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As It Should Be: Sportscars at the 2009 Silverstone Classic

Jeremy Clarkson ended the most recent season of Top Gear with an at-once poignant and ominous segment that suggested we are entering a fin de siècle period for the Aston Martin Vantage V12 and its ilk. It put into stark focus what a lot of enthusiasts must be feeling these days. Green politics are now mainstream politics; sustainability, fuel efficiency and emissions reduction are now financial imperatives in the car industry; and the very act of enjoying a desirable motor car in public is rapidly becoming about as socially acceptable as skinning a mink and not recycling the entrails.

Thank heavens, then, for events like the Silverstone Classic. Events

where the petrolhead can check the baggage of emissions-based road tax, cynically-positioned speed cameras and political and media guilt-tripping at the gate and just enjoy themselves for a weekend. Events where a small corner of somewhere (Northamptonshire in this instance) is temporarily shut off from the doom-mongering, do-gooding and fun-policing of the outside world. Where those with a mind to can get down to the simultaneously serious and frivolous business of piloting a great car around a great racetrack, as fast as they might care to go.

Having greatly enjoyed The Classic on my first visit in 2008, it was a

foregone conclusion that I would be back for more, but as I left last July with the sound of Group C cars still ringing in my ears, I couldn't have imagined just how much I would be looking forward to the '09 edition. Just how much of a necessary escape from the increasingly downbeat and discouraging atmosphere of the real world it would come to be. The range of classes that would be racing added more fuel to the fire of my enthusiasm. In addition to the return of 2008's attractions, a race for 1990s Super Touring cars in memory of the late David Leslie was added for this year, representing another tick on the list of life's 'must-sees' for me. The predecessors of these cars were also present in the form of the Alfas, BMWs and Lotus Cortinas of the Under-2-Litre Touring Cars (U2TCs). This is the real beauty of the Silverstone Classic you  get a comprehensive overview of motorsport's history, with yesteryear's equivalents of F1, GP2, WTCC/BTCC and Le Mans Series/FIA GT cars all running. But - the awesome spectacle of the Grand Prix Masters cars notwithstanding - it's the third of those categories, sportscars, that truly took centre stage, thanks to the atmospheric and absorbing 90-minute World Sportscar Masters race for 1960s and 1970s machines on the Saturday evening, along with the event's biggest draw, the astounding spectacle of the screaming, flame-spitting, 1980s Group C creations, which raced on both Saturday and Sunday.

Standing about halfway down the Hangar Straight on the Saturday

afternoon, watching the tobacco-branded ex-works Jaguars sweep through Chapel and listening to the intoxicating wail of their engines as they flew up the straight towards Stowe, I had my own 'Clarkson moment.' These days, no manufacturer can go motor racing without a raft of qualifications and spin about how relevant to sustainable road-car technologies their effort is and how they've bent over backwards to minimise the programme's environmental impact in every area. Currently there is even talk of introducing a standard 1.6-litre turbocharged engine specification across nearly all forms of motorsport. As the Jaguars, Nissans, Porsches and others swept past, I found myself thinking 'Where did it all go wrong?' What happened to what I was seeing on the track in front of me? What happened to saying, 'let's build a fast, loud and spectacular racing car and run it against a grid of other fast, loud and spectacular racing cars to satisfy nothing but our own competitive instincts, and entertain the public at the same time?' These days, everything needs to be justified and explained to the outside world and that wonderful concept of 'why not?' seems to have been forgotten. Yes, Group C ran to a fuel-efficiency formula, but that was merely a way of stopping development of the cars' turbocharged engines from spiralling out of control. Fortunately such thoughts did not affect my enjoyment of what I was seeing too much. But the point stands. Let's just hope the organisers' stated mission of 'investing in the future by enjoying the past' is a success, and enough of the thousands of under-16s that attended for free with their families left sufficiently fired up to carry on these traditions in later life.

