Thirteen intrepid Alfa Romeo racers complete with teams, family members and supporters made the arduous trek up the A1(M) to the Croft circuit near Darlington for Rounds 7 and 8 of the 2019 BRSCC Alfa Romeo Championship.
Due to the low grid numbers being experienced by ourselves and the Toyo Tires Porsche Championship respectively we were due to share 2 races together as well as the qualifying session and prior to the weekend there was much debate about the best start procedure given speed differentials and existing start procedures enshrined in the Regulations of both Championships. By the day before we had reached a broad consensus on the least bad solution but that was overruled on the Saturday morning for what seemed to be inconclusive reasons, so the Porsches would start first on the lights and the Alfas would start on the flag some 15-20 seconds later. We all hoped things would go smoothly, given the obvious preference of both Championships for separate races. The answer to the latter is of course to attract bigger grids, which we are determined to achieve as, I’m sure, are the Porsches.
In the Modified class we were delighted to welcome back Bryan Shrubb and the BLS Automotive team for their first race with us for 2 years in the familiar orange Alfa 33 16-valve, now complete with 17” wheels as they had found it impossible to find appropriate tyres for the old 15” wheels. Testing the car in its new configuration at Oulton Park had been curtailed by a gearbox problem, so Bryan said they were still very much feeling their way with the car. Whatever…it was great to have them back. Joining Bryan in the Modified class would be Mervyn and Gary Miller – doing one race apiece in Mervyn’s 156 GTA – Gary leaving his Abarth back in Ireland for this weekend. It would be very interesting to compare father’s and son’s respective lap times – a bit of friendly family rivalry never goes amiss.
For the first time ever there were more Power Trophy entries than Twin Spark Cup cars in the field – 6 of the former and 5 of the latter – the shape of things to come or just a one-off? We shall see… After its woes in earlier meetings it was great to have Jamie Thwaites back racing the beautiful 155 – the car looking absolutely stunning and even better than before if that was possible. Plans are afoot to fit a 24-valve 3.2 litre V6 for next year but in the meantime the team had been working hard to get the 3-litre running strongly and it sounded glorious. Also hoping to put earlier woes behind them, and after missing Cadwell to try and solve the reliability issues that had plagued them at Snetterton, was Ben Sharich and the Scuderia MiTO team. A standard ECU had been refitted and reliable running was the top priority before looking for more power to improve the car’s competitiveness. Testing had gone very well and the team was hoping for a smooth reliable run as a foundation for future development.
The evergreen (evergrey?) Andy Inman was making a welcome return to the Championship, not in his distinctive purple Twin Spark but in a new 156 GTA built by Roger Evans and being hired by Andy at present. Andy had faced the dilemma of either having to pay out considerable sums to revitalise his aging 156 Twin Spark or to take the plunge in a new direction. He had chosen the latter, a test at Donington the previous week had gone very well, and he was running on control tyres initially to get used to the more powerful car in stages. Paul Webster was entered in his silver 156 GTA – the same car that set the Power Trophy lap record in the hands of Clive Hodgkin 4 years ago – and hoping for a change of luck. After a long run of reliability he has encountered a few trying problems with the car recently and was looking forward to a good run to re-establish his front running credentials. Dave Messenger had been giving him tough competition recently in his new 156 GTA and Dave was here again looking to continue and build on a set of very strong results. The final Power Trophy entrant was Richard Thurbin, not in his lightning-quick and beautifully prepared Integrale but in the Fiat Uno Turbo he had originally planned to enter in the Championship. It certainly added an interesting variation to the normal field of starters – short, boxy and nimble it promised to be an interesting debut.
There were 5 Twin Spark Cup entries and Bianco had made the long trip up from the deep south for some drivers to test on Friday, specifically Martin Jones and Andrew Bourke, as well as Mervyn Miller in his Modified class entry. Andrew was here in his silver 156 and had been working hard on his weight and fitness in an effort to get closer to – and hopefully past – Tom Hill. Tom had been dominant this season at Brands and Cadwell and was once again preferring the ex-Andy Hancock 156 instead of his own car. Simon Cresswell had entered his orange 156 and was also looking to get closer to Tom and Andrew who had generally had his measure so far this year. Richard Ford had endured some trying experiences at Cadwell and has so far not managed to build on a strong 2018 season when he was a genuine contender for class wins. Things didn’t quite gel for him last time out where mechanical problems and excursions into the barriers had necessitated quite a lot of repairs to the car. He was undoubtedly hoping for better fortune here, as was Martin Jones. Martin had had a similar bout of familiarity with the barriers at Cadwell and the car was sporting a new front end as a result, the ever-cheerful Martin looking forward to a good weekend’s racing.
