Tuesday, 28 April 2015

And we are off - but not a great start

So with Prescott behind me I am on my way to what I hope will be a full house of all 17 British Hillclimb Championships rounds this year. I will come back to the Prescott event shortly but first of all - what is this all about? Why am I doing this?

Last year I turned 60 and retired and, as a project to celebrate 50 years of spectating, I visited all of the mainland racing circuits in Britain - from Knockhill to Castle Combe and Anglesey to Lydden Hill - an account of which is written up in my other blog - http://50yearsmotorracing.blogspot.co.uk/

For 2015 I turned my attention to the hills because hillclimbing has long been one of my favourite branches of motor sport and yet I have only ever been at 5 of the current venues on the Championship trail - Doune (16 times), Gurston Down (7), Loton Park (1), Prescott (11) and Shelsley Walsh (45). So how difficult would it be to get to them all - as a resident in Bedford where the highest hill is a mere hump every one of them is going to be a bit of a trek, but time is on my side with no need to rush back for the Monday morning crawl to the office.

The first hillclimb I visited was the inaugural meeting at Doune in 1968. My father, who had a casual interest in motor sport, took me there from our home in central Scotland, just about 30 miles I suppose, and since then I have never looked back. This is the earliest photo in my collection, one of my father's 35mm slides, taken at Doune in June 1968 of Wille Forbes in a Lotus 35 - BMW.

Not a great photo, but recognisably Doune with the cottage just after the start in the background. I was a regular visitor at Doune until I left Scotland in 1977 to seek my fortune in the South and below are a couple of other photos taken on a glorious summer's day (they do get them occasionally!) in 1975. I am sure many will recognise the cars in the foreground of this picture but who can identify the one against the wall at the back?

One of the iconic cars of British hillclimbing - Roy Lane's Championship winning McRae GM1.

Just a year after I moved South I found myself living in Worcester and heaven was just a few miles away at Shelsley Walsh. For the next 8 years I rarely missed a meeting before I moved away to a new life in Essex, about as far away as it seemed possible to get from a hill. Family arrived but the boys soon discovered the joys of a weekend away spectating, while their mother spent the Saturday shopping in old haunts in Worcester, and many a June birthday was celebrated in the car park at Shelsley!

Here are a couple of pictures taken at Shelsley in 1982: Dave Whitehead's Reliant Kitten - of interest to me as I ran one such car on the road for a few years and I have seen evidence that it is still going strong 30+ years later. Funnily enough I bought it off Ian Stainburn who nowadays climbs in a Reliant Scimitar Coupe!

and Richard Jones' Mallock after a major shunt in August 1982 - and Richard of course is also still going strong 30+ years later in his classic Brabham BT29X.

I was an early member of the HSA, though I have never actually taken part in a hillclimb - not having the finances or the mechanical knowledge to feel that I could give it what was necessary - but it has always been a conduit to knowing about the ins and outs of hillclimbing through Speedscene and personal contact with people like Jerry Sturman. In 1998 I was a member of the HSA team which reached the national final of the  Ford Motorsport Quiz at the Motor Show at the NEC though unfortunately we only finished 6th, and I have built up a large database of hillclimb results from which I will pepper this blog with random facts throughout the year.

Well that is a bit of background and so on with the show - Prescott, 26th April! Difficult to know where to begin. I do not intend to use this blog to trot out details of results etc, as those can easily be found in the reports in Speedscene, Autosport etc, but to fill in with some background reflections and observations.

There were two big issues at Prescott. The early morning accident that befell Steve Hemingway when he left the course at the Semi-Circle was a frightening reminder that, even at relatively low speeds, motor sport is dangerous. In my mind it raised an issue about the safety of the hill at that point. On a long right hand bend where drivers are trying their hardest to get that extra fraction of a second off their time there is no barrier to prevent a car sliding down the slope. Steve's accident was aggravated by his contact with the timing display tower, but should his car have been able to get anywhere near it in the first place?

Below is a picture of Charles Barter's Imp being pushed back up to the track in 1981 - and there have been others since then - will we need to see a barrier erected there before we come back in September for the next British round, or even earlier.

It also made me think about Wallace Menzies' accident at Shelsley last year - one of the most frightening things I have seen at a motor sport event - with speeds of 140mph being attained on the approach to the Esses there do we need to take a serious look at that particular location before we see another driver going off but being less fortunate than Wallace was.

