Race 1: Donington Park – Report

And breathe… Time doesn’t stand still when preparing a race car for a new season and actually seems to travel a x2 speed, recording your efforts on an video phone then play it back at half speed doesn’t help at all. Two weeks before the Race 1 of the 2019 70s Road Sports season current Champion Jez Clark had the body of his Elan hung from his garage ceiling like a side of venison.

Early start for the first race of the season ©martincooperphoto

Scott James Temple was trying to navigate through a DVLA quagmire to get his Porsche 924 onto the grid and Mark Oldfield had a screw loose which prevented his new challenger from taking part so transported a pair of deckchairs to the circuit instead, Steve Bellerby appeared to be ready the day after the Silverstone Finals then spotted a fleck of dust on a drop link which threw all his plans into disarray although he was almost certainly the first 70s competitor through the newly installed Donington Park gates on Friday morning.

Peter Connell was trying to track a mysterious wiring problem and in some strange quirk of fate David Tomkinson had four wheels on his car but no engine. After a brief diversion to move house mid-week David had the engine installed back in the Spitfire a comfortable 12 hours before scrutineering, leaving himself plenty of time to fit the exhaust and replace a seized extinguisher cable. Will Morton moved some sheep pens in preparation for lambing season, spotted a Porsche 924 and in the hope that his sheep could keep their legs crossed for one more day loaded it onto the trailer, the result of all this activity was that 27 race cars presented themselves for scrutineering early Saturday morning.   

In the past competitors arriving at Donington Park in late March generally had their senses assailed by the heady aroma of hi-octane aviation fuel and fried onions blown in on a biting wind from the east, but now Garage 39 had become a welcoming feature in the centre of the paddock and this year even the weather was surprisingly pleasant, warm sun shone on competitors who picked up conversations that were left open last October and eagerly went about the business of fiddling and fettling, checking tyre pressures and oil levels in a strangely mesmerizing process mirrored by every competitor up and down the paddock. It is an unwritten law that seatbelt adjustment is always left until the Assembly Area.

Class of 2019. Colour diversity & fun fuelled competition. ©charliewooding

And so with the turn of a key, the flick of a switch or the press of a button the new season began in a flurry of colour, hunting exhaust notes, spitting carburettors and anticipation. Despite the five and a half month gap since the end of the previous season it looked as if we had never been away, although as most competitors posted their quickest times right at the end of the session the suggestion was that more time had been spent during the off season winning favours with close family members than honing the reflexes of a hawk.

Will Leverett’s Europa moved quickly to the top of the timesheets only to be pipped by John Dickson’s Ferrari 308GTB on the last lap of the session by 0.027 sec with Jez Clark’s Elan and the TVR 3000M of Dave Karaskas, hanging on closely in their wake. It was good to see such a variety of cars chasing top honours with Mark Leverett separated from the flamboyantly driven Porsche of John Williams by just 0.044 sec.     

The Cambridge Regional College Team Lotus Europa of Howard Payne qualified ahead Rupert Ashdown’s Historic Road Sport Lotus Elan, the quickest of the invitation class racers, ahead of first two in the big engine Class A, Mark Bennett’s MGB V8 and the E-Type of Adam Bagnall. It was a surprise to see Nic Strong languishing in 11th on the grid as his Marcos 3000GT had been lighting up the speed traps like British tourists on the A16 Autoroute racing across France to catch the last ferry out of Calais at the end of the Easter holidays.

Although qualifying a racy 12th, Steve Bellerby was an unfortunate casualty of the qualifying session when an innocent off track moment resulted in his TVR striking the parked Triumph Spitfire of David Tomkinson which had been sidelined early in the session by a broken gear linkage. Robert Gate was the third of the Class A runners in 13th with the next seven cars covered by 0.800 sec, a menagerie of sports cars that would in period have been representative of the legendary Chequered Flag Garage forecourt. Peter Bowyer’s (Invitation) MGB Roadster headed the group from the Class D leading Lotus Eclat of Neil Brown ahead of Nigel Ashley’s Lotus Europa, invitation regular Tim Hayes’ Alfasud Sprint, Drew Nicholson’s Alfa Romeo GT Junior, the Lotus Seven S4 of Chris Holland and Will Morton’s Lychen Green Porsche 924.

