Finished in treacherously wet conditions, the Royal Automobile Club Woodcote Trophy race – the blue riband event for Pre-’56 Sports Cars – brought out the best in competitors on the final day of the 25th Anniversary Silverstone Classic.
Laced with high drama from the off, on Sunday morning, the hour-long enduro embroiled 42 wonderfully original cars from 14 marques, the cream of the decade, with French, German and Italian ingenuity challenging the predominantly British entry.
Four drivers led the race, but eventually it was early pacesetter Chris Ward who returned to the top and emerged victorious – following an unscheduled pit stop, a stop/go penalty and a planned car switch from Cooper-Jaguar T33 to the bronze Jaguar C-type supplied to no less a racing god than Juan Manuel Fangio and started by veteran Essex man John Young – in a showpiece which entertained hardy spectators royally.
At least the track was initially grippier than it was for Friday’s horribly rainy qualifying session, described by local hero Gary Pearson as the slipperiest he had ever encountered. Longtime Silverstone chief instructor Ward’s early best of 3m13.369s (67.75mph) in the Cooper-Jaguar laid down a provisional pole marker which stood for much of the session – until he posted a 3m11.853s in the C-type. Acknowledged rainmaster Simon Hadfield then split Ward’s times, denying JD Classics’ man a front row monopoly, before snatching pole with a stunning 3m10.352s (68.64mph) final effort in Wolfgang Friedrichs’ ex-Peter Whitehead Aston Martin DB3S.
Rob Hall secured P4 in Martin Melling’s ex-Peter Collins/Pat Griffith 1952 Goodwood Nine Hours-winning Aston Martin DB3, with Pearson (Jaguar D-type), Steve Boultbee Brooks (ex-Kangaroo Stable DB3S) and the brave Till Bechtolsheimer – thundering along in his Allard-Caddilac J2 ‘blunderbuss’ – the only other competitors to lap under 3m20s.
Tony Wood in pa-in-law Eddie McGuire’s little Gordini, Patrick Watts in Malcolm Harrison’s full-bodied Cooper-Bristol and 2014 winners Fred Wakeman/Patrick Blakeney-Edwards (ex-Whitehead Cooper-Jaguar T38) completed the top 10. Next up were John Ure and Silverstone Classic promoter Nick Wigley in Peter Mann’s ex-Tony Crook cycle-winged Cooper-Bristol and Ben Eastick’s D-type.
A trio of Austin-Healeys, split by 0.146s, headed the GT cars with the 100/4s of Nick Matthews and Jonathan (grandson of celebrated racing luminary George) Abecassis/Nigel Grice sandwiching the closed 100M of Mike Thorne/Johnny Todd. Karsten le Blanc wasn’t far adrift in his 100S. Andrew Sharp’s Aston Martin DB2 was best of the marque’s coupe gaggle meanwhile.
Eyecatchers down the field included the Halusa brothers’ gorgeous Maserati 300S, Paul Chase-Gardener’s fabulous Mercedes-Benz 300M ‘Gullwing,’ the distinctive Lotus Mk8 of former Mighty Mini racer James May, Hamburg-domiciled Slovakian Katarina Kyvalova’s ex-Bertie Bradnack Cooper-Jaguar T33 – into which UK-based Australian Jarrah Venables gleefully stepped in as co-driver – and seasoned Aston man Jim Campbell’s newly-acquired Austin-Healey 100/4, which the former Scottish hillclimber had driven for eight miles prior to the meeting!
A Bradford-built flat-four Jowett Jupiter, Chris Guest’s RGS Atalanta from the pen of Richard Gaylard Shattock and a special-bodied MG Le Mans TC were among the minnows, all of which lapped in over four minutes, while David and Andrew Wenman’s pretty Lancia Aurelia B20 – a late substitute for their Jaguar C-type – didn’t get going and would, like the Gordini, also be out within a lap on raceday.
Sunday’s opening race start at 0903 and with Friedrichs always likely to start the pole-sitting Aston cautiously, Ward slithered ahead of Pearson, Young and Wakeman, who made a flying getaway. From row five, the Californian passed the C-type at Stowe, then usurped Pearson to be second by the end of the opening lap. Bechtolsheimer squeezed Hall over the kerbs at Maggotts and came round sixth, behind Friedrichs, with Ure in his Allard’s wake.
Endeavouring to present JD Classics boss Derek Hood with a big lead, Ward was almost seven seconds clear of the pack after two laps, then dived for the pits next time round to report an oil leak. Traced to a mis-fitted dipstick he returned to the fray but, adding insult to injury in his haste, incurred a stop-go penalty for speeding in the pit lane. At least Chris had the C-type to look forward to, with a genuine prospect of victory as the vastly experienced Young had kept it in the hunt.
Wakeman was thus ahead, but as drops of rain escalated to become a full-blown storm by two-thirds’ distance – turning the track into a skating rink by the time the pit window opened, the signal for Friedrichs to relay Hadfield – Pearson repassed the blue Cooper-Jaguar when Fred spun at Brooklands. With Ward already in the C-type, Gary lost time changing from open to full-face helmets at his stop (“my goggles had steamed up on Friday”) while the Blakeney Motorsports crew slickly “slackened the shockers” on their steed next time round, allowing Rick Bourne a lap in P1 in Malcolm Paul’s ex-Mike Anthony Lotus-Bristol 10, with Ure close behind.
After all the stops Pearson was back ahead, but with the rain now falling in torrents and cars spinning everywhere, Ward less than 10 seconds adrift and gaining on the leader, and Hadfield – who had started 21st and climbed 17 places in seven laps – eating into the deficit to Blakeney-Edwards in third, an exciting climax was guaranteed. Ward’s progress was relentless. Having overhauled Pearson with five laps to spare he was more than 12 seconds clear when the chequered flag fell.
Hadfield annexed third from Patrick Blakeney-Edwards on the penultimate lap which brought a whoop of joy from the Aston Engineering team and returned Friedrichs on the podium. Bechtolsheimer finished fifth ahead of Wigley, Boultbee Brooks and Paul. Eastick and Healey top gun Matthews – for whom 10th in this company was a brilliant achievement – were next.