Speedy at Le Mans – Dave Wilcox' report

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Speedy at Le Mans

On July 10th & 11th 2010, seventy five years after Belfast garage owner Harry Ferguson entered an Austin Seven Speedy Type 75, CZ 6324, driven by Jack Barbour and John Carr, history was repeated. Wearing car number 62, the same as had been worn in 1935 and which, with the help of persuasive team Manager Jeremy Batchelor, had been generously issued by the French organisers, the same car in the hands of drivers Andy Storer and Chris Hudson, achieved the remarkable feat of finishing in 36th position scratch and 16th position, Index of performance, within its 1923 – 1939 plateau field of 69 entries.

This year's event was not quite in the same context as the 1935 competition, where, within its class, the Speedy was pitched against three other works entered Austins co-piloted by no less than Dodson, Goodacre and Driscoll. Of these only the Dodson car finished and that was behind the Barbour /Carr entry which covered 141 laps – Dodson managed 138. The 2010 event only offered the opportunity to 'sample' the flavour of the full 24 hour endurance, with three 45 minute sessions, one at night and two in daylight but Le Mans is a legendary place in the annals of motorsport and any chance to experience its magic is not to be missed!

Fine hot weather was the weekend forecast when members of the team arrived at Le Mans on Thursday morning and no time was lost in setting up base in the competitors camping area and checking the car in preparation for scrutineering. Owner Peter Butler had wished to emulate the pre-war team and with the help of timekeeper Stuart Ulph's connections, all of the 2010 team had superlative white overalls bearing the team logo plus number 62 on one of the arms.

The camp was some distance from the paddocks but the organisers had provided ferry transport in the form of '40's' military vehicles, Willy's Jeeps and Dodge personnel carriers etc., owned and operated by enthusiasts from their WWII look-alike tented village. Each plateau had its own paddock area within which each entry occupied a specified position in a tented 'garage'. We shared our garage with a 1935 Alfa Romeo 8C, a 1932 Invicta S Type, two BMW 328's one of which, in the hands of its driver Albert Otten was the eventual scratch winner and lastly a 1929 BNC 53 Sport – hallowed company indeed. Once installed in the garage the preparation continued, following a carefully considered set of procedures.

The car had been fully restored by Mike New, of Hinton Historic Engineering for Peter but then required race preparation suitable for an endurance event. This was done under the watchful eye of Andy Storer and involved changes to engine, suspension, wiring and braking etc., and only commenced in late March continuing right up to the final weekend prior to the event.

It was pleasing to hear, therefore, from Chris Hudson, that, as a result of these last minute tweaks in the spring department the car was 'the best handling Austin Seven he'd driven'. Obviously it must be every teams avowed intention to finish such an event as Le Mans Classic but the significance of the appearance for this little car 75 years after its works supported participation, made the desire to complete overwhelming.

In 1935 the entry had in some small way been supported by the factory team although a copy of internal communication sent prior to travelling to Le Mans, makes it quite plain which car should receive the primary attention! Although the 2010 competition involved reduced time on track and a changed course, thus restricting the possibility to accumulate the number of laps as pre-war, the preparatory work both before and during the weekend must have been on a par.

With 63 cars in the paddock to be scrutineered and but a small group of officials, waiting was inevitable and there was no concession to the numbers in line made when lunchtime arrived, the mandatory 12 'til 2 being taken.

It was noted the extent to which each car was scrutinised with much discussion between the owners and 'Le Mans staff' as identified by their shirts. Consequently we were more than pleased that when it came to our turn and with no more than a searching visual assessment on the part of the scrutineer, it passed. Ten to fifteen minutes at the most, certainly the quickest of the day it seemed. This first hurdle having been cleared we repaired to an evening of food, wine and rest, the latter would be at a premium through Friday and the weekend.

Our approach to the circuit on Friday morning saw us covering part of the Mulsanne straight where last minute placement of catch fencing was proceeding. Our Saturday approach would have to be revised! The atmosphere was already building. This was my first experience of this venue with its legendary history of triumph and tragedy. For the team, however, the focus remained specific. Analysis, judgement, decision and result were the only points of consequence.

Two practice grids, which both drivers had to participate in, would be at seven in the evening, classified as 'day practice' and one am on Saturday morning, unquestionably the night practice! Andy Storer was first to go out using the opportunity to familiarise himself with the 8.5 mile Circuit de la Sarthe. Neither he or Chris had driven at Le Mans before so both drivers had a steep learning curve to remember bends, chicanes, braking points etc., and evaluate the car. Speedy performed well in both hands with a best time of 9' 42" attributed to Chris. There had been but an estimate as to what the lap times would be, the team were pleased with the results and were confident of significant improvement in the next session. Both drivers felt that in the engine department 'there was another 1000 RPM available'. A minor handling problem was simply solved by accessing spares from the 'back-up Nippy' taken as a precaution – no stone left unturned there!

The early morning or 'night' session commenced at approximately one a.m. and with the drivers having the benefit of somewhat better than standard Austin Seven lights the best time was 9' 51". Satisfied with the practice outcome team members hastened away to get their 4-5 hours sleep in preparation for the Saturday start. Reflecting on aspiration against attainment, thus far all objectives had been exceeded. It could only get better.

