Castle Combe Autumn Classic
Photos by Dave Brassington (For hi resolution copies click here)
Walker and Griffiths take GT & Sports Car Cup race honours at Castle Combe
Words : Race report by Marcus Pye
Lithe sports racing cars had the upper hand in the GT & Sports Car Cup at the Castle Combe Autumn Classic. Opened in 1950 and lightly revised with a pair of deviations in ’99, the challenging 1.85-mile former airfield perimeter circuit was new to many competitors, including eventual winner Philip Walker and his orange Lotus 15’s co-driver Miles Griffiths.
The pair were kept on their toes by eventual runner-up Ben Adams, on an impressive GTSCC debut in the Lola Mk1 raced at the venue in period by Dickie Le Strange Metcalfe, who together with local ace Mark Williams (Cobra) engaged Walker in a thrilling early battle for the lead. Both Williams and fellow ‘snake charmers’ Chris Wilson/Nigel Williams encountered ignition problems, but that did not diminish their furious scrap for Pre-’66 GT honours, resolved in soloist Mark’s favour.
Now in its sixth year, the Autumn Classic is a wonderfully sociable meeting attracting a huge turnout of spectators, hundreds of whom arrived in classic cars. Friends who came to enjoy the fun, and convivial hospitality in The Stratford Centre included big Healey king John Chatham, fellow Bristolian Ted Williams (Mark’s father, a Combe racer since ’64) and Bill and Caroline Bridges, fresh from Bill’s return to the cockpit of his ‘Hairy Canary’ Cobra at Goodwood.
“Castle Combe is not a big international venue, but the Autumn Classic is a super event which the GTSCC was pleased to support. We could not have been made more welcome and, judging by feedback we have received, put on a great show. This was club racing at its very best, a relaxing day’s motor sport close to home for most competitors before our 11th seasonal finale in Portugal,” said series organiser Vanessa Marcais.
On what was a pretty soggy, but mercifully not cold, Saturday morning were the GTSCC boys and girls on the 39-strong entry deterred by a slug of rain? Not at all, indeed the half-hour session was incredibly competitive as drivers acquainted themselves with the high-speed track. At one point the top four were blanketed by 0.8s on an improving surface.
Nigel Greensall – whose staggering pre-chicane outright lap record of 50.59s (130.93 mph) set in a 3.5-litre F1 Tyrrell 022 in 1997 will stand in perpetuity – finally nabbed pole position in Chris Milner’s GT3-spec Jaguar E-type. His 1m32.323s (72.13mph) best was an unrepresentative 1.806s quicker than Griffiths’ 1:34.129 in Walker’s Steve Slyfield-prepared two-litre Coventry-Climax FPF-engined Lotus, repatriated after decades in the US and winner of last year’s Algarve Classic Festival sports racing enduro in the pair’s hands.
Five teams were in the ‘34s,’ Keith Ahlers/Billy Bellinger (Morgan Plus 4SLR), Martin Hunt/Patrick Blakeney-Edwards’ GT4-leading Jaguar E-type, Martyn Corfield/Jeremy Welch (Austin-Healey 3000) and local invitees John Watson/Nelson Rowe (Lotus Elan ‘26R’) underlining the diversity and competitive nature of the photogenic field. Wotton-under-Edge equine vet Rowe – a karting star and Caterham Eurocup champion in his youth, now with Historic Formula Ford and FF2000 titles under his belt – set the Elan’s time.
Adams lined-up seventh in the tiny black Lola, powered by a zippy 1216cc Climax FWE single-cammer, sharing row four of the grid with Mark Williams, whose Cobra coupe looked a real handful in the wet. “The engine wouldn’t start in the workshop last night, so we concentrated on getting it going and left the suspension settings, which were hard as rock,” he explained. Lotus Elite duo Marc Gordon/Nick Finburgh revelled in the rain, qualifying a superb ninth, with 19-year-old Theo Hunt and Mike Grant Peterkin (A-H 3000) for company and the US-supplied Elan 26R of Mark Martin also in the ‘37s.’
