Rudi Friedrichs emerged victorious from a stonking Motor Racing Legends Pre-War Sports Car race at the annual Spa Six Hours event, but the German had to drive his well-developed Alvis Firefly 4.3 like the wind in the Friday evening contest to trade places with and eventually conquer compatriot Dr Robin Tuluie’s mighty Menasco aero-engined special before its gearbox failed. On the Bentley and Ducati engineering guru’s retirement, Austria’s Niklas Halusa’s sublime Alfa Romeo 8C 2300 Zagato came through to second place ahead of beaming Briton Ewen Getley in his long-serving and wonderfully versatile Bentley 3/4½.
Eagerly awaited, the return of the MRL’s earliest set to Europe’s finest circuit – Formula One’s drivers’ favourite –was also opened to ‘Specials.’ This initiative – which attracted Tuluie, Tim Llewellyn’s imposing blue Bentley 3/8 and Tom Walker’s sunflower yellow GN Dragonfly, shared with Hotchkiss hero Steve Smith – swelled the entry to 35 cars and provided a tremendous spectacle for onlookers around the glorious track carved in to a pine forest in Belgium’s hilly Ardennes region.
Friedrichs, who lives just over the German border near Aachen, extended his blisteringly fast straight-six Alvis to claim pole position with a 3m17.287s (79.41mph) best towards the end of Friday morning’s half-hour qualifying. By forty two thousandths of a second on the demanding 4.35-mile 12-turn course! Spa driving debutant [although he worked there in his Renault F1 engineering career] Tuluie’s final 3:17.329 effort in his remarkable eigenbau, effectively an American air-cooled six-litre four-cylinder engine designed for air racing mounted in a Riley-derived chassis, claimed the other front row grid position.
Llewellyn’s promising 3:18.889 in the vivid blue Bentley was well in touch over a shorter six-lap run, more than six seconds quicker than the excellent 3:25.281 posted by Fred Wakeman/Patrick Blakeney-Edwards in the former’s Meadows-engined Frazer Nash Super Sports.
Bicester Heritage-based Bentley specialist Getley sat fifth on 3:27.165 in the wolf in sheep’s clothing which has been cherished in his family since 1956, and in his custodianship since ’82. Walker’s Ford-engined 1922 GN Dragonfly ‘Big Yellow’ was four tenths quicker than Halusa in father Martin’s straight-eight Alfa. Gareth Burnett was eighth, snapping at their heels, in one of British artisan constructor Geoffrey Taylor’s Altas.
Back in the saddle of his Talbot Lago T26 SS, also thankfully recovered from their unfortunate prang at last year’s Silverstone Classic, Richard Pilkington was next, his 3:34.501 fractionally quicker than the Bentley 3/4½ of Richard Hudson/Stuart Morley which towered over the diminutive JAP vee-twin engined Morgan Super Aero of Sue Darbyshire and Gary Caroline. Clive and James Morley (Bentley 3/4½) and Paul Chase-Gardener in his Aston Martin 2-litre Speed model were also under the 3:40 barrier.
Another Aston, the Ulster of Edward Bradley and his modern sports prototype racer son Richard – LMP2 class victor in the 2015 Le Mans 24 Hours as one third of the KCMG team’s Oreca-Nissan 05 and a regular FIA and ELMS class winner – sat 14th. Frazer Nash Super Sports models filled two of the next three places, timber merchant Philip Champion’s (co-driven as usual by Sam Stretton) and Theo Hunt/Andrew Hall’s sandwiched Till Bechtolsheimer’s fabulous Talbot Lago T150C, debuted at Donington last season. Trevor Swete’s Invicta S-type was the field’s fulcrum point.
Gregor Fisken was back enjoying the ex-Brooklands Vauxhall 30/98 “The Hughes Special” in which mentor Bunty Scott-Moncrieff entered him for his first race 37 years ago at the age of 17. The Scot qualified the old warhorse 19th, sharing with Rory Henderson. Richard Reay-Smith’s Lagonda LG45 Fox & Nichol team car, the Bentley 3/4½ of Randal Stewart/William Elbourn and Philipp Fuhr’s chunky Alvis Speed 20 SA were all within two seconds.
Just 0.377s separated the 3-litre Bentleys of perennial sparring partners Duncan Wiltshire and Jock Mackinnon – the latter’s driven from Edinburgh to Belgium – with Guernseyman David Ozanne’s Aston Martin 2-litre Speed Model and Bentley ‘Eddie Hall’ of Kent County Council leader Paul Carter and Nigel Batchelor also inside four minutes.
