The spectacle of a small nimble car battling a hairy monster around one of Great Britain’s fastest circuits has enthralled spectators since Thruxton airfield opened its gates to racing on the current circuit in March 1968. That it did so once more as the Royal Automobile Club Woodcote Trophy and Stirling Moss Trophy grids ran concurrently at its 50th Anniversary Celebration, promoted by the resident British Automobile Racing Club before a weekend audience of around 4000 enthusiasts.
Oliver Bryant in his agile two-litre Lotus-Climax 15 and Chris Ward in JD Classics’ snarling 3.8-litre Lister-Jaguar Knobbly slugged it out in twin 30-minute races over the June 2-3 weekend, matching each other move for move while plotting audacious overtaking manoeuvres on the ultra-fast corners which link more than half of each ultra-fast 2.356-mile track. That they won one apiece was fitting, but Bryant turned the tables on Ward – winner of Donington’s season-opener last month – to ace Sunday’s all-important second leg in the smaller machine. Both earned the admiration of onlookers after a terrific encounter.
The earlier [Pre-1956] RAC Woodcote Trophy division was again the domain of the ex-Tommy Sopwith Ecurie Endeavour Cooper-Jaguar T38, left for Patrick Blakeney-Edwards to solo when car owner Fred Wakeman returned to the US on scheduled business having raced his Rover SD1 in Saturday’s leg of the Historic Touring Car Challenge. PB-E brought it home fourth and fifth overall among the Pre-’61 SMT runners.
With Thruxton virgins comprising a large proportion of the competitors on the 26-strong entry, it was no surprise that returnees Bryant, Ward and Ahlers headed the time sheets after qualifying. Acclimatising to, rather than mastering, one of the fastest circuits they will ever encounter, unchanged over half a century, was the tough challenge facing most as the Hampshire venue proved to be a great leveller.
Arrivals included Jaguar D-type XKD558 – a stunning machine boasting extensive Canadian and US racing history, some with a seven-litre Ford V8 engine – being debuted by new owner Steve Boultbee Brooks of two-seater Supermarine Spitfire fame. The SMT field also boasted welcome debutants in former HGPCA Cooper T43 racer Andrew Smith and his brother Simon in the ex-Mark Piercy Cooper T49 Monaco.
Three cars with connections to the trio of meetings run on two part-runway/part-perimeter road courses at Thruxton in 1952 and ’53 sparked interest among older spectators, some of whom attended them. Third at the ACM’s Monaco GP Historique last month with Ben Short up, Nick Riley’s Lister-Maserati was raced in period by Archie Scott Brown who triumphed in the Tojeiro-JAP at 1953’s May event. Philip Champion’s shapely Frazer Nash Mille Miglia (substituted for his Lotus 11 Le Mans) represented the marque with which Roy Salvadori won thrice at the opener. Steve and Josh Ward’s Jaguar XK120, meanwhile, was run by Ecurie Ecosse, for which Jimmy Stewart (Jackie’s older brother) won here in a C-type.
Bryant’s 1m28.143s (96.22mph) pole time was good going, 1.625s quicker than Ward’s effort in the Lister. Also under the ‘magic’ 1m30s barrier were Ahlers/Billy Bellinger in the marvellous little ex-Eric Broadley/Peter Ashdown ’57 Lola-Climax Mk1 Prototype – on the performance of which Broadley built an empire after founding Lola Cars Ltd to market productionised versions 60 years ago – and Justin Maeers/Charlie Martin in the former’s Cooper T49 Monaco.
Wakeman/Blakeney-Edwards cut a strong 1:31.218 (92.98mph) in the dark blue Cooper-Jag, with the ‘continuation’ Lister-Jaguars of ex-F1 driver-turned-TV presenter Tiff Needell/Tom Harris and John Spiers, plus the Cooper Monacos of Roger Whiteside/Tom Shrimpton and Cumbrian dentist Andrew Smith and sibling Simon on their heels, the T49s barely half a second apart.
