Club column: Marcus Pye
While the Birkett Relay is a source of constant fascination, perhaps it’s time to consider targeting lapsed competitors in more-venerable machinery
“THE BIRKETT WITHOUT THE HART ATTACKS TEAM IS LIKE CHRISTMAS WITHOUT A TREE”
Among the fascinations of the 750 Motor Club’s Birkett Six Hour Relay race, first run at Silverstone in August 1951, is its constant propensity to surprise. In this year’s 68th edition – there were two in 2000 – competitors from 66 teams faced the challenge of Formula 1’s British Grand Prix circuit, with the 90-degree exit from Vale, instead of the Historic version of recent seasons. Cue recalculations in the handicapping office, for all ostensibly start with an equal opportunity of landing the coveted prize, and some cars brake and corner better than others.
The great diversity that was the norm a decade ago, when Austin Sevens from the club’s roots, chain-driven Frazer Nashes and Formula 750 cars squared up to AC Cobras, a Porsche 935 clone or two and hordes of marque teams, was on the slide from the moment the race switched from the International track to the 3.66-mile layout. While agile high-downforce Suzuki Hayabusa-engined Radical SR3S, turbocharged Subaru-powered Sakers and potent bewinged TCR SEATS traverse the Becketts flick-flack with relish, and meaty BMW E46 M3s enjoy the blast to Stowe, sustained high revs on the long Hangar Straight can finish off elderly rolling stock.
As I drove over the infield bridge on Saturday, two long lines of cars to my right were undergoing noise testing and preparing to join the Wellington Straight for the opening practice session. It struck me that they were facing the opposite way to those who raced on the monster runway that linked Stowe and Copse corners on the track used in 1951. So coming face to face with Steve Allen’s 1928 Bentley 4½-litre special – David Turner’s mount in the winning VSCC team that day – outside race control in the paddock was a joy.
The current race is not short of variety, as Austin A30 to Dodge Dart and Citroen C1 to Ariel Atom attested in mixed equipes. The Caterham hordes of previous years had noticeably retreated, with Honda Civic Type Rs and BMWS in the ascendant, but two teams of VW Fun Cup cars joined the miscellany for the first time. Accustomed to jostling round Spa for 25 hours at the pinnacle of their endurance programmes, the Audi-engined tubeframe Beetle clones should find six a veritable breeze.
A tour of the pits revealed some eager newbies amid veterans for whom the Birkett remains the season’s‘must-do’(and in some cases only) event. Ex-formula 3000 ace and 1990 Fford Festival winner Dave Coyne was looking forward to exercising Chris Compton-goddard’s newly imported Ferrari 430, the talented Abbie Eaton – a race leader at July’s Silverstone Classic in dad Paul’s gruff Holden Commodore – saddled a BMW M3, and teenager Max Lynn (younger brother of Aston Martin WEC racer Alex) was Caterham 7-mounted, following the lead of Historic ace father Shaun who cut his racing teeth in them.
Sadly there was only one Clubmans squad, and even The Defibrillators was forced to diversify into Radical territory to ‘neutralise’their handicap in the almost unthinkable absence of Chris Hart’s rival Hart Attacks. The Birkett without the Hart Attacks – to which the late Justin Foley and I were co-opted at a very wet Snetterton in the 1990s, and helped secure the scratch win – is like Christmas without a tree, although the front-engined sports-racers’small fuel tankage is a major (undercompensated?) handicap when some of the quickest machines can run way over an hour flat-out.
The race’s inter-services element has grown over the past decade or so. Four competed this year: the Armed Forces Race Challenge team of Mark Inman (Vauxhall VX220), Stan Palmer (Honda Civic Type R), Trevor Hancock (Peugeot 206 GTI) and Martyn Hathaway (Mini Cooper S) finished seventh on handicap, prevailing over three-time winners and reigning champion RAFMSA, which wound up 15th in the Royal Air Force’s centenary. Royal Navy Royal Marines and Army Sports Car Racing will surely up their games in 2019.
As more sophisticated cars have joined in, many team sizes have shrunk from six drivers to three or four because owners want more track time or to maximise stints. Of course this can bite them through mechanical drama or incident, the avoidance of which demands seamless concentration in constant traffic and changing weather conditions like Saturday’s. But it was good to see the Red Rascal squad winning the blue-riband handicap prize with a fleet of three BMW E46 M3s each shared by two drivers in the spirit of the competition. And the Cupra Racing boys piloted their front-wheel-drive TCR SEATS brilliantly to pip the top Radical team to scratch gold in a photo finish.
Perhaps the 750MC’S 80th Anniversary could be celebrated with two Birkett Relays at Silverstone next year… Rather than weed out the fastest cars (and risk alienating repeat customers already looking to 2019), how about a second one on the National Circuit, targeting the type of cars that competed in the races of yore – at circuits as far afield as Thruxton and Donington – re-engaging lapsed competitors who might return given smaller speed differentials? Just a thought from a fan.