Monday, 28 December 2015

2015 - How was it for me?

If you are a member of the HSA or a subscriber to 'Speedscene' magazine you will have seen this article in the latest issue (number 186) but now that it has been published there I thought I would put it on the blog with a few more pictures for those who do not get a chance to see 'Speedscene'. I have also added my own personal top ten drivers of the year at the end.

When I retired in 2014 I decided that it would be a good idea to have an annual project, and last year I visited a motor race meeting at all of the 15 circuits on the British mainland, which I wrote about in a blog - For 2015 I turned my attention to the hills, and in particular the British Hillclimb Championship (BHC), and resolved that I would attend every round of the Championship including those on the Channel Islands and at Craigantlet.

I have followed hillclimbing since 1968 when Doune first opened and over the years have attended many events at Shelsley Walsh, Prescott, Doune and Gurston Down, and one at Loton Park but that still left a number of gaps, even on the mainland – Harewood, Barbon Manor and Wisombe Park which had always seemed far away from my base in Bedford.

Here we are now, in early October, and the project has been finished, a blog has been written - and there are albums of photographs on Flickr for anybody to look at -

Having done all the travelling with only myself to look after I have come to appreciate the time and effort involved in competing in the BHC and the associated Leaders Championship by those who have to transport their cars, spares, tools etc. around the country at a much slower pace than I was able to do unencumbered by a trailer or motorhome. There can be very few other Championships which demand as much time from the competitors - 15 weekends out of 23 between the end of April and the end of September do not leave much time in between to re-fettle cars, have a holiday, deal with other family issues etc., in particular the period in June where Shelsley, Loton and Doune fall on consecutive weekends.

I was able to persuade my wife that this project was going to be a good idea by taking her with me to the Channel Islands (where we had been last year on a longer holiday) and then from there for a week in Devon before finishing off at Wiscombe. Fortunately she was able to find lots to do and buy in St Helier, St Peter Port and Exeter while I spectated! I also promised to visit my mother-in-law when I was in Scotland!

Now at the end of the season it is the time to look back and reflect on what I experienced as I travelled around the hills. People have already asked me what my favourite hill was and I have to say that they all have their pros and cons for the spectator. I always get thrilled by the sheer gladiatorial feel of Shelsley as the cars enter the bowl of the bottom ess and that is of course enhanced by the large crowds that are always present.

For overall viewing, nothing can beat Harewood when seen from the paddock with the whole hill laid out below you, though I could not get excited by the first half of the course which seems too contrived and I think I would have liked the original, shorter, course better.

That reaction also applies to Loton where the first part of the hill is actually out of sight of spectators and yet includes a number of tricky corners.

Doune is a superb venue, particularly in the lower reaches where the sight of a single seater at full chat between the walls takes your breath away – I physically stood back when I saw Jos Goodyear come through as I could not believe he would actually avoid hitting the side!

My visit to Craigantlet was badly affected by the weather and I missed the second runs. I had flown over and, unfortunately, I had to leave Craigantlet before the second runs began because by that time it was half past 4 and I really wanted to dry out before getting on to my flight home! I will definitely return there for a chance to view it in good weather.

It was very wet at Craigantlet

That was the only competitive action I missed all year though some of the time I spent in the various paddocks watching the preparation for the runs rather than the runs themselves.

I will also try and return to Wiscombe which did not really get a fair chance to impress me because of the wet conditions and where the anticipated state of the paddock by the end of the day led to many competitors not running on the Sunday.

Barbon Manor also provides great viewing and it was a shame that the entry was so small – again I heard that the condition of the paddock at previous events was a probable factor in drivers not entering.

Having mentioned the large crowds at Shelsley, I was quite surprised at how much smaller the crowds were at some of the other venues – maybe in the hundreds rather than the thousands. Does this mean that we are not giving people what they want to see – there are many other distractions these days which did not exist even 30 years ago when I remember the car parks at Doune filling a large field.

The first aim of course is to attract people for the first time and that may mean we have to do more to advertise events – the vast majority of my friends who heard about my project had absolutely no idea what a hillclimb involved.

Secondly we have to give them such a good time that they want to come back again – are our events interesting enough for them to go home and tell their friends about the great day they had? Based on my experience this year here a few comments and ideas which might reach a willing ear somewhere.

One item that helps to keep the spectator interested is the commentary and we have some great people behind the microphones who are very knowledgable and have a great love for hillclimbing. Yet they are hampered at many hills by the fact that they cannot see large parts of the hill from the commentary position. The worst must be Craigantlet where only the first corner can be seen and then the rest has to be filled in by looking at the timing screen and guessing where the car might be. Would it be too much to have another commentary point at May’s Cross say?

The Craigantlet commentary box above and the view from it below

Doune’s commentary box gives a great view of the upper half of the hill only and again another commentary from further down would be a great help for spectators. I think I once heard Steve Wilkinson using a radio microphone near Garden Gate. Shelsley of course is the opposite extreme – three commentary boxes covering the whole hill and a constant observation of each run provided to spectators. By its very nature hillclimbing has long pauses in the action – as cars return to the paddock, when there is an incident, or as the cars get ready for the top-twelve run-off and the commentators do a sterling job at filling the blank time, but sometimes the length of the break is too long for them to keep filling.

To try and fill these blanks and to provide instant information about preparations for the run-off should we be looking to have roving reporters in the paddock. Anyone who saw the TV programme about the Bo’Ness revival will have been captivated by the fascinating people who were caught in the paddock and interviewed by Chris Drewett. That is not unique – every hillclimb paddock is full of characters who could be used to fill the blank spaces when nothing is happening on the hill.

