Historic Motorsport: Getting Back To It At Brands Hatch With Minis, Formula 1, Prototypes, And Sports Cars
Photography by Will Broadhead
Since the 1920s, the noise of some form of motorsport has rung out from a small patch of countryside in the southeast of England, the grassy banks forming a natural amphitheater to take in the sounds of everything from grass-track motorcycles to Grand Prix cars. The ancient trees that lined the circuit bore witness to some of the greatest triumphs and tragedies of motorsport, and whatever was happening in the outside world—barring the second world war—the racetrack endured. The circuit fell silent for the first time in a very long time during the pandemic, as did nearly every racetrack in the world. Slowly but surely the circuits have reopened and will hopefully continue to as we all work towards getting back on our figurative track.
At the start of the summer, we had a perfect weekend to remind us of the pleasures of normal life that make us feel as if we’d taken them for granted. The leafy patch of farmland that is known to the world as Brands Hatch echoed not just to the sounds of intakes, exhausts, and smeared rubber, but also to the cheers of those who’d come together in their mutual enjoyment of motorsport.
They had come to watch the Masters Historic Festival, the headline act of which was a brilliant display of racing between the mainly Cosworth DFV-powered Formula 1 cars of the ‘70s and ’80s. The radical and diverse bodywork of these cars couples with the sound that only a manually shifted high-strung engine can provide will never lose the ability to fire the synapses. Memories are invoked of a time that included drivers like Hunt, Lauda, Scheckter, Watson, Prost, Villeneuve, and countless other talents that seem like a different breed altogether. Indeed, the personalities and rivalries of those eras were only surpassed by the number of constructors that existed at a time when Cosworth’s nearly ubiquitous V8 made the sport more accessible.
Whether it was the leading car in isolation or the peloton trying to keep up, the sound of these decades-old but effortlessly athletic F1 cars was enough to raise goosebumps on every pass, singing their way down the Minter straight, transmissions notching purposefully between gears, the exhausts popping and banging with every change of pace. The noise of that group was followed by the more modern howl of the prototype sports cars in the Endurance Racing Legends class, which was playing the undercard to the Grand Prix machines during the weekend.
Featuring sports cars that until fairly recently were competing at Le Mans, the grid was scattered with Lolas, Dallaras, and Ligiers putting on some pyrotechnic displays from their exhaust exits as they banged down through the gears coming into the tighter corners. True to the spirit of their original purpose, these cars were joined by representatives of GT endurance racing, like the always aesthetically pleasing Aston Martin DBR9, or a body-in-red Ferrari if you prefer Italian.
The comparatively less exotic classes at the weekend provided action in spades. In particular, the one-make class for pre-’66 Minis delivered racing that was at a seemingly higher pace than the much faster cars that featured everywhere else. The frenetic action left all those trackside breathless, and it was almost impossible to predict which one of the bubbly little cars was going to pin a ruthless maneuver on one of its competitors next, as each driver pushed the limits of his machine’s capabilities, often hitting apexes with the inside front wheel in the air while the other three pushed against the threshold of grip.
A similar story unfolded in the pre-’66 Touring Car group, with crowd-pleasing passing moves aplenty, classic and newly unfolding stories of David vs Goliath playing out through the field as the Lotus Cortinas harried Mustangs alongside similar contests pitting power and pace against lightness and agility. A longer race for the Historic Sports Cars was a similar story, with Pro-Am partnerships and a late race safety car leading to as nail biting a finish as you can hope for in vintage racing.
But regardless of the actual racing element (which was consistently good), the simple experience of watching and hearing these cars lap after lap is good for the soul, especially after so much time making do without. As I left the finally silent circuit on Sunday evening, I had the opportunity to walk the famous old asphalt at Paddock Hill bend, still one of the most terrifying corners in racing. I paused to admire the volume of rubber that had been freshly deposited onto the surface, noting the differences in profiles and lengths of this chaotically striation of rubber, a perfect encapsulation of the diversity and energy of the weekend’s racing.
Heading out for the drive back home, I hit the typical end-of-event traffic, but for once it made me happy. It was a reminder that thousands of other people had just enjoyed a weekend together for as simple an excuse as watching some loud cars chase each other in circles.