“I do wish they would plant a few trees” is my predominant thought every time I drive towards the soulless Rockingham grandstand complex. This time was to be no exception and one can only hope that the circuit’s new management team will not only succeed in running a major event here but also make it more attractive to visitors. That said, many of the competitors who actually have use the track seem to like it. The opening round of our nine meeting, fourteen round season was due to take place on April 7, using the 2.0157 mile Long International Sportscar layout for the third time. The coldest March for 50 years had undoubtedly hampered preparation, discouraging those who had to do any work outside and also cutting down chances to go testing. Having said that, it was good to receive a 20 car entry although that was reduced to 19 in the week leading up to race when newcomer Tom Andrew withdrew his interesting 147 Diesel Cup car from Class B. Neil Smith also failed to appear on the day with Emma Karwacki’s Class E 147. This left us with 18 cars to be scrutineered “in situ” , a welcome feature of Rockingham which removes the necessity for everyone to drive through the tunnel from the outer paddock to the scrutineering bay. Visible changes on every car this year are new number panels, large yellow identification numbers on the front screen, leaving the bonnet free for sponsorship possibilities, and LMA decals on each corner as part of a new associate sponsorship deal. LMA’s Stuart Cumming was on hand to watch over his involvement. A novelty (hopefully for once only) was the addition of cars from the Smart “4two Cup that would be starting the race 20 seconds behind the Alfa grid, having already raced with the Euro Saloons.
Leading the Alfa Championship entry was the Lahoma Engineers 33 16v to be driven by Chris Snowdon. Not only did the car have a newly built 2 litre 16v engine but John Sismey had organised a complete respray and new white Lahoma lettering which stood out much more clearly than the old yellow letters it replaced. Very smart – Chris Snowdon himself adding to the effect with a brand new black and green racesuit! The 33 was the only entry in Class A2, while Andy Robinson was the only A1 runner. Roger Evans had completed Andy’s 156 over the winter, using one of his normally aspirated 3.8 litre engines. The shell itself is thought to be one of the cars raced by JSM back in 2000, possibly in the hands of Danny Wright. Unfortunately there had been no chance to go testing beforehand and this was not going to help Andy’s day.
John Griffiths had reverted to Class B with his orange and black 156 after winning A2 last year and faced the familiar Avon Racing 75 3 litre of Robin Eyre-Maunsell. However, creating considerable interest was the GT Diesel of Team 48 to be driven by Darelle Wilson, now painted a not easy to miss apple green. We had seen this car in the final races of 2012 at Donington where it had been a little wayward at times although it had showed some promise in the Sunday race there. Subsequently Darelle had taken it for a development run at Anglesey but since then there had been some serious work to sort out the handling and get it reliable and on the Class pace.
Apart from E, the strongest class was undoubtedly C with Roger Evans out again in his championship winning 147 GTA, joining the 3.2 GTV of Ray Foley and the 3 litre versions of Graham Seager and Vincent Dubois. Graham was using the newly permitted 330mm brake discs from the 3.2 litre cars. We were somewhat surprised to see Vincent’s GTV as we had been expecting his new A1 turbocharged 156 but as this is far from ready, he had decided to rebuild the GTV for the first part of the season. This had been badly damaged when a wheel fell off at Castle Combe last October, pitching him into the barrier, and Keith Waite was describing how much of the front engine compartment and front nearside had had to be replaced in the rebuild.
It was Class E that enjoyed the biggest entry once more, but it was not clear who was going to be setting the pace although heavy bets might have been placed on James Ford with his 156, once again part of the Bianco Auto Developments line-up. The similar cars of Andy Inman (Avon Racing), Chris Healey (Spur) and Tom Herbert (Bianco) were likely to figure strongly in the mix. The popular Luther Blissett was also entered, his 156 having a rebuilt engine after its problems last year. Looking extremely smart in its now very Scottish blue and white livery was the Avon prepared 145 of Dave Peddie. He and Maggie had made their usual long trek down from Aberdeen and were enjoying the appreciation being shown for the new paintwork. A welcome return was that of the ex Tom Allen 146 Ti which has not been seen for the past three years but is now owned by ex motorcycle racer, Matthew Flynn. Although Matthew was new to racing cars, he at least had a car with some pedigree as it had taken a podium finish in Tom’s hands at Rockingham in 2009. Final entry was the ex Paul Plant 147 which was to be raced by known quantity Tim Perry, another part of the Bianco Team which also had the Fiat Abarth Punto amongst their number in the Fiat Invitation class. This particular car was previously raced by Barry McMahon.
