Spa Summer Classic 2010
A long time ago…
A while back Andy Vowell asked me if I wanted to share a drive with him – in his car, at the Spa Summer Classic. Obviously I said, ‘I will need to think about it for a bit, I’m always washing my hair when it’s the Spa Summer Classic – I’ll get back to you’.
As it happens however, I decided not to shampoo my mop but rather to jump at the chance and immediately and gratefully accept. After all Andy has one of the lightest and fastest 1300 Spitfires currently racing. So we sorted out paper work, I rejoined the Classic Sports Car Club (my membership had lapsed since moving to France) and I went and dug out my old helmet and race suit from the wardrobe.
The day before the day before…
…was a total disaster. The Land Rover had slipped a tooth on the timing chain on the way back from St. Tropez (I know, I know, I’m such an international playboy) and was running like a dog. So I pulled the timing cover, lined it all back up and… flattened the battery trying to restart it.
Faraday’s law states that in order to re-charge a flat battery to any sort of state in which it is once again useful takes a million hours. So, I had little choice but to go in my road car.
The Alfa is a great car but had two major issues. Firstly, a massive crack in the windscreen and secondly, nowhere to sleep 🙁 By this point there wasn’t time to phone anyone to get the window sorted, so I just had to hope that it held together, pack an old 2 man tent and go to bed.
The day before…
I set off later than I’d intended and didn’t get to Spa until about 6.30pm. I stopped off on the way to buy a camp bed, but couldn’t find one and so ended up with a £2.50 li-lo from a local Carrefour which would have to do.
On arrival I had to queue for about an hour to get into the paddock, I’m still not sure why this was as when I eventually got to the front of the line I was just waved straight in. So unless everyone knew the security guard from previous trips and were stopping for a quick chat before carrying on I’ve no idea what was going on.
Eventually after a couple of phone calls I found the CSCC area of the paddock, parked up and joined in the free barbecue. After a six hour drive a beer and a burger were exactly what I needed. I’m pretty sure that this is what it’s like in the F1 paddock, lots of sitting around drinking and eating junk food and telling scary stories of what happens if you go too fast into ‘le Radillon’.
A good crowd of Triumph and ex-Triumph racers had turned out. Jon Wolfe, Dave Thompson and Stacky were there in Dave’s new/old TVR Grantura, which is a lovely and lovingly prepared FIA App. K car (so eligible for all sorts of posh stuff like Goodwood and the Le Mans Classic). Mark, Kev and Diane were there with Kev’s TR4. Martyn Adams was there in his TR7 V8 and there were a couple more TR7 V8s being run by a scottish team, including Jon’s old ‘Big Blue’ which is now red. And, of course, Andy and myself in the Spitfire.
We’d elected to pay for an ‘open test’ session the next morning which started at nine. So I set up my tent in a beautiful, secluded copse next to the barbecue and after making sure that I could reach the pedals in Andy’s car I went to bed.
In retrospect and despite warnings, my beautiful campsite was a bit of a pissoir and I was woken a couple of times to the gentle sounds of gentlemen relieving themselves in the bushes near by. Camping next to the barbecue could also have been a mistake as a few elected to stay up talking and laughing well into the wee hours. Still the li-lo was lovely and comfortable and I woke up the next morning feeling refreshed and wide awake, just as you’d expect from a Spa weekend.
We signed on for the test session and Andy took the car out for a rag around, I mean, a few sighting laps. We were still running in a new engine so the rev limiter was carefully set to 7500 rpm (so it should start soft cutting at 7k) and it was around this time that I first noticed how hot it was. It was, we found out later, the hottest day on record for Spa and something like 38 degrees although people were reporting paddock temperatures of 42.
I was just reflecting on this when Andy pulled into the pits and it was my turn to try and learn the circuit. So off I went, out of the pit-lane and, erm, got a bit lost. The pit exit takes a small chicane to the left and joins back on at the top of le Radillon this didn’t look right to my mind, so I kind of skipped that part and just joined straight on. I immediately realised that this was probably the wrong thing to do when a group of marshals started waving and pointing. I gave them a wink and a nod and carried on. Well, the whole point of the session was to learn the circuit and the car, so now I knew a bit more about it 🙂
I’d never driven Spa before and it is, quite simply, breathtaking. There’s lots of elevation changes (hills) and sweeping corners all amongst some stunning forest scenery. In short it’s brilliant and I can’t wait to go back. However, I was gingerly inching round trying to keep out the way of the caterfields and figure out just how different Andy’s car was to mine in terms of that bit where it just lets go and you drive backwards into the armco.
