Steve Soper and Chris Ward are class acts individually, thus extremely difficult to beat as a team given a fast and reliable car. Despite neither having raced at Oulton Park since the 1990s, they drove JD Classics’ raucous Tom Walkinshaw Racing Bastos Rover Vitesse to a resounding Historic Touring Car Challenge victory as a superb field entertained a large car-mad audience for 50 minutes at the wonderful Cheshire venue’s annual Gold Cup event on August Bank Holiday Monday.
“He won the race, not me,” grinned 1995 Japanese Touring Car champion Soper as Ward joined him on the podium where 1966 British Saloon Car champ John Fitzpatrick presented the trophies. “I’ve not been here in 24 years and he hasn’t raced [the track] since around ’98, so we’re a couple of novices really…” “Steve’s doing himself an injustice,” countered Chris. “He handed me a good car, although I struggled with the brakes from half-way through my stint. The pedal was down to the floor, which made it hard work.”
Local engineer Ric Wood finished second, just 20 seconds adrift, in another newly-built Ford Capri from the CNC Heads stable, the wailing 3.4-litre GAA V6 engine in which sang soprano to the winning Rover V8’s tenor note. “I built it up from a million pieces but its first time on track was Friday [in a pre-meeting test].” Fitzpatrick, a works Ford driver in the early ’70s, watched its progress with interest. “I think it handles a lot better than the [wheel-wagging] Cologne Capris I raced,” he chuckled.
Third overall, seven seconds behind the shrill Capri, was the best of a trio of four-cylinder BMW E30 M3s, Mark Smith’s ex-Soper car run by Arran Moulton-Smith’s Amspeed enterprise, ahead of Mark Wright and Dave Coyne – 1987 European F3 champion and British F3000 racer – in the quickest of three invited Ford Sierra RS500s competing on an experimental basis. But for fuel starvation issues, which hobbled it for a few frustrating laps, the winged Motorcraft monster, originally built by Andy Rouse’s team, might well have taken the race to the Rover aces.
The 28-strong entry was long on quality, but Soper was not the only Touring Car legend in the pack. Although Italy’s Gianfranco Brancatelli, 67, the 1985 European champion, made his Oulton Park debut in the flame-belching Eggenberger Sierra RS500 in the Super Touring races, its Kiwi owner Peter Sturgeon kindly invited Paul Linfoot (owner of Lui and Listerine RS500s) to race the ’89 Spa 24 Hours winner with MRL. Also on track was former F1 driver, British F2 champion and F3 race winner Mike Wilds, sharing The Clever Baggers BMW 320 with son Anthony.
Further intriguing cars included Duncan Arthurs’ splendid brace of BMW 635 CSis, the gorgeous straight-six E24 coupes run by marque specialist Geoff Steel Racing. Steel himself and Paul Beddow were entrusted with the original Garage du Bac/Motul car raced by versatile Frenchman Fabien Giroix (who also showed well in F3 and McLarens at Le Mans) in ’86. Andre d’Cruze/Shane Bland meanwhile shared a converted road version, liveried as Gerhard Berger’s Marlboro car.
Former Oulton Formula Fordster Ward – whose previous attempt to race at his ‘home’ venue was thwarted by a heavy qualifying shunt at a bleak Masters spring meeting in 2011 – used his testing experience in the red and white Vitesse to land pole position, the Lancastrian’s 1m52.233s best lap equating to an 86.34mph average speed on the magnificent undulating 2.69-mile International Circuit, a mighty test of man and machine since it was opened in 1954.
The Wright/Coyne Sierra was barely a second slower on 1:53.352, with the BMW M3s of Tom Houlbrook (the ex-Thomas Danielsson/Eiichi Tajima Japanese Touring Car Championship contender) and Smith, plus midlander Paul Mensley’s RS500 – debuted at the recent Silverstone Classic – close behind in the low 54s. David Tomlin’s ex-Wright ‘Europa Möbel’/Klaus Ludwig Zakspeed replica Escort RS1800, Wood’s Capri and series debutant Paul Hogarth’s ex-Tim Harvey Labatts 1991 M3 – snapped up at last month’s Nick Whale’s Silverstone Auctions sale – were next, bunched in the 55s.
Mike Luck and Calum Lockie were back in the immaculate Classic World Racing BMW 2002Ti, the sparkling performance of which belies its 1970 vintage. Lockie shaded Steve Dance’s pristine Capri which had the quicker BMW 635 of Bland/d’Cruze and Ken Clarke’s Rover Vitesse – another ex-Soper car, to the engine of which the period TWR engineer had restored the missing oil pressure since being forced to scratch from its planned debut at Brands Hatch in May – snapping at its heels.
Tony Hart/Will Nuthall did well to sizzle Hart’s little Renault 5 GT Turbo round in a whisker over two minutes for a class-leading 13th on the grid, with rival Kingsley Ingram set to start at the back, still sorting his potentially quicker Ford Escort RS1600 Turbo tended by Alan Strachan’s AWS equipe. The Wilds family ‘Beemer’ and Canadian Pete Hallford’s 1970 spec 5.8-litre Castrol Boss Mustang towered over the Renault on the grid.
