|Donington Park 21st May 2011|
Round 2 of a very interesting calendar led the 500s to Donington Park for the first time in some eight years. It was our invitation to join the Vintage Sports Car Club’s showpiece SEE RED meeting, and the first of three runs with the VSCC boys this season. Quite why we haven’t visited in so long is something of a mystery, but the chance to try the revised circuit combined with the ever-popular VSCC billing brought forth a superb entry of twenty-seven cars. Several regulars (most obviously Mike Fowler, Darrell Woods and Paul Hewes) were missing, and both Richard Utley and Kerry Horan failed to appear (the Trenberth had lunched its clutch on the Friday), but that still left twenty-three 500s and a pair of invitation cars presented for scrutineering.
What made a pleasant diversion was the number of cars out that weren’t late-model Coopers. Rodney Delves (Kieft), David Lecoq (Petty) and Mark Palmer (Wishart) were all opening their season. Duncan Rabagliati put in an appearance with the Trimax, still seeking reliability. And faces from Round 1 were back – Vernon Williamson and rookie Xavier Kingsland. There were two other most welcome returnees. John Turner, deferring retirement for yet another year (the half century of 500s is almost in sight) rolled up with chief mechanic Andrew and promising several more appearances this year. And Simon Frost was back behind the wheel of a 500 for the first time, volunteered John Chisholm’s Arnott. The entry was completed by of Invitation cars. With no VSCC Cadwell meeting, Frederick Harper made his annual circuit appearance in the Cooper Mk IV Twin, whilst Sean Mooney brought out his Vixen Triumph Formula 4 car. Potentially much faster than the 500s, Sean was treating it as a trackday and would try to keep out of other’s way (in actuality, an unidentifiable brake fluid leak got more of his attention).
All twenty five cars rolled into Assembly for a late-morning practice. The weather was warm and sunny, although with rather a strong, persistent breeze. A late decision to move Assembly up to the ‘Nuvolari Leap’ at the top of the hill of the unused Melbourne Loop was eventually appreciated by the mechanics and pushers, once they had dragged their equipment up the hill. They would at least have a wide, clear and most importantly flat pushing area, and found a useful shortcut to pit wall and viewing area. A good idea to remember for next time.
Most cars completed practice with little issue, although there was a steady trickle of cars into pit lane. Several were blowing away the cobwebs, and the rest looking to relearn the circuit after such a long absence. Shirley Monro blotted her copybook with a spin into the gravel at Redgate. Duncan and Richard Bishop-Miller (still in the Cooper) were soon in – back in the Paddock Richard found the fatal shrapnel in the inlet port and set about an engine change. Frederick Harper was running well (and sounding very crisp at speed), but parked with a broken throttle cable. Rodney beached at the chicane.
Pole would go to Richard Ellingworth in the Kieft, and almost inevitably Nigel Ashman would be alongside. But Nigel’s run had been far from simple. His Norton was down on power, realised when the JAP cars of Neil Hodges and George Shackleton pulled away on the straights (now he knows how it feels). Pitting to save the motor, it quickly became clear that one of the fuel feed pipes had detached. Back on, he got just one lap in before the chequered flag. Star of practice, though, was John Jones, dragging the Cousy round for a superb 3rd. Whilst most were surprised, it says much for JBs progress that no-one was joking about VSCC timing gear this time.
Last man back to Paddock was Neil Hodges, sans rear-left wheel. After a quite subdued session (only tenth fastest), a hub failure at the fast Redgate had resulted in a slide into the gravel. He had convinced the marshals to search for all the brake components ripped off and by coincidence team Turner had some replacement hubs on the trailer. On closer inspection though, the rarer backing plate was cracked. Also out was Vernon, the slow pace traced to rapidly worsening compression.
So twenty three cars turn out for the race, though sadly that was quickly reduced by one. On the way to Assembly, Simon spotted a small leak from the Arnott’s fuel tank. Unfortunately, so did a marshal. Only the Trimax was reluctant to depart, but a controlled parade lap by Richard meant everyone arrived through the chicane in tight platoon formation. What followed was a classic 500 start (the VSCC starter working on the “I’ve got enough of them in position, let’s go” principle) which caught out several irregular racers. Nigel mugged Richard to lead at the first corner, followed by JB, George, Gordon and Frederick. John Turner was taken by several cars (but quickly recovered through the back section), David Lecoq similarly dropped many positions, and poor David Woodhouse dropped like a stone (and was most surprised to learn later that this was generally considered a well-executed start!).
First time through, Nigel was trying to make a break for freedom. His lead over the line was about one second from Richard. George had forced his way to lead the peloton down Starkey’s straight, but left his braking too late for the chicane. He almost lost it and John Turner had a nose ahead at the line. George was a sitting duck down the straight for first Frederick with the Twin, then Gordon Russell in the Mackson. Frederick’s early Cooper was running better than we have ever seen, and certainly benefiting from two long straights to open up.
