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Alfa Romeo Championship – Croft Report 2021

CROFT 2021 BY ANDY ROBINSON

In November 2020 I was contacted by Steve Burns from the Ferrari Owners’ Club who invited The HITEK Alfa Romeo Championship to join their first ever Ferrari Club Competizione event at the Croft circuit this June. After some negotiation over fees etc. with the 750 Motor Club the event went onto our 2021 calendar and last weekend it became reality, and what a great weekend’s racing it proved to be!

The weather forecast for Saturday said there was a 5% chance of rain. Well, in horse racing parlance, the long shot came home the winner because there was a steady drizzle all day. The track surface was wet enough for the Modified and Power Trophy drivers to be in no doubt that wet tyres would be required so at least that wouldn’t be a guessing game, and a healthy grid of 22 cars was very encouraging. It was also a great pleasure to be able to welcome some new cars and/or drivers to the Championship. Roger Evans’s spectacular Invitation class 8C-powered Giulietta made its long awaited debut amid much interest and excitement, its space frame construction leading the commentators to dub it a Modsports or ‘Special Saloon’ racer for the present day. Colin Sowter’s Superproduzione N. Tecnology 147 had been imported from Italy just after Brexit (a nightmare process he said) and Colin would be having a busy weekend racing Ferraris as well as racing the Alfa in our Modified class.

We were delighted to welcome Bryan Shrubb and team back to the Championship in the BLS Automotive Alfa 33 16v, and Alastair Baptie brought his lovely little – and quick – Fiat X19 down from Scotland to have a second race with us. Connor Davies and Reece Hampton were making their car race debuts in the Twin Spark Cup, Reece having to recover from overturning his 156 in testing the previous day which the Bianco team performed their normal wonders with, repairing it to get it ready in time to race.

QUALIFYING

All 22 cars were assembled for qualifying at 11.05 on Saturday, the only drama being the refusal of Colin Sowter’s 147 to start, so his team pushed it back down to the paddock where they got it going in time for Colin to join late in the session. We are not regular visitors to Croft so a number of drivers would be learning the circuit as well as trying to set competitive qualifying times, the result being a rather large 34-second differential between quickest and slowest qualifying lap times.

Most drivers set their quickest times late in the 20-minute session but Barry McMahon was an exception, recording a 1:36.692 on only his second flying lap on the wet track surface to set the overall pole before returning to the paddock 3 laps later. As usual, Tom Hill had been first out onto the circuit in his Power Trophy class GT setting impressive times from the outset but unusually his quickest didn’t arrive till his tenth lap, a time of 1:39.214 making him the only driver apart from Barry to break the 1:40 barrier in the slippery conditions. Scott Austin was 3rd quickest in his 20-valve Fiat Turbo-powered 155, recording a time of 1:41.272 early on before returning to the paddock well before the end of the session. Roger Evans was 4th overall in 1:41.738, blasting down the straights in the powerful Giulietta while exercising a degree of caution in the corners, not having driven the car in the wet before and having raced infrequently in recent years. Bryan Shrubb was 5th quickest – 1/10th shy of Roger – in 1:41.857, and getting used to driving in the 6000–8000 RPM power band again in the high revving 33 after a couple of years’ break from racing.

Dave Messenger was an excellent 6th overall in his Power Trophy class 156 GTA, setting a time of 1:42.262 on his 12th and final lap, having gone progressively quicker throughout the session. Next, remarkably, was Colin Sowter in his Modified class 147. His team got the car started with just 4 minutes of the session remaining and he completed only one flying lap before the chequered flag came out but a 1:42.573 was good enough for 7th overall. That was remarkable enough in itself but doubly so as he had never driven the car before. There is clearly enormous potential there… 8th quickest was George Osborne, like a number of others having to learn the circuit as he went along, illustrated by the fact that that his last 3 laps were his 3rd quickest, 2nd quickest and quickest in that order cuminating in a best time of 1:43.473.

