Snetterton 2020 Preview By Andy Robinson
WELL, RACING AT LAST!
After a winter of anticipation we’ve experienced a disconnected spring with everything on hold and uncertainty as to when – and even at one point if – racing would be allowed to resume this year, and we would be able to commence our first-ever season under the distinguished auspices of the 750 Motor Club.
During the enforced break our drivers and supporters have kept their racing appetites satisfied as best they can – some have enjoyed participating in and/or viewing the excellent virtual racing organised by Guy Swarbrick of the Alfa Romeo Owners’ Club, some have used the time to work on their race cars and others have revived memories of seasons past with photos and videos posted on social media. Now at last our first meeting is only a week away on the Snetterton 200 circuit and what fantastic racing it promises to be with a mouth-watering entry list.
It is worth digressing a little at this point to note that it will be a strange day in some respects – no scrutineering or signing on in the normal way, social distancing must be scrupulously observed, no podium interviews, and we will not be allowed to hold our usual prize giving presentation to round off the day – instead those in the top 3 overall, top 3 in the Power Trophy, and top 3 in the Twin Spark Cup + the award for Driver of the Day will have to collect their trophies one by one when they are able to without breaching the social distancing guidelines. The trophies will be pre-sanitised for this.
Now to that mouth watering entry list:
The Modified class entry list has been a bit patchy at times over the last couple of years but there is nothing patchy about the highly competitive and awesomely quick group of cars that have entered for Snetterton this year. It is difficult to know where to start but let’s start with 2015 Champion Graham Seager who is back with his supercharged black 3.2 litre GTV, always a welcome sight on track. Graham is an experienced and wily campaigner who knows how to judge a race; he rarely leads at the start but as the race progresses he knows just when to make his move to optimum effect. Given the speed of his rivals on this grid, however, he may have to adjust his strategy somewhat. The last time he and Barry McMahon’s 156 were on the same grid was a couple of years ago at the sadly departed Rockingham circuit where Barry was dominant. Last season Barry broke the lap record at Snetterton 300 by a substantial margin before engine problems sadly shortened his season. Now he’s back with a rebuilt motor, apparently with a smaller turbo and also running on Dunlop Direzza track day tyres in Britcar, so it will be interesting to see what spec he is running at Snetterton and how that will compare with his rivals.
Running Barry very close last season at Brands and Snetterton was Richard Thurbin in his Lancia Delta Integrale and in fact Richard beat Barry in race 2 at Snetterton thanks in part to Barry encountering mechanical problems. The incredible traction of the 4 wheel drive Lancia enables Richard to make rocket starts – he started at the back of the Modified/Power Trophy section of the grid at Brands due to a problem in qualifying but he still led the field into Paddock Hill Bend by a substantial margin –and this throws down the gauntlet to his rivals. His speed and bravery are plain to see to anyone who has watched his in-car footage and it will be fascinating to see who – if anyone – can catch him. One driver/car combination that seems certain to have the firepower to do so is Ted Pearson in the new MiTO 404 2.0 turbo developed by Jamie Porter at Alfa Workshop. I’ve had a number of conversations with Jamie over the last 18 months or so as the car was being developed and can’t wait to see it in action. On a chilly pre-lockdown day at Snetterton in February Ted lapped only a second off Barry McMahon’s formidable lap record and that was just a shakedown test! Ted is a class act as a driver and the car is clearly capable of great things so its debut is eagerly awaited.
Making a welcome return to the Championship after a year or so away for differing reasons are two drivers who are extremely quick and a highly valued presence on the Alfa grid. Vincent Dubois has had a year away raising in single seaters but we are delighted to see him returning with his Integrale-engined Alfa 156. With 500+ horsepower going through the front wheels Vincent used to have a problem with breaking driveshafts. However, he’s had a new batch of stronger ones specially made and hopefully they will eradicate that weakness. Vincent is a great character and a very clever engineer, and it’s a great pleasure to welcome him back to the Championship.
The same can be said of Scott Austin. Scott acquired the well-known 3.0 litre black 155 from Ian Brookfield a couple of years ago and campaigned it successfully in the Power Trophy despite a horsepower disadvantage. At last season’s opener at Brands the long-in-the-tooth V6 eventually cried enough and Scott missed the rest of the season planning a rebuild. Now he’s back with a Fiat 5-cylinder 20 valve turbo engine installed in the car, an interesting and potentially unique combination. Scott says he will be developing the car as the season progresses and is characteristically modest about how quick he will be initially, but we will see. He’s an excellent driver and is sure to get the best out of the car.
Eight entries in the Power Trophy is great to see and promises close competitive racing throughout the field, V6 Alfas and beautifully prepared Punto Abarths making an eclectic mix. Defending triple Champion Tom Hill has stepped up from the Twin Spark Cup to the more powerful class and is sure to be a top contender despite his relative inexperience with a V6 car: his ability to understand and feed back how the car is performing and the time and effort he puts into analysing his performance will ensure that. He will be racing only the second Alfa GT ever to race in the Championship and his prowess combined with Roger Evans’s skilful preparation of the car promises to be a potent combination.
