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Group C Racing: Silverstone Classic, Report

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The Group C Racing series always puts on a good show at the Silverstone Classic and 2014 was no exception. The previous year may have all been about Nic Minassian’s star turn in the (then Invitation class) Jaguar XJR14, but the two races at the end of July this year provided action in abundance throughout the field.

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Although Qualifying on the Friday evening was the first official session of the weekend, a general test the previous day had allowed the Group C field the opportunity to reconnoitre the Grand Prix circuit and perform system checks; and although the frequent red flags were a frustrating, if inevitable, consequence of running mixed fields on the same track at the same time, Stéphane Verbeeck’s problem was rather more fundamental, as the engine on his Kenwood Porsche 962 failed and ended his weekend there and then. The Belgian’s co-driver for the weekend, Hervé Regout, was also meant to be sharing Christophe D’Ansembourg’s Jaguar XJR8, but with Verbeeck providing both transport and accommodation, poor old Hervé had no choice but to return home with him – this being the third year running that he had missed out on drives at Silverstone as a result of mechanical issues or bad weather.

Sadly, neither the Mazda 767B of Max and Moritz Werner nor the Porsche 956 of Kriton Lendoudis got even this far, with the Japanese car still engine-less after its Le Mans woes and with the Rothmans-liveried car having lost its engine at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. But there was good news, which came in the form of the return of Paul Stubber and his Lola T711; the car having been rebuilt in just five weeks by Robin Ward after its fiery demise in France, and the driver now showing no signs of the singeing that he suffered in the incident.

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“Robin’s done a great job in getting the car rebuilt so quickly,” said Paul. “The problem we have now is that we’re a long way from a decent race set-up. Testing went well the other day, but it’s not fair on the other guys to come to a meeting with an unsorted car – I don’t want to cause a red-flag because of unreliability. So we won’t be doing any more racing this year and will spend the time getting the car ready for 2015. I’ve had her for four years and haven’t done much with her yet, but I think she’ll be a very different proposition next year.”

For once, rain was not to be a feature of the Silverstone Classic and the temperatures were still in the mid-20s Celsius as the Group C runners came out to qualify at 7pm on Friday – the last track session of the day – and a good crowd had stayed on to watch.

Things didn’t get off to the best of starts for Shaun Lynn when he spun the #2 Mercedes C11 at Village on his first lap, but there was no contact and he would go on to complete a dozen laps during the 30-minute session.

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The other C11, #31, was in the sole-possession of Bob Berridge this weekend and a 1:48.267 on his fourth lap was enough to secure pole for both races.

Steve Tandy’s Nissan R90CK was a welcome visitor to the series and the bright yellow FROMA-liveried car ended up second fastest after a 1:52.685 in the closing moments. The car was listed in the results as a Class 1 runner, but its 1991 configuration meant that it was actually running in Class 3 (the timekeepers correcting their error during the Saturday race).

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Katsu Kubota was third-quickest, second in Class 1, with a 1:53.390 – the Japanese driver also driving solo after regular 2014 partner Joaquin Folch failed to make the trip to the UK – while Shaun Lynn was third on 1:56.663.

The Gebhardt C91 began the session in the hands of Frank Lyons, but son Michael took over halfway through and began to push the nimble 3.5ltr car through the corners – the distinctive Class 3 machine clearly relishing Maggotts and Becketts – and a 1:57.322 was good enough for fifth overall; just six-hundredths quicker than the Class 1 Applebee’s Spice SE89 of Adrian Watt. And a quarter of a second behind him was the quickest of the Class 2 quartet, Mike Donovan’s #111 Spice SE88.

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Rounding out the top ten were Christophe D’Ansembourg’s Class 1 Jaguar XJR8 – which he would share with Justin Law in Hervé Regout’s absence – Aaron Scott’s Class 2 Spice SE86 and Richard Eyre’s Class 3 Jaguar XJR16. Gareth Evans, meanwhile, had only driven his Class 3 XJR14 for the first time on the Thursday and so was understandably using the session more as a test; an 11th-quickest 2:01.431 clearly being some way off the car’s and driver’s potential.