Chris Wilson’s hard-topped Cobra, shared with former Alfa Romeo TZ and HGPCA racer Nigel Williams, completed the top 12, ahead of Crispin Harris/James Wilmots (A-H 3000) and the ever-rapid BMC-engined TVR Grantura of GT2 standard-bearers Malcolm Paul/Rick Bourne on 1:39.912. They were only six tenths quicker than the sister car of Joe Ward/Hugh Colman, the ‘Grannies’ split by the GT3 E-type FHC of Steve Skipworth/Jim Dean, with the Porsche 911s of Peter Tognola/Steve Monk and Steve Jones/Robert Barrie, 0.126s apart. Five cars spanned the mid-field mark, the E-types of Harry Wyndham/Andrew Hill (Harry’s rorty pale blue FHC) and Jamie Boot and preparer Mike Wilkinson interspersed in the ‘41s’ by the Healeys of Andrew Hayden/Michael Gibbered, Dutchman Karsten Le Blanc (the ex-Ecurie Chiltern Le Mans car DD300) and popular local throttle-jockeys Chris ‘Lord Borneo’ Clarkson/David ‘Meerkat’ Smithies.
Nick Sleep/Stuart Lawson (Shelby Mustang GT350) were next up, ahead of Alex Montgomery/Tim Reid in the quickest MGB, Mark Pangborn/Harvey Woods (A-H 3000), Mark Midgley/Robert Rawe (Lotus Elan 26R Shapecraft coupe) and the Porsche 911s of Steve Winter/Graeme Langford and Anthony Galliers-Pratt who had drafted seasoned Jaguar tamer Ben Cussons in as co-driver. Phil Hooper/Ralf Emmerling (TVR Grantura) and Scots Laurence and Tim Jacobsen (MGB) had the rorty Sunbeam Tiger of Neil Merry/Paul Clayson and Simon Drabble’s straight-six Ford-engined Reliant Sabre Six for company, both towering over the 1460cc Lotus 11 streamliner of Rick Haythornthwaite/Andy Keith-Lucas.
Spectators from just over the Severn bridge into Wales had Bob Binfield’s dragon-badged Gilbern GT (built at Llantwit Fadre, near Pontypridd) to cheer on. The BMC B-series coupe out-qualified the GT3 Jaguar E-type FHC of John Clark – looking forward to his first pukka race at Castle Combe, he thought, since the BMW County Challenge in ’81, although it was a stage on tour Britannia which he won with his now wife E-J in a Porsche Carrera RS in 2011 – and “privileged” Croft instructor Colin Elstrop, stranded on track when its battery went flat. Tony Worthington/Simon Drinkall (A-H 3000) and the MGB of Beverley and Chris Phillips also qualified, but Simon Orebi Gann/Mike Bell didn’t get a flying lap between them aboard the former’s ex Gordon Spice Morgan Plus 4 SLR. Following “a mega blow-up at Spa” and a remarkable 10-day engine rebuild, an electrical connector came adrift on Simon’s out lap. Alas the fix didn’t hold for Mike, but they sorted it for the race, which Bell would start.
The circuit was dry for our one hour race, highlight of a splendid afternoon’s sport for the sizeable crowd. Walker shot his lightweight orange Lotus into the lead at the start, with the white Jags of Milner and Hunt in pursuit, having outraged Bellinger’s shapely Morgan. Now with a perfect set-up for the conditions, Mark Williams thundered his Cobra past three cars at the lights to go fifth, then out-grunted the ‘Moggie’ on the opening lap, at the end of which Adams was sixth, with Wilson, Watson, Corfield and Bourne in his mirrors. Third on lap two, with Adams now into his stride and haring after him, Williams towed the sleek Lola past Milner next time round, trimming 1.2 seconds from Walker’s advantage. By lap six the top three were together, Williams menacing the leading Lotus with Adams attacking furiously in the corners where his diminutive ‘roller skate’ was in its element.
Williams got a run on Walker exiting Camp corner and blasted ahead through the right-handed Folly kink going onto lap seven and Adams also dived past the Lotus as they negotiated traffic. Ben appeared ahead on the subsequent lap, with Philip a second adrift in his wake and Wilson’s Cobra – which having scrambled from 12th to eighth on the opening tour gobbled up a car per lap over the next three – looked in fine fettle in third place as the new GT4 leader.
