Speedy at Le Mans 2012 – Stuart Ulph's report

Speedy at Le Mans

Peter Butler's Speedy returned to France in July for the 2012 Le Mans Classic. The team involved with Peter's entry this year consisted, as in 2010, of Andrew Storer and Chris Hudson (drivers) supported by Ian Bancroft, Graham Beckett, Jeremy Batchelor (team manager) and myself. The late Dave Wilcox's absence was much lamented. Chris Garner stepped into the breach as team photographer. The Austin Seven Clubs Association had generously financed the substantial entry fee and additional sponsorship was provided by the Pre-War Austin Seven Club, the 750 Motor Club and Studio 434.

The Thursday morning prior to the event saw us established at the circuit. Moving tools and equipment to our tented paddock stall proved much more straightforward than in our previous experience. We had begun leisurely preparation when a helpful British scrutineer appeared and asked if we were ready for inspection forthwith. This seemed too good an offer to miss, so it was all hands to the pumps to apply the new numbers and sponsors' stickers supplied by the organisers. Scrutineering raised no particular issues and we were grateful to avoid the interminable queues we had suffered two years before.

The first practice session for the pre war group was scheduled for 6:20 p.m. on Friday, 6th July. Weather conditions were still favourable. As both drivers settled to the job in hand, lap times were around 9m 30s, perfectly acceptable by our previous standards. On the car's return to the paddock we were perturbed to find the starter motor wasn't working, for the good reason that it was falling to pieces.

The team's improvisation skills produced an acceptable fix with the aid of a little paddock scrounging and after a couple of hours we had reassembled the starter motor. Back on the car, it started the engine successfully but we decided to play safe and push start the car whenever we could. The regulations permitted us to keep the engine running during pit stops but the Le Mans start certainly would certainly require a working starter motor, as might any involuntary excursions off the circuit involving a stalled engine.

Practice had revealed another minor problem in that the radiator water dumping problem of 2010 was back, despite modifications to the overflow system. Ian and I carefully examined the car for witness marks and decided that, despite PTFE tape on the threads, water was escaping between the screwed-on quick release filler cap base and the radiator neck. A careful application of extra sealant to this joint provided a successful cure.

Night practice for our group was timed for 00:30 am on Saturday morning so we made attempts to realign the headlamps in preparation for this. This proved awkward in the surprisingly well lit paddock. Practice sessions were running late, although there still seemed to be plenty of time for "demonstration" laps by interesting cars of the Ford Focus variety. When we eventually started our session we found that practice was curtailed, which deprived Chris of a lap of the circuit. Mind you, once he had experienced the fruits of our headlamp adjusting session he may have been glad to stop. Furthermore, both drivers reported intermittent charging. As a precaution, Graham connected up our battery charger and plugged it in to the mains supply in the paddock stall. This would have been a sound strategy had an unseen hand not unplugged it again in our absence later that night. Fortunately, the charging problem was soon traced to a poor contact at one of the dynamo terminals. The investigation fortuitously revealed a terminal working loose at the ignition switch as well. Our next track session was scheduled for 20:26 on Saturday evening so we were able to return to our beds for a full, if belated, night's sleep.

The race proper began for us on Saturday evening with the Le Mans start. Chris had the pleasure of sprinting across the track to discover if the starter motor worked – it did – and then a brisk lap behind the pace car to the rolling start proper. We were obliged to leave the pit wall for the rolling start so hand timing began on Chris' second lap which brought him into the obligatory pit stop, 9m 40s until the car came to a halt at Jeremy's feet. Drivers changed and Andy's standing start lap from the pit lane gave us 9m38s, followed by two flying laps of 9m19s and 9m18s respectively. These were very satisfactory times by comparison with our previous experience in similarly dry conditions.

Our next outing was due at 04:34 am on Sunday morning so there was ample time to wander around the Le Mans "village", have the odd beer and a bite to eat (at a price) and watch some of the post war cars circulating. At various points in the latter part of Saturday night the weather took a turn for the worse with a series of tropical downpours, each lasting half an our or so. The "modern" Le Mans cars in the group before our early morning session had spent a long, wet time behind the safety car. Even so, as I returned to the paddock prior to our stint, bent motors were being unloaded from recovery vehicles here and there, eager photographers hovering around the wreckage.

Conditions for our session were distinctly wet though fortunately we missed the worst of the rain. Graham and I had adjusted the headlights yet again with, I think, some success but the drivers reported poor visibility and found it hard work to spot the right line through the corners. The marked camber of the public roads and the slippery white lines down the middle added an extra touch of uncertainty to the experience. The conditions had a marked effect on the Speedy's lap times which dropped to over 10m per lap. I must admit I was very pleased to see the little car appear unscathed at the end of each lap. One or two of our paddock neighbours were less fortunate, the very nice HRG in the adjoining paddock stall returned with bent front axle, lozenged chassis and peripheral damage. One of the 328 BMWs failed to reappear but for a less sinister reason – the car had spun, stalled and then had refused to restart due, I believe, to starter motor problems. Salutary.

Our final session was scheduled for midday, by which time the circuit had more or less dried out. The Speedy had been very well behaved during the night session despite the unfavourable conditions. We had hopes of some respectable lap times in the final session and were not disappointed. Chris and Andy both returned times of just a few seconds over 9 minutes, even on the laps into and out of the mandatory pit stop. General satisfaction as the Austin took the chequered flag at Le Mans for the second time this century dissolved into the usual scramble to empty the paddock stall and reload car and equipment into Chris' van. In the final combined results, the Austin finished 44th on scratch, 30th on index of performance, a satisfactory effort.