It was a surprise to find Sarah Hutchison’s Lancia Beta another half a second from the back of this group as the Beta was running well and looking fresh and lively. Jon Wagstaff was strangely out of sorts in his Alfa GTV but ahead of Glynn Evans in his tricky Porsche 914-6 which spent part of the session extracting itself from the Old Hairpin gravel although qualifying ahead of Simon Holmesmith’s Alfa GTV 2000 and Adam Ross in the family Alfa 1750 Spider. Pete Connell was probably pleased to get a full qualifying session under his belt after the challenging seasons with his TVR and completing the runners was the non-running David Tomkinson.         

Adam Bagnall’s E-Type at speed during Donington Park meeting ©martincooperphoto

Competitors huddled in groups eagerly awaiting the time sheets like GCSE students on results day to see if their efforts translated in lap times despite a total lack of revision. As Steve Bellerby was unable to satisfactorily repair the TVR, he and Andy set about helping Dave Tomkinson with his Spitfire although the broken gear linkage appeared to be an insurmountable problem. As is the way with 70s a resourceful person wanders up with a solution, on this occasion Adam Bagnall offered to remove the linkage from a GT6 he had sitting at home in his garage.

Outside 70s this might have seemed an optimistic suggestion but Adam had a secret weapon, his son Luke, one of the quickest drivers ever to sit on a 70s grid. A gifted racer who used ‘the limit’ as his baseline then went quicker, if his car wasn’t at the point of throwing itself into a wall at high speed then there was clearly more grip to be found. Returning from a 60 minute journey in 40 minutes with the appropriate part enabled David’s Spitfire to be ready to go with a whopping five minutes to spare. 

Sadly it was in those five minutes that Jez Clark discovered his Elan had an oil leak from a snapped oil pressure sender and was regrettably forced to withdraw from the race.

John Dickson had a great idea to broadcast the race live from his Ferrari, as he sat at the front of the grid the camera pointing at an empty track the start light sequence provided an interesting distraction before the 20 minute race but if John intends to make this style of race performance a habit then perhapshe should stick a hula dancing doll to his dashboard to provide viewers with something to watch.  

John Dickson’s Ferrari 308GTB was dominant at Donington Park ©martincooperphoto

If you ever want to know how to launch a Porsche, John Williams is your man and he was quickly into second position from the third row, pushing Will Leverett back to third, although equally quick off the mark were the E-Type of Adam Bagnall and Nic Strong’s Marcos resulting in Mark Leverett finding himself floundering around in seventh by the end of the second lap before making a good recovery systematically working his way to fourth on the road. Meanwhile Will set off after John’s Ferrari with his usual exuberance, delighting the spectators on the banking with his three wheeling antics. Initially it looked as if Will was closing the gap but 1.4 sec was as close as he got before John eased away from him at a second a lap.  

Dave Karaskas wrestled with his TVR manfully, adopting a driving style resembling the drumming technique of Keith Moon to keep the car in check, until his engine made a noise, not so much a tuneful noise that could be associated with Stevie Nicks but an unsettling discord perhaps better associated with the self-destructive Sid Vicious. The cars of Howard Payne and Robert Gate looked quick and sounded crisp but could not quite maintain the pace of the leaders finishing fifth and sixth. After showing some good early pace the Marcos of Nic Strong began to slip down the order before retiring on lap 10.