I’d started building up a mental map of where things were when the car seemed to stutter then pick up again. Ok, no worries just a hiccup but then it did it again and again and finally cut out. I rolled to a stop next to a marshals post well off the circuit and began looking at the switches and dials. Had I accidentally flicked something off, did I miss an important temperature/oil pressure warning. I didn’t think so, it felt either electrical or fuel related.
After a couple of minutes I decided I could probably restart the car and limp back to the pits. The marshal was against this idea however and informed me that the session was over now and a snatch vehicle was on it’s way. They towed me back to the pits, where Andy was waiting and we started and drove the car back to the paddock without any problems. Bugger!
The symptoms were apparently the same as Andy had seen when his starter motor came loose, somehow it was shorting out the electrics and causing the car to cut out. So we pulled the bonnet and had a look but everything looked fine. After a bit more rummaging around and tugging on things it transpired that the alternator wiring plug had fallen out, so the car was just running on it’s battery. Normally this would be fine for an hour or so, but with a tiny racing battery it’s not quite got enough gumption to run the coil at high revs. Still, it’s my favorite sort of paddock fix, just plug it back in and ready to race!
Due to the now stifling heat Andy wanted to try and get more air into the front of the car. So the rest of the morning and early afternoon was spent cutting a bigger inlet into the bonnet.
We were entered in two races. The CSCC Swinging Sixties and the Interseries, we both had to qualify for each and decided to simply split the 40 minute sessions in half with Andy taking the first half for the Swinging Sixties and me for the Interseries. I’d told Andy not to rely on me for any pole position laps as I was still learning both the circuit and the car. After a few years off racing and not being one of those natural talents I set myself the target of just making sure each session was quicker and more consistent than the last. I knew it was unlikely I’d beat any times Andy would set so I just concentrated on not crashing and beating my own personal bests.
We both completed the practise session for the Swinging Sixties, Andy setting the quickest time but we were still 12 seconds or so behind the class leader. However, the car was behaving rather oddly. It seemed to be suffering fueling problems as it would drive fine for a bit, then seem to splutter and lose power – usually after a corner – then pick up again. We had no idea what this was and spent a lot of time playing with the tanks/filters/hoses between sessions. I still don’t think we have any idea what this was down to, it may well have just been the heat which was still in the very high 30’s.
For the Interseries I went out first and did my best to set a good time, I assumed I’d been doing pretty well as I was passing slower traffic and keeping up with an historic E-Type. We weren’t taking timings on the pit wall so I really had no idea at this point.
I came in when signalled and Andy took to the track, I saw him go past once but then no more. We waited around until the end of the session but he didn’t get towed back into the pit-lane so I wandered back to the paddock to try and see what had happened. When I got back Andy and the car were both there in one piece and he looked confused, apparently ‘something’ had gone bang in the transmission but he was able to drive back ok. We wondered if it was the gearbox dropping a cog or something, so a few test drives round the paddock were performed, everything seemed ok.
Scratching our heads we jacked the car up and saw this…
A bolt from the quaife LSD had worked itself loose and been fired out through the casing. In fact, on further inspection all the internal bolts had worked loose. I don’t know if this was something that happened on the day or has been like that for a while, we probably never will know either as unless you’re very dedicated it’s unlikely that you pull your diff apart regularly to check the internals.
Still we had a spare (standard) diff and it would be fun to spend the rest of the day under the car, dripping with sweat and oil changing it in the baking sun. So that’s what we did.