As everyone made their way to the assembly area under a blue sky for the mid morning 20 minute qualifying session, it was evident that the Andy Robinson 156 was refusing to start, the engine flooding and wetting the plugs. No amount of pushing around the paddock would get it running and Andy had to accept that maybe the car’s debut was going to be delayed unless preparer Roger Evans or brother Kevin could get it sorted out before the race.
Short and not so sweet could perhaps be the story of qualifying! In the commentary box, David Goddard (a new face to us) and I had just settled down to enjoy the session when Robin Eyre-Maunsell cruised past the main grandstand and pulled off into the pit exit road with what was later diagnosed as clutch failure. A cloud of smoke at the exit of Gracelands then heralded the end of Andy Inman’s day with engine failure, Luther Blissett’s engine then giving way at Yentwood, the green 156 pulling off onto the grass. As if this wasn’t enough, Ray Foley suffered a suspension failure on his GTV. The Safety Car was now on the circuit but there seemed to be a lack of direction about what was going to happen. Some cars pulled into the pits others came onto the grid where a series of hand signals were given from the gentry adding to the confusion. In the end, everyone was taken off the circuit and directed back to the paddock – the timing sheets showing 15 minutes from start to flag although in real terms this had allowed a maximum of just 3 flying laps. Clearly there was not going to be a re-start and so the grid would be set from the 6 minutes competitive running.
On pole would be Chris Snowdon with the only sub 1’50” lap (1’49.524”) as he settled in the 33’s new engine but this was far off his potential pace. By contrast, Chris Healey was up to speed remarkably quickly to join him on the front row with 1’50.381”, which was a second quicker than he had managed throughout the meeting last June and well within touching distance of Neil Smith’s 1’49.961” class lap record! Darelle Wilson’s GT and the 156 of John Griffiths would make up an all Class B second row ahead of the Class E cars of James Ford and Dave Peddie. Roger Evans headed Class C from Ray Foley, while Tom Herbert found himself ahead of Vincent Dubois and Graham Seager. The grid would be made up by Matthew Flynn, Timothy Perry and the Fiat of Stephen O’Brien.
Back in the paddock, it was time to take stock of the mechanical woes that had affected several cars. The engines of Andy Inman and Luther Blissett’s 156’s were beyond repair and the clutch of Robin Eyre-Maunsell’s 75 would also render him a non starter. Andy Robinson’s V6 had started but would not run cleanly and so the car was withdrawn. Replacing the front suspension wishbone of Ray Foley’s GTV was possible however and Roger Evans set to work. There was also the opportunity to talk to several past and present drivers and friends who had come along to watch. Nick Anderson was expecting his A2 33 to be ready for Silverstone and Ron Davidson was also hoping to race this year now that the championship had settled on continuing with the Toyo R888 as its control tyre once again and he didn’t have to go out and buy something different. Other visitors were past Class F racer Phil Snelling, Richard Melvin who was updating on progress with the ex Peter Hilliard Alfetta GTV that he hopes to race with us in ‘pre 91 in 2014 and Nick Sismey , complete with grandson, being asked if he fancied having another go in the Lahoma 33 that he raced back in the ‘90s. The answer was a firm “no”! Mel Freeman (Healey that was) was telling us that she is planning her return to racing at Silverstone with the family 156 in May.
A visit by Championship Co-ordinator, Graham Heels, to race control produced apologies for the chaos that had accompanied the early end to our qualifying session but also the offer of an extra 5 minutes added to the race length. This was accepted, although a quick check had to be made on everyone’s fuel tank capacities. 14 Alfas and 9 Smart cars made up the final field, drivers of the latter having been given some firm instructions about observing blue flags when they were caught mid race. Chris Snowdon was taking no risks with the 33’s transmission as the red lights went out but still eased himself into the lead as the field sped off the oval towards the Dene Hairpin. There was the usual jumble at what is a tight corner. After some heavy braking everyone seemed to survive with Chris leading by 1.5” from Darelle Wilson, John Griffiths and Roger Evans, this being the order as they crossed the line at the end of the first lap. Chris Healey had maintained his class E lead but Dave Peddie had enjoyed a splendd first lap and was ahead of James Ford with Graham Seager, Vincent Dubois, Ray Foley, Tom Herbert (at this stage 5” down already on Chris Healey), Matthew Flynn, Tim Perry and Stephen O’Brien.