A great drive from Mark Bennett in the MGBV8 saw him finish fourth overall ©martincooperphoto

Adam Bagnall and Mark Bennett also found themselves embroiled in an entertaining battle in the second half of the race, which was very much enjoyed by Adam judging by the enthusiastic celebrations as he crossed the line to take Class A honours. As suggested by the qualifying times the mid grid were set for a race long battle, although Drew Nicholsonretired at the end of the first lap and was later seen walking down the pit lane carrying his oil catch tank, it’s wasn’t clear whether this was the only bit of the Alfa he had left or the only bit he thought worth saving. 

Jon Wagstaff found the pace that was missing from qualifying and dragged Sarah Hutchison with him towards the back of Will’s Porsche Morton with the invitation Alfa of Tim Hayes and Glynn Evans 914-6 joining the fun.

Competitive racing throughout the grid with Jon Wagstaff, Alfa Romeo taking the Class victory from Will Morton’s Porsche 924 ©martincooperphoto

Although after a couple more excursions one wondered whether Glynn’s main priority was simply to collect gravel for a garden project. Neil Brown had initially disappeared into a comfortable lead in Class D but his progress was halted on lap five due to a broken fuel pump, leaving a surprised Jon Wagstaff, who jumped past Will Morton mid race to take the Class D spoils with the quote: ‘Just to prove you can make a mess of the day and still come out smelling of roses.’ finishing a credible 12th from  20th on the grid. 

Nigel Ashley and Peter Bowyer also enjoyed an entertaining race and as these two are also business partners it added a bit of extra piquancy to the battle. Unfortunately for Peter having tried every move except under or over to get past Nigel’s Europa, he finally made a move stick two laps from the end only to visit the Redgate beach undoing all his hard work. David Tomkinson suffered a shortage of stopping power from early in the race but after the dramas of qualifying was pleased just to complete the distance satisfied that at least his new engine appeared to be performing well and finishing ahead of Pete Connell who was probably happy to complete a full race distance but will be looking for more pace from his Porsche 924 as the season progresses.

As competitors wound down and filtered into the pitlane there was a sense of a race well run, many looking forward to a celebratory beer although there is always a hint of apprehension whilst waiting to clear post-race scrutineering. Rumours began to circulate that the Leverett’s cars had been held for closer examination, idle speculation suggested wrong colour Martini stripes or that Will had been caught wearing his lucky Guardians of the Galaxy underpants.

Finally it was announced that the Lotuses had been excluded for 1mm oversize choke tubes, Mark and Will were left devastated and feeling very upset and embarrassed. A specification sheet from their engine builder which had been supplied to the HSCC Office and Nigel Edwards clearly specified the correct choke sizes and the Leveretts had trusted the information provided to them. In hindsight Mark says he should have double checked the detail but most of us have jobs, families, a limited amount of time and simply rely on the integrity of our engine builders and preparation specialists.

Whilst most competitors will agree that enforcing rules consistently and impartially is important for the credibility of the Championship,they will also hope that Will and Mark will bounce back with their usual infectious enthusiasm for racing. In light of this experiencewe would suggest that all competitors should check their cars just a little more thoroughly before Silverstone.

Howard Payne, Class winner at Donington in the Cambridge Regional College Team Europa ©martincooperphoto

Howard Payne was awarded the Class C victory, whilst probably not how he would have wanted to win it did provide a nice link as his Europa was featured on the event programme cover.  

Watching the in-car video from John’s Ferrari suggested that his performance was quite dominant but experience tells us that any prediction made after the first race is rarely correct. Despite a healthy grid there were some notable competitors missing at Donington and rumours are that some very interesting cars will be joining the Championship as the season progresses, it could be an amazing year, looking forward to Silverstone already.     

Following post-race checks instigated by himself John Dickson became aware of a technical issue with his Ferrari that may not comply with the Championship Regulations. In the spirit of competition, rather than quietly take advantage of the situation John has requested that his entry should be reclassified and placed into the Invitation Class and that he should forfeit any Championship points scored at Donington Park.   

With thanks to Martin Cooper martincooperphoto.co.uk and Charlie Wooding www.charliewooding.co.uk for the images.

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