Classic Grand Prix: Morgans at Spa
Set high in the Ardennes forests and looping up, down and across a small valley the circuit at Spa, home of the Belgian Grand Prix since 1960, has rightly been described as "probably the world's best race circuit". Previous F1 winners include virtually all the great names, including Jim Clark's 4 times on the trot in 1962-65 for Lotus. The outright lap record is now held by Alain Prost in 1.51.095 in 1993.
It's not often that any of us get the chance of a race at a full Grand Prix Circuit so when the opportunity arose 8 intrepid Morganeers sallied (in my case tunnelled) forth to take part in the 9th Trophee des Ardennes. I joined Mike Fellows, Craig Jones, Peter Garland, Simon Orebi Gann, David James, Peter Sargeant and Christian Bock who, despite the disparity of their power and ability formed one class ("Morgan") in Race G. London Centre as usual were the single biggest contingent! There was a great supporters club: Jackie James and Kate Orebi Gann (complaining about the lack of sun and lack of chips respectively); Mike and Craig's sons (haunting the night clubs); Christian's father (charming all the girls); all encouraging the Morgans against the rest of the pack.
Some races were practising on the Friday afternoon so after completing the necessary formalities we went atop the pit garages to have a look.
That was my first sight of the awesome Eau Rouge/Le Raidillon corner. The "Autosport" guide suggests that drivers take a deep breath shortly before entering Eau Rouge - it was easy to see why. Coming at the end of the long, steeply downhill pit "straight", which you take as fast as you dare and preferably with no braking at all, there is a kink to the left (with one of the biggest gravel traps I've ever had a close encounter with facing you) and then the circuit immediately rises steeply and turn to the right - with an adverse camber. The problems aren't over yet - the climb goes on to a blind brow and a left-hander. All you can see is sky - but there's an apex somewhere that you DESPERATELY need to locate.
Our practice was scheduled for 8.00 am Saturday so we all retired rather early and turned out in the morning to find that, though overcast, the roads were dry. We had an allotted 25 minutes. For Simon and me it was our first visit and there was a degree of trepidation in trying to learn a 4 mile circuit in that time. There wasn't exactly an argument as to who had the right to follow David James around but I got there first so Simon had to follow me! Which probably explained why he did not get a fast practice lap until no. 6, in the middle of which we were red flagged as an MG had buried itself in the Armco barrier after coming too enthusiastically out of the bus stop.
Practice was interesting. To keep us company, there was a field of 60 other cars - ranging between Cobras and replicas, MG V8's, MGBs, MG TB's, TR3,4,6, and 8's, Lotus', Marcos and a solitary Lister Shelby. It was all over far too soon for me, and most others I suspect. Trepidation had given way to absolute delight. I can only say that if you ever get the slightest whiff of a chance to drive round Spa - grab it with both hands and don't let go.
Much to our great delight the Class A lads had done rather well:-
POS. DRIVER BEST LAP 1 Peter Garland 2.51.817 5 Craig Jones 2.58.139 10 Mike Fellows 3.02.651 29 Martin Kurrein 3.13.765 48 Peter Sargeant 3.25.072 52 Christian Bock 3.26.810 55 David James 3.32.487 59 Simon Orebi Gann 3.35.644
and the rest of us had a great time. Mike Duncan's skill was much needed for the Class A boys: Peter was sure he had a shaking wheel; Mike (F) could hear a distinct rattle (all we needed was a roll from Craig). Interesting how we each react to the tension! In my relaxed way, I just smoked another packet of cigarettes.
After a bit of fettling it was back to watch some more practice and a couple of races or to walk around the pits and ogle the ERAs, Alfas, Talbots, Bugattis, March's, Tyrells etc and then, with a 9.50 am race looming off, to an early night. Simon had confiscated Kate's newspaper complaining that she had kept him awake the previous night by the noisy way she turned the pages. Some excuse!
The morning did not dawn bright and clear. Grey, claggy and definitely wet underfoot was the better description. Spa, suddenly, was not quite so attractive.