Time-wise I was about 10 seconds slower than Andy (ouch) and as he didn’t get a lap in for the Interseries we qualified 63rd out of 65. We were the smallest engined car in the race though and didn’t expect to be right at the top but, yeah, I could have done better there…
After another restful night listening to the quiet countryside noises of drunk people shouting, petrol generators chuggin and of course, gentlemen pissing I was up at 6.30 and wandering around the paddock looking at cars. Some lovely machinery turns up to these international historic events and I thought I’d try and enjoy the sights rather than worry too much about the impending race 🙂
The format of both races was the same; a one hour race with a mandatory pit-stop to take place between 20 and 40 minutes for driver changes and/or refuelling. Single drivers have to get out of the car, close the door and get back in. With this in mind we left all preparations for stopping in the capable hands of Diane Hadfield our ‘team leader’ who was also doing this duty for Mark and Kev and Martyn Adams.
Andy took the start of the Swinging Sixties and was going well although after about 10 minutes he looked to be quite slow on the straight and after about 15 minutes he was in the pits. We ran over to see what was happening and he couldn’t select 4th gear. Thinking it was probably the selector Mark Hadfield and I unbolted the gearbox tunnel whilst Andy tried to cool down a bit, but not for long – as soon as the tunnel was out Andy was leaning into the car unbolting the top of the gearbox and trying to figure out what was wrong.
Eventually, with the lid off we could see the problem. A small ‘noggin’ of metal, that looked like a pin or a rivet was jammed behind the selector forks and preventing them from moving. What could it be, where could it have come from? How can we get it out? Fortunately one of the single seater teams leant us a pair of needlenose pliers and a magnet on a stick with the proviso that ‘the pliers aren’t very grippy’. The non-grip pliers were exactly as advertised and we succeeded in poking the rivety thing deeper into the internals of the ‘box.
Oh well, the selector forks moved so that would have to do. We (mostly) bolted everything back together and sent Andy back out I said “You may as well stay out now” as he left and off he went. Probably 4 or 5 laps down 🙁
Diane however, informed me that as he’d come in before the pit window was open he’d still have to stop, so leaving it until the last possible minute we held out the board and tried to get him to come in. By this time I’d put my helmet on and had to stand in the baking heat fully suited and booted waiting for the driver change. Woosh! went Andy down the straight leaving me stood in a puddle of sweat. And again. Apart from the heat thing, I didn’t mind – I expected him to stay out as it was his car and I’d told him to (also I wasn’t keen on driving a car with a gearbox that might go ‘ping’ at any corner). However, he did come in, we changed drivers and I went out trying my hardest to guess what 60km/h feels like which was the strictly policed pitlane speed limit and very difficult to gauge in the heat of the moment with only a tachometer to go on. Anyway, I got a couple of laps in and took the flag with no further difficulties apart from a brief reappearance of the stuttering issue.
Well whatever, we ended up finishing 5 laps down as expected. But due to retirements and one thing or another we’d somehow ended up 3rd in class.
Kev and Mark were 2nd in theirs and Martyn first in his. So a 1,2,3 for the Triumphs. No trophies for us though, but still, given the difficulties we’d been having all weekend not an entirely awful result to even finish at all. In fact, out of the 300,000 odd Spitfires ever made we were the only one to finish the race that weekend 😉
There was a bit of a break between the end of that race and the Interseries, so it was back to the paddock to bolt the gearbox tunnel back in properly – we figured that it had survived this long with the ‘whateveritwas’ inside it so there was nothing to lose by trying for the next race with it like that.
Sometime around here Hugo from the CSCC came round to tell us that they were expecting rain at 2pm. We looked around, not a cloud in the sky. What bollocks, as if it could rain. Rain _could_ actually help us a little, firstly it’d cool the car down and secondly it narrows the gap between the more powerful monsters and the agile wee Spitfire. I didn’t mind either way but given that I’d been racing in the dry up until now was a little apprehensive viz a viz the whole going backwards into the armco thing.
We changed the tyres anyway, as Andy’s wets were simply new tyres they’d be just as good in the dry as the other set.
After a bit more waiting around I went and lined up at the assembly area, Andy accompanied me with the battery booster just incase I had any problems starting the car. The blue skies had turned black and there were a few spots on my visor, still it didn’t look that bad. Mostly dry. Mosit, perhaps? We got the car going, and Andy was about to set off for the pit-lane. My last words to him were ‘If it starts raining heavily don’t be worried about bringing me in as soon as the pit window opens’ or something to that effect. Suddenly, there was a flash of lightening and the low rumble of distant thunder and the heavens opened.