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Happily, there were no casualties during the session and a full field would take the start the following evening.

The main story on the corresponding Saturday in 2013 had been the deluge that broke in the evening and led to the first of the Group C races being cancelled, as well as causing flash flooding across much of the East Midlands. However, the only concern in 2014 was whether there were enough chilled drinks in the fridges as temperatures soared once more, and this made for perfect conditions for the twilight race as the 8.30 start approached

The #31 C11 led away from the lights as the pace car pulled into the pitlane of the International Paddock, but Bob Berridge found himself accompanied by the blue and white Nissan of Katsu Kubota as he completed the opening lap; the Japanese racer having a look at Stowe, but not quite being close enough.

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Coming through in third, though, was Michael Lyons in the Gebhardt after making a great start in the red and yellow car.

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Steve Tandy had slipped to fourth in the #27 Nissan (having just completed a one-hour race in his Lola T70) while Mike Donovan was up to fifth after passing both Adrian Watt and Shaun Lynn – these two being separated by the Jaguar of Richard Eyre.

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Kubota pressed home his attack on Berridge and found a way through into the lead at Aintree on Lap 3. By this point the gap back to Lyons was nine seconds, but the Gebhardt driver was more concerned with the cars behind him than with those ahead. Lynn had recovered from his poor start to retake position from Donovan, while Watt was now back ahead of Eyre. Further back, the Porsches of Henrik Lindberg and Tommy Dreelan were having their customary duel – the Irishman keeping his Leyton House-liveried 962 in the exhaust fumes of the Danes Tic Tac car in the opening laps and taking its place on Lap 5.

The #25 Nissan stayed in the lead for two laps as the pace of the top two dropped into the 1:53s, but when Kubota ran wide at The Loop on the fifth lap, Berridge needed no further invitation and was back through into P1.

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Thereafter, the driver of the Silver Arrows put his foot down and began to pull away. That same lap, a spin for Tandy at Chapel Curve dropped him down to seventh and promoted Lynn – who had had to take to the grass in avoidance – to fourth.

Aaron Scott held eighth – second in Class 2 – at this point and found himself being pursued by the XJR14 of Gareth Evans, and the fact that the 3.5ltr car that had dominated proceedings in 2013 was struggling to keep up with the Spice indicated that all was not well with the car. It would take the reigning champion another three laps to take the position from Scott.

Paul Stubber’s race had lasted just two laps, with his Lola repeatedly cutting out, while Peter Garrod also headed to the pits after three laps following an overheating issue that caused the #72 Intrepid RM1’s oil temperature warning light to come on.

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As the race approached its halfway point the top three cars had spread out, but there was still plenty of action down the field. Christophe D’Ansembourg had dropped down the order after spinning his Jaguar on the first lap, but had recovered to tenth and was now chasing Scott’s Spice.

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Mike Donovan, meanwhile, was focussing all his energies on maintaining his advantage over Shaun Lynn behind – the Mercedes trailing the Spice by around five seconds and trimming several tenths off with each lap. But Lynn was also coming under threat from the recovering Tandy at the rate of three seconds a lap and it wouldn’t be long before the R90CK caught back up.

It turned out that there wasn’t much the Mercedes driver could do to fend off the Nissan as his car had developed an electrical problem that kept his pace closer to the two-minute mark, whereas Tandy was able to comfortably beat that laptime by a good five seconds. Fifth place changed hands on Lap 11 and Lynn would also lose another place to Adrian Watt before the end. Subsequent investigations by the team led to the realisation that the car’s issue couldn’t be rectified at the circuit and it was sadly withdrawn from the second race.

With five minutes on the clock, Michael Lyons held a comfortable advantage over the Rexona Spice of Donovan and a class win for the Gebhardt looked odds-on.