Back on track with the Group Cs, meanwhile, a couple of spins and

near misses attested to the fact that no quarter was being given or allowed; the drivers clearly not holding back despite the fact that they had been entrusted with museum pieces for the weekend as it should be, really. Saturday's 55-minute race produced a Jaguar 1-2, with Chris Buncombe's XJR9 leading home Gary Pearson's XJR11. Andy Purdie rounded out the podium in the FromA/STP Nissan R90C, and would go on to win Sunday's 35-minute sprint ahead of Buncombe, after an overnight turbo rebuild and ECU replacement for the car. Justin Law finished third in that encounter behind the wheel of the Bud Light XJR12D, which he had driven to fourth place with Andy Wallace in Saturday's race. A first-corner crash meant I barely got a glimpse of the Rob Sherrard-driven Sauber-Mercedes C9 on track last year, so it was gratifying to see this Silver Arrow flame-spit its way around Silverstone for the full duration of both races this time around, even though it was kept from the sharp end by a puncture on Saturday. Stuttgart was represented by the Kenwood 962 driven by Simon Wright and the FromA/STP 962 shared by Jamie Campbell-Walter and David Hart on Saturday and piloted solo by Hart on Sunday, when JC-W switched to the Courage C22. Neil Cunningham's Ford C100 was a rare treat; one of the lesser-spotted of the Group C species, it raced as a works car for the 1982 season only.


          Later on Saturday, the World Sportscar Masters race was prefaced with a grid walk, which afforded the opportunity for a good nose around the competing machinery, all resplendent in the setting sun. As with the WSM race at last year's event, Lola T70s were in plentiful supply (14 of them in total, and they would fill out the podium), but Ford's racing heritage was also present in the form of the distinctive F3L and a brace of GT40s. Multiple Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal single-handedly drove his Chevron B16 to fifth (he also made appearances in the U2TC races). Rahal was one of several drivers to do the full distance alone; Andrew Newall, driving the Alfa Romeo T33 that finished second at the 1971 Targa Florio, was another. Other cars of interest included the stunning Ferrari 512S driven by Sean Lynn and the unmistakeable Ligier JS2, piloted by Jamie Campbell-Walter and Paul Knapfield. The racing-at-dusk concept really is an effective way of injecting a bit more atmosphere into proceedings, although this year's running was unfortunately marred by a lengthy safety-car period.

While the Group C and Sportscar Masters races represented a

successful return for events that had featured on 2008's card, one of Sunday's races was a new creation for 2009: the Pre-1963 GT cars. Without taking anything away from the historic importance of the Group C and Grand Prix Masters machines, it has to be said that the drivers in this new class had perhaps the most on their minds as they danced through Maggots and Becketts on the ragged edge; some of them were driving cars valued in excess of $10 million. The race winner was also the most eye-catching entry out there: a SWB 'Breadvan' Ferrari 250GTO handled capably by Max Werner throughout the one-hour race to win by over a minute from the more conventional (and, let's be honest, more attractive) 250GTO SWB Berlinetta of Marc Devis and former BTCC bad boy Anthony Reid. Perhaps the most notable of the four 250s was the Peter Newmark's alloy-bodied competition version, which he co-drove with David Franklin to fifth place. Jostling with the Ferraris for both track position and historical prestige was a clutch of Aston Martin DB4s, including the impossibly gorgeous Zagato-bodied version, driven by Adrian Beecroft to 16th place.

I probably should sign off at this point, even though I didn't get around

to discussing the BRDC Historic Sportscars race (a Lotus, Lister and Cooper affair) and the RAC Woodcote Trophy for pre-'56 machines (Jaguar D-Types aplenty, but Chris Rea was there, too, in a Lotus 6). But if the above hasn't already convinced you to break out the red marker and circle July 23-25 2010 in your diary, then I guess there really is no hope...


Stephen Errity
August 2009

Images by Ed Fahey

sportscarpros Father Ed


A sideways view from Ed Fahey