Four Woodcote Trophy runners were next up, the Lotus-Bristol 10 of Malcolm Paul/Rick Bourne (originally raced by Mike Anthony, who celebrated his 90th birthday last month and still attends BRDC events) heading Martin Hunt’s evergreen HWM-Jaguar, Ben Eastick’s Jaguar D-type – shared again with Welshman Karl Jones, Star of Tomorrow Formula Ford race winner at Thruxton in November 1981 – and John Ure/Nick Wigley in Peter Mann’s ex-Tony Crook Cooper-Bristol T24/25.
Swiss dentist Jurg Tobler’s Lola Mk1 headed the second half of the grid, with the Austin-Healeys of Theo Hunt/Mike Grant Peterkin (3000) and Nick Matthews (100/4). A second separated John and Charlie Brown’s Jaguar C-type, Riley (Lister-Maserati), David Reed/Peter Snowdon (Aston Martin DB2) and the Champion/Sam Stretton Nash, with Formula Junior racer Tom de Gres (Lotus 11) close behind.
The gunmetal Healey 100/4 of Mike Thorne/Sarah Bennett-Baggs, Boultbee-Brooks’ brake-troubled D-type, the Ward family XK, Richard Gane/Kevin Zwolinski in the former’s flat-four Jowett Jupiter and the recalcitrant Rejo Mk3 of Malcolm Harrison/Patrick Watts rounded out the field. Despite his best efforts, B-B was destined not to start the afternoon’s race. After Martin O’Connell drove to Pearsons Engineering near Silverstone for parts following Friday’s test day Steve was thwarted when the Jaguar’s brakes locked on during the warm-up lap.
Bryant and Ward hared off at the rolling start, with Needell powering the green Lister from sixth to third before the tricky but rewarding right-left-right, named for British land speed record breakers Campbell – to whom Olly Bryant is related – Cobb and Segrave. Carrying speed out of the complex is vital for the balls-out back section of the circuit, with its daunting descent to the off-camber right at Church, long shorn of its notorious bump on the apex.
Maeers survived a hairy tank-slapper there on the opening lap but, having regained his composure, worked his way back to fourth place at the head of the peloton with Blakeney-Edwards, Andrew Smith, Spiers and Ahlers in tow, Keith having fallen down the order dramatically on lap four when “the cockpit filled with smoke as the dynamo caught fire. I continued, unabashed, after it blew itself out!” Eastick, meanwhile, had been spun by a clonk from Hunt Sr’s HWM entering the complex and pitted to check the damage. He did not continue.
Unbeknown to onlookers, leader Bryant was also in difficulty with a worsening vibration from the rear of his Lotus. “Having had suspension failures at the last three meetings this was disconcerting, but I decided to keep going,” said Olly, who made his obligatory pit stop from the lead after eight laps and re-emerged fourth, with those ahead yet to stop, satisfied that he wasn’t going to lose a wheel. Ward, who had been shadowing him, thus swept ahead, with nearest rival Needell half a minute behind.
Tiff relayed Lister owner Harris after 11 laps, one more than Maeers went before strapping the bold Martin into his Cooper. Soloist Ward ducked in to the pits after 12 tours, as did perennial late stopper Bourne, by then second in the red Lotus streamliner. When Ward rumbled back onto the track and the stagger unwound he was ahead of Bryant and extended his advantage to 11.570s at the chequered flag. “This car handles very differently to the Costin [version] we ran previously, but the JD boys are getting on top of it,” said Chris.
Behind Bryant, Maeers scorched the blue and orange Cooper to third, ahead of WT victor Blakeney-Edwards, on the winner’s lap. Spiers finished fifth as Ahlers hounded down Paul, overtaking him on the final lap to gain sixth. Having enjoyed a skirmish with his lad in the early exchanges, Hunt only just kept the pale blue Healey in his mirrors after a super tussle with its second driver Grant Peterkin. Matthews brought his open 100/4 back 10th after a good run.
Harris slipped back to 11th, ahead of Snowdon in Reed’s Dubonnet-hued DB2, Stretton in Champion’s Nash and de Gres, with Bennett-Baggs half a second clear of the Brown C-type. Whiteside/Shrimpton, who had stopped to check a loose exhaust tail pipe, outdistanced the Lister-Maserati which bore evidence of a couple of excursions (one at Church!), with Gane and Steve Ward the last classified finishers.
