Friday, 20 May 2016

Brands Hatch in the sunshine!

The opportunity arose on the Sunday following the Spa WEC race to visit Brands Hatch to see the Blancpain Sprint Series GT race, and I have to admit it was the most fun I’ve had at a motor race for some time. It is nearly fifty years since I first went to Brands (some recollections here), and it remains a great venue for watching motor racing.

Thanks to a little bit of string-pulling, my friend Rod had managed to obtain free passes for my 15-year-old son Robin, him and me, which were easily picked up from the “media awning” just outside the circuit entrance, and parking was conveniently not more than fifty yards away.

We were also entitled to participate in the Grid Walk – I have to admit that the SRO organisation was excellent, and both Rod and Robin were using social media to the full as they mingled! I may not be typical of the modern-day race fan, but the whole atmosphere (along with the sunshine) was a perfect way to draw new fans – a key part of the philosophy of Stéphane Ratel.



We were able to watch the start of the qualifying race from inside the WRT Audi garage, which meant watching the TV monitors on the wall of the pit garage, but nevertheless, HTP’s Jules Szymkowiak was impressive indeed. Entering Paddock Hill Bend alongside the pole-sitting ISR Audi, the 20-year-old Dutchman was four lengths clear as they headed up towards the hairpin. He comfortably controlled the field from the front, and was able to hand the car over to Bernd Schneider (31 years his senior) in a lead that the new Mercedes AMG GT3 wasn’t to lose.

Popping out of the back of the garage to watch the cars racing along Cooper straight and into Surtees – the left-hander leading out onto the GP circuit – provided some close action, but not much overtaking. Someone said it was a bit like Formula Three racing of years gone by, where the cars are very even, and are relatively easy to drive, making distinctions between drivers difficult to spot. A new set of wheel bearings might make all the difference.

We watched the WRT crew carrying out their mandatory pit stop (driver swap and a change of all four wheels) from inside the garage and that was a real thrill for Robin – a chance to experience at first hand the genuine sense of sporting endeavour, involving the whole team.

A hospitality lunch (thank you WRT) was followed by a walk around the paddock, in which we got up close and personal to some rather special supercars and hypercars. This was a round of Stéphane Ratel’s Gentleman’s demo series, and young Robin was highly delighted to take photographs of cars well beyond our means. For him, the sideshows were as important a part of the day as the on-track action, and he came away thrilled at his experience. I suppose sometimes I need to loosen my anorak a bit.


Then it was off for a walk into the woods of the Grand Prix circuit. Here, I was reminded of my first sight of Graham Hill in the flesh, as he walked back from his broken-down Lotus in the 1968 Race Of Champions. And the ghosts of the Portobello woods are never far away – even if someone has put a tarmac rally stage down in the middle of it all!

We watched the start of the main race from just beyond Stirling’s – and although we were standing in the spectator enclosure, it was a pretty intense experience, the like of which you would not experience at Silverstone, or indeed very many other circuits. The cars were so close – to one another and to us – and the fact that we were showered with leaves, twigs and other vegetation after the cars had passed revealed that this was proper, raw, in-your-face racing. No wonder the Brands GP circuit was dubbed the ‘mini-Nürburgring’ when it was opened in 1960. “Inadequate barrierage”, muttered someone on Facebook, and we moved on.

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These days, too much motor racing is watched on screens from armchairs, in my opinion. The crowd at Brands was not huge, by any means: the fact that the BTCC was on at Thruxton probably didn’t help. But quite simply, staying at home and watching on TV does not come anywhere close to the experience of watching the action take place before your very eyes. The assault on the senses of 37 GT3 cars, each producing more than 500bhp does not transmit down a wire into your living room… you have to be there.

Next week, I shall be at the Nürburgring to watch 157 cars start the 44th running of the 24 hours through the Eifel Mountains. If I get the chance, I shall certainly go out to Pflanzgarten to mingle with the 200,000 spectators that line the circuit; and the experience will re-ignite my enthusiasm and passion, just as standing at Dingle Dell Corner did when I was still a schoolboy!

(All images by Robin Truswell)