We were a select and exclusive band at the Mallory Park meeting on Saturday 14th September with just 9 Alfa Romeo racers turning up for rounds 11 and 12 of this year’s Championship.
Mallory isn’t top of every driver’s list for a must-attend race meeting; yes, it’s homespun, yes, it’s of humble pretensions, but it’s a fun little circuit. The esses and Devil’s Elbow are a genuine challenge and even chronically understeering cars can hang the tail out a bit around the seemingly endless Gerard’s bend. Although nine entries represented an all-time low for the Alfa Championship over the past ten years we weren’t the only ones. Most of the grids on the day fared little better, and it set me wondering as to how long it will be before the sport’s powers-to-be start to recognise that Club Motorsport is facing a participation problem. It may be masked by a few Championships where numbers are healthy – the proverbial MX-5s being an obvious example – but many others are struggling.
What has struck me most of all since becoming the Championship Coordinator is that participation rates are many people’s problem and no one’s responsibility. The fewer the race entries the more the entry fees are jacked up, thus exacerbating the problem. If a Championship is struggling for numbers it’s made worse by introducing surcharges for ‘late’ entries (i.e. submitted less than 14 days ahead of the race date), and introducing new Championships with cut-price entry fees to lure drivers away from those that are already struggling for numbers. That may be a jaundiced view but it is a view shared by many drivers, as our recent consultations show. So the upshot is that securing a healthy future for the Alfa Romeo Championship is my responsibility, the ARCA Panel’s responsibility and, inescapably, drivers’ responsibility. Our experience to date has been that no one else has the willingness to contribute in any concerted way though we are hopeful that’s about to change; in the meantime, we’ll get on with it and do whatever we can to succeed. Hopefully we will…
The weather at Mallory was gorgeous. A few high cirrus clouds punctuated an otherwise clear blue sky a few hours after dawn as we crawled down the M6 through tedious 50 MPH average speed limit restrictions; patches of ground mist stretching away to the east redolent partly of a vintage horror movie and partly of a bucolic landscape providing a visual travelogue to our journey; then the strange approach to the circuit through what seems a sequence of outbuilding yards, down a reverse section of the circuit into Mallory’s characteristically bumpy and rutted paddock. There were the 5 Bianco Twin Spark cars – Simon Cresswell’s orange 156, Martin Jones’ orange and white 147, Richard Ford’s red and blue 156, Andrew Bourke’s silver and orange 156, and Tom Hill’s black and gold 156. Nearby were Jamie Thwaites’ transporter and beautifully presented 155 and Andy Inman’s Peak Alfa 156 GTA, soon joined by the Scuderia MiTO team and Dave Messenger’s Darnells-supported 156 GTA – a select band of committed racers if ever there was one!
For those who wished to take advantage of it there was a 30-minute free practice session at 9.30, and Tom Hill, Andrew Bourke and Richard Ford availed themselves of the opportunity. Tom only completed 4 laps before returning to the paddock while Andrew did the whole session finishing half a second quicker than Tom’s best lap, but it was not clear what, if anything, should be read into this in the light of the brevity of Tom’s session. Richard Ford also completed most of the session but the wretched luck that has dogged his season sadly continued as he pitted to discover that he had a cracked oil pump casing and had lost a couple of litres of oil. Bianco not having a spare and an attempt to seal the crack having failed he was left to sit out the rest of the meeting. He did complete the necessary 3 laps to qualify, but as soon as he pressed hard the additional engine heat caused the crack in the casing to open with the result that more oil was lost. It’s incredible how bad luck can multiply sometimes; Richard deserves much better.
Qualifying got under way at 10.30 in bright sunlight. We would have been away a little earlier but the mysteries of noise management had been revealed when a Monoposto racer in the previous session had been way too loud, and we had to wait some 12 minutes till the statistics indicated that the noise limit quota was back on track. Tom Hill was first out as always and quickly into his stride, setting the Twin Spark pole on his 4th lap, a lap of 55.832s. He pitted after a few laps for the car to be checked over and at the end of the session dipped below 56s again but was unable to go quicker. Simon Cresswell pipped Andrew Bourke by 1/10th of a second to go second quickest Twin Spark, with Martin Jones a second adrift and the luckless Richard Ford further back but unable to race, so 4 Twin Sparks would take the start.
With no Modified entrants attention was focused on the Power Trophy cars. Dave Messenger was first out of the blocks, recording a time of 55.083s on only his second lap but on his 4th lap he experienced brake problems and went straight on at the hairpin causing only minor damage fortunately but ending his session there and then. He would line up 3rd on the grid. Pole went to Jamie Thwaites’ 155. Jamie went quicker and quicker as the session progressed and recorded a time of 53.982 on his penultimate lap, some 8/10ths quicker than Andy Inman who would share the front row with him. Andy was getting to grips with slicks for the first time and he too went quicker and quicker through the session recording his 3 fastest times in his final 3 laps as his confidence in his tyres grew. Ben Sharich was the final Power Trophy runner, the MiTO recording a 56.835 lap mid-session to round out the front section of the grid.
Race 1 got under way a few minutes early at 1.20. With only 8 cars taking the start one might have been forgiven for anticipating a somewhat dull race, but this was far from the case. With 4 cars in each class there was still a split grid, and as the lights went out for the Power Trophy cars Jamie Thwaites got bogged down from pole and was only 4th entering Gerard’s as Dave Messenger got away quickest from the second row to lead. However, Jamie was onto Dave’s tail at the end of the first lap having passed Andy Inman and Ben Sharich. The Twin Sparks got away cleanly in grid order but with Andrew Bourke pressing hard for the lead on the outside, unsuccessfully in the end and he dropped back behind Tom Hill and Simon Cresswell but still ahead of Martin Jones.