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Alas, as the car exited Chapel on the 13th lap, it suddenly lost power and its driver could do nothing but pull off onto the grass and watch the rest of the field go by. Earlier in the day, Michael had been denied a win in the Historic F1 win after suffering a puncture on the final lap, so you can probably imagine how he was feeling at this point!

Tandy now found himself fighting with Donovan for third overall and on Lap 14 found the space to take position. But Mike never gives anything away without a fight and the Spice hung on to the Nissan, the positions swapping back on the next lap – Steve by now feeling the effects of 90 minutes of racing without power-steering.

Moments later, Bob Berridge took the flag after another dominant performance, followed 25 seconds later by Katsu Kubota. Mike Donovan hung on to third and the Class 2 win, while Steve Tandy claimed Class 3 honours, fourth overall. Adrian Watt enjoyed his best run of the season so far to bring the #15 Spice home in fifth – third in Class 1 – 18 seconds ahead of the struggling #2 Mercedes of Shaun Lynn.

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Seventh overall and second in Class 2 was no consolation for a frustrated Gareth Evans in the Jaguar XJR14, but he had at least been spared the ignominy of being lapped by his Chamberlain Synergy partner in the winning car.

Aaron Scott took second in Class 2 in the Listerine Spice, eighth overall, while Christophe D’Ansembourg was still ruing that early spin that left him ninth. Rupert Clevely had a steady run to tenth in his #8 Lancia LC2 on its season debut, while Eric Rickenbacher overcame a late spin to finish 11th in the #60 Cheetah.

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Tommy Dreelan held off Henrik Lindberg in the battle of the Porsches to claim 12th, while Georg Kjallgren wasn’t far behind in his Courage C26S.

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The final two runners were the guesting TIGAs of Scott Couper and Jonathan Fay, with the former’s GC288 outpacing the latter’s GC287.

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A highly entertaining race brought an end to track proceedings for the day, leaving the crowds to head either home or to the music arena, where Bonnie Tyler was bashing out her hits to a large and enthusiastic audience.

The second race on Sunday would begin at the earlier time of 14:10, but unfortunately followed on immediately from the second Historic F1 race which had been contested by some of the Group C runners. Christophe D’Ansembourg had drafted in Justin Law to drive his Jaguar for this very reason, but Aaron Scott, Tommy Dreelan, Michael Lyons and Katsu Kubota would be doing both races, leaving them very little time to get ready for the Group C race. Indeed, Kubota – who had won his class in his Lotus 72 – was so late after the podium ceremony that he was sprinting down the pitlane to his car as the field was heading out, meaning he would start from last instead of third.

But he fared better than Lyons, who capped a miserable weekend (his Hesketh 308E having lost third gear in the second F1 race) by suffering a driveshaft failure in the pitlane, meaning that the impressive Gebhardt would not be taking the start. This left Class 3 with just three starters after Gareth Evans also withdrew the XJR14, but Peter Garrod was back in the repaired Intrepid and Paul Stubber’s Class 1 Lola was also taking part.

Steve Tandy enjoyed a better start in the #27 Nissan to hold onto second place on the opening lap, but he could do nothing about Bob Berridge who immediately put his foot down and pulled out a three-second gap in the #31 Mercedes C11 on the first lap.

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Adrian Watt took advantage of the space he suddenly found himself in on the grid to hold third, while Justin Law was fourth in the #4 Jaguar XJR8. Stubber made a great start to take the T711 to fifth, while Richard Eyre – who had retired from Race 1 – was sixth in the Class 3 XJR16. Mike Donovan led Class 2 in seventh, but Aaron Scott was right behind in the #170 Spice in eighth.

But it was Henrik Lindberg who arguably made the best start – the Dane passing Tommy Dreelan, Georg Kjallgren, Eric Rickenbacher and Rupert Clevely on the first lap to go ninth.