Examples this year where a roving reporter would have been able to add colour were the race to get Wallace Menzies’ car ready for his run at Gurston, after Tom New put it off on his run, and Trevor Willis’ drive shaft change at Doune (see below) – think how much information could have been added to the spectator’s appreciation of the issue that was occurring.

Since I wrote the above for the 'Speedscene' Jerry Sturman has been in touch to discuss some of the technical issues which would hamper my ideas but also reminding me that there is a bit of a dearth of commentators around the country and the sport needs more people to come forward now to be ready to replace the older ones when they retire. Although I am not young myself I have volunteered my services to Jerry for next year at a few events and you may hear a broad Scottish accent booming out over the Downs at intervals. If anybody else out there fancies having a go I am sure that Jerry or any of the other commentators would be happy to have some assistance around the country.

The other source of information for the spectator is the programme and by and large these are well produced, except for two things: one or two have no space to write the times, and congratulations to Doune for fixing that for the September event, and there are some where the quality of the paper does not allow times to be written down by any normal ball – point pen or pencil!! Glossy paper looks good but matt paper is so much more user-friendly in this respect. If you want glossy covers and photos then no problem but maybe the lists of entries could be printed on a different sort of paper – the Silverstone programmes of the 1970s and 1980s managed this perfectly well!

This may all seem like a list of complaints to some of you but I would rather see them as constructive criticisms – ideas that could make hillclimbing more attractive to spectators and thus bring more money into the clubs running the hills and possibly a reduction in entry fees?

Some more ideas that may seem off-the-wall but could at least be trialled. In many other sports where there are two or more timed runs – skiing and bobsledding for example the competitors are sent down on their second run in the reverse order of their times in the first run so that the fastest in the first run always goes last and the excitement is therefore built up as time goes on. Why not do that for the classes in hillclimbing – yes there will be anomalies because of double drives but the general principle could be followed and would work most of the time.

I suggested this to someone and they said it would not work because the organisers would not manage to get the running order re-arranged but we do it for the run-offs – the fastest goes last – and that happens with just half an hour between the qualification and the run-off. The time between two class runs is at least 2 hours and often more and if the organisers cannot sort it out then I am sure the drivers would be able to do it themselves.

It is difficult for the spectators to know at a glance which cars are entered in the BHC and the Leaders – how about having different colours of numbers for those people - so that the BHC for example could have red numbers and the Leaders could have blue numbers?

The champion's car shows off its red numbers though they could be a bit bigger!!

A simple guide for the poor spectator which can be seen even when it is raining and his programme has become a sodden mass! Of course some people enter both championships – but why does that happen – could we not say that you enter either one or the other? So we have a competition for the fastest drivers and then one for the bulk of the entry.

The entry for the Leaders Championship disappointed me. In a number of classes there was only one entrant while others had a very small percentage of the runners actually registered. Away from the BHC registered single-seaters that were entered in the Leaders only 2 drivers participated at every round – Colin Satchell and Alan McDonald (both below),

ironically from different ends of the country with probably the most travelling to do, while other regulars like Geoff Twemlow, Anthony Record, Tony Bunker and Andrew Russell also come from the Southern edge of the country. It would be interesting to find out how we could attract more drivers to enter the Leaders.

I asked one driver who has done some Continental hillclimbing about what they had over there that we do not have in Britain and he said – a podium! There is no visible place where the winners are recognised and where there would be a photo opportunity for sponsors, for example, to have their names on the back of the podium! Simple idea – three boxes and a back board!

And so it is time to look forward to next year – the next hillclimb I attend will be my 100th – not a great number for those who travel to a lot of events every year but in the same length of time I have attended 264 race meetings, 33 rallies and 23 sprints as well as a variety of other motorsport events. However I love the atmosphere at hillclimbs and the tension as drivers fight for tenths or even hundredths of a second.

Finally, and in an addition to the article, my top drivers of the year;

- first place, Leaders champion Colin Satchell for his perseverance and for the record breaking speed he got out of the Peugeot 5 times during the year;
- second place, Jos Goodyear for his record breaking run at Barbon Manor, for making me stand back in amazement at Doune and for pure entertainment value, with the very best wishes for a full return to health in 2016;
- third place - a tie actually between Scott Moran and Alex Summers for their speed and consistency;
- fifth place - Dave Uren for taking the little Force to speeds and times that eventually got him 6th in the Championship;

- sixth place - Alan McDonald for the distance he travelled, the ingenuity of his Mini, his helpfulness around the paddock and the fact that he was faster to 64 feet than Nic Mann;
- seventh place - Debbie Dunbar for her class victory at Gurston Down in May in the oh-so competitive 1100 cc racing car class;

- eighth place - Roger Moran for his versatility in driving a multitude of cars through the year;

- ninth place - Tom New - Wallace might have been generally quicker but Tom provided him with an ever-better car throughout the season and also gained his highest finish in the Championship, and
- tenth place - David Finlay and Alasdair Suttie - for providing the spectators with the sight of a VW Touareg, a BMW i8 and an Audi S8 amongst others - we look forward to the variety you will bring us next season!

But to ALL of you drove up the hills in your wonderful and entertaining machinery, all of you who marshalled in the rain at Craigantlet or Wiscombe or in the sunshine at most other places, all of the commentators who kept us informed and the hundreds of other volunteers who helped the organising clubs put on the BHC events of 2015 a very big THANK YOU from a very grateful spectator who thoroughly enjoyed meeting a great bunch of people and seeing some stunning driving in all weathers.

The BHC currently seems to be in good hands with Tim Wilson and I would like to thank him for his help this year. I have been left with many happy memories, and a host of new friends and I am grateful to those who took time to talk to me and to respond to some of my more naive questions. I will not be abandoning you totally in 2016 but will probably not attend quite so many events.