Tuesday, 18 August 2015

For whom the bell tolls...

St Andrews Church at Shelsley Walsh has a 12th century nave with a 13th century chancel while its 15th century screen is the finest in Worcestershire. For over 800 years, therefore, the stones of the old building have been welcoming worshippers.

And for the last 110 years worshippers of another kind have been gathering just a couple of hundred yards away to watch cars of all shapes and sizes climb up the side of the Teme Valley, and the MAC meeting on 16th August included a celebration of that milestone. From the oldest car in attendance, Hicky Hickling's 1911 Sunbeam 16/20

to the newest,  David Finlay and Alisdair Suttie's massive Audi S8 (of which more later),

through cars of every decade, the history of Shelsley Walsh was portrayed. Oh, and there was also the important business of Rounds 25 and 26 of the Avon Tyres / TTC Group MSA British Hillclimb Championship and rounds of the Avon Tyres / TTC Group MSA Hillclimb Leaders Championship and the BMTR Tyres Midland Hillclimb Championship. With a total of approximately 225 cars and drivers to get safely up the hill, many of them temperamental (the cars and not the drivers.....unless you know differently), it was going to be a challenge to get it all done in a reasonable time. 

So there was an early start to proceedings with Anthony Record leading the way in his Proton Coupe at bang on 0915. He was at the top 39.74 seconds later which was a bit quicker than his 13 hours on the back of a rescue lorry (the car, not Anthony who I am sure was safe in the cab) on the way home from Harewood early in July! Nine hours later and Scott Moran rounded off the day with a 23.14 sec run to win the second of the day's Top 12 Run-offs! In between there had been some evocative runs from cars that define Shelsley's history, some fierce competition in the classes, a couple of collisions with the bank and some records broken.

It was a cool morning - just 6 degrees when I drove into the car park and the racing cars were still mostly asleep under their covers waiting to be stirred into life.

The odd one or two had 'slept' in the open - and some would need a bit of demisting before being brought into action - Colin Satchell certainly cleared his windscreen well as he shot to another class win, fortunately this week with enough entries to enable him to add 9 more points to his Leaders total and thus go back into a one point Championship lead, this time over Ed Hollier who also won his class, while previous co-leader, Alex Summers, only managed second behind his co-driver, Scott Moran.

Alex and Scott of course co-drive the unique Gould GR61X - NME which at the weekend chalked up its 150th (and then 151st) BHC Championship run-off victory - the most successful car in BHC history continues to hold sway over the rest of the field. I am sure most of you know what it looks like these days but just in case you don't, here it is at rest in the Harewood paddock earlier this year.

The 151 victories stretch back to its first season in 2005 when Roger Moran gave it its maiden victory at Craigantlet and then Scott won both run-offs at Prescott in September that year, with Roger second both times. And here we are 10 years later, and it is another double 1-2 with Alex and Scott sharing the spoils. Of the 151 wins Scott is responsible for 130 of them with Roger for 16 and Alex for 5. I don't have to hand the figures for the second most successful car but I would imagine it is the Gould GR55B, which is currently run by Wallace Menzies and Tom New, which gave Martin Groves 4 titles between 2005 and 2010.

And those two cars between were responsible for the ten fastest times on Sunday - Tom at 23.68, Wallace at 23.54, Scott with a 23.35, 23.60, 23.48 and 23.14 and Alex with 23.37, 23.05, 23.60 and 23.19 The only other drive to get into the 23 second bracket was Trevor Willis with a 23.82 and a 23.87 in the run-offs.

And if you have never been to a BHC hillclimb you may not actually know what these drivers look like as we tend to focus on pictures of the cars and so here is a shot taken during the prizegiving on Sunday - unfortunately Alex is speaking next to me but the others are there - from left - holding the baby - Scott Moran; in the middle advertising his company Tillicoultry Quarries, Wallace Menzies; sitting looking coy on the car, Trevor Willis, and on the right, Tom New. The man in the grey shirt, by the way,  is the most important though, as he is Tim Wilson, BHC co-ordinator who, when driving, appeared in 36 BHC run-offs and scored 65 points with a best of 5th at Doune in 2007

So we had no outright records among the top single seaters, with Martin Groves' mark of 22.58 still standing from 2008 but the winning run-off times of 23.05 by Alex and 23.14 by Scott were both within Groves' class record, which can however only be broken in the class runs!