The second issue was of course the disqualification of cars for exceeding the noise limit of 106dB set by the Bugatti Owners Club. I do not think anybody disagrees that excessive noise is nowadays a problem in all forms of motor sport because of the impact that it has on the people living in the area. I would love to go back to the era of unsilenced single seaters howling away but that is never going to happen.

There are a number of parties involved in the situation and I think they all need to understand each others' points of view and expectations. The BOC want to ensure that hillclimbing will continue at Prescott and expects that competitors will obey the rules that it has set down to enable that to happen. The competitors want to be able to push their cars to the utmost within those rules and expect the rules to be applied fairly. The spectators want to see fair play and worthy winners driving fast and pushing to their limits and they expect to be kept informed and to know that they have seen a fair contest.

There were difficulties at Prescott with cars that were legal on one run and then not another. There were complaints from the drivers that the measurements were not being done correctly and the inconsistency of the results was not making it easy for them to drive their cars to ensure that the noise level remained within the legal limit (and why should they have to do that). Problems with the time-keeping meant that no times were getting to the commentators and they could not keep the spectators informed.

None of the stakeholders left the meeting feeling that their expectations had been met and all in all it was an unhappy way to start the season. A solution to the noise issues needs to be found so that they do not arise again. Competitors need to ensure that their cars will comply before they arrive and the organisers need to ensure that their measurement equipment and methodology is sound and consistent.The online forums are full of disgruntled drivers and spectators venting their fury at the BOC but I am sure that they are not happy about the way it all worked out either - I do not suppose that anybody from the BOC enjoyed telling drivers that they were excluded from the meeting or that their run did not count so let's hope that there can be some all-round discussions and action before the situation arises again and, in the absence of a solution, that hillclimbing is lost to Prescott.

In the paddock there were a number of new cars and I was particularly impressed by the new Empire Evo of Ed Hollier who qualified for both run-offs and came away with a 7th and an 8th with 1.6 litres of normally aspirated Suzuki. The car looked stunning as you can see:

And there was another one of the same model there driven by Maltese hillclimb champion Zach Zammit!

He was having some engine difficulties and failed to take his first run but posted a respectable time on his only run which netted him 4th fastest time in his class, with a 1.4 litre Suzuki unit.

Mike Tregoning's latest Pilbeam (MP101), first seen last year, is a neat looking package and it was great to see Sean Gould back on the hill, now in a sinister black MP59. Bringing a touch of colour to the big single-seater class was the re-liveried Gould GR55 of John Bradburn, this year sharing with Tony Hunt:

But what is it with hillclimbers and having red cars!! In the past there were numerous red OMS's on the hill and it was bewildering trying to remember which was which and now Tom New has added another red car to the scene in the form of the old Martin Groves GR55, previously a washed out yellow! I guess being sponsored by Tillicoutry Quarries has something to do with that one.

Reflecting further on the big single seater class I admit to feeling that it has kind of stagnated in recent years. Here we are celebrating a 'new' car in the form of one which won the Hillclimb Championship as long ago as 2005 while the standard bearer is a car which won its first run-off in the same year! The only new thing in the class this year appears to be the 2.0 AER engine in the back of Will Hall's Force!

As has been the case in the last few years the innovation and leading edge of development is in the smaller engined classes with a raft of new chassis from Empire, GWR and Gould.

And yet, you can't blame Scott Moran for sticking with his old faithful - 2 fairly crushing run-off victories with only his co-driver, Alex Summers and Trevor Willis getting within about 2 seconds have started him on his way to a 6th title unless the others raise their game. Alex Summers is seen below contemplating the task ahead - it was a promising beginning for him and a reversal of roles for Scott as Alex outpaced him in both qualification runs (actually equalled him in the second) which forced Scott to be one of the first cars out in the run-offs - a role that his father has performed in recent years. It must also have been fairly demoralising for the others to see Scott post ever faster times before they had had a chance to set one - at least it gave them something to aim for!

I did not ignore the other classes at Prescott and there was some interesting machinery in those but I will talk about those in later blogs. My favourite car, however, is worth a mention (well my 2 favourite cars - or maybe 3!). The immaculate BMW 2002Tii of Anthony Ward, the less immaculate but historically interesting Can-Am McLaren M12 of Rupert Marks (ex - George Eaton, 1969) and the ex-Roger Keele F3 Palliser WDB3 of John Huntley. I leave you with these wonderful cars as I prepare for my first trip across the water to Craigantlet in just a few days.

And just a reminder that more photos will appear on my Flickr page at www.flickr.com/photos/125284417@N04/collections/