Proof That Formula 1 Isn’t The Only Source Of Open-Wheel Action
Photography by Will Broadhead
Eight large velocity stacks catch my eye, standing proud atop their Chevy V8. They’re part of a garage rammed full with cars and parts, and there are more than a few more motors in here sporting the same glinting stacks. The specific set that’s caught my attention belong to Jamie Bradshaw’s beautifully turned out March 73A, a Formula 5000 machine from the era when increases in power were commonly achieved through capacity alone. The ‘60s and ‘70s cars assembled here also represent a period when variety for open-wheel formula racing was at its peak.
Back to the March; it has a poise of pure function, and it looks bullish, planted firmly to the ground with its staggered set of hale Avon rubber and its chunky wings fore and aft—not to mention the mean V8 lump bolted to the chassis behind the driver’s small slice of space. The thing looks like it wants a fight, and it would have its chance soon enough, along with the other Formula 5000, Formula 2, and Formula Atlantic cars that it would compete against.
The starting grid for the group was a collection of machines from a time when single-seater, open-wheel racing cars offered plentiful supplements and alternatives to Formula 1, and this particular championship field competing at Silverstone last weekend was a wonderful celebration of that mixture. Part of the two-day race weekend put on by the HSCC (Historic Sports Car Club), this group belongs to the Derek Bell Trophy, and they made life very noisy when it was their turn to run.
An appropriate namesake for a class that celebrates great variety, Derek Bell was a man that raced successfully in many classes of racing and in all sorts of cars, including Formula 1 and 2, but is most notable for his multiple class and overall wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Superb then that the HSCC honor his name with their flagship championship series. The open-wheel series is open to the aforementioned Formula cars, as well as vintage F1 machinery and smaller-capacity Formula Ford 2000s. All must be in original spec though, and all must be inspected for authenticity. The grid itself isn’t massive in a numerical sense, but then again, these cars are expensive and not everyone wants to race them this hard. Racing history and pedigree doesn’t come cheap, and the entries are dominated by Formula 5000 machines, essentially a formula that was made for cars that didn’t really fit into any others: single seaters with five-liter Chevy engines, too big a capacity for other formulas. These and the rest fill out a grid of purposeful machinery: Chevron, Lola, March, even a Formula Atlantic Elfin 622 and a certain Gurney Eagle make up the pack.
Though all these cars each carry a commendable racing lineage and ancestry, the one bearing the famous name of Gurney is certain to stand out. The beautiful baby blue of the Eagle commands attention despite the gentle shade, and as soon as I enter the garage I am drawn to it. Up on jacks at the moment I first find it, this particular car has a different air about it than the bright orange March I mentioned at the beginning. To me the Eagle appears more refined, if that is possible for such a powerful animal. Its sponsor-laden bodywork fully encloses the engine and most of the rest of the the guts, and the whole package is more Klitschko than Tyson overall. A bumper sticker emblazoned with the slogan ‘Dan Gurney for President’ adorns the rear wing; there have been worse ideas.
Looking back again at the orange March, I miss the driver climbing into the cockpit of the Lola T332 behind me, but the familiar click of a starter motor and thump of rotating pistons and crankshaft soon brings me around as the first of these animals wakes up. Air is sucked through the intakes, the induction roar more than audible and echoing complexly with itself in this chamber. I stand speechless as more motors catch and the rest of the cars join in the noise. Taking photos is forgotten as I’m temporarily but totally mesmerized by this chorus.
Those of us in the garages and pit lanes were treated to a sonic assault of motors being revved and warmed, providing also the perfect figurative warmup to the racing soon to come. Before much longer, the cars assemble in the staging area before being unleashed on the track. It is then that the spectators peppered around the circuit are treated to the special sight and sound of these vintage monsters hammering around the historic curves of the Silverstone circuit. Hurtling down the main straight, V8 engines chanting together in a beautiful cadence, everyone is reminded of how pure racing cars can make you feel in their presence. There is absolutely a time and place for the slower cars over the weekend’s schedule, and the racing between those cars is arguably closer, but for as far as a jaw-dropping spectacle of sight and sound, these things absolutely had it made. They dance through corners at fantastic speed, the mechanical grip afforded by the huge tires being exploited to the fullest by the pilots at the controls. But they are fully capable of misbehaving when pushed too much, sliding and snapping the car sideways under power, especially around the longer, faster corners of this high-speed circuit—these are not for the fainthearted.
Egging the competitors to go ever faster, the large lumps sat behind them seem to compel them to push for position, and it isn’t long before a few exceed the limit and the track fights back, as is the case with the red Chevron B37 of Neil Glover when it’s spat out into the gravel at Woodcote. It was bound to happen, but then this is a good sign in a sense, it means the drivers treat it as racing more so than recreation. After what seems like mere minutes, the checkered flag is out and the cars file back into pit lane, the snarling and popping of the engines reverberates off the walls. It’s a shame that it’s all over so quickly, unfortunate that this is all we’ll get to hear from these machines. But then again, one’s always left wanting more of what he enjoys the most, and I’m happy to have been able to see these cars in action at all.