We did however have two new records in the Classic Racing Cars classes - Richard Jones in his Brabham BT29X (pictured below in June) reduced his own pre-72 record (set a year ago) from 29.02 to 28.85

while Stuart Ridge took away Andrew Henson's 2009 record in the 1972-1985 class by just one-hundredth of a second (26.72 to 26.73) in his Pilbeam MP53-01 (below) just one of many representatives of the marque present at the weekend.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the various Pilbeam chassis were the choice of most of the top hillclimbers in the country - between 1977 and 1997 Pilbeam mounted drivers won 17 out of the 21 British Hillclimb Championships in R22, MP40, MP43, MP47, MP50, MP51, MP53, MP58 and MP72 models. Two of the non-Pilbeam championships were won by Chris Cramer  - firstly in a March 782 / 79B but then, in 1985, in the first of David Gould's self-named products - the Gould 84. Unfortunately the only picture I have from that era of the car is this rather fuzzy, and tilted, one taken at Crossing in August 1985

but here was Chris back in the car on Sunday 30 years later

And just for comparison - his best time in August 1985 was 27.99 (though he did a 27.05 at the June meeting) and in 2015, after just a few runs, he was down to 30.63 and I am sure there was more to come in the driver, the car and the tyres with some more time. Those of you interested in motor sport trivia might also like to know that that it is an Andy Priaulx helmet that Chris is about to put on - helped by his sons Marc and Eric who were themselves promising racing drivers in the 1990s, both getting into Formula Renault while Marc also drove a Reliant Kitten on the hills - see my earlier blog here , when it was run by Dave Whitehead.

The other non-Pilbeam champions in that era were Ray Rowan in 1989 in his adapted Toleman which he called a Roman - Ray is currently part of Will Hall's team, and David Franklin in 1978 when he did the unique hillclimb / sprint Championship double in a March 782 - David was also at Shelsley at the weekend driving one of the small number of Jaguar XKSS's that were made - the road going version of the D-Type.

And there was one other class record set at the weekend.In Class A2 for Roadgoing Series Production Cars over 2000cc Roy Standley had been below his existing record of 31.71 with a 31.58 in practice, which of course does not count as a record but, come the day and it was Mark Spencer in his Porsche 996 Turbo who put together what he says was a perfect run to take Roy's record with a fabulous 31.50 time. Mark, pictured here in the Bouley Bay paddock was Midland Hillclimb champion in 1997 in a Ford Escort Cosworth but then took some time out before returning to the hills with this lovely 'Porker'.

In doing some research on Mark I discovered that his business is the production of scale models of tanks - and I do not mean the small Airfix or Tamiya kits you built as a boy (maybe you still do), but instead radio-controlled ones of up to 1/4 scale - see his website - so be careful not to annoy him - you may find yourself at the wrong end of one his products!!!

Maybe that was why the Multi-car Challenge boys turned up in their own version of a tank this weekend -

reputed to be too big to fit into one of the Shelsley 'garages' it was relegated to the Orchard car park along with the rest of the A1 and A2 runners - but what is this - Sunday morning and there is a gap where it should be

Alisdair said that David was away getting it washed and polished to look its best but I reckon he had had a call from the local taxi company to go and collect a fare from Worcester railway station!! And certainly later on in the day he was spotted in the paddock looking for all the World like somebody waiting for a taxi to take him back to the far reaches of the Shelsley estate

and right on time his ride appeared - how much to get to the Orchard, squire?