The Porsches were released onto the circuit, and when the Alfas were released seconds later Tom Hill was first out as is his custom, followed by the rest of the field. However, the session was soon red flagged as Richard Ford had pulled off the circuit with engine failure but had been unable to park his 156 at a safe location, so the field waited on the grid for a few minutes while his car was moved. Misfortune had struck again, leaving Richard as a frustrated non-starter and over the weekend he began his search for a new engine, speaking with Andy Inman and Dave Messenger both of whom had Twin Spark engines available so hopefully Richard will soon be back in action.
The quickest Alfa lap early on in the session was Bryan Shrubb’s 1:37.500, which he lowered on the very next lap to 1:37.404 which would remain his fastest time by the end of the session, although his second and third fastest laps were very close. At that point in the proceedings Dave Messenger’s 1:38.675 was second quickest but then, on his 7th lap, Dave found a 1:36.730 to grab the Alfa pole, though he did acknowledge afterwards that his heart had been in his mouth during the lap. With Bryan Shrubb second, Mervyn Miller was next up with a best time of 1:37.869. Behind Mervyn, Paul Webster put in 2 laps in the 1:40s before a lap of 1:39.290 put him 4th quickest, a very creditable effort but he would need to find a couple of seconds somewhere to be on terms with Dave. Behind Paul, Richard Thurbin’s very distinctive (in context) Fiat Uno Turbo was half a second adrift in 1:39.776 before pitting after only 5 laps. Jamie Thwaites was next, the 155 sounding glorious and at last running reliably throughout the session, Jamie recording a 1:40.207 on his penultimate lap after a consistent series of laps around the same level – a great step forward! Andy Inman was next in the brand new 156 GTA, running on control tyres as Andy accustomed himself to the additional power, 1/10th shy of Jamie.
So where was the MiTO? The welcome answer was: next! Ben Sharich worked his way up the time sheets lap by lap as the car had a trouble free run to finish the session 6/10ths ahead of the quickest Twin Spark with a time of 1:42.193 on his final lap, an excellent effort and indicative of the strides the team is making. Roll on the next phase!
The remaining four Twin Sparks (after Richard Ford’s retirement) were very closely grouped early in the session, Tom Hill’s usual aim of setting quickest time early on having been thwarted by the red flag to move Richard’s car. Andrew Bourke’s penultimate lap of 1:42.934 looked good enough for pole momentarily but a banzai final lap by Tom of 1:42.769 snatched it away from him – frustrating for Andrew but also indicative of the progress he is making against the toughest of opposition. Simon Cresswell was also showing impressive form, very close to Andrew and Tom early on but unable to quicken later in the session so a 1:43.286 would line him up 3rd in class. Martin Jones meanwhile was right on the pace early on in his 147 with a time of 1:43.459 on his 4th lap but like Simon he was unable to better that later in the session to threaten the front runners.
The arrangement was that – with the Porsches starting first on the lights – the officials would wait to be sure that all 7 of their cars had got through the first corner and subsequent chicane before releasing the Alfas on the flag. At the Drivers’ briefing the issue of raising the flag, pausing for at least a second, then bringing it decisively downwards for the start had been raised yet again, and the Clerk of the Course had instructed the start line marshal accordingly. So I – and the Clerk – watched in horror as we saw the marshal hand the flag at the last minute to another marshal (who had just joined him on the stand) and that marshal flapped it pathetically in the breeze as if shaking the dust out of a dust cloth to indicate the start. Some drivers didn’t see it but reacted to the movement of others to make a relatively clean start.
Although the rest of the grid got away cleanly, Martin Jones was very slow away and trundled down the straight before pulling off the circuit with what turned out to be drive shaft failure, a problem that Harry White was quickly able to rectify afterwards in the paddock but sadly it signalled Martin’s end in this race. At the front Bryan Shrubb made a fast smooth getaway from second on the grid to lead through Clervaux and Hawthorn. Mervyn Miller tried to pass Dave Messenger to follow him through but was unable to do so and Mervyn then endured a frustrating 7 laps trying to find a way past Dave, who was defending superbly, while Bryan drove away at the front. On lap 8 Mervyn and Dave were side by side down the start/finish straight yet again but Mervyn was just able to claim second place into Clervaux. Behind them, Paul Webster had lost a couple of seconds on the opening lap and this gradually widened as the laps went by; Paul had lost 2nd and 4th gears which was proving to be problematic unsurprisingly, and on lap 9 he retired from the race at the Complex after his gearbox shed a significant volume of oil, a disappointing end for Paul.