Just 2.4 seconds covered the top three combatants in the Tony Dron Trophy ‘Group 1’ set, John Spiers’ Hermetite Ford Capri, the Morris Vulcan/Lifeline VW Golf GTi of Jim Morris and preparer Tom Shephard and the Manthorpe team’s ex-Vince Woodman Esso Capri of Paul Pochciol and ex-BTCC racer James Hanson. They surrounded the aggressive-looking ex-Dennis Leech Rover SD1 of Chris Williams, partnered this time by Richard Postins who brought plenty of type experience to the party.
Resplendent in Castrol colours, the second ‘Zakspeed’ Escort Mk2 of the indefatigable Tony Paxman and Cosworth BDG engine guru Tim Swadkin was well in touch on P20, gridding just ahead of the Steel/Beddow BMW. Peter Mallett’s Daily Express Rover, the Alfa Romeo GTV6s of Ian and Frank Guest and Paul Clayson in line astern, separated by Robin Benn’s Capri, plus perennial hard-tryer Mark Wilson’s Akai Golf set representative times too.
Linfoot completed six unergonomic exploratory laps in the Brancatelli RS500, with its steering wheel in his chest, NASCAR style [the seating position would be tailored around him for the race] while Ingram had issues with his Escort and would surely circulate quicker in the afternoon?
If Soper’s getaway was none too special by his own admission, Smith’s was considerably worse. “I was in the wrong gear thus totally fluffed the [rolling] start,” said Mark. “I dropped from fourth to 10th, then spent the whole race fighting back, which I thoroughly enjoyed.” As a result of these cars being displaced in the stampede, Wright led at the end of the opening lap from Mensley and Wood, with Soper fourth ahead of Houlbrook, Dance, Tomlin and Smith. Bland led their pursuers, with Luck, Clarke and Hogarth on his tail.
Mensley pitted after a lap, promoting Wood to second as Soper and Dance overpowered Houlbrook’s BMW. The Mensley Sierra returned to the track but disappointingly was retired after six tours. Out already was Ingram’s Escort, its only flying lap almost five seconds quicker than the morning’s Q-time. Spiers, the Wilds BMW which was in trouble from lap one with fuel system problems and Bland’s BMW 635 were the other early casualties.
Smith was soon making up ground and having passed team-mate Houlbrook on lap 8 latched onto Dance as Wright led Wood by towards 10 seconds, with Soper – driving conservatively so as not to stress the Vitesse – keeping the tail happy Capri in sight. Luck was flying, soon up to seventh ahead of Hogarth after Clarke spun his yellow Rover. Tomlin made an unscheduled early stop but was quickly clawing his way back up the field with an urgent BDG exhaust note, matched by Paxman’s.
Soper made his mandatory one minute stop from third at the earliest opportunity, relaying Ward after 11 laps. Wright and Wood went two and three circuits further respectively. By mid-race Hallford had parked his ailing Mustang. When Luck and Lockie’s class-leading BMW went out in the latter stages, having picked up its second right front puncture of the season, the hard-charging Tomlin returned to the head of the division.
Smith was the last of the front-runners to pit as leader before the stagger had fully unwound. Ward and Wood were thus elevated to first and second on lap 20, with Coyne haring after them in the white RS500. Dance, Houlbrook and Tomlin (whose proper stop came relatively late) weren’t far apart, with Hogarth still in the running.
Coyne grabbed second from Wood on lap 20, running 11.5 seconds behind Ward. No sooner had he set the fastest race lap however – 1m51.769s (86.70mph), topping 125mph down Lakeside towards the Island sweeper which precedes the challengingly banked Shell Oils hairpin – than thoughts of trying to hound the Rover down were dashed when the Sierra’s turbocharged Cosworth engine faltered. Dave was powerless to prevent Smith and Dance from displacing him but, when all four cylinders chimed back in on the last lap, he hurtled back to relieve Steve of fourth.
Houlbrook, Tomlin and Hogarth all went the full distance, while Clarke shaded Steel’s BMW for ninth. After a super tussle between the VW ‘Golfers’ and Nuthall, scuttling along in the Renault, Morris and Special Saloon veteran Shephard were overjoyed to claim Tony Dron Trophy honours in a brilliant 11th overall. The result matched Tom’s 1981 Silverstone Tourist Trophy race division win in the car with Jim’s dad John. Hanson/Pochiol and Mallett finished runners up to the German machine which the Morrises rediscovered in Spain six years ago.
Behind the Renault, the Paxman/Swadkin Escort and Hanson/Pochciol Capri also completed 24 laps. The dayglo slashed black Rover of Williams/Postins finished only seven seconds clear of Mallett’s less-developed version, with Benn and Wilson chasing. In the day’s closest finish, Linfoot fired the Brancatelli RS500 over the line 0.329s ahead of Clayson’s vividly-hued Alpilatte Alfa – which had survived a lurid grassy spin on the exit of Knickerbook. The Guest family’s red GTV6 completed the classification.