If ever we could have got our weather expectations wrong, it was last Saturday at Oulton Park.
Lovely sunshine greeted competitors for the opening rounds of this year’s BRSCC Alfa Romeo Championship and even if the entry was rather small, it didn’t seem to matter that much. Mind you, perhaps anything could have been an improvement on the dreadful traffic that made for a crawling journey for those coming north on Friday afternoon as the M6 was closed near Stoke with a crumbling bridge problem. Country roads are not made for diverted 40 ton truck after 40 ton truck!
Items in “Autosport” and “Motorsport News” heralding Neil Smith’s return to the Championship came to nothing as Neil withdrew beforehand, leaving Graham Seager’s familiar Peak Alfa supercharged GTV and Roger McMahon’s Alastair Kellett run 156 3.2 as the only Modified entries. Roger’s car is based on the Twin Spark once raced by Ian Fisher but now fitted with a V6 engine. His only outings with it so far were at Spa in October where it proved to be extremely competitive. Ray Foley was again in the Power Trophy class with his 147 GTA, having given up his oft mooted idea of running Modified.
Completing the front group were two very welcome Fiat Puntos for the McFie brothers – Chris with an Abarth and Simon a less powerful HGT. They were immaculately turned out but neither had any idea how their lap times would stack up against the Alfa regulars. As usual, the main part of the entry came from the Twin Spark Cup led by five cars from Bianco – all 156s in the hands of Tom Hill – aiming for back to back championship titles – Simon Cresswell, Mike Tydeman, Richard Ford and Andrew Bourke. Andrew now has the ex Steve Potts silver and orange car and had already set some impressive times in testing. Dave Messenger (sponsored once again by Solo Italia and BSS), Andy Inman, Paul Webster and Jeremy Chilton had entered their usual 156s. Andy’s car was proudly sporting brand new silver decoration as part of his purple colour scheme indicating a mis-spent winter and recalling his earlier life with VIZ.
The only interloper here was the 145 of Richard Stevens. I asked Richard if he had indulged himself with a new engine but, no, he had rebuilt the unit that gave him a problem at Rockingham at the end of last year and was keeping his fingers crossed. It was good to see Paul Plant having a day off fatherhood but we are told that we might see Emma and baby Oliver at Silverstone.
Everything seemed to be going smoothly until Dave Messenger arrived, last, into the scrutineering bay and the chief scrutineer took exception to the rear wheel mountings on his 156. This had remained unchanged for some six years and was the same as all the other cars in the class. For some time it looked as though we might have a major crisis on our hands but through the good offices of our eligibility scrutineer, Kevin Lewis, and Gary Walker this was averted. However, although there was a temporary stay of execution, it was clear that the problem was not going to go away and a report would go to the MSA Technical Advisory Panel. Watch this space at Silverstone!
At the start of any season, there are always changes in regulations to take note of. For everyone, the introduction of the “Code 60” flag caused some discussion. Those who had raced abroad were familiar with it but basically the idea in the event of an incident is to reduce the speed of cars on the track to 60 kmh so that marshals could work to remove stranded cars or other obstacles without the necessity for a safety car or red flag. No overtaking is permitted while the flag is being shown. Resumption of racing is possible much more quickly with the withdrawal of the flag at all marshals posts at the same time. A second change introduced by the MSA was not of such general concern in that there is now a rule that is much more specific about split grids. Whereas in 2016 we had used a 5” gap between the two groups, this would now be a mandatory 10”, the Twin Sparks still starting with a waved flag. In our own regulations, the only exception to this would be if the number of Modified/Power Trophy/Invitation class cars running was less than four, in which case all cars would start together on the lights in the order set in qualifying or in the first race. Sounds complicated but in reality not and the timekeepers are always very helpful in changing the grid sheet at the last minute if necessary. MSV had also made some changes around the Oulton circuit, notably at Druids where trees had been removed and the barriers moved back, opening up the view for drivers and spectators alike without altering the track layout itself.