Nigel Challis would also benefit from George’s slip-up, and would move up to 6th on the second lap. The man to lose out most though was John Jones. In avoidance of George he almost came to a standstill and was passed repeatedly. It would be a frustrating day for JB as he was progressively overtaken by David Lecoq, then Roy, then Rodney – each manoeuvre costing him momentum and dropping him back to the next man. Out before the end of the first lap was Duncan, parking the Trimax at McLeans with no power for an uncertain reason. Hopefully it was the carburettor failing first, before the fractured oil feed pipe could seize the motor.
Unsurprisingly, Nigel and Richard began to drop the rest of the field. Richard took a lap to settle properly, closing in on the third lap, and passing early into lap 4 of 5 (one of the few disappointments of the meeting was the shortness of the race, the winner coming home in barely 8 minutes). It sounds simple, but both drove hard and fair. Nigel could hang onto the tail of the Parker-Kieft, but didn’t have the reserve (or a mistake from Richard) to mount an attack. Third place went to John in the Cooper. Once clear of the opening lap melee he was clearly enjoying himself (using the traditional technique of one hand on the wheel and one out the cockpit to good effect) and was in fact closing on the leaders.
Completing the top 5 were Frederick and Gordon. Gordon drove hard to catch the Twin, with half an eye on the yellow Cooper ahead, but found Frederick would blast away on the two long straights. He would catch up again through the twistier back reaches, only to be blown away on the return. After a couple of laps, and knowing he was clear of chasers, he resigned himself to the position.
The battle for sixth was where most excitement lay. Nigel Challis gained that place after the first lap, but George, David Lecoq, Roy and Rodney all wanted a run at it. Rodney had a poor start and was well out of the top ten after one lap. By lap 2 he was past Roy for tenth place and moving in on JB’s Cousy. Third time around, he had jumped up to seventh place, disposing of JB, George and David (who at least managed to pass George along the way and hold eighth).
Rodney closed right onto Nigel (in the later model) and put on a fine display. It took most of the fourth lap to get onto the tail of the Cooper and they started the final lap nose to tail. The ‘move’ was going to come, the only question being where. The first try wasn’t on, but through Schwantz & McLeans he got right onto his tail. Rodney dived for the inside of Coppice, but Nigel closed the door. The gap closed and Rodney span out. Officially listed as retired, he did fire the Kieft back up and drove home past the prize giving for an unofficial 19th. A little frustrated with no result, this was a very good drive and we want to see more of the yellow car being controlled like that.
Nigel came home sixth, and David (his first actual race for over a year) picked up the pieces for seventh. Roy got the better of George and they finished 8th and 9th. Out of nowhere popped Martin Sheppard for tenth, mugging JB. If that sounds like a boring run, bear in mind that the splits between cars from sixth to eleventh were all below two seconds at the line. There may not have been so many overtakes, but all of them were attacking or defending for most of the race.
All alone was David Woodhouse in twelfth, never quite recovering from the start. Now alert to the start chaos, let’s see what the ex-Bueb Mk IX can really do. This wasn’t the end of the race, as there were several more cars to arrive. Shirley led a race-long, four-way battle for the minor placings. Continuing on her Portimao form, and with a reliable JAP motor again, Shirley got a cracking start to recover the track position lost to her shortened qualifying, and even briefly passing David Woodhouse. Chasing her all the way was David Whiteside, another benefiting from a run of reliability to focus on actually driving once more. Hot on their heels was Mike Bell. He was passed after a couple of laps by rookie Xavier. At the finish David closed right on Shirley, losing out by just half a second and perhaps rueing the shortness of the race. Again, whilst there may have been only one change of position, this battle for what was ultimately 13th place was just as good as the leaders, and on it’s own would have justified this being called a good race (if the description isn’t good enough, blame the reporter, who was struggling to keep tabs on so many cars and battles). Shadowing this group by just a couple of seconds, but not quite able to get on terms, was Mark Palmer.
The final group (there’s more?) comprised David Stevenson and Richard Bishop-Miller. Sean Mooney’s Vixen shadowed them whilst trying to keep out of the way, but was sidelined on lap 2. Richard latched onto David’s later car, the latter showing the signature barbecue smell of a burnt clutch that capitulated on the last tour.
So eighteen cars finished, and notably every single one was in good health all the way to the flag (only a couple of Goodwoods back, that would be considered an impressive finishing record). Unsurprisingly with two victories, Richard Ellingworth leads the championship with Nigel Ashman chasing. We have had forty six appearances from 32 drivers in just two events, which must be the best start to a season ever. As with last year’s Gold Cup race, it was great to see some faces that have been missing for a while back in the Paddock and mixing it with the newer breed.