Off we went to the circuit having found out that one of the blue pieces of paper we'd been given had to be stuck around your wrist in order to gain entry. Most of the cars had already been fettled so it was a matter of tyre pressures or changes. There was some discussion about whether in fact we wanted to race at all - and wecompromised on the basis that we would let the Class A boys take the front of the field while the rest of us drove quietly around safely at the back.
While most of us were thinking about the racing to come Peter Garland had a double agenda for the weekend - his stag night was to be after the race. Unfortunately he started it a little early (24 hours or so) and arrived at the circuit with his usual impeccable timing but greatly the worse for wear. Things were not greatly improved when he realised he'd left the keys for his car in his hotel room some miles distant. Whilst an emissary was sent to recover them Mike Duncan did a beautiful job of removing the steering lock and hot-wiring the car.
Peter Sargeant, who had also been practising for the stag night, was letting down his tyres for the wet. Unfortunately, he had collected two different tyre pressure gauges, which read 8 psi different, and was found dismally staring at the two of them, debating which one to use on which wheel.
Meanwhile, Christian had decided to fit a new rear view mirror. Despite drilling a number of holes in the front of his car and in his perspex aero screen, he gave up and tied it on with string. Peter G, on the other hand, has the answer: you don't need much rear view if you stay in front!
There was then the inevitable chaos in assembling 68 (or 72 depending on who you listened to) cars in grid order to go out round the circuit and line up on the grid in preparation for my first ever rolling start. The usual wait and then off on the green flag. Previous races were led round by a Dodge Viper - I was too far back to see. Everyone was fairly restrained and careful, particularly at the Bus Stop and the La Source hairpin where someone in the previous race had deposited copious quantities of oil. They didn't use cement in the rain! From La Source itself, however, we could hear the leaders letting rip and everyone around immediately followed suit and charged down to Eau Rouge. Common sense prevailed and I dropped back a little rather than try and go through three abreast!
After that matters for me were fairly uneventful. Passed a few cars, got passed by a couple and repassed one or two. Bit of a moment when Barry Siddery-Smith spun right in front of me at Des Fagnes and a hell of a moment when I caught the oil out of the Bus Stop and went down the "straight" leading to La Source in a series of opposite lock slides. Unfortunately I didn't see any of the action in front until lap 7 when the red flags came out at Rivage - what a disappointment. Suddenly I saw the unmistakable glaring headlights of a Mog on full chat looming in my mirror. It was Peter Garland coming up to lap me (as predicted on lap 7) under the red flag. I desperately flung my left arm out to try and hold him back but he was past with a wave of thanks for pointing him in the direction to go!
A slow trip back to the pits and the cause was apparent - a rather obese TR driver who'd earlier chopped David James at the Bus Stop had received his just desserts. Simon saw it, but was most aggrieved: the TR was in his sights for the following corner, and escaped him only by missing the entrance to the bus stop by about 5 yards, and then turning in through the tyre wall, finishing stationary atop the island in the middle of the track. Surely it would have been easier to be passed?
In the pits we could hear the announcer (which is an unusual event in itself) congratulating Steve Williams on winning, Peter Garland for second and Craig Jones for third.
That wasn't the right result.
After a bit of protest by Peter (and after he'd been castigated for passing under a yellow (?!?) flag!) things were put right and the final result was:-
* 1 lap down
POS. DRIVER RACE TIME BEST LAP 1 Peter Garland 19.31.475 3.07.681 3 Craig Jones 20.12.389 3.17.788 7 Mike Fellows 20.54.403 3.21.297 19 Martin Kurrein 22.26.894 3.34.535 40 Simon Orebi Gann 19.56.44* 3.42.721 48 Peter Sargeant 20.19.468* 3.47.417 50 Christian Bock 20.20.923* 3.48.377 56 David James 20.49.462* 3.55.385
A storming race by the Class A boys; and well done to the rest of us. Particular congratulations to David James for holding one of the MG organisers behind him for the entire race! And, above all, thanks to Peter Sargeant for organising for us to join in such a marvelous event.
(c) Martin Kurrein (with additions from an anonymous gossip columnist)