Well another amazing weekend. I have to pinch myself sometimes that we’re doing this. We (Ian, Mark Sumpter and me) met at Snetterton in the pouring rain on Friday for testing – I’m getting used to going out the pit lane skating like the car is on ice, and wondering which way the first corner goes! Testing was a bit of a joke – there was no point trying too hard as the car had no grip whatsoever and there was nothing to be gained from pushing too hard, as the owner of the genuine 1965 Alan Mann Ford GT40 found when he went straight on after Agostini, hitting the tyre barrier with an almighty crunch. I saw the impact from the other side of the circuit as a huge shower of water was punched up into the air, along with tyres from the barrier and a red and gold section of bodywork. The front of the car was a complete write-off, it now being about two feet shorter than original. Completely ineffectual wipers and a plug lead that popped off were the only issues in testing (other than not having a clue where the circuit went). The drama unfortunately had occurred the previous day with the bonnet having come open at 80mph during road-testing. Thankfully it didn’t bend or damage the windscreen or roof, but we now have two lovely indentations in the scuttle to remind us to ALWAYS refit the bonnet straps!
Thankfully the routine of race day was at least familiar this time so we didn’t look like complete numptees, but we did need to work on the routine for refuelling: two mandatory pit stops of at least 3 minutes and a car consuming half a litre of fuel per minute with a 40 litre tank meant we had sufficient capacity to not have to refuel outside these, but it did mean we had to be organised as rules required someone to refuel, someone to hold a fire extinguisher to hand and both had to be in FIA flame proof clothing. Plus the drivers had to change over. Thankfully Mark’s vast race experience gave us a pretty slick routine once we had practiced it in the garage a couple of times. Qualifying and practice was pretty full on with 30 cars entered: The Autosport 3 hour endurance race was the headline event for the weekend and ran during the 1950’s and 1960’s with the great and the good competing in it, in many of the types of cars that were racing at the weekend, so that was pretty special. Less special was the fact that the GT cars (i.e. ours) were mixed up with the Sports Racers (think Chevron’s, GT40’s, Lenham’s, a Rawlson, Ginetta’s, Elva’s, etc). And the cut off for the Sports Racers was 1969 rather than ’66 for the GT’s which made the performance differential all the wider.
Oil spewed all round the circuit (twice, on separate occasions) increased the pressure on everyone for practice, although at least mercifully the dry weather held. The car felt good and I posted a 3 minute lap, while Ian did a 3.03. Mark got in a car he had never driven and promptly did a 2.43 lap, so at least we knew what the car was capable of! Mark’s qualifying put us ahead of an MGB, 1965 911, Reliant Sabre Six, plus an Elva. We spent lunch picking Mark’s brain on race craft, tactics and getting feedback on each section of the circuit.
And so to the race itself. Again we were the oldest car, with the smallest engine and the only one on drum brakes all round. I wasn’t as nervous as Silverstone but didn’t under-estimate the task at hand: racing full-on for an hour and having the car last a full three hours was going to be a big ask. The objective for the race was simply to finish and gain race experience. First lap was pretty hectic and I found myself dicing door handle to door handle with an MGB while also trying to keep the one Mark had out-qualified behind me. 15 minutes in and I was beginning to find a rhythm when a Healey 3000 spun right in front of me: the MGB behind me locked up and I expected to be the German meat in a British sandwich. I took a punt the Healey would exit the spin to the right so dodged left. Yes, passed him! Slightly unsettled though, I wasn’t concentrating out of the next corner and carried too much speed in: the car drifted really wide and the left hand wheels touched the (still wet) grass: car snaps sideways, arms are crossed trying to hold a full-blooded slide, looking out driver’s side window, which then went into a BIG fish tail. Thankfully I collected it up and kept it straight-ish on the grass, before regaining the circuit and thanking my lucky stars I’d not spun. But the MGB had got past, bugger! Chasing him obviously gave me some impetus as the lap times started coming down, with my best a 2.40.4 lap, so taking 20 seconds out of my qualifying time and getting within 3 seconds of Mark was pretty satisfying. And so the race continued – here’s an example of one corner, remembering there is an hour of this: balance the car on the throttle at 7,000 rpm in third while drifting the car through an off camber and increasing radius long right hander, judge the braking point for the left hand kink at its end, get on the brakes gently but firmly to not unsettle the car any further, heel and toe to get the rev’s up, correct the now sliding rear with the left hand, change gear with the right, flick the car into the corner and nail the throttle to slingshot out the corner. Brilliant fun.
By the end of my stint there had been a few retirements and I had got in front of a Merlyn and retaken the MGB, so we were lying in 22nd place. The pit stop went like clockwork and Ian was quickly on the pace lapping consistently at 2.43 minutes per lap. About 35 minutes into his stint however his lap times started to degrade and he came in slightly early at 50 minutes to hand over to Mark. The new lining material in the front drums had destroyed themselves on one side so we only had 50% of the front brakes, and the throttle pedal had bent sideways, causing it to jam open intermittently, so he had really had his hands full for the last part of his stint. But there had been a few more retirements and we were up to 19th. Another great pit stop and Mark wheelspun the car out the pits and immediately did a 2.37 lap again, despite the problems. Unbelievable what a professional can do! Mark then chipped away at this, overtaking a couple of cars including a SWB 911 and Lotus Elan before landing the fastest lap of our race at 2.34. Then an E-Type retired with gearbox problems and a Chevron came spluttering into the pits and we were sitting in 15th place! Then Mark came close by the pit wall gesturing that there was a problem with the car. We held our breath for the last 15 minutes as he ticked off the remaining laps, before finally taking the chequered flag – we had come 15th and third in the under two litre class!
In Parc Ferme Mark confirmed the brakes had completely gone at the front so he had used the handbrake when required to scrub speed, and the engine had made a bang and then vibration had set in three laps from the end, although oil pressure had been fine and it revved freely, so he had carried on to finish the race. I frankly have no idea how he nursed the car home or kept the lap times up, but I’m indebted to him for his stint and experience over the weekend. It looks like we’ve either had the flywheel come loose or the crank break, as the car still revs freely but there’s a sound like crunching gravel as you crank it over! Never mind, we’ve definitely plucked the race cherry now and blooded the car and pulling the engine is a good excuse to find out what we have and to hopefully fettle it for Brands Hatch at the end of the month.
To say we were overjoyed at the result would be an understatement. The little car did us proud – as Mark highlighted, we spent just six minutes in the pits for just driver change and refuelling, and the car completed an epic endurance race, dispatching itself magnificently. I must thank Ian for his prepping of the car, the crew (Andy M, Steve M and Mark’s girlfriend) and Mark for a great weekend – it just does not get any better than this racing lark!