This year marked the 66th running of the 750 Motor Club’s Birkett Relay and with a capacity grid of 70 teams (over 300 cars), it remains a unique event that shows no sign as diminishing as the UK’s largest, most eclectic and far reaching race.
Previously run at Snetterton, its now found it’s home on the Silverstone GP circuit. The race, run as a relay, has a cunning handicap aspect, meaning that ‘credit laps’ are applied to all teams except that on Pole Position – allowing any efficiently run and consistently driven team to lift the handicap trophy. For the 2016 version, a team from Grove & Dean Motorsport Insurance (sponsors of the event) would take to the start grid – made up of Bianco drivers Paul Plant, Andy Hancock, Simon Cresswell, James Browning & Jon Billingsley. With the cars turned around quickly after the recent Spa Francorchamps race weekend, spirits were high in the camp that a good result could be achieved – and the pressure was on, with Michael Lindsay having travelled across to Silverstone to support the team in their quest for glory & keeping a watching eye on us all!
Qualifying passed without a hitch, with an element of sand-bagging the order of the day to ensure our grid position didn’t exceed our projection handicap. So the 6 hour race would see Paul Plant take the start lights in 58th position, with plenty of overtaking to do – each 30-35 minute stint would require enormous concentration and eyes focusing both forward and on what was approaching at speed from behind. The pole position team of Radicals were circulating around 30 seconds a lap quicker than our Alfa squad, and the numerous ranks of Saker GT’s, Caterham’s, BMW’s, Honda’s and VW’s were also quicker, but nevertheless the squad were confidence of a giant killing.
Paul Plant started the race in his usual “under stated” fashion, and places were quickly made up – and with the half hour mark approaching, Paul had hustled his black 156 up into 40th position; a good effort. Having taken the “in board” and with Simon Cresswell sitting in the garage awaiting his arrival for the ‘hand over’, Paul’s luck finally ran out going through the Historic flick into Club corner and a collision saw the 156 exit left with front corner damage and a BMW exit right into the gravel.
Unfortunately, Team Manager Tony Herbert choose this moment to leave his post, and Paul’s absence wasn’t noticed for a good few minutes – until a pit lane Marshall advised that the black 156 was stationary on the track and we could send our next car out. An early set back which would have seen off lesser teams!
Simon set about getting into a good rhythm because it was crucial that his stint passed without further incident. As the first hour ticked over, the team found themselves down in 53rd position on handicap – not ideal, but not a lost cause. With Simon’s stint coming to an end, Deputy Team Manager Gary Walker was summoned to Race Control regarding the earlier Paul Plant incident, and the Stewards having reviewed the video footage, awarded the Grove & Dean team with a 10 second stop/go penalty for “Causing an avoidable incident”. With Paul protesting his innocence (no one was listening), Simon had to unfortunately take this punishment on the way into the pits for his hand over to Jon Billingsley – much to his bemusement!
Jon’s stint, and indeed day, was ruined by an engine issue, and a suspected head gasket problem. This meant that Jon was never able to display the skills that bought him his victory in Zolder earlier in the year, and following his 30 minute stint, the car was parked up for the reminder of the day – but at least that left Jon free to wander around the garage annoying everyone else. Jon’s hand over to James Browning passed without drama, but unfortunately James’s time on the track was a short one, with a driveshaft issue limiting his stint in the 147 to just the two laps before he was forced to come into the pit lane to ‘hand over’ to Andy Hancock. And so as two hours clicked past, the team had managed to slip back to 54th position and getting anyway near the sharp end of the field seemed a long way off.
Andy, who had the weight of the team’s expectations on his shoulders, as well as being the sponsor of the race weekend, drove a steady stint to start moving the team forward up the rankings – progress which was maintained in excellent fashion by Paul Plant in his 2nd stint (in a repaired car which looked like it had had a hard season) and Simon once again who had really taken to the Silverstone GP layout – so as the 4th hour clicked past, the team had recovered back up to 15th position!! Even Harry was getting mildly excited about the prospects of the team achieving a top ten position come the end of the 6thhour.
The last two hours saw James Browning drive for over an hour – drive shaft now fixed by right hand man Ant – Andy Hancock complete his 2nd stint (once again without incident) and then Paul Plant take the run to the chequered flag. During the last hour, our position hovered between 8th and 15th depending on stints / handicap credit laps, and this made for a nail biting end to the race in our quest for a top ten result. As the clock ticked past the six hour mark, and with Paul having overtaken one of our key rivals in the last couple of laps, our final finishing position of 9th was a fantastic achievement – especially in view of the trials & tribulations experienced in the first hour of the race. Having completed 127 laps, but only finishing 1 lap down on the Handicap podium, and 2 laps down on winning the whole thing, it was a case of what might have been . . . . .
A fitting way to end a tremendous season for the Bianco Auto Developments team – the drivers all acknowledged that the success of the day was mainly down to the hard working team off the track that kept the cars (largely) healthy, fuelled and ready to go – and so, much credit must go to Harry, Gary, Tony, Gethin, Kurt & Ant for their efforts over the six hours.
Photos by Michael Lindsay & Emma Karwacki.