On the track however the car was fast - David had reckoned that they would get into the 35s with it but  immediately they were doing 34s and at the end of the day the best time was 33.03 - not bad for a road going behemoth - read Alisdair's thoughts on the weekend and enjoy an in-car view of a run here and also check out their facebook page here. Next time out at Gurston it will be a Toyota GT-86.

An interesting facet of the weekend was the sequence of runs celebrating the 110th anniversary - all the runs were timed but a number of the cars were not officially given a time as they were defined as 'demonstration' runs - it seems that if you can run unsilenced if you are just doing 'demonstrations' and so the hill was alive once again with the sound of unsilenced Chevrolet V8s - but you know what - it was actually quite painful to hear them after years of getting accustomed to the silenced versions - in the 1970s I loved the sound of screaming 1600s and rumbling V8s, and maybe that is why I can be a bit deaf at times, but I do not think I could stand a whole day of them now.

For me the stars were the two David Hepworth cars - the basic Cooper-Chevrolet which is as it was when it was last climbed, complete with bashed nose cone

and the 4wd Hepworth FF, one of the stars when I first started watching hillclimbs

David Hepworth set a time of 29.64 seconds in 1971 and his son, Andrew got it down to 35.77 on Sunday afternoon on 42 year old tyres!!! Check out their facebook page here for the sights and sounds of the car doing some tyre-warming.

Other stars of the show were ERA R4D, which was driven to the British title by both Raymond Mays and Ken Wharton -another glorious sounding machine

the Alec Issigonis designed Lightweight Special with just 750cc

and the road-going McLaren M6 GT driven by triple champion, Martin Bolsover, the only man to win it in a sports-racing car, the Pilbeam MP43 (which I believe is the one now owned by Rodney Thorne).

Another aural and visual overload at Shelsley Walsh and the huge crowds once again showed that they must be getting it right. A number of the people at every hillclimb are new to the sport and I love seeing and hearing those people's reactions to some of the things we take for granted over the years but nothing, and I mean nothing, ever prepares them for the sight and more particularly the sound of the Mannic - Beattie. Nic Mann does not bring it out to play very often these days  and so even us old hands get a thrill every time we hear it being charged up at the start and the whine gets higher and higher until they unplug it and Nic gets to the line before taking off like the proverbial bat - consistently under 1.9 secs for the first 64 feet.

Just one example of the ingenuity that is given free rein in hillclimbing, but there is another we must not overlook, one which is running better and better every week it seems and whose 64 feet times were on a par with the Mannic all weekend - Allan MacDonalds Mini Evo - another car which makes jaws drop at its sight and sound - best 64 feet time at the weekend was 1.84 compared to the Mannic's 1.83 - in other words, nothing at all, and his last run of the weekend was 28.93 seconds. Here he is at Barbon Manor last month

And then there was the Aston Martin, driven by Matt Nicoll-Jones - a GT4 Vantage, 

normally seen in the British GT Championships - here it is in the gravel at Rockingham back in May.

The car was at Shelsley because of the Stratstone connection and is not really sorted for the hills and this was reflected in its times - best being a 34.44 - Nicoll-Jones is a fine circuit racer having won Ginetta Championships in the past and also the British GT4 Championship in 2008.

And there was more, much more happening but I think we are probably at the stage where you are crying enough and so it comes to the very difficult task of picking my 3 favourite cars of the weekend. By this stage in the season I have been seeing the same cars week after week and so, while some of those may be favourites, I am going for ones that are not regulars on the BHC tour - so firstly how can you not like a car that is the colour of Kermit - David Connell's VX220

Secondly Roger Jones' March 712 - one of that company's successes and this example is pristine and reminds me of my youth (and I need a lot of reminding about that these days)?

And finally one of the many 500OA cars that were participating - but this is not one of the common Coopers or Starides but the unusual Iota of Stuart Barnes - unusual for a 500 because of the long bonnet.