Qualifying got underway just before 11.30 but was disrupted after just 3 laps by a red flag after Roger McMahon had suffered a damaged oil cooler and liberally coated parts of the circuit with Selenia (or the equivalent). It took some twenty minutes to clear up the mess, the remaining cars being allowed back on the circuit for a final 10 minute (3 lap) sprint to try to set a better time than they had managed before the break. As ever, Tom Hill had been quick straight out of the blocks before the red flag and his 2’05.878” on his second flying lap was good enough for class pole. Andy Inman and Mike Tydeman were the only other drivers to set their best times early. Once things were properly underway again, it was clear that Graham Seager would take the race pole but his 1’57.414” was a little short of his best a year ago. Chris McFie soon showed that his Punto would be a factor in the race with 2’04.399 to put himself on the front row, while Roger McMahon had already done enough to line up on row 2, leaving us wondering if he could have challenged Graham. Ray Foley would start alongside him with Simon McFie, who set what would have been a reasonable TSC time on row 3.
Tom Hill’s Twin Spark pole was good enough for fourth overall and he was joined on the front row of the second group by Andrew Bourke who was a little disappointed not to be closer to Tom – in fact the gap was over 2”. Initially elated, though, was Richard Stevens who had had his best ever qualifying in the 145 to be third until another engine failure ended his day. Richard Ford, Dave Messenger, Simon Cresswell and Andy Inman were all very closely matched in the 2’09s, heading Mike Tydeman, who didn’t manage to resume after the break, Paul Webster and Jeremy Chilton, Paul being very happy to head Jeremy on this occasion.
The main question mark for race 1, due to start at 2.45, was whether or not Roger McMahon’s 156 could be fixed. Roger and Alastair Kellett had decided to run with just one oil cooler in the hope that that would be sufficient and as race time approached it looked as though all would be well. As the lights went out for the Modified/Power Trophy/Invitation cars it was Roger who blasted through from the second row to take the lead into Old Hall. Not that this was to last as Graham Seager got himself up to speed going down to Knickerbrook and crossed the line at the end of the first lap with a slender 0.048” advantage. It looked as though we were going to have a proper race! Ray Foley came through in third place with Chris McFie’s Punto holding on well, these two having dropped the other Fiat by some 4”. Further back, the Twin Sparks were quickly into entertainment mode. Tom Hill made it first into Old Hall but a quick starting Dave Messenger was initially alongside with Andrew Bourke wasting no time in making a challenge on the way down to Cascades. By the exit of the corner, Andrew was up to second and chasing Tom but Dave was not dropping away. Next up were Richard Ford, Mike Tydeman, Simon Cresswell and Andy Inman in close order.
By the end of lap 2, Graham Seager had edged the gap to Roger out to 1.016” while Ray Foley was holding on to third place, a second clear of the impressive Chris McFie. The battle between Tom Hill and Andrew Bourke was hotting up with Dave Messenger keeping a watching brief a couple of seconds back. Simon Cresswell had passed Mike Tydeman and was now looming large in Richard Ford’s mirrors while Andy Inman had set his best ever lap round Oulton in pursuit of Mike Tyedeman. At the back, Jeremy Chilton had reasserted himself over Paul Webster. It was on lap 3 that the whole look of the race changed – Graham Seager slowed with a wheel vibration and pulled off with what transpired to be broken wheel studs, while Ray Foley saw his water temperature go sky high and pulled into the pits. Andrew Bourke past the timing line alongside Tom Hill, his transponder putting him just 0.1” ahead, but it would not last as Tom surged back in front at Old Hall. Back at Lodge, Richard Ford had run wide ,bumping across the grass and letting the closely pursuing Simon Cresswell and Mike Tydeman ahead while Andy Inman also gained a place on the following lap. So the order at the end of lap 4 was Roger McMahon, on his own 13” clear of Chris McFie, Simon McFie a further 14” back, Tom Hill and Andrew Bourke side by side again before Dave Messenger and Simon Cresswell arrived in our sights.
Roger McMahon could now afford to ease off as the two Fiats were way back, but all eyes anyway were on the intense battle going on between Tom Hill and Andrew Bourke. Dave Messenger and Simon Cresswell were in bubbles of their own but Andy Inman was fancying his chances of getting ahead of Mike Tyedeman, Richard Ford seemingly unable at the half way stage to get back on terms. Lap after lap Andrew tried to get alongside Tom Hill into Old Hall but he was always on the outside and Tom appeared to have it all well covered. Time was running out and with a couple of laps to go one sensed that Andrew was going to settle for second place rather than make some silly move that could affect his whole season. The gap at the flag was a mere 1.299” but as the cars pulled into parc ferme one sensed that both drivers knew they had been involved in a great battle that boded well for the rest of the season. Sadly, Dave Messenger who had run third all the way didn’t make it past Cascades on the final lap, pulling off with engine failure to complete a difficult day. Simon Cresswell took over the final Twin Spark podium place but Mike Tydeman found himself being pushed hard by a resurgent Richard Ford who had managed to get past Andy Inman when the latter appeared to miss a gear on the exit of the Brittans chicane. Mike just managed to stay ahead of Richard at the flag, with Andy just behind, while Jeremy Chilton was happy to lead home Paul Webster. In the pit garages afterwards, the McFie brothers were particularly delighted at the way their race had gone and were eagerly looking forward to part two.
