James Hunt in his Hesketh 308 Formula 1 car had no answer to a rumbling Formula 5000 chassis at Brands Hatch earlier this month, but Denny Hulme was untouchable – as usual – in his McLaren M8F Can-Am monster.
The start of an Autocar race report dug out from the 1970s archive? Not at all. Both F1 champions have been dead for nearly 30 years, but these are the fantasies that still play out, courtesy of Britain’s rich historic racing scene as great racing cars of the past roll again in anger.
Inevitably, it’s grassroots club racing that has gingerly led motorsport’s way into the post-lockdown thaw, with the Historic Sports Car Club (HSCC) among the first to run a race meeting this year that allowed spectators, on the same weekend that F1’s Styrian Grand Prix played out behind closed doors in Austria. The Legends of Brands Hatch Superprix is always one of the historic racing highlights and this year still attracted plentiful grids as racers embraced the chance for indulgence after months of inertia.
On the Saturday Autocar attended, a smattering rather than anything resembling a true crowd assembled to watch, but modest numbers probably suited Brands owner Motorsport Vision as it trialled strict safety measures “to ensure our venues are Covid-secure”.
The British Touring Car Championship, which in normal times draws crowds of nearly 30,000, will be a far greater challenge when it starts in August. As I write, it’s not even known whether spectators will be allowed.
I’ll admit to some trepidation as I drove up to the gates for the Superprix. We’ve been conditioned these past months, quite rightly, to fear anything that usually passes for normal life, and for those who have a conscience, it can still feel uncomfortable to mingle, even within social distancing guidelines. But Brands genuinely felt safe at the Superprix – certainly a great deal more than the last sporting event I attended: an England rugby match, sitting shoulder to shoulder with 81,522 others at Twickenham about a fortnight before the lockdown was announced…
ECHOES OF THE PAST
The most obvious Covid-19 measure at Brands was a strict lockdown on pit and paddock access to all bar competitors and race officials, while races had rolling starts rather than the usual static grids to prevent a potential ‘mass gathering hotspot’. Marshals were limited to two per post, but the usual allocation of track and emergency vehicles ensured there was no obvious compromise on safety. And then when the races started, we were transported back to simpler and happier times.
Historic racing is particularly well suited to Brands, given how strongly past echoes linger there and how little the place has changed. For enthusiasts, the Kent circuit really is special. I’ve been lucky to travel the world reporting on motorsport but, when push comes to shove, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than Brands. An F1 venue since 1960, it held its first British Grand Prix in 1964, then continued to alternate as host with Silverstone until 1986, during decades when it was also the scene of countless, fondly remembered long-distance sports car world championship races.