Meanwhile, Jamie Thwaites was turning in a remarkably consistent series of laps, mostly within a few tenths either side of the 1:40 mark – an excellent performance and a big step forward also for the team. Andy Inman had been following Jamie closely for the first 2 laps but then an excursion into the surrounding scenery cost Andy dear and he rejoined much further down the field behind Simon Cresswell’s Twin Spark with a lot of catching up to do. However, he set about this with a will, passing Simon on lap 5, Andrew Bourke on lap 6, and then catching an entertaining dice between Tom Hill and Ben Sharich before getting past Ben on lap 10 but never quite being able to pass Tom. Richard Thurbin meanwhile had retired 2 laps from the end. He locked up and hit the rear of a Porsche 924, putting both cars out of the race, much to his embarrassment. As there had been significant contact, he was naturally summoned to see the Clerk of the Course after the race. When we arrived the Clerk said, ‘Right I need to see your in-car footage please’, whereupon Richard replied, ‘No you don’t, it was completely my fault.’ The Clerk sat back in his chair, speechless for a moment, and then said ‘No driver has ever said that to me before…’
In the Twin Spark Cup, Tom Hill underlined his dominance by steadily building a lead over Andrew Bourke to 7 seconds at the chequered flag. Andrew’s best lap was less than 1/10th off Tom’s but consistent laps slightly quicker than Andrew’s enabled Tom gradually to extend the gap. Simon Cresswell was only a second adrift of Andrew at the chequered flag, illustrating the close competitiveness of the Twin Spark Cup.
Race 1 Results
|Twin Spark Cup
Race 1 had been a good one but there had been a high rate of attrition for our cars. Richard Ford was of course again a non-starter due to his blown engine, but there were 3 others who would not make the start in race 2. Paul Webster’s loss of gearbox oil was not the result of something that could be repaired at the circuit, like a blown seal. Against the odds Gary and Mervyn Miller had thrown themselves into the task of helping Paul to try and fix it but to no avail. A new gearbox seemed to be the likely requirement so Paul was a non-starter. The Millers also set about helping Richard Thurbin to repair the Uno. They got the front bodywork straight but then Richard noticed that his right front suspension had taken on a pretzel shape and sadly the car could not safely be rendered driveable, so Richard too was out of race 2. Bryan Shrubb was also out. The pinion in the crown and pinion assembly had sheered it transpired, and Tom Shrubb was preparing to scour Europe for replacement parts as the gearbox was out of a Boxer-engined Alfa 145, not the most commonly available unit! Anyone who has one please contact BLS Automotive…
Gary Miller was taking his turn in Dad Mervyn’s Modified 156 but although he had qualified he had not competed in Race 1 so he had to start from the back of the Modified/Power Trophy section of the grid. However, he overcame this by making an absolutely electrifying start, finding just enough room to go down the inside of the rest of the field into the lead. By the end of lap 1 he had 2 seconds in hand over 2nd placed Dave Messenger and he steadily extended that to 36 seconds at the flag. Although one might have expected the Modified car to be quicker than Dave’s Power Trophy car, that hadn’t been the case in qualifying and it was a very fine drive by Gary to take a dominant win. Dave held 2nd place throughout with a good margin of 3 seconds at the chequered flag to the charging Andy Inman. Jamie Thwaites had been ahead of Andy for the first 3 laps but Andy got past him on lap 4 to take third place overall. Jamie pressed on well to finish 4th, setting his best time on his penultimate lap – a 1:40.074. Ben Sharich had pulled into the pits at the end of his first flying lap having noticed a cloud of steam or smoke coming from somewhere, but a quick check of the MiTO revealed nothing amiss so he rejoined, albeit a lap down. Perhaps still anxious that something was not quite right he was lapping some 2 seconds off his quickest time in Race 1, but thankfully had a reliable run to the chequered flag.
It was the Twin Spark Cup which provided the main talking points in Race 2. Andrew Bourke got the best start on this occasion, leading Tom Hill, Simon Cresswell and Martin Jones through the first series of corners. He held the lead for 3 laps under heavy pressure from Tom, who was climbing all over the back of his car looking for a way through. On lap 4, a good exit out of Tower enabled him to successfully challenge for the lead and he was ahead as the cars approached Sunny in, but at the end of the next lap Andrew tried a desperate move to regain the lead at the hairpin, no doubt feeling acute disappointment at Tom having passed him. However, the move was never on and he clouted Tom’s rear wheel arch breaking the rear suspension, which became obvious as Tom fought his car all the way down the start/finish straight as it performed involuntary S bends. Andrew took over the class lead but was subsequently disqualified for causing a collision. That left Simon Cresswell in effect leading from Martin Jones but the drama wasn’t over yet: on the very last lap Simon pulled off the circuit with an engine problem leaving Martin as the sole Twin Spark to finish and win the class – a strange way to get your first class win but hey, they all count!
Race 2 Results
|Twin Spark Cup
New Class lap records were established by Dave Messenger in the Power Trophy (1:36.976) and by Tom Hill in the Twin Spark Cup (1:42.177). Driver of the weekend was Andy Inman, after improving performances rewarded him with a third overall and two class podium places. Very well done to all these drivers.
We now move on to our next 2 races at the prestigious Festival Italia event at Brands Hatch on 18th August. Once again this event provides our drivers with the opportunity to race in front of a much bigger crowd than usual, so the stage is set. A big grid is vital for us to show that we are a force to be reckoned with as a Championship, so to all our drivers who are able to race – please be there!