My favorite memory of the weekend is of a poor grid marshal standing in shorts and t-shirt, absolutely soaked to the skin with a big sad face holding up a sign marked ‘WET RACE’. I remember laughing and thinking ‘no shit!’ as I drove out of the assembly area. The drive to the grid was awful, the rain was monsoon like and bouncing off the road such that I could hardly see the car in front never mind the edges of the track. My visor steamed up, but opening it even slightly gave me the sort of visibility you’d expect with a shower pointed in your eyes. We got there though and there was a long wait whilst they gridded up 60 odd cars, during which, predictably I got thoroughly drenched. Mind you, it was a welcome relief from the heat.
Eventually we were off for two laps behind the safety car. We were so far back I couldn’t see the safety car and just had to keep up with the car infront of me (when I could see it). This wasn’t so bad, but I had no idea at all when the race had started or what was happening. In fact, I considered pulling into the pits and just giving the car back to Andy with a ‘It’s your car, you can start from the pit-lane and wreck it if you want to’. I’m glad I didn’t though, as towards the end of the second rolling lap it began to clear up and somehow the racing had started and even more amazingly I’d made up positions on the start. My guess that the race would start before the cars at the back had even reached the chicane paid off, it was made clear in the briefing that racing starts as soon as the lights go green and not when you cross the start-finish line (always confusing) so off we went. I was finally feeling quite comfortable in the car and confident in it’s handling (the rear CV joint conversion makes such a difference when you ‘lose’ the rear end) and we were racing. I even passed a few things, I had no idea how I was doing generally but I was pretty sure that we weren’t going backwards and I was busy chasing down whatever it was in front of me (could just see the red light really) when the pit board came out and it was time to change drivers.
The change went flawlessly thanks to Diane and Jo (Martyn Adam’s other half) who were on hand to help us with our belts and Andy was gone. Andy seemed to be circulating well and it was reported to me that we were 44th. I thought that’s not bad going from 63rd but I had no idea really how we finished up at the time.
After the race we went to change, cool down, dry off and get a beer. Just as we got back Mark Hadfield came running up shouting ‘Dad’s run out of petrol’ so Diane rushed off to try and help and Andy and myself grabbed a jerry can and began walking it back up the hill. We got about half way up before deciding that if he’d run out of petrol on the hill he could just bloody well roll back down it and went back to continue getting changed.
It turned out that Kev hadn’t in fact run out at all, but was in the winners enclosure as they’d unexpectedly come 3rd overall. Massive trophies, champagne and a chance to stand on the F1 podium. Brilliant.
There was some back of a napkin calculations done and it transpired that Andy and I may well have finished first in class. Neither of us allowed ourselves to believe this and had another beer.
We wandered over to the presentations and amazingly it was true. A class win! Not only that but we had finished 44th, ahead of quite a lot of things including all three TR7 V8’s!! Martyn had won his class albeit behind us and we all got wee trophies and a good excuse to have even more beer and waffles. Another victory for the Triumphs.
No podium for me though, but Andy did manage to sneak on the next day and get his photo taken whilst the FIA race was undeway 🙂 🙂
There’s a saying in motorsport that goes something like ‘in order to finish first you first have to finish’, that about sums up this race. Many cars ditched it in the wet, some pulled out of the race early due to the conditions or just didn’t keep going until the end. Andy’s Spitfire suffered mechanical problems all weekend, but we kept it going round and round and stayed (mostly) on the track. Finally that perseverance paid off and we rightly got proper drunk.
I’m a report behind here as I still have loads of photos and words about the Nurburgring at which I helped Jon and Dave race their GT6. I thought I’d just write this up now, whilst it was fresh in my mind (even so I’ve probably got some of the details wrong).
In the end I was reasonably happy with my performance, I think I got within 4 seconds of Andy’s better times, which is more respectable than the miserable 10 at the beginning of the weekend. I’m sure a few more goes and I could get that down to 2 🙂 I also managed to do what I set out to do which was to not crash and to get quicker as I went along. The trophy was a lovely bonus, but I really need to put some more time behind the wheel before I bring my car out in anger again.
Finally, I’d like to just add a huge thanks to Diane and Jo for looking after us all weekend (and feeding me) and also Diane for letting me use some of her photos for this report.