With the evening start scheduled at 9-24 there was a brief respite to take in some of the many attractions but with comprehensive checks to make, mechanics, Graham Beckett and Ian Bancroft, commenced their task at the earliest opportunity. This intense focus paid dividends when, mid afternoon, inspection of the fuel filter revealed a high build up of contaminants, no doubt released from the tank by the vibrations of testing and practice. Replacement of the filter was effected, though in the process, Ian's pristine white overalls, together with his hair, attained a true pre-war oily patina!

As the team approached the first grid proper, consideration was given to the pit lane strategy. A mandatory stop for driver change, water etc., involved pit lane discipline to avoid breaking the 60 kph monitored limit and ensuring that the minimum required stoppage time of 1.5 minutes was adhered to. Subsequent perusal of the first session details revealed 21 teams incurred penalties for rule incursions of one sort or another.

Andy took the first leg from row 29 of Plateau 1 – Manche 1 (grid 1). It was with an enormous sense of historical expectation that we saw the car pass by on its first lap. I'm reliably informed that Peter had a tear in his eye at this point – the occasion was not lost on any of us. The length of the circuit and the degree of time allocated to each grid meant that Andy would come in for the changeover at the end of his second lap so whether Chris would achieve a third at the end of his stint was open to speculation. In the event a fifth lap was covered. Speedy performed reliably and after the allocated period had elapsed returned to the paddock to be checked and performances analysed. The rapidly available statistics placed the car at 45th with an elapsed time of 49' 05" and 18th on index of performance. Quickest lap was 9' 19" – an excellent start.

Andy's euphoria was expressed when he described 'draughting past two Bugatti's' on his opening lap then, with fading light, heading down the Mulsanne straight at 78 m.p.h. – unforgettable…!

Fuel, which could only be purchased from the organisers and was available at the pit garages, was monitored to calculate consumption and a pre-war style dipstick carefully marked for further reference. There is a marvellous piece of film from the 1935 event showing our Speedy being refuelled in the pits from cans but alas this procedure is now not allowed on the grounds of safety.

Because the car had behaved so well there were only a few tasks to be done. The next grid was due off at 5.22 so if you had a mind to rest around the paddock area, ear plugs or defenders were essential. Our neighbouring Alfa Romeo team had not been comfortable with their car and continued to work throughout the night. The sound of the straight eight supercharged engine being blipped at 2.30 am was however still music to ones ears. I avowed to test my stamina and wandered the paddock enviously looking at the plethora of historical motoring gems.

The cool air of early dawn welcomed Chris as he took the 28th row of Plateau 1 Manche 2. Unsurprisingly a few hardy spectators had grandstands of seating choice wherever they went. The routine was repeated and another 5 laps put under the belt. Whatever the outcome now the car had performed splendidly and both drivers confided their extreme pleasure while out on the circuit where there were fellow competitors to be had! Each was gaining a confidence and knowledge of the track with Andy saying it was 'the best circuit he'd ever driven'. A best lap time of 9' 23" was put down and the cumulative positions improved to 36th scratch and 16th Index of performance. An elapsed time of 50'15" together with the time from round 1 gave a cumulative time of 1- 39' 20".

So with one session remaining and due to commence at 13.50 no stone was left unturned in making sure the car had every chance of completion and when the car left the paddock there was an exodus for the pits and grandstands. Unlike UK events that I have experienced where security is taken very seriously, the French lived up to their nonchalant attitude with the consequence that the pit lane seemed awash with team support personnel. We were no exception, after all this was a once in a lifetime experience. Andy Storer had the privilege of leading out which meant he would experience the magic of a Le Mans start. This little piece of tradition is included only as a showpiece and the grid reforms in correct position once they reach the Mulsanne straight to follow a pace car back to the start line where competition commences with a rolling start. One of the distinct advantages of the Speedy 75 is quick acceleration from a standing start and Andy maintained he made up 20 or so places after his sprint across the track but as stated it was all to no avail and back down the snake he went!

There was a nervousness on the pit-wall despite the drivers having insisted they were now only out to finish and not improve lap times or places. It was therefore desperately disappointing to see Andy return down the pit road instead of passing us on his first lap. He related that a Bugatti had spun in front of a Bentley and the Speedy – it was, he insisted, just as he was about to overtake the Bentley – for a 3rd time!

As a consequence he had experienced gear selection problems and decided to return to the pits. A brief conversation with Team Manager Jeremy and he was persuaded on his way again. On the pit-wall we speculated at the upshot of this incident and whether it would affect the car's overall position. It was a relief to see and hear the car circulate past reliably before driver change. Chris therefore had to decide if he wanted to put in some quicker times to try and achieve one additional lap before the period finished. With a 9'19" on lap 4 he managed to cross the start-finish line before the end of the period, going on to complete a 5th circuit before finishing thus confirming the previously established overall positions of 36th and 16th. An absolutely marvellous effort and unbelievable result, particularly in the presence of such sublime opposition. When we looked at the quality and history of the cars that finished behind the little Austin it was a fairy tale.

For me what it did emphasise was the magnificence of the Barbour and Carr result in 1935 when the car did the actual 24 hours – I take my hat off to them and feel privileged to have been but a small part of this team three quarters of a century on.