After everyone had cooled down, we had to assess the various mechanical problems that would affect the line-up later in the afternoon. Roger McMahon had suffered from low oil pressure during race 1 and decided not to risk the engine further, leaving to catch an earlier than planned ferry at Holyhead. Ray Foley and Roger Evans decided that there was no point in risking Ray’s engine which had blown out all its water and it later transpired that a bung in the back of the engine was no longer there. Clearly Graham Seager’s GTV would be going no further. Likewise Dave Messenger’s 156. All this meant that we did not have the necessary four cars to implement the split grid and everyone would have to start together on the lights. This appeared to make several drivers happy as there were opinions expressed that the dropping of the flag was inconsistent and that the increased gap to 10” encouraged creeping. Without Roger McMahon, we had a unique situation – two Fiat Puntos on the front row of the grid! Behind them would be the Twin Spark 156s of Tom Hill and Andrew Bourke. The third row would comprise Simon Cresswell and Mike Tydeman with Richard Ford and Andy Inman on row 4 and Jeremy Chilton and Paul Webster completing the field behind them.
Race 1 Results
|Twin Spark Cup
The lights start went perfectly although it was not Chris but Simon McFie who took an initial, but shortlived, lead. Tom Hill wasted no time in getting on the tail of the second Fiat and they were to enjoy a lively battle for the first three laps until Tom started to pull away and then, on lap 6, Simon spun at Cascades.
Andrew Bourke’s progress was impeded on the first lap by a fast starting Mike Tydeman but once past he then had the second Fiat to deal with before he could get back on terms with Tom. Simon McFie’s spin removed that obstacle but we could also see a trail of smoke coming from the back of the leading 156 and at the end of the lap Tom came into the pits to retire with what later transpired was a leak from the gearbox.
Simon McFie would also retire a lap later with suspension damage. All this left Chris McFie leading the race with Andrew Bourke second, on his way to possibly his first Twin Spark win. Simon Cresswell had overtaken Mike Tydeman on lap 3 but for much of the race Simon, Mike, Andy Inman and the closing Richard Ford made up an interesting group. At one point, Richard looked as though he might get on terms with Andy but an oversteery moment at Shell Oils on lap 7 lost him some momentum that he could never quite recover.
So, after 10 laps, during which he eased off to what must have seemed like walking pace, a delighted Chris McFie crossed the finish line to mark the first ever win in an Alfa race by a Fiat Punto. Equally happy was Andrew Bourke who came home second but importantly as TSC winner, a full 9” clear of Simon Cresswell who had pulled away from Mike Tydeman. This was to be Mike’s first class podium though. Richard Ford all but caught Andy Inman on the line while Jeremy Chilton and Paul Webster completed the list of finishers. One thing to note, though, after perusing the time sheets afterwards was the fastest lap (on lap 9 with one to go) of Jeremy Chilton in 2’11.976” – cutting all of 8” off his time on lap 1 and a chunk off the 14s he was doing mid race. I look forward to a chat with Jeremy about that!
Race 2 Results
|Twin Spark Cup
Despite some of the problems most people seemed to think it had been a good start to the season with some excellent racing to keep us all entertained. Joy Fairy presented the trophies as the sun started to go down on the last day before the hour change. The Grove & Dean Motorsport Insurance Driver of the Day Award went to Andrew Bourke who became the Championship leader with 40 points ahead of Simon Cresswell (34) and Mike Tydeman (30). The McFie brothers were understandably happy with their trophies and had already indicated that they will be racing with us all year. We also had discussions about contacting other refugees from the defunct BRSCC Fiat Championship to see if they wished to race with us as well.
View the standings after rounds 1&2.
Rounds 3 & 4 of the Championship will take place over the weekend April 8th/9th on the Silverstone International circuit where I am told we shall again be in the cavernous pit garages.