Next came the quickest of the Twin Spark Cup drivers – Richard Ford and Andrew Bourke. Andrew was into his stride straight away, leading the TS timesheets comfortably throughout the session, first with a 1:46.886, then with a 1:45.641 on his 7th lap. He improved that with 1:45.626 on his final lap but Richard Ford on his final lap suddenly shaved 9/10ths off his best time to claim pole with a time of 1:45.473, so he and Andrew would line up side by side on the Twin Spark section of the grid. Alastair Baptie was 11th quickest overall in the nimble X19 in a time of 1:45.773, a 10th quicker than Andy Inman in his 156 GTA who worked progressively down to a time of 1:45.867 on his final qualifying lap. They were followed by a group of five Twin Sparks, 4 of whom also set their best times on their final lap. They were headed by James Ford in 1:45.891, followed by Simon Cresswell (1:47.270), Jon Billingsley (1:47.771), Martin Jones (1:48.942 on his 7th lap) and Connor Davies (1:49.118). Keith Waite was next in his familiar and distinctive 75 in 1:50.951 followed by Geoff Turral’s 156 Twin Spark in 1:51.750.

The final 3 were all having issues of one sort or another. Paul Webster’s 147 GTA was making a welcome return to the circuits but the car was intermittently showing zero oil pressure prompting Paul to shut it down. When he restarted it the oil pressure would return but he dared not risk letting it continue running as he said it wasn’t just a problem with the gauge. His intention was to start from the pit lane on safety grounds. Gabs Iaccarino was next in his Power Trophy class GT. Gabs had been making steady progress in getting the car sorted after its Donington teething problems but was hampered here by a lack of any wet tyres as well as not knowing the circuit. Finally, Reece Hampton was endeavouring to settle into his 156 Twin Spark and steady himself after his testing accident on Friday, keeping the car on the circuit as a baseline from which to start building his confidence and experience in a race setting.

RACE 1

As the time for our 3.45 race approached the rain which had got heavier earlier in the afternoon had eased off into a light drizzle again. All those with tyre choices to make were on wets and Paul Webster and Colin Sowter had elected to start from the pit lane, Paul due to his oil pressure problem and Colin because of a clutch creep problem linked to his sequential gearbox. As the lights went out Tom Hill took the lead momentarily but Barry McMahon quickly clawed this back and led the field through Clervaux. Dave Messenger grabbed 3rd place behind Tom while Scott Austin dropped to 6th and Bryan Shrubb also lost places initially. At the end of lap 1 Barry had a 3-second lead over Tom, Roger Evans had passed Dave Messenger to move into 3rd place, and Dave was ahead of George Osborne, Scott Austin, Alastair Baptie, Bryan Shrubb, Andy Inman, Keith Waite, Gabs Iaccarino and Paul Webster in that order.

When the flag dropped for the Twin Spark grid start Andrew Bourke took the lead and led Richard Ford through the Clervaux, Hawthorn and the chicane. At the end of lap 1 he had a lead of 1.7 seconds over Richard, Simon Cresswell was 3rd some 1.8 seconds behind Richard, and James Ford was 4th  ahead of Jon Billingsley, Martin Jones, Connor Davies, Reece Hampton and Geoff Turral. Geoff was the unfortunate one: having made a good start he was in the main Twin Spark group when someone made contact from behind and pushed him off the circuit at Hawthorn, leaving him 4 seconds adrift of the rest when he rejoined. Geoff passed Reece on lap 2 and got his head down in pursuit of the others. At the front Richard Ford was maintaining the gap to Andrew ahead of him to around a second; he did his fastest lap on lap 6 but on lap 7 he overdid it, catching a kerb and sending the car spinning along the straight leading to Barcroft. He had 16 seconds in hand over Simon Cresswell in 3rd but it dropped him nearly 10 seconds behind Andrew and, as luck would have it, it was to deny him a potential class win at the finish.

In the front group Scott Austin started to make up for his slow start by passing George Osborne on lap 2 and Dave Messenger on lap 3. He had been worried about a lack of grip but the 155 was looking both stable and quick through Clervaux and Hawthorn, and he began to pull well clear of the two Power Trophy cars. His progress was to stop there however as Roger Evans ahead of him was lapping a couple of seconds quicker on average. Of the 2 cars that started in the pit lane after the Twin Sparks Colin Sowter was making rapid progress through the field: he passed 4 cars on lap 1 and by lap 6 he had cleared the whole Twin Spark field plus Gabs Iaccarino and Andy Inman as well and set off after Alastair Baptie’s X19 which was some 20 seconds up the road ahead. Paul Webster on the other hand was circulating slowly at the back with his eyes glued to the oil pressure gauge – there is so much more to come from this car and Paul himself and it will be great when all the gremlins have been sorted and he will have re-established himself at his rightful place in the field.