Next stop Gurston Down as the Championships head toward their conclusion at Loton Park in September. Alex Summers' best weekend since Doune, back in June, when he also scored 19 points, has put him well on the way to the title barring any misfortune but there is a tight battle going on for third place as we have Trevor Willis on 154, Wallace Menzies on 152 and Scott Moran on 151- but Wallace is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to dropped scores as both Scott and Trevor are able to count all the points they score from now on as they have already had 6 zero scores while Wallace at the moment would have to drop 14 points. With Scott not going to Doune it looks as though Trevor may retain his number 2 for next year.

However, as Will Hall can testify after his Shelsley accident, there is nothing as certain as uncertainty. Will's current 5th place is under some threat from Tom New who has outscored him 26-1 over the last two weekends while there is a ding-dong battle going on between Dave Uren and John Bradburn for 8th and 9th where Dave has had the advantage by 28-13 over the last three meetings and is now one point ahead. Jos Goodyear is stuck on the 87 points he had before his accident and may slip from his current 7th place to a season ending 9th unless Alastair Crawford, who has also been scoring less well in recent rounds can find his early season form and average just over 6 points from the remaining 4 weekends when he would sneak above Jos, but if not he should still be safe in 10th as Eynon Price is 26 points behind.

As usual there will be pictures from Shelsley going up on my Flickr page shortly.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Wet Wiscombe shuffles the pack

On Friday I was in the damp and steamy Rainforest biome at the Eden Project trying to find the partridges they keep there to prey on the insects and on Sunday I was at a damp Wiscombe trying to spot the cars that were reputedly climbing the hill.

I sought them here:

 and I sought them there - but it was all very quiet

and then the search was over and the hunter had found the Hunt splashing through the gloom!!

But there was a shortage of cars in a number of the classes on Sunday - of the 73 cars entered in the programme in the Woolbridge Invitation, the DEWS Club and the SBD HSA Championship classes combined only 36 took timed runs, while there were 21 non-starters in the main Championships classes! Some of these were caused by mechanical failures, either in practice or previously, while a number had had timed runs on the Saturday in the sunshine and probably felt that there was no point doing it all again in the wet on the Sunday.

The state of the Wiscombe paddock was also mentioned as a reason for people going away as, based on previous experience, they knew that it could be quite late before they managed to get out if it got really muddy. So from the other side of the valley the paddock did look a bit empty in places

So it was a bit disappointing that there were all these gaps in the running order but one can appreciate the reasons as no-one wants to spend time or money sorting out problems which could be avoided. Even the course car seemed to be anticipating a lot of water if its snorkel exhaust was anything to go by!!

Some tried to get around the problem of grip by going for the "less is more" option!

David Finlay was back, with his multi-car challenge steed this time being a SEAT Leon ST Cupra estate car

in a suitable camouflage grey colour to match the weather! Good job the wheels and mirrors were orange - can you see him below?

So I guess the question must be - when was the last time an estate car competed in a hillclimb? I would imagine it is probably more recent than we might think - any ideas - because I have none!! Although I do have in the back of my mind that somebody sprinted their Audi (?) estate tow car in recent years when their race car failed - can anyone help - was it Steve Miles?

And now having written this I realise I should specify road-going estate car because regular readers will know that Richard Mattosian's Reliant Kitten, seen at Doune, is in theory an estate car body!

David was in Class A(ii)  into which Andy Fraser and Tim Painter were moved when they replaced the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup they were entered in in class C(iii) with a 997 Turbo - oh for the luxury of being able to choose which one to use!!

And while I have seen plenty of Porsches competing on the hills, you do not often see an Aston Martin DB7 road car joining in - Mark Chandler is the brave owner of this one. At least John Pick on the left has the right footwear on for the conditions - though there would not be much room in his Mini footwell for those!

The surprise of the day was of course Eynon Price's win in the second run-off. Eynon had only just squeezed into the run-off when he was the only runner in the 1100-1600 class not to improve on his first run time.