Tom will be renewing his acquaintance with his old Twin Spark Cup sparring partner Dave Messenger in his class winning 156 GTA. Dave ran Tom very close in the overall Championship standings last year, just having to give best to him in the overall points table at the final meeting at Donington in what was an outstanding season for Dave, a dominant Power Trophy class win being an excellent achievement.
Over the winter there have been delectable photos of Jamie Thwaites’s 155 on social media. It was hard to imagine the car looking any more stunning than it already did but it seems that Jamie and team have managed it. It isn’t just about appearances though; Jamie was very competitive last season with a 3-litre engine and with a 3.2 now installed he is certain to be bang on the pace. The standard of preparation makes this car/driver combination an outstanding and iconic symbol for the Alfa Romeo Championship.
Speaking of which, George Osborne’s beautifully presented Alfa 75 is another fine example of a car and driver combination that graces our Championship. George raced in the Modified class last season and outright victories at Brands and Silverstone were testament to his ability. Watching his in-car camera footage it almost looks like he is out for a Sunday drive in the country but the relaxed appearance is deceptive as he is extremely quick; definitely one to watch.
Like many drivers, the redoubtable Andy Inman has been champing at the bit to be out on the circuit again with his Revs Alfa-prepared 156 GTA. Andy put in some very strong drives last season and it was great to see him revelling in the performance of the car. Switching from his ageing 156 Twin Spark to the GTA has undoubtedly rejuvenated him and it is great to see him enjoying his racing more than ever. He cannot be underestimated.
Joining the Alfa V6 contingent in the Power Trophy are 3 Southgate Racing-prepared Fiat Punto Abarths, the McFie brothers, Chris and Simon, being joined this season by newcomer Luke Praoline. Budget issues limited their entries last season but when Simon did appear on the entry list he put in characteristically strong performamces including an outstanding outright win at Festival Italia in tricky conditions when he beat all the V6 cars. Both he and Chris are capable of doing this anywhere, even on circuits where a power disadvantage would appear to count against them. The cars are impeccably prepared and exceptionally well driven by competitive and highly skilled drivers and are an absolute treat to watch.
TWIN SPARK CUP
Rumours of the demise of the Twin Spark Cup are greatly exaggerated, with another strong entry at Snetterton evidence of the perennial popularity of the Alfa Twin Spark engine and the production cars it powers. Once again we will be operating a split grid format as we have in recent years, with the Twin Spark cars having their own flagged start some 10 to 15 seconds after the Modified/ Power Trophy cars. With Tom Hill having moved into the Power Trophy class, the field is wide open for any driver in the field to take over his mantle.
Andrew Bourke won the Championship overall in 2017 and, after a sabbatical in 2018, finished third overall last year. He was unable to match Tom Hill’s pace in so doing but he is undoubtedly a very strong contender for overall and class honours this season in his 156. Richard Ford is another proven race winner in the class as past victories over Tom at Snetterton and Rockingham clearly demonstrate. Last season he had one of those successions of reliability problems that every driver dreads – unbelievably unlucky – but despite that he still finished fourth in class over the season. With a fair wind and the gods frowning elsewhere he has an outstanding chance of a successful season. Ahead of Richard in the Championship last season and fourth overall was Simon Cresswell. He is always in the mix and an example of his luck was at Croft last season when he only had to complete the last lap to win the class but his car expired depriving him of victory. I’m sure none of his rivals would begrudge him a class win and he is sure to be prominent in the running order once again.
Also returning after rejoining the Championship last year is Steve O’Brien in his 147. The ever-enthusiastic Steve finished fifth in class last year and has been eagerly awaiting the recommencement of racing, looking to improve on his achievements in 2019, when he consistently accumulated good points finishes. Just behind Steve in the standings last season was Martin Jones, like Steve a great character to have around the paddock. Last season was his first in Alfa racing and he made steady and visible progress through the season, going quicker and quicker race by race. This year he has swapped his 147 for a 156 and all the omens point to his continuing to get closer and closer to the front of the field.
Making a welcome return to the Championship this season is the popular Jeremy Chilton. Jeremy last raced with us in 2017 when he finished 10th overall in the Championship and, after a couple of years’ marshalling, has decided to have another go at driving. Welcome back Jeremy! Occasional racer Gethin Llewellyn is also returning to the driving seat at Snetterton in his 156, a car which Jon Billingsley took to 2 class wins at Snetterton in 2018. Indications are that it might be a one-off drive which would be a great shame, so I hope he can find a way to do more races with us. At the time of writing we have also been expecting an entry from James Ford. James is a former Twin Spark class winner and also finished runner up in the class twice – 2014 and 2015 seasons – as well as finishing second overall in the Championship in the latter year. Since then he has raced less regularly but is always a front runner when he does – witness his strong results at Cadwell and Donington last season – so if he appears as expected he is sure to be a contender for the top positions.
Finally, we extend a warm welcome to some new drivers. Jon Tortolani has acquired the ex-Luther Blissett 156 and has been quietly working away at overhauling it ready to race this year. Luke Powell and Charlie Green are looking to share a car at Snetterton, doing one race each, with a plan to purchase a second car in due course. Luke has raced karts with success in the past but is new to car racing. Please can we all – in the true community spirit of the Alfa Romeo Championship – welcome them to the fold and help them with any advice and assistance they may need.