In the front group Jamie Thwaites was only 7/10ths behind Dave Messenger for the first 5 laps, but after that Dave began to pull steadily away and the gap to Jamie was 7 seconds by lap 16. However, all was not well with Dave’s car; from lap 10 onwards he was experiencing disconcerting bangs and vibrations from the front end of the car and he thought at the time that a drive shaft was failing. What he didn’t know was that his left front tyre was progressively delaminating and that was what was causing the problem. He held the gap to Jamie initially but from lap 17 onwards the gap came steadily down as Dave tried to nurse the car along to the finish. His lap times faded as Jamie’s remained consistent and then came down perhaps sensing that a win was still possible. Nevertheless, as the final lap commenced Dave was still 1.6s ahead and it looked for all the world like he would hold on, but the front end vibration was becoming very difficult to manage and after exiting the hairpin Dave accidentally hit the kill switch and inadvertently cut the engine. Jamie nipped through and took the chequered flag some 6 seconds ahead as Dave coasted across the line in second place. What a strange finish! Dave did, however, have the consolation of fastest lap and setting a new lap record. Behind the front pair Andy Inman had been suffering the same problem as Dave, the ex-Touring Car Dunlop front offside tyre delaminating, and Andy’s lap times fell away accordingly, finishing around 20 seconds adrift of Dave.
Ben Sharich meanwhile had gradually fallen back into Tom Hill’s clutches, as Tom led the Twin Spark class with Simon Cresswell and Martin Jones well spaced out behind him, but kept the place to finish 4th overall. So where was Andrew Bourke? After showing good pace early on Andrew was running a comfortable 3rd but was experiencing gearbox problems culminating in him losing 3rd and 4th gears. Unfortunately those are the very gears need for good lap times at Mallory and he dropped to the rear of the field – just driving to finish – using only 2nd and 5th gears. Tom Hill won, setting fastest lap and establishing a new Twin Spark Cup lap record into the bargain – yet another peerless drive.
Race 1 Results
|Power Trophy||Jamie Thwaites|
|Twin Spark Cup||Tom Hill|
Race 2 was due to start at 4.00 but we were asked to be in the Assembly area by 3.15 as they were ahead of schedule. However, once again an errant Monoposto had broken the noise limits so the drivers had to wait 15 minutes till the decibel equations had righted themselves. The weather was still fine and dry, albeit more hazy. Tyres had been replaced on Dave Messenger’s and Andy Inman’s cars, and Andrew Bourke was still missing vital gears and was just hopeful of recording a race finish.
As the lights went out Jamie Thwaites was again slow away and in 4th place behind Dave Messenger, Andy Inman and Ben Sharich entering Gerard’s. However, he passed Ben and Andy on lap 1 and was right on Dave’s bumper by the end of the lap. Ben Sharich meanwhile was obviously in difficulties, slowing noticeably on the exit to Gerard’s coming first into the pits and then returning to the paddock with a sick engine; the culprit was a boost pipe that had blown off and the MiTO team had to call it a day, a disappointing end for them and the many supporters they had brought to the circuit.
When the flag dropped the Twin Spark Cup runners got away cleanly, Tom Hill taking the lead, but Simon Cresswell and Martin Jones went through Gerard’s side by side and continued wheel to wheel all the way down the back straight before Martin had to yield and complete the lap close behind Simon. Andrew Bourke was already 3 seconds adrift as he nursed his car along; sadly, however, his efforts came to nothing in the end in terms of results and he was forced to retire the car after 9 laps.
From the end of lap 1 to the end of lap 22 there was no change in the running order, which sounds dull but in fact it was very enjoyable to watch. Dave Messenger equalled his lap record within 1/1000th of a second and gradually extended the gap to Jamie Thwaites to 2.6 seconds by lap 9 but then the gap started to come down. Dave was experiencing a repeat of the tyre problem he had in Race 1 – not as badly but he was concerned to reach the end of the race so was driving more within himself. He knew where to place the car on the circuit to make overtaking difficult and concentrated on keeping Jamie behind him. Jamie meanwhile was wrestling with a steering wheel that had come out of its locked position and was moving up and down and side to side causing him some difficulties in maintaining control. Andy Inman had dropped back some 2-3 seconds behind the leading pair early on but then held the gap until they started lapping the Twin Sparks when his more cautious approach to lapping lost him a few seconds.
On the penultimate lap Jamie tried a move down the outside of Dave at the entry to Gerard’s but was forced to back off and they continued nose to tail for the rest of the lap. On the final lap Dave took his usual line into Gerard’s but was caught unawares as Jamie made a late bid down the inside; with 2 wheels on the grass the move was brave and just about legal (!). Fortunately Dave did not slam the door and take them both off, and Jamie took the lead which he held to the chequered flag. Dave was again second with fastest lap and Andy Inman finished 3rd, some 6 seconds back – an excellent effort on his first-ever drives on slicks, and slicks that were causing some problems at that.
The Twin Spark Cup battle followed a similar pattern, albeit without the dramatic ending. Tom Hill gradually extended his lead lap by lap but the noticeable thing was how well Martin Jones was driving. Instead of dropping steadily further behind the more experienced Simon Cresswell he was actually reeling him in, lowering his own best lap time by some 0.4 seconds over the course of the day. Simon had enough in hand to claim second place but it was a fine drive by Martin who has been getting progressively quicker as the season has gone on.
Race 2 Results
|Power Trophy||Jamie Thwaites|
|Twin Spark Cup||Tom Hill|
Jamie Thwaites was given the Driver of the Day award, Tom Hill was able to extend his Championship lead slightly to 5 points over Dave Messenger and we now move on to Silverstone on 5th/6th October. See you there!