably inevitable) Presented with this opportunity, we prepared the SWB for Alexis to drive in the event. As part of the preparation, we arranged to attend a Silverstone test day in March, but already the Coronavirus had made travel logistics more challenging, so Alexis sadly could not attend. Nevertheless we tagged onto the Ferrari Owners Club official test day. Provisionally we were to be given 2 laps of track time on the lunchtime break, although I tried to persuade them that 2 laps were not a lot on the national circuit, which I think is smaller than the perimeter road of my garden! It was cold trackside in March, not only due the weather, but perhaps as the signs of social distancing were already being felt. Many were pondering what they thought the future might hold, although none predicted the total shut down just which was just around the corner.
Back on track, the car was a dream to drive, with Lee and I ending up doing at least 15 laps. The Ferrari owners, marshals and other attendees came out on the pit wall to watch the SWB go round. Although there was a good selection of modern Ferrari in attendance, predictably enough the combination of that evocative shape and vocal sound resulted in the car being the centre of attention. Speaking of noise, one can assume the quality of sound meant there was probably a more lenient approach to the noise limits on the day whilst we were on track and when got back into the pits the marshals applauded – one guy explaining that they were not keen to bring us in after the agreed two laps as they were enjoying watching and hearing the car around the whole circuit too much!
As Covid took hold the Tour Auto was soon cancelled, the first major event a victim of the pandemic. At this stage the Goodwood members meeting was still on and with Adrian Beecroft getting an entry (unsurprising as it is arguably the most valuable 250 SWB and the actual 1960 Tour de France winner), we arranged a test day at Goodwood. On the morning of the test, the heavens opened with a biblical outpouring of rain. The tunnel under the track was flooded and we assumed Adrian would abort the test. The car runs on Dunlop L section tyres which have wet weather grip properties similar to an “eel on an ice cube”. In fact Adrian showed admirable enthusiasm and after being asked whether we should get the car ready he replied – “why not, let's give it a go.” In the event, I was pleased we ran low on fuel at mid-afternoon. Adrian had completed over 60 laps! I was soaked to the skin by this point, frozen and even Adrian’s enthusiasm waned so we decided to call it a day. As it happened, the event was to be cancelled anyway, at least Adrian got to exercise his car as intended.
John Price - RIP
Events unfolded and as it was said in War of the Worlds, “the only thing that can kill them is bacteria” and the world was brought to its knees. The MCO, Tour Auto, Goodwood, historic Monte Carlo, Lemans were all cancelled as the gravity of the situation took hold.
In the midst of this, I lost my good friend John Price (John Price Rallying), a multiple Motoring News Champion and sadly in these times, we were prevented from giving him a proper funeral! I remember about 5 years ago after I took John out in a Ferrari - he said, in his soft Hereford accent "you'd have sold me one of these 10 years ago boy, I enjoyed that!”
John Price, on his way to another victory in 1981.
Looking towards better times
I had no idea how much I would miss work, rallying, racing and surprisingly, McDonald's coffee, not necessarily in that order! Luckily, I have enough projects to get me through a lock down for at least 5 years! Some I am sure have got quite comfortable with 80% salary for watching Netflix and even more depressing are the USA protests which have now spilled out into the rest of the world. No comment. Let us hope both social unrest and no McDonald's coffee are short lived.
On the bright side these long days of lockdown have had a marked positive effect in at least two ways that we have seen. Car sales have taken off again, with Talacrest’s John Collins having the best month for years. Values appeared to have bottomed out and with signs of being on the increase - long may it last.
The second phenomenon we have seen, are many people saying ”Why have I got a car in storage, I bought it because I wanted to drive it!” Mindful of this we have had many cars brought out of long term lay-up, for recommissioning. We would re-iterate that there really is no point owning a car and not using it! For sure they deteriorate without use! I am personally guilty of this, and I fully intend to use my toys more, it would certainly have to be a big grave if I took them all with me!
So let's get this strange time behind us, enter some events and get out and play. Don't just read about how others are enjoying themselves, join in the fun with us, jump in - the water is warm!