At the front Barry McMahon was sailing serenely on: having established a 5-second lead over Tom Hill by the end of lap 2 ,he increased the gap to 10 seconds over the Power Trophy class leader by lap 7. Tom was driving beautifully, some 44 seconds clear of his nearest class rival at this point and had the commentators eulogising over his car control when he was quite clearly driving on the limit. Behind him Roger Evans was using all his experience to acclimatise himself in the mighty Giulietta, experimenting with different gear selections at various points on the circuit to find the optimum choices, and once he was into his stride held the gap to Tom to between 7 and 9 seconds in the wet conditions. That left Scott Austin in a lonely 4th place ahead of an intense battle that was developing between Dave Messenger and George Osborne, more of which shortly…

On lap 8 Andrew Bourke led the Twin Sparks by some 10 seconds over Richard Ford after the latter’s spin. Simon Cresswell wasn’t quite able to match the pace of the front two but was running strongly in 3rd. For the first few laps James Ford was nose to tail behind him looking a real threat but on lap 7 James’s clutch failed and he retired from the race. However, there was no rest for Simon because Jon Billingsley had been close behind James and then took his place pressuring Simon when James retired. Close behind Jon was Martin Jones; he had lost some 3 seconds to Jon in the first couple of laps  but then began to cut the gap to the 3 battling ahead of him. A slower lap 6 dropped him back again but then he really got his head down and closed up onto Jon’s tail again to make it a 3-car battle for 3rd. Further back, Connor Davies in his first race in the Championship was running well but was having major visibility problems – his screen misting up repeatedly in the wet conditions – which was clearly hampering his progress. He was a few seconds ahead of the delayed Geoff Turral and they were taking turns closing the gap and between them and extending it again. Behind Geoff, Reece Hampton was circulating a few seconds off the pace of the rest of the field but was sensibly feeling his way in the tricky conditions and doing his best to keep well out of the way when being lapped. If he continues to apply himself to learning race driving techniques he has youth on his side and will go quicker and quicker as time goes on.

At the front of the Modified/Power Trophy field Barry McMahon, Tom Hill, Roger Evans and Scott Austin were well spaced out but there was a fierce battle between Dave Messenger and George Osborne for 2nd place in the Power Trophy class. Dave had got the better start, running 4th overall with Scott Austin between him and George, but once Scott had passed him and drawn away he and George were nose to tail. There are few better than Dave at defending a lead and for 9 laps they circulated in close formation less than a second apart, George unable to find a way through. The decisive moment came on lap 10. As they went down the start/finish straight still nose to tail George had a little look down the inside, but when he noticed Dave braking slightly early he quickly switched to the outside entering Clervaux and got his nose in front. There was a split second when 2 lesser drivers would have come together and spun into the gravel but Dave wisely tightened his line and George completed a superb move around the outside to claim the place which he then held through Hawthorn and the chicane. This wasn’t the end of the drama however. On lap 11 Dave was still right on George’s tail but entering Sunny In he took what seemed to be his normal line through the corner but the car suddenly snapped sideways without warning and he went off backwards into the tyre wall sustaining heavy damage to the back of the car. He managed to restart and finish the race but lost places to Colin Sowter and Alastair Baptie in the finishing order.

At the end Barry McMahon won convincingly again, ahead of Tom Hill, Roger Evans, and Scott Austin. So where were the rest? Andy Inman had brought along family and supporters from his North East home city for this meeting and approached the races with his customary enthusiasm, finishing well clear of the Twin Spark field. His best lap time was competitive with those of George Osborne and Dave Messenger ahead of him and although for the most part he was 2 – 3 seconds adrift of their times 9th overall and 4th in class was an excellent result. Keith Waite also had a good run even though he said his car was not revving cleanly above 4000 rpm, finishing 12th overall. The last time the Alfa Championship raced at Croft Bryan Shrubb was a race winner in his 33 so why was he down in 16th place here? The answer was he hadn’t been able to see where he was going! After 3 laps he lost over a minute as he had his windscreen cleared in the pit lane. After that his pace was comparable to that of those well up in the running order as you would expect of a driver of his quality but he had just lost too much time with the stop. The final Power Trophy runner was Gabs Iaccarino in his second race meeting in the Championship. He finished 2 laps down but was running on tyres with zero grip and did well to get round in one piece. There would be a better day ahead in the dry.

For the last few laps the running order remained unchanged to the finish but there was an unexpected drama on the final lap when Andrew Bourke spun at Clervaux. Richard Ford’s earlier spin had dropped him back 10 seconds from Andrew but here he was thundering down the start/finish straight as Andrew was stationary mid corner ahead. Fortunately for Andrew he got it restarted before Richard arrived and won by 3 seconds at the finish. Simon Cresswell just held off Jon Billingsley by 0.2 seconds to take 3rd in class and they were followed by Martin Jones in 5th. Connor Davies took 6th ahead of Geoff Turral and Reece Hampton.

