The visit of the HITEK Alfa Romeo Championship to Snetterton coincided with the hottest 2 days of the year so far: blazing sunshine and 30 degrees Celsius air temperature and in that respect similar to our visit to the 300 Circuit in 2018. 17 drivers had entered, a lower number than anticipated, which was further reduced to 16 when Simon Cresswell fell victim to work requirements, but the competition was sure to be as strong as ever.
We welcomed Colin Cunniffe to the Championship, claiming his prize from Bianco for his achievements in the Virtual Racing Championship series over the winter – a free drive in the Twin Spark Cup in a 156. This was Colin’s first drive in a ‘real’ race car and it would be fascinating to see how well he adapted. We also welcomed back Stacey Dennis, having her first drive in the Championship for some 3 years in her distinctive 147 Twin Spark.
Our qualifying session was scheduled for 11.25 AM on Saturday but commenced some 25 minutes late due to delays in previous races in clearing cars involved in incidents from the circuit. Finally we were under way at 11.46. Unusually Tom Hill was not the first driver in the queue to get onto the circuit, arriving at the assembly area some 4 cars too late, but he quickly made his way to the front with a blistering lap in 2:20.20 on his first flying lap, 3 seconds quicker than Barry McMahon and more than 12 seconds ahead of everyone else. Most drivers like to take their time settling into a qualifying session but Tom is invariably ‘on it’ straight away. He went on to set the second fastest lap of all on his 4th lap in 2:13.76 to put himself on the front row, leading the Power Trophy class and alongside…. who else? Barry McMahon, the Championship leader, in his ultra rapid Modified class 156 Turbo in a time of 2:07.96 despite finding the track surface slippery and ‘horrible’, experiencing understeer everywhere he said and even had a minor (and rare) ‘off’ at Murrays on his final lap to demonstrate the point.
Third was George Osborne in his iconic 75 who worked his way steadily through the session going quicker and quicker and recording a time of 2:13.81 on his final lap, only .05 seconds off Tom Hill, another tasty battle between the two of them looking on the cards. Dave Messenger and the Darnells team had only finished reparing his 156 GTA after its Croft shunt the night before the meeting. Their search for a replacement rear spoiler had drawn a blank – the part is virually unobtainable it seems – and in its place there was a beautifully crafted wooden (!) spoiler mounted just below the rear bumper to improve air flow underneath the car. Dave came into the pit lane at the end of his 3rd lap having locked up and flat spotted his tyres. He rejoined but the consequent lack of grip meant he couldn’t improve on his second lap time of 2:19.06 which was nevertheless good enough to put him 4th overall.
5th quickest overall was a delighted Gabs Iaccarino in his Power Trophy class GT – a real sign that he is emerging as a strong performer as he applies himself to the circuit racing game in his first season. His self-built car is also now proving to be reliable as well as quick and he was rightly pleased with his results, lapping consistently in the 2:21s. Andrew Bourke put in a superb qualifying performance to be 6th overall and leading Twin Spark Cup driver with a time of 2:22.86 to take the Twin Spark pole by 1 second from Richard Ford who was in turn 1.3 seconds quicker than the rest. Sandwiched between them was the irrepressible Andy Inman in his 156 GTA who worked down to a best time of 2:23.64 to go 7th overall.
Behind Richard Ford was Scott Austin, 9th overall in his 155 turbo and clearly all was not well with the car. He came into the pit lane after 1 lap, rejoined but then pitted again after 4 laps and returned to the paddock to investigate why he had oil spurting all over his windscreen. It turned out that a corner of his rocker cover had sheared off – a common problem with 20v Fiat Turbo engines apparently – and oil had inevitably found its way out through the resulting gap onto bonnet and screen. However, he set to work mending it with liquid metal and this working repair was successful enabling him to complete his weekend’s racing. Scott was 1/10th or so ahead of Andy Page, racing again after a long time gap in his Giulietta 116 turbo and showing definite signs of finding his pace in this his second outing of the season. Andy is a brilliant engineer and is sure to go quicker and quicker as he gets back into the ‘zone’.