The field was completed by Robert Lewis’ gruff Lagonda V12 Le Mans, the Bentley 3/4½ of Susan Shoosmith/Gerard McCosh, Chris Lunn’s pretty Talbot AV105 Team Car, the Morgan Super Aero of Iain Stewart and young Harry Painter, Christopher Scott Mackirdy’s Aston Martin Le Mans, German Stefan Rettenmaier’s Bugatti T35B, father and son Steve and Josh Ward’s Bentley 4½-litre (previously their road car), Tim Parker and intrepid SCAT racer Andrew Howe Davies (Lagonda 2-litre), but the 2017 Zandvoort-winning Frazer Nash Super Sports of Charles Gillett/Eddie Williams did not record a Q-time.
All 35 cars took the start of the 40-minute race at 1730 that evening, whereupon Llewellyn used his big Bentley engine’s vast torque to blast past Tuluie and Friedrichs on the Kemmel Straight, which rises to the majestic Francorchamps circuit’s high point. By the end of the opening lap Burnett was chasing the breakaway trio, pursued by Walker, Halusa, Getley, Wakeman, Pilkington, Caroline and Chase-Gardener, with Clive Morley, Bradley, Hunt, Bechtolsheimer and Champion at the sharp end of the peloton.
Others were very soon in trouble, however. Rettenmaier solemnly parked his Bugatti at La Source hairpin, while Wiltshire’s recalcitrant Bentley and the Gillett Nash also fell on lap 2. Having struggled with a fuel pressure issue Duncan discovered that the electric pump’s fuse had failed. “At least I ended up with one of the best views in the house – and from where I was watching it was a fantastic race,” said its promoter, ever one to see the bright side of a disappointing situation.
Lunn’s Talbot was next to retire, its straight-six engine overheating, followed by Llewellyn who peeled into the pits at the end of lap 2 with an electrical problem. Tuluie thus found himself ahead, and consolidated his advantage with a sensational fastest lap of 3:13.847s (80.84mph), a whopping 3.4s inside Friedrichs’ pole time, on lap 3. While Robin’s steed’s dynamics were very different to those of his rival’s Alvis over each lap, he gradually managed to thunder clear of Friedrichs and Walker, with Burnett and Wakeman (both soon to hit trouble) and Halusa settling in nicely, with Getley and Pilkington on the rise in his mirrors.
The complexion of the race changed on lap 4 when Burnett and Wakeman disappeared from fourth and fifth places respectively, the latter with a suspected spark plug failure. Meanwhile, despite his machine jumping out of gear, Tuluie continued to extend his lead which had grown to 16 seconds by the time both he and Friedrichs made their mandatory pit stops after six laps, Robin seizing the opportunity to tighten his wheels.
Rudi was back into his stride more quickly, 1.8s ahead after their out lap, and proceeded to strain every sinew of his Alvis to make ground in the twistier parts of the circuit, in his determination to build a buffer over the Menasco Pirate which had powered past several times only to be gobbled up again when handling became top trumps. At the end of lap 9, though, Tuluie drove into the pits, having had to hold the car in gear for much of the race, and the race belonged to Friedrichs. “Doing Eau Rouge, Pouhon and Blanchimont one-handed was interesting,” smiled Robin afterwards, having thoroughly enjoyed himself.
“That was a really great race,” agreed Friedrichs, whose golden weekend saw him go on to score his first Historic Grand Prix car win the following morning in his ex-Jack Brabham Cooper T53. “Robin overtook me, then I overtook him, but it was just a pity he broke.” Tuluie, who deserved better than to be classified 26th, was magnanimous in defeat. “What a driver, what a car. Congratulations to Rudi for winning.”
Halusa and Getley were the only other competitors to finish on the same lap as the victor. “I could do Eau Rouge flat in practice,” said Ewen, whose 1050kg Kingsbury Racing Shop Bentley was maxing out at 3900 revs on the Kemmel Straight. Walker/Smith brought their GN Dragonfly home fourth ahead of Chase-Gardener’s Aston Martin. The top five were all class winners. Sixth-placed Bechtolsheimer was runner-up to Friedrichs, only 2.5s clear of Darbyshire’s Morgan ‘trike’ at the chequered flag, with the Hunt/Hall Nash a further nine seconds adrift.
The Morley family’s private Bentley battle was again a feature, Clive and James outrunning Stuart – finishing Hudson’s example and closing hand-over-fist – by just three seconds for ninth place. Pilkington’s Talbot and the Bradley pere-et-fils Aston completed the top dozen of the 27 teams classified as finishers. Champion/Stretton, Friedrichs’ son-in-law Fuhr’s square-cut Alvis, and the gallant Fisken/Henderson were next past the chequer, ahead of Swete’s Invicta, Reay-Smith’s Lagonda and the Stewart/Elbourn Bentley covered by the proverbial mouchoir de poche. Lewis and class-winner Mackinnon were also close at the flag.
Words: MAWP, Photographs: Jeff Bloxham and Dave Brassington