RACE 1 RESULTS

CLASS WINNERS
Modified Barry McMahon
Power Trophy Tom Hill
Twin Spark Cup Andrew Bourke

POSTSCRIPT: ALASTAIR BAPTIE’S FIAT X19

It was a pleasure to welcome Alastair back to the Championship for another one-off appearance in his X19 and after the first race an amusing little story emerged. Alastair’s race time at the end of 11 laps was 20 minutes and 4 seconds. The winner of the Pirelli Ferrari Formula Classic race – held immediately before the Alfa race – was Wayne Marrs’s Ferrari 355 Challenge car which completed 11 laps in 20 minutes and 6 seconds. After our race one of the Ferrari drivers came down to speak with Alastair and said ‘If you’d been in our race you would have won it; what size turbo have you got in that X19?’ To which Alastair replied ‘Turbo? There’s no turbo, it’s just 1500 cc…’

RACE 2

We were very much hoping for better weather and a dry race on Sunday. There had been overnight rain but the track surface was drying until renewed drizzle briefly caused some pessimism. However, it was short lived and the track was dry when our race came around at 12.45. What did cause some consternation among some was the news/reminder that each section of the grid would be reversed for Race 2. This had been written into the Regs by the ARCA Panel last November and publicised as well without apparent controversy but now that the reality of it was imminent it brought the issue into focus. Drivers were accordingly briefed to take great care particularly in the first corner and asked not to overtake unless it was judged to be 100% safe to do so. Although there was a degree of variation in how this instruction was interpreted, there were no incidents, the inexperienced drivers at the front of each grid having conducted themselves impeccably.

Judicious application of the hammer by Team Darnells had straightened out the rear bodywork of Dave Messenger’s car sufficiently for him to take the start looking reasonably intact but he was minus his rear wing (which had broken in half in the crash) so it would be interesting to see how this would affect the car’s aerodynamics. Paul Webster and Colin Sowter again decided to start from the pit lane for the same reasons as before and Alastair Baptie also had to do so at the last minute because one of his bonnet catches was not locked down and he pitted to have it fastened correctly. After the field safely cleared Clervaux, Hawthorn and the chicane the overtaking began in earnest and at the end of lap 1 Bryan Shrubb led the front group overall from Tom Hill, Barry McMahon, Dave Messenger, Roger Evans, Scott Austin, George Osborne, Gabs Iaccarino, Andy Inman and Keith Waite in that order, with Alastair Baptie and Colin Sowter beginning to pick up places and Paul Webster circulating cautiously at the back.

The Twin Sparks also negotiated the first corners safely and at the end of lap 1 Martin Jones – determined to make the best of his enhanced start position – led from Andrew Bourke 2nd and Geoff Turral 3rd, followed through by Jon Billingsley, Connor Davies, Simon Cresswell, Richard Ford, James Ford and Reece Hampton. Martin wasn’t able to hold Andrew off for long however as he took the lead on lap 2. However, the quicker Twin Spark drivers were finding it more difficult to get through to their ‘normal’ positions in the running order than the Modified/Power Trophy drivers, a natural result of a class with narrower performance differentials. Geoff Turral and Jon Billingsley managed to pass Connor Davies on lap 2 and Jon passed Geoff on lap 3 to close in on Martin Jones ahead. On lap 4 Martin and Jon were racing in close proximity when a moment of contact through the left hander before the complex sent Martin spinning off the track and hitting the tyre wall rear end first shattering his rear screen and sustaining significant damage. Sadly for Martin this was the end of his race as he crawled back to the pits to retire. This unfortunate incident left Jon clear in 2nd place, with Geoff Turral, Connor Davies, Richard Ford, James Ford, and Simon Cresswell stretched out a few seconds behind him, and Reece Hampton the first of the group to be lapped by the leader.