The rest of the Twin Spark field then followed behind Andrew Bourke and Richard Ford. 3rd quickest was Gethin Llewellyn in his white 156 with a time of 2:25.15, slightly frustrated at making a small mistake somewhere on every lap, but nevertheless it was a strong performance from Geth. He was .75 seconds quicker than Jon Billingsley, a double class winner at Snetterton in the past, and Stacey Dennis was a further second behind Jon on her return to racing, again having performed strongly at Snetterton back in 2018. The session went well though she was feeling rusty unsurprisingly. Her time of 2:26.95 was 5 seconds quicker than Andy Winterton who was making his debut in the Championship – and also making his debut in a front wheel drive race car – in the ex-Dave Messenger Twin Spark 156 he shares with Geoff Turral.
Next was Colin Cunniffe making his debut in non-virtual racing. He had tested the car the day before and had initially found it somewhat daunting – particularly getting used to how hard he had to hit the brake pedal – but he had improved his times steadily during the day. In the qualifying session he said he had found it hard to get a clear lap. He recorded his best time of 2:32.40 on his 3rd lap before pitting briefly then rejoining for another lap. His was not the final place on the grid however. James Ford had had new brake hoses fitted to his 156 but he was in the pits after only 2 laps; a brake hose had been rubbing on one of his front wheels and worn through, spilling out brake fluid and causing him to go off the circuit at Agostini, just managing to avoid the tyre wall. Fortunately, it was an easy fix but it meant he would line up in the final grid slot.
Our first race introduced me to a concept I had not previously entertained as a possibility: something that could be described as ‘an eventful non-event’. So in the unlikely event of someone challenging you to come up with an example of ‘an eventful non-event’ you need look no further than this race. The ‘eventful’ part of this description was extremely unfortunate, not least as no one was to blame for the incident. Both sections of the grid made good clean starts, but as the Twin Sparks approached Agostini – the left hand hairpin in the infield section of the circuit – Andrew Bourke was leading as they approached the corner. Gethin Llewellyn was some way behind on the inside line but as he braked for the corner the car suddenly snapped sideways to the left onto the grass on the infield. He now had no grip or control of the car on the grass but considerable momentum. He could see himself rapidly approaching Andrew who was turning in to the corner and was saying to himself ‘go faster, go faster’ at Andrew. To no avail sadly – he T-boned Andrew’s car broadside on the passenger door, the heavy impact eliminating them both from the race – and from the rest of the weekend – on the spot.
The Clerk of the Course immediately deployed the safety car, which waited on the start/finish straight to collect the remaining drivers as they completed the first lap under waved yellows. This was done on the assumption that the cars involved in the incident could be quickly recovered. Initially this seemed possible as Andrew’s car was retrieved fairly quickly, but then lap after lap was completed under the safety car as the recovery of Gethin’s car seemed to take forever… In fact it took the whole of the allotted 20 minutes for the race, a delay which incurred the ire of drivers and spectators alike, there being no apparent reason for it to have taken so long. Finally, even though the race time had expired, the cars were given one racing lap at the end…
By the time the safety car had been deployed, Scott Austin had made up three places to 4th and Andy Page had also made up a place in the running order of the leading group. James Ford had made a good start from the back of the grid and was up to third in the Twin Sparks by the time the cars rounded the second corner.
During the safety car period Tom Hill, who had been circulating in second place was forced to pull off the circuit with drive shaft failure on the 3rd lap so the ‘race’ got under way with 3 of the original starters eliminated. The only change on the last lap was newcomer Colin Cunniffe getting to grips with the 156 and easing past Andy Winterton to take 5th spot in the Twin Sparks. The overall ‘race’ was therefore won by Barry McMahon from George Osborne 2nd and Scott Austin 3rd, with Richard Ford taking the Twin Spark Cup class win from Jon Billingsley 2nd and James Ford 3rd.
The Clerk of the Course interviewed all the Twin Spark drivers but it clearly emerged that the opening lap incident had been caused by a freak mechanical failure on Gethins’ car. The immaculate paint finish on the rear bumper of his car testified to the absence of any clout from behind him as the reason behind the incident, verifying the account all the drivers provided. It was therefore deemed to be a racing incident and no penalties were imposed. Sadly, however, both drivers would be absent from Sunday’s race; Andrew’s car will need to be re-shelled and major repairs will be required to Gethin’s car before it can ever be seen on a circuit again. Both drivers felt somewhat stiff the next morning but, after a check over in the medical centre, proved to be otherwise unscathed thankfully.
