Monday, 2 June 2014

Number 4 - Castle Combe

A leisurely start for this visit as staying just a few miles away and decided to give morning practice a miss. Still a bit chilly but at least it is dry as I drive into a surprisingly quiet, I thought, Castle Combe. Managed to park close to Camp Corner and wandered into the paddock where there was a definite lack of entries - for the first time that I have been there - and my experience only stretches as far back as 3 years, the overflow paddock was not being used for competitors but as a public car park, which explained why I had seen an unfamiliar direction sign pointing to Chippenham Road parking.

The programme included the usual Castle Combe Championships, of which more later, while the visiting championships were for the Nippon Challenge / Tricolore Trophy and the Toyota MR2 / Hyundai Coupes.

As I said above I first visited Castle Combe 3 years ago as it seemed quite a long way from Bedford, though the reports about it were always very enthusiastic.I wish I had seen it before the chicanes were put in mind you as it must have been quite a sight to see the cars barrelling down to Old Paddock or Camp Corner at full speed. As far as distance - well it is actually less than 100 miles, closer than Shelsley Walsh to which I regularly travel, and although the roads are cross-country I have usually found them to be quite quiet early on a Sunday morning or late on a Sunday evening. I have now found a friend who lives close to stay with and so that certainly cuts down the feeling of distance.

It is a great viewing circuit although obviously there are high fences at certain points - which were well needed when a Toyota barrel rolled at Camp this year - and it is possible to get close to the track and get some good photographic viewing points. While it is relatively flat, the land in the middle of the circuit is a slight rise and so you cannot really see right across to the other side, and when the crops are in even the tops of helmets are hidden.

It is a good circuit for close racing between closely matched cars as an element of slip-streaming is possible and there are 3 or 4 overtaking opportunities so the local Formula Ford, for example, usually provides a good scrap.

As I wandered round the paddock there was a good selection of cars from the guest categories - here are a couple of shining Hyundais - of Adam Shale (66) and Paul Manyweathers (10):

and here are a couple of the front running Japanese cars - Nick Holden's 5.0 litre Toyota GT86 and Adam Lockwood's very quick Nissan 200SX:

One good thing about Combe is the ability to get into the assembly area and take pictures of the cars / drivers preparing to take to the track. The freedom to walk around the paddock has always been one of the attractions and this year when I arrived and wandered in at lunchtime I had no problems - however later in the afternoon - about 3 pm I was stopped and asked for my paddock pass - apparently I should have had one before but it was never mentioned at the gate when I drove in and I had wandered in easily enough earlier. As I had never needed a paddock pass at CC before I wondered if this was somebody trying it on and so I wandered along the track past the startline / pits to watch a race from there before entering the paddock through the car park with no sign of anybody wanting a pass to be shown.

I was now a bit paranoid but on wandering around I did notice a few people with passes on and so obviously I should have had one earlier or been stopped. I must admit I would actually have had no idea where to buy one from if I had wanted to anyway!!

Castle Combe has always had a set of thriving local Championships. Being a bit out on a limb geographically it has a wide hinterland which sees the circuit as its local one and so the fields are often large and varied, none more so than the saloon car championship. An excellent field of 34 cars formed up on the grid for what turned out to be a thrilling battle at the head of the field between 3 turbo-charged cars - a SEAT Leon, a Vauxhall Astra and an Audi TT:

With such a diverse range of cars - lap times varied from 1min 16 secs to 1 min 34 secs - there would always be lappery in a 20 minute race and interaction with one or other of the leaders spread them out or squeezed them up until inevitably, perhaps, one went off and eventually Gary Prebble in his first drive in Rob Ballard's SEAT (left in the picture above) won the day from Tony Hutchings' Audi TT (number 33 above and below).

So all well and good on the Saloons front, and the Formula Fords had their usual fraught battle, though a smaller number of starters than previous years I think, but the Sports / GT / Sports Racing Cars were a shadow of their former self.

Much more so than with the saloons, lappery has always played a major part in these races with sometimes a much higher speed differential between the front runners such as Simon Tilling's Radical which was down in the 61 secs mark I believe last year and some much slower saloon based entries. So this year the entry has been split into 2 races - one for the out and out sports racers an one for the others - the result has been 2 small fields - in May there were 7 Sports Racers and 12 Sports / GT.

Regular readers will know my passion for sports racers by now and so it was great to see Simon Tilling out in a new Ligier - with a turbocharged Honda engine:

As he had qualified 3.4 seconds faster than anybody else there was obviously only going to be one winner and he duly did so, easing off by half a minute. All 7 cars finished but the last was 3 laps behind and the only really close gap was 2.3 seconds at the end between a Nemesis and a Radical.

In the Sports GT field, practice times indicated a closer race with just 0.7 secs in qualifying between Simon Norris' Mitsubishi Evo and Chris Milner's Caterham CSR. And this was a better race with a number of 2 / 3 car scraps down through a field of variety ranging from the above 2 to a Ford Fiesta ST and a VW Golf VR6. In the end Norris held on to win by 2.3 seconds from Keith Dunn's Caterham (below)

So the question to be asked is - should the fields be merged again. At the May Bank Holiday meeting the entry numbers were 8 Sports Racers and 11 Sports GT - together they would make a decent size race - only 4 Sports Racers finished in fact in their race.

The lap times varied between 1 min 07 secs and 1 min 21 secs on that occasion (and between 1min 04 and 1 min 22 secs when  was there) and so the speed differential is no greater than in the Saloon Championships, though at a higher absolute speed. I am presuming that the format will remain for the rest of 2014 but maybe a re-think is necessary before next year?

So that was the end of my triple header Bank Holiday - a varied selection of the good and not quite as good in British motor racing  and it was time to head the Suzuki in the direction of home and my own bed. Next on the calendar was to be Brands Hatch - and a step up in prestige for the Blancpain Sprint GT Championships - 18 years since top-flight International Sports / GTs had graced the circuit - would it be as good as the days of McLaren F1s and Porsche GT1s? -  we would soon find out.

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