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Kubota, meanwhile, was 15th at the start of Lap 2 but making rapid progress in the #25 Nissan and would be into the top six within four laps.

Having not raced in the series for some time, Law was seemingly enjoying his return in the Jaguar and was up to second on Lap 4 after passing Tandy’s Nissan. Ten seconds further back, Watt was pushing Stubber hard for fourth, and a wobble for the Corvette GTP on the next circuit was enough to see both the Class 1 Spice and the Class 2 Spice of Donovan go past the Australian. Donovan had looked under serious pressure from Scott in the opening laps, but Kubota had split the cars as he raced through the field and the SE88 made good its escape.

Further back in the field, Rickenbacher looked poised to take 11th from Clevely, but contact between the two on Lap 5 saw the Cheetah spin and take to the grass. While the Italian car was able to continue without losing a place, the Swiss driver found himself unable to restart his car and he had no choice but to climb out and hop over the fence to a place of safety.

All eyes were now on Kubota as he continued to carve his way through the field. By Lap 6 he was up to fourth – a personal best of 1:52.903 being posted that lap – and he was with the other R90CK of Tandy. Fourth became third on Lap 7 and it was now Law’s Jaguar that was in the #25’s sights; the two cars separated by five seconds but with the Nissan two second per lap quicker. But on the next lap, Kubota overcooked it and spun at The Loop, and disastrously was unable to restart. Like Rickenbacher before him, his race was over.

But while the Japanese driver’s retirement was a shame, the racing was far from over. Watt was now closing in on Tandy for third, while Scott’s Spice was right with Stubber’s Lola in the fight for sixth.

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And Clevely was on Lindberg’s tail as the Porsche and Lancia battled over ninth place. Law, meanwhile, was setting personal best laps on virtually every circulation.

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The Lancia finally found a way through the Tic Tac Porsche’s defences of Lap 11 and Clevely now set off in pursuit of Richard Eyre’s Jaguar in eighth; a 2:01.497 on Lap 13 taking him to within two seconds of his quarry. In fact, all three duels were getting ever closer as the minutes ticked down.

The Corvette GTP was the first to stumble, with an engine problem developing in the closing laps that allowed Scott’s Spice to first close and then take the place on the final lap. Just before this happened, a slower lap for Tandy and a personal best for Watt coincided to virtually wipe out the Nissan’s advantage.

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Clevely’s pace, meanwhile, had been enough to close right up on the Jaguar with a lap to go.

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Some way down the road, and having lapped the field up to and including sixth, Bob Berridge was completing his 16th lap in the #31 Mercedes and at the same time taking the flag to cap a perfect weekend. Justin Law took second in the XJR8, just over 28 seconds further back, but who would be third? Watt was all over Tandy’s Nissan as the final 3.2 miles were completed, but the yellow machine prevailed to take third – and Steve’s second Class 3 win of the weekend – by just a third of a second. Adrian Watt had the satisfaction, however, of completing two flawless races and taking two Class 1 podium finishes.

Mike Donovan completed another Class 2 double in the #111 Spice, while Aaron Scott was again second in the #170. Paul Stubber held on to his struggling car to finish seventh, and Richard Eyre managed to put almost a second between his Jaguar and Rupert Clevely’s Lancia in finishing eighth.

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Henrik Lindberg finished tenth, with Tommy Dreelan a distant 11th having found two consecutive races to be too much for him to take the fight to the #33 Porsche.

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Georg Kjallgren overcame an early trip to the pits to finish 12th, while Scott Couper, Peter Garrod and Jonathan Fay were the final classified finishers.

The Group C Racing Series now enjoys a short break before reconvening on the very different circuit of Zandvoort at the end of August, as part of the Historic Grand Prix. The Dutch circuit is nestled in the sand dunes of the North Sea coast and is likely to produce some spectacular racing among the Group C runners, and a large crowd is certain to be on hand once again to witness proceedings.

Mark Howson