In the meantime, neither the drivers nor the spectators had been given the chance to enjoy a proper race…
Race 1 Results
|Power Trophy||George Osborne|
|Twin Spark Cup||Richard Ford|
Race 2 featured a reverse grid for both sets of starters as at Croft last time out. When the red lights went out the Modified/Power Trophy runners made a getaway that was very fast and very close and the Twin Spark Cup start was similar. Thankfully both were incident-free. Dave Messenger got a characteristically fast start to lead the Modified/Power Trophy group but by the time the cars reached the end of the Bentley Straight on lap 1 George Osborne and Barry McMahon had passed him, Barry utilising the superior power of his 156 turbo to take the overall lead despite having started at the back of the grid. At the end of the lap he had 3 seconds in hand over George and, as expected, began to pull away from the rest of the field. George had over a second in hand over Dave Messenger who had both Scott Austin and Tom Hill within 2/10ths of a second behind him as they crossed the line, who were in turn followed by Andy Page, Andy Inman and Gabs Iaccarino.
In the Twin Spark field, depleted after yesterday’s incident, James Ford had started well to take the lead from the second row while Colin Cunniffe showed excellent pace to maintain second place as far as the Bomb Hole where Richard Ford passed him down the inside to take the place, Colin dropping to 3rd but maintaining that place for the next 4 laps. Considering that the previous day’s race had provided little in the way of racing experience Colin was driving superbly in his first race meeting, holding off Jon Billingsley’s challenge until lap 5 when Jon finally found a way past. Colin then found himself in 4th place but with an 8-second lead over Stacey Dennis and 10 seconds in hand over Andy Winterton at the end of lap 5.
In the front group Scott Austin’s 155 was looking very quick and by lap 2 he had cleared Dave Messenger and closed to within 4/10ths of George. It took him a couple of laps to find a way through but he made it on lap 4, although George kept the gap to around a second until lap 8 when he came through on his own – no Scott. Around a minute later Scott’s 155 appeared going very slowly – if something with wheels can trudge the car was certainly trudging, and Scott made his way back to the paddock to retire with his left front tyre hanging off the rim. If he didn’t have bad luck he would have no luck at all! George was therefore back in 2nd place – albeit some 40 seconds behind Barry McMahon – but maintaining a gap of several seconds back to Tom Hill. Try as he might Tom could make no headway in terms of reducing the gap and had to settle for 3rd place overall and 2nd to George in the Power Trophy. George duly recorded fastest lap in class in 2:13.69, precisely 1 second quicker than Tom’s best lap. The field was now quite spread out with Dave Messenger 4th (and slowly leaking oil unbeknown to him till after the race), Andy Page 5th and clearly getting more into his stride, Andy Inman 6th and Gabs Iaccarino 7th, Gabs showing yet more improvement in pace and technique as he lapped within a second of the two Andys. At the front Barry McMahon took another fine overall win to maintain his leading position in the Championship.
In the Twin Spark class, once Richard Ford had passed Colin Cunniffe he set off after his brother James who was leading the class. It is several years since James’s engine had a rebuild and it did seem to be down on power. Steadily Richard reeled him in and passed him down the Bentley Straight on lap 3 then built a gap of 3-4 seconds which he maintained to the chequered flag, controlling the race from the front and taking his second class win of the weekend. James in turn had several seconds in hand over Jon Billingsley. Jon had passed Colin Cunniffe but was unable to shake him off as Colin stayed only a second or so behind for the rest of the race and recorded second fastest lap in the process – a fantastic effort first time out. Stacey Dennis’s best lap was only a second or so adrift of Jon and Colin; however she lost several seconds on lap 4 and was unable to claw them back but had certainly enjoyed being back in the driver’s seat. The final place was taken by Andy Winterton in his first drive in the Alfa Championship. Having only raced rear wheel drive cars in the past he was enjoying the challenge of front wheel drive immensely and will doubtless be increasing his pace as he adapts to the different technique required.
The Driver of the Weekend award went to Richard Ford for his two class wins in the Twin Spark Cup.
Race 2 Results
|Power Trophy||George Osborne|
|Twin Spark Cup||Richard Ford|
After the race Guy Swarbrick took Colin Cunniffe and Paul Plant aside to record a podcast on Colin’s perceptions and experiences in making the transition from virtual racing to real racing, so be sure to watch out for that and have a listen when it is published.
The Championship now moves on to Brands Hatch for the Festival Italia meeting on Sunday 15th August where we will have Ferrari racing for company and notably also Julius Thurgood’s classic Alfa Romeo racing series. A marvellous day’s racing is in prospect as well as all the other aspects of this great Italian-themed event.