His 43.27 to qualify 11th was just 0.14 quicker than his co-driver, Sean Gould, who was the first non-qualifier, but this did mean that he got a run in early before the rain briefly got worse and when he set his time of 40.53 he was just ahead of the first man up, Tom New in the shared drive Gould, who recorded 40.90 which would eventually be the third fastest time (joint with Alex Summers). As the rain got heavier Summers was the only other one to get into the 40 second mark until last man Trevor Willis managed to find a drier line and shot through with a 40.88 to finish second.

For the half hour before the run-off and for the run-off itself I was stood next to 4 youngsters with their father / uncle, some of whom wanted to leave because it was "boring". This was after the big single-seaters had had their qualifying runs and there was only a page of runners to go before the run-off. I persuaded them to stay as there was just a few cars to go and they should really wait for the run-off as that was the most exciting bit of the day. Eventually two of the boys went to play in the woods and the rest watched but as my promised half an hour turned into 40 minutes and beyond I did wonder if we are really doing our best to attract new spectators to the sport.

On my tour around the hills what has struck me is the pretty small size of the audience that we are attracting. Apart from Shelsley, and less so Prescott, it is really only in the hundreds as far as i can tell (and many of those are part of the drivers' team / family  - it would be interesting to know from the organisers just how many tickets they sell and also how we can attract the numbers back to the hills. Maybe I am wearing rose-tinted glasses but I can only compare the numbers of cars parked at Doune in 1975 with those parked in 2015 and I would say we are looking at, at most, 20% of the numbers that were there 40 years ago.

I found this photograph of lunch time at Doune back in 1969 or 1970 in my father's collection - I like the tea-cosy - such luxury!! - the car park looks pretty full!

Perhaps like circuit racing the public are more able to bond with cars that they can see in the street every day - the BTCC has shown the way - compare the numbers watching that to those attracted to a meeting headlined by BRDC F4 (whatever that is! - and yes I Do know but does Joe Public?).

So it does worry me that we are becoming a sport where the majority of the cars in the Championship classes are often single seaters - at Wiscombe there were 21 cars in classes A-D, 4 in sports libre and then 40 single seaters - is this the right balance to get more spectators along - how can we get more saloons and sports cars to enter - is the class structure right - after some of the comments on my Bouley Bay blog, I will probably get accused of opening a can of worms which does not exist but all sports need to develop to survive - I just feel that at times hillclimbing is struggling to survive and I do not want to see that happen.

Some of the problems are of course connected to the venues - we have the noise issue at Prescott which looks as though it might make some drivers not bother to enter there; the history of muddy paddocks at Barbon was probably one reason for a really low entry while the issues with Wiscombe are described above - how can we improve conditions for entrants as well as making the sport more attractive for spectators?

For example at Wiscombe is there really no other place for the Paddock to go? The top paddock / car park seemed to be a bit better and if there is an issue with making permanent changes in front of the main house at Wiscombe - why not look at developing a surface in the top paddock and have cars run in convoy down to the start and make arrangements there for them to be in a holding area before taking their runs - There may be no space and I did not examine the details of the hard standing around the house but just thinking laterally......

Colin Satchell continues to lead the Leaders Championship, but now jointly with Alex Summers, after gearbox issues made him and co driver, Paul Drowne, non-starters at Wiscombe. Even if he had started, however, Colin would have only scored a few points as there were no other entrants in the class. Alex has scored in 9 rounds now and so will only add incrementally to his total while Colin has only scored in 8, but if his class continues to have a low turn-out he could win all the remaining rounds in record times and still lose out to Alex who will always have a good number of starters in his class. So Colin will need to score well at the Midland hills where there generally seems to be more entrants in Class C(ii). Ed Hollier is also a threat just one point behind from 7 rounds scored.

Top cars this week - two svelte 1100 single seaters :

Ian Fugett's Empire Force:

Tom Poole / Lloyd Chaplin's Empire 00 Evo

 and one of their ancestors - Terry Griffin's Austin 7 Special

I will now go and get my armour on and will see you all at Shelsley in two weeks time!