In the front group Barry McMahon’s irresistible pace took him past Bryan Shrubb into the lead on lap 2 and on lap 3 he shattered Tim Lewis’s outright lap record with a stunning time of 1:29.618. Bryan was driving superbly but ominously Roger Evans went 3 seconds quicker on lap 3 and briefly looked certain to catch and pass him until his gear linkage came apart on lap 4 and he coasted into retirement, a disappointing end to a drive that really looked like coming alive. That left Tom Hill in 3rd place overall and we were wondering if he would be able to close the gap to Bryan and challenge him for 2nd. However, the reverse happened – Bryan was able to pull away by around a second per lap, and Tom in turn was able steadily to increase the gap to Scott Austin behind him to 15 seconds by lap 6. Dave Messenger had made another good start and was 4th at the end of lap 1 but was passed by Scott Austin on lap 3 and by George Osborne on lap 5. Scott went well early on but a big sideways moment at Clervaux on lap 9 – skilfully saved – heralded an increase in his lap times and he had been passed by both George and Dave by lap 10.

Further back, Andy Inman had lost out on the first lap to these 3 drivers but passed Gabs Iaccarino on lap 2 to go 8th overall. However, he was lapping some 4 seconds slower than the cars in front of him and could make no further progress. Gabs meanwhile was at last racing on some proper race tyres and his much more competitive lap times reflected a step change in his performance. Of the pit lane starters, both Alastair Baptie and Colin Sowter were picking their way steadily through the field together; by the end of lap 6 they had cleared the Twin Spark field and were starting to reel in the cars ahead.

Andrew Bourke had built up a 4-second lead over the rest of the Twin Spark field by lap 4 and looked set to pull further away but on lap 7 disaster struck: his engine cut out and he coasted to a halt. He switched everything off and then managed to restart the engine but by this time he had been passed by Jon Billingsley, Richard Ford, Connor Davies, James Ford, Simon Cresswell and Geoff Turral who then became the top 6 in that order with Andrew dropping to 7th. Unfortunately the same thing happened again and again dropping him back to 17th overall and 6th in class by the end, a cruel blow to his Championship hopes.

Jon Billingsley, however, seized the opportunity with both hands, maintaining his lead over Richard Ford in 2nd to the chequered flag and winning the class by 3 seconds, setting fastest lap and recording his first class win since a brace at Snetterton in 2019. Richard took second place again and James Ford passed Geoff Turral on lap 7 and Connor Davies on lap 8 to go 3rd, which he maintained to the flag. Simon Cresswell had been trying to follow him through but having passed Geoff Turral on lap 7 he was finding Connor Davies a tough nut to crack. On his 8th lap he tried a lunge down the inside of Connor in the Complex but only succeeded in hitting his rear bumper, forcing his own retirement from the race. Having viewed the camera footage the Clerk of the Course deemed Simon to be at fault and imposed a penalty for causing a collision. Connor Davies finished an excellent 4th in class in what was only his second-ever car race ahead of Geoff Turral (also acclimatising himself well to a front wheel drive race car) and Reece Hampton who deserved credit for a safe and steady drive after his unnerving testing accident on Friday.

In the Modified/Power Trophy group Barry McMahon took a dominant win – increasing his Championship points lead – with Bryan Shrubb an excellent 2nd. Tom Hill was 3rd  and won the Power Trophy class convincingly although surprisingly he did not record fastest lap in the class which went to 4th placed George Osborne with a new class lap record of 1:34.577. Colin Sowter was an excellent 6th overall having started from the pit lane – a superb drive in the circumstances and one which demonstrates great promise for future results once the ‘creeping clutch’ issue is remedied. Dave Messenger was next followed by Scott Austin, Andy Inman, Alastair Baptie and Gabs Iaccarino who achieved his goal for the weekend of finishing ahead of all the Twin Sparks. Keith Waite completed a good drive to finish 16th with a down-on-power engine and the final classified finisher was Paul Webster who had been circulating slowly initially but as his car was showing no signs of its oil pressure vanishing he did pick up his pace as the race progressed and put in some competitive times. Hopefully the car will be on full chat at Snetterton.

RACE 2 RESULTS

CLASS WINNERS
Modified Barry McMahon
Power Trophy Tom Hill
Twin Spark Cup Jon Billingsley

Barry McMahon was the winner of the Driver of the Weekend award and we now look forward to a double header at the Snetterton 300 circuit on 17/18 July where race 2 will once again feature a reverse grid lineup.

Andy Robinson
Championship Coordinator

NEW LAP RECORDS

CLASS DRIVER/CAR LAPTIME
Modified Barry McMahon (156) 1:29.618
Power Trophy George Osborne (75) 1:34.577
Twin Spark Cup Jon Billingsley (147 2.0) 1:42.047
Overall Barry McMahon (156) 1:29.618

*All images @copyrightalfaromeochampionship

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