People suspect that I’m a bit mad at the best of times but when I suggested that I would like to enter Phoenix in a circuit race, they thought I was mad. (Phoenix is the name of my 2 Litre Vauxhall powered Ford Escort Mk 2 rally car) I’ve taken her to do trackdays on a couple of occasions but usually get asked to leave or at least calm down when the Escort is seen drifting through the Esses at Mallory for example.
Steve Vince, co-ordinator of the Track Attack Nippon Challenge and MR2 Racing Series had refused me an entry at Rockingam in the Escort stating that the rest of the contenders in the Challenge would face too much of a culture shock having an Escort amongst them and it would also be difficult to explain the connection the car has with the Far East and the Nippon Challenge.
Silverstone was to be an “Invitation Race”, additional to the Nippon and MR2 calendars, invitation basically meaning that anything goes. The only stipulation is that cars must run on treaded road tyres from some list in the Blur Book. This is an ideal way for drivers of cars which are no longer eligible for one make championships to have a run out, typically there were a number of Clios and a Peugeot 205 running which used to run in the now defunct Clio Cup or Peugeot Challenge.
I knew that transforming the rally car into a race car would be an expensive and time consuming operation so opted out of slamming it to the ground, fitting stiffer springs and tarmac shockers and just did the basics. I fitted a set of race spec brake pads to the front end, bought a second hand set of Federal tyres from a friend and fitted a rain light amidships on the rear bumper. I also opted to remove the two spare wheels, wheel brace,
big bag of spanners and the tow rope from the boot, as well as the quick lift jack from the side of the passenger seat but I forgot to take that out in the end.
I wasn’t sure how the car would be received in the paddock at Silverstone but many people said it brought back memories for them and everyone said they were looking forward to seeing it on track.
I was quite nervous during the build up to the meeting and had absolutely no idea how I would get on. I raced the track a few years ago in an endurance race so I know what’s flat and what’s a lift in an MR2. My first shock came when I kept it planted through Maggots and the cars in front gave it a big squeeze on the brake pedal and I quickly learned the limit of adhesion of the Federals whilst nearly ploughing into the back of someone. I backed off and gave myself some space. Despite not knowing what to expect from the car, or my ability to muscle it round the circuit, I was a little disappointed to qualify 19th but when I realised that the ranks had swelled to 40 cars and I was just North of the centre of the grid, I was quite pleased.
I was under no pressure this weekend but no one else seemed to agree with this. “You should get a blinding start in that car of yours” and “You should be in the top 10 by Copse” were comments that did nothing to relax me. By the time I was on the grid I was a blubbering wreck of nervousness and anticipation.
When the lights went out, I rocketed through two rows of cars only to come swiftly up behind a wall of MX5s who for some reason had decided that they would brake for Copse. I backed out of my ascent to the lead and joined the throng as they pottered on towards Maggots. It was here that I discovered that you can’t brake and steer at the same time as the Escort took a big sideways lunge in avoidance of a car braking unnecessarily, and the pendulum effect lasted right through Beckets and on to Chapel, losing a couple of places to the more agile cars. Once launched onto Hangar Straight it was just a case of keep feeding her gears and powering past the less powerful cars.
A typical lap would consist of being almost flat out over the start line with a little lift and a bob down in to 4th for Copse, back up to 5th and take the lefthander into Maggots absolutely flat with a lift and a drop to 4th for the righthander and nail it round the left, then bob in to third to get the front to turn in through the right hand Chapel. This complex suits the Escort to an extent, the soft suspension soaks up the bumps as it rides the kerbs and if it tucks in nicely on the way out of Chapel, I could even make up ground on the other cars. Next, give it gears out on to the Hangar Straight after which a good stamp on the brakes for Stowe but only down in to 4th which is held to Vale which is a second gear corner, extremely difficult to stop and very easy to lose the back end. The tight right after Vale is flat in second but usually a drift over the exit kerbs going three wheels off. I always managed to keep the front right on the track but the front left and the back end were well off. Flat through Club grabbing third on the way in, fourth over the GP start line and a quick visit to 5th and back again before drifting through Abbey and Farm then hard on the brakes for Village in third