Gear linkage issues put paid to the Smith Cooper Monaco challenge, while Tobler over-reved his Lola’s Climax engine and was unfortunately out for the duration. Harrison’s Rejo was stranded on lap two by a broken rotor arm, thus returned to the pits at the end of a tow rope.
Former Lola Cars and Racing Team VDS F5000 spannerman Clive Robinson re-machined the left rear hub of Bryant’s Lotus overnight in a bid to solve its issues. Martin O’Connell’s equipe fixed the brakes on the Boultbee Brooks D-type after Steve flew the period Thruxton Formula Vauxhall race winner back to Pearsons’ shop in his helicopter for more components. Eastick’s D-type’s suspension also passed muster and Harrison’s Rejo was resuscitated, thus the 24 surviving cars came under starter’s orders on Sunday afternoon.
This time Ward made the best getaway, with Bryant and Charlie Martin in pursuit. Eager to test his car’s handling, Olly pushed hard in the opening laps, but was unable to shake off Chris. Indeed they soon began to trade the lead in what was among the weekend’s hardest-fought races. Nowhere was sacrosanct as Bryant passed Ward imperiously round the outside of the flat-out Village/Goodwood sweepers a couple of times, then on the inside, only for straight-six Jaguar power to trump him again.
Having pitted three laps later than his rival, Ward bellowed back onto the track at the exit of Allard corner – beneath the superb new Clubhouse which 1992 F1 World Champion Nigel Mansell and Murray Walker had opened earlier in the day – on Bryant’s tail and the battle resumed. Seeing the dark destroyer emerge in his mirrors, Olly immediately dug even deeper, setting a personal best lap, but was powerless to prevent the Lister-Jag to thunder past next time round. A bold pass into the long left-hander at Noble on lap 18 sowed the seeds of victory however.
“The Lister was incredibly fast up the [Woodham] hill at the end of each lap, so getting ahead and staying there was about building as much speed as I could round the back of the circuit, to be just far enough in front,” said Bryant. “Once, when I arrived at the chicane ahead I was unlucky to find a Lotus 11 [de Gres’] in the middle of it and lost out. But I was luckier when a Healey [Bennett-Baggs’] ran wide there as Chris and I bore down on it. My instinct was to go right, but [as it moved there] I managed to zap left, over the kerbs, and stayed ahead.”
Despite the vibration returning – “at least I knew what it was this time and that nothing was likely to fall off” – Bryant coolly held on for a 0.880s victory. “The traffic made it really interesting, but we got there.” Following handshakes, he and Chris headed for the podium. “That was a great race,” conceded Ward graciously. “Wheel-to-wheel, inches apart, around Thruxton, it was fantastic. The boys made progress with the car but I probably tried just that little bit too hard and overheated the tyres.”
Bellinger scooted the diminutive Lola, resembling a highly-polished roller skate glinting in the sunshine, into a remarkable third, gratefully taking the place when Martin pulled Maeers’ Cooper Monaco up at the Complex on lap seven, a wishbone having collapsed. Billy shook off Spiers and Woodcote Trophy winner Blakeney-Edwards – despite a moment at the chicane – who finished fourth and fifth respectively. A lap down, little more than 10 seconds covered the Harrison/Watts Rejo (another giant-killer), the Smiths’ Monaco, Hunt and Bourne/Paul, Martin having moved his HWM past the red Lotus in the closing stages.
Boultbee Brooks enjoyed a really promising first race in his D-type, growling through the pack to finish 10th from the back of the grid, a voyage of discovery which brought a broad beam to his face. Steve finished just ahead of the rapidly-conducted turquoise Hunt Jr/Grant Peterkin Healey and Ure’s cycle-winged Cooper-Bristol, itself not far ahead of Eastick/Jones, Whiteside/Shrimpton and Matthews. In the closest finish of the race Snowdon’s lofty Aston Martin took the flag towering over de Gres’ Lotus in the tussle for 18th.
Words: Marcus Pye, Photos: Dave Brassington and John Retter