We had expected Chris Snowdon to pull away but Darelle Wilson was intent on mounting a challenge and had cut the gap to 1.223” at the end of lap 2, pulling away slightly from John Griffiths and Roger Evans. Graham Seager had rushed up to 5th, sandwiching Chris Healey between himself and Vincent Dubois who now had Ray Foley on his tail. Dave Peddie had stayed ahead of James Ford but Tom Herbert was now getting into his stride, taking Matthew Flynn and Tim Perry with him. However, laps 3 and 4 brought some changes as Vincent Dubois got by Chris Healey and then ran wide onto the grass at the Brooke Chicane, letting the black and pink 156 past again but disturbing his concentration. James Ford and Tom Herbert had now passed Dave Peddie and had Chris Healey well in their sights just 3” up the road.
By the end of lap 6, Chris Snowdon had eked out a 3.5” lead over Darelle Wilson, the Diesel GT looking superb but now menaced by Roger Evans, the 147 GTA having passed John Griffiths 156. Only 1.3” covered the 2nd, 3rd and 4th placed cars and there were places on the circuit was each one had one its own small advantage – braking, handling, outright speed on the oval. Vincent Dubois had another off on lap 7, half distance, and just ahead of Chris Healey who was delayed enough to be passed by the flying Tom Herbert who quickly set two laps in the 1’49s to draw away. With 9 laps run, Darelle Wilson had pegged Chris Snowdon’s lead to 3.15”, taking Roger Evans and John Griffiths along with him. Graham Seager was breifly in the middle of a group of Smart Cars, lying 5th, but was being chased hard by Ray Foley, now only 2” behind. Tom Herbert had quickly built himself a 4” advantage over Chris Healey in E with James Ford now challenging strongly for 2nd in E although it was interesting to note that at this stage Tim Perry was actually going quicker in 4th place having pulled well away from Matthew Flynn. Dave Peddie had unfortunately lost his exhaust and pulled off “before I was black flagged!”.
The last third of the race saw a really entertaining battle going on some 5” behind Chris Snowdon between Darelle Wilson, Roger Evans and John Griffiths. On several laps John tried to draw alongside Roger as they passed the pits but the outright speed of the 147 gave him no chance to pass although he never gave up under braking for the Dene Hairpin. Then again, Roger had his eyes firmly fixed on the back of the green GT. As hard as he tried, he couldn’t make a pass stick and then on the final lap he tried again on the far side of the circuit, but he was going a little too fast, understeer took a hand and he kicked up the dust off track – “well I had to try didn’t I!” he said afterwards. The only trouble was that a delighted John Griffiths saw a gap and took over the final podium place. A kerfuffle of Smart Cars at the Brooke Chicane delayed Graham Seager slightly and this allowed Ray Foley to close up but not ultimately to take away 2nd in class.
The final finishing order of the top six was therefore – Chris Snowdon, Darelle Wilson, John Griffiths, Roger Evans, Graham Seager and Ray Foley. A surprised but very happy Tom Herbert brought his 156 home to take a maiden class win, 3.2” clear of James Ford who was pushing hard at the end. Tom also took at new lap record in 1’49.533”. An excellent 3rd in E, after passing Chris Healey on the final lap after Chris made an error at Kirby, was Tim Perry who, along with James Ford, had also gone sub lap record in his 147, boding well for the future as he gets more used to the car. Vincent Dubois ended 4th in C while Chris Healey was a disappointed 4th in E, ahead of Matthew Flynn, thinking that he only had himself to blame in the end.
The verdict afterwards was that it had been an entertaining race. I thanked Chris Snowdon for not rushing off into the distance, to which he replied “I couldn’t have gone any faster – its so hard round the slower corners!” and he certainly looked a little worn out. However, it did also put into perspective the performances of those who were chasing him. Roger Evans, though, reckoned it one of his most enjoyable ever races. Before the start we wouldn’t have been putting our money on Tom Herbert for E perhaps but it was interesting to hear Chris Healey comment that he thought Tom had calmed down a lot and was gaining by not trying to slide the car around as he had at Brands and Donington last year.
We were pleased to welcome Jeremy Wales from Alfashop, now in their eighth season as our much valued sponsors, and Dominic Ostrowski (BRSCC) to present the trophies, including once again those made by Micky Bolton. The big Lahoma representation, led by John and Margaret Sismey were vocal in their support for Chris Snowdon, as were the Bianco “crowd” to celebrate their Class E 1-2-3, Tom Herbert, James Ford, Tim Perry. The MMC Motorsport Insurance Driver of the Day Award went to Tom Herbert.
From Rockingham, we move to the Silverstone National circuit over the weekend May 11/12. We hope that all the “promised” cars will be there and we have some more surprises in store on the track to keep us well entertained.