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Gillett is king of the Dunes


Driving his 1929 Frazer Nash Supersports in inimitable gung-ho style, fearless Briton Charles Gillett mastered the fabled Dutch seaside switchback at Zandvoort to win Motor Racing Legends Pre-War Sportscar gold after a thrilling debut race at the circuit’s 5th Historic Grand Prix event on September 4.


Saturday’s qualifying session – a circuit acclimatisation for most –was hotly contested and packed with drama at the top. Achieving an ambition to race on the former Dutch GP circuit, Sam Stretton wrung a fine time from Jose-Maria Fernandez’s supercharged two-litre Alta, then sat in the pits as Germany’s Rudiger Friedrichs set about reducing the deficit, little by little, in his rorty 4.4-litre Alvis Speed 20SA. 

No sooner had the Aachen man gone top that he headed down the pit lane and stopped at the feet of his technician in a cloud of steam. Subsequent investigation found that the 1932 Alvis’ after-market electric water pump had failed and it had got a bit hot under the collar!

Meanwhile, Stretton had gone out again with a vengeance and recaptured pole position, his 2m20.056s (71.12mph) best a scant half a second quicker than Friedrichs’s 2m20.633s. “I heard a loud bang as I was on track, although nothing was obviously wrong,” said Sam. “Eventually we discovered that one of the rear suspension trailing arm links had broken!”


Gillett had also been in the pole fight, but a broken rocker in his Nash’s Meadows engine ended the run early. With 2m23.772s on his slate and the damaged part replaced, Charles would line up third, a couple of seconds quicker than row-mate Ewen Getley, the Bentley sorcerer in his fast 3/4½. A trio of Morleys shared the all-Bentley 3/4½ row three, Clive and James ahead of Stuart, second driver in Richard Hudson’s example.

A second and a half blanketed the next quartet, Austrian Peter Dubsky’s distinctive red 1937 Aston Martin 15/98 2-seater, Robert Lewis’ mighty 1939 Lagonda V12 Le Mans rep, the 1927 Bugatti T35C of Niklas and Matin Halusa and the 1926 FN Fast Tourer of Chris Chilcott, shared with fellow Formula Junior Lotus racer Steve Futter. Four laps in practice was Futter’s only experience of the chain-ganger, thus understandably he was “taking it steady.”


MRL series promoter Duncan Wiltshire (1928 Bentley 3-litre) had Chris Lunn’s vivid green three-litre Roesch Talbot 105 – GO53, one of the famous 1931 Alpine Trial cars – for company on row six. In hot pursuit were Steve Smith in the spectacular 1930 Hotchkiss AM80 (an evocation of the marque’s offset-cockpit racer, broken-up in ’38), Richard Reay-Smith’s burbling 1936 Lagonda LG45, Christopher Scott-MacKirdy’s pretty blue 1933 Aston Martin Le Mans and Guy Northam’s stately 1928 Bentley 4½.  


Several entrants entered into the spirit of the Historic GP event by taking part in Saturday evening’s cavalcade into Zandvoort centre, a mile from the track. Guy Northam chauffeured MRL’s ringmaster Lindsey Warren down the packed streets, lined with cheering townsfolk. Robert Lewis made dozens of youngsters’ day by allowing them to sit in the Lagonda’s cockpit. Later, on the return journey after dark, his intrepid riding mechanic got “a faceful of ketchup and chips” in the long bonnet’s slipstream, causing much merriment.

RACE: Despite heavy overnight rain and howling winds which wreaked havoc with numerous awnings belonging to other race groups, Sunday’s raceday dawned muggy and overcast, if thankfully dry. Caution was required though, for there were still large patches of dampness on the circuit as the 16 cars formed the grid at 0900. Scott-MacKirdy had a late panic when his Aston refused to start in the paddock, but happily Alan Brooke managed to get it going.


Fortunately, Gillett and Smith’s initial thought of taking second stint in each others’ machines was abandoned as impractical. Even telepathy between the old pals would not have co-ordinated mandatory 15 second stops in such diverse vehicles, thus they went solo, leaving four double-driven cars in the 40-minute race.


Gillett bolted his lightweight Nash out of the blocks quickest, scything between the front row men, but Friedrichs bellowed his Alvis past and Stretton followed suit – although worryingly there was steam issuing from under the Alta early on. It came to nothing and, at the end of the opening lap, Friedrichs, Stretton and Gillett crossed the timing line locked in combat.

Getley led the chase, clear of Clive Morley, Hudson, Chilcott and Halusa, who dived past the ‘one-eyed’ Nash into the helpfully banked Tarzan hairpin on lap 2. Dubsky was with them, pursued by Wiltshire, Lunn, the Lagondas of Reay-Smith and Lewis – settling into a photogenic early streamliner skirmish with Smith’s extraordinary long-tailed Hotchkiss – Scott-MacKirdy and Northam.

As the entertaining lead battle continued to rage, Gillett quickly moved up to shadow Friedrichs, who had the straight-line grunt to keep the smaller-engined bolide behind as the track began to dry. As Getley dug deep to threaten Stretton, Halusa’s Bugatti started to smoke ominously. Niklas duly pulled off after the Hunzerug on lap 5 and peered under the bonnet. Father Martin thus did not get a turn at the wheel.

The leaders’ lap times continued to drop until the pit window opened at seven laps. Gillett, Friedrichs and Stretton dived in together, Getley’s Bentley thundering by as they did so to enjoy a moment of glory.  It lasted a couple of circuits until Ewen pitted, whereupon Gillett retook the lead. His was the best stop by far, indeed he was soon 21 seconds clear of Stretton and Friedrichs – who had touched wings at the Arie Luyendijkbocht – the Alvis fading rapidly.


With Gillett uncatchable – Charles lapping three seconds inside his practice best and also in the 2m20s – and Stretton therefore conserving the oft-fragile Alta, Getley slugged past Friedrichs three laps from home to grab third. Although his engine was off-song, with a carburettor problem, Rudi soldiered on, but was 25 seconds adrift of the Bentley, the last runner to complete the full 17-lap distance, at the chequered flag.             

Dubsky passed the Morley/Morley Bentley after James clambered in but only landed fifth – by just 1.6 seconds – after an intense scrap in which they traded places repeatedly, playing to their steeds’ differing strengths around the challenging circuit. Hudson/Morley and Wiltshire completed a Bentley triumvirate in seventh and eighth places, six seconds apart.


Smith brought the Hotchkiss home ninth, on 15 laps, having got the better of Lewis by three seconds after a racelong squabble and synchronised stops. Lunn finished 11th, ahead of Futter (getting used to the high sightline from Chilcott’s Nash after his regular Lotus 20’s recumbent driving position) Reay-Smith, Scott MacKirdy and Northam.

Marcus Pye – September 2016