Williams’ dark blue Cobra coupe came through fourth, minus its right headlight [later returned, undamaged, by marshals] after a moment at The Esses. While Mark didn’t mention a pale blue Healey, Theo Hunt’s spun there at a similar juncture, but resumed unharmed. First retirement was Le Blanc when DD300’s battery went down on lap 11. The Elstrop/Clark Jaguar joined them on the sidelines, John switching off rather than risk its engine, which Colin reported was pinking at the handover. Adams continued to scorch away from Walker towards mid-distance, enjoying an 8.2 second buffer before his rival halved the gap, his torquier engine handier during lappery. The pit window opened at 16 laps, and with owners having to complete a minimum of 50% of the race and soloists obliged to be stationary for a minimum of a minute, Walker was comfortable in the knowledge that he could relay Griffiths straight back into the fray while their rival was held.
The Rofgo team called Adams in at 20 laps, three earlier than Walker stopped for Mick Mobberley to oversee the installation of Miles. He was back on his way within 54 seconds, gaining almost 35 seconds on Ben, which effectively decided the race. “Philip did the hard work. My job was to keep the car running, not make any mistakes and bring it home. It ran faultlessly,” said the rapid Griffiths who, with fuel load diminishing, set the race’s fastest lap on his first flier. He duly took the chequered flag 53 seconds before SP1 class victor Adams, whose only problem was smoky rear brakes which he initially feared was bodywork touching a tyre.
The struggle for third see-sawed in the later stages, Wilson and Williams having stopped 8.3 second apart after 27 laps. Again the sole driver penalty was a consideration. The unrelated Nigel Williams was back on track in Wilson’s car in a tad over 63 seconds, 27.5s before his namesake, whose engine was already down on power, its ignition timing having slipped. Mark, for all that, was able to lap competitively straight away while his rival was finding his feet in very different conditions to the morning’s. In 10 laps the Cobras were back together, but disappointingly for spectators Nigel’s began to slow dramatically, also with electrical problems. He nursed it home sixth, leaving Mark unchallenged in a class-winning third.
Fourth was hotly disputed between the Jags of Greensall (in for Milner) and Blakeney-Edwards in Hunt Sr’s semi-lightweight example. After a protracted dice Nigel snared fourth – and GT3 honours – by 0.787s from the GT4-spec car which the Blakeney Motorsport crew turned round in 50.599s, six seconds quicker, at the stops. Only the handovers from BM team-mates Hunt to Grant Peterkin (a brilliant 45.449s), Bourne to Paul (48.683s) and Corfield to Welch (48.762s) were swifter! Behind Wilson/Williams – who were awarded the Driver of the Day prize, although Chris had already donned his tuxedo and dashed to a prior commitment – Wilkinson/Boot, the recovering Corfield/Welch Healey, Martin in the best of the Elans and Clarkson/Smithies completed the top 10.
Hunt/Grant Peterkin, Wyndham/Hill, the never-say-die Ahlers/Bellinger combo, Harris/Wilmoth and the Sleep/Lawson Shelby Mustang were next in. Paul/Bourn deservedly won the GT2 division, finishing 16th overall in Malcolm’s red TVR, but they had to go some to defeat the blue one of Ward/Colman by less than 25 seconds, with the Tognola/Monk Porsche not far adrift. The 911 finished on the tail of Woods in Pangborn’s Healey, pursued by the Worthington/Drinkall 3000. The Jacobsens were top MGB finishers, 0.4s ahead of Finburgh in Gordon’s Elite, the sole GT1 contender for once, having lost five seconds in the pit sequence. Also close at the flag were the cars of Skipworth and Hayden and Drabble and Emmerling, the chaser having made better stops. All but five of the 39 starters were running at the close. Rowe parked Watson’s Elan with a loose wheel four laps into his stint, Nelson having already eclipsed Martin’s best lap time by 0.03s. The Lotus 11 and Gilbert also fell by the wayside.
Race winners – Philip Walker & Miles Griffiths
SP1 – Ben Adams, Lola Mk1
SP2 – Philip Walker & Miles Griffiths, Lotus 15
GT1 – Marc Gordon & Nick Finburgh, Lotus Elite
GT2 – Malcolm Paul & Rick Bourne, TVR Grantura MkIII
GT3 – Christopher Milner & Nigel Greensall, Jaguar E-Type
GT4 – Mark Williams, AC Cobra 289
GTSCC Driver of the Day – Chris Wilson & Nigel Williams, AC Cobra 289
Family Award – Laurence & Tim Jacobsen, MG B
Driver of the Day awarded by the commentators – Christopher Milner, Jaguar E-Type
Fastest Lap of the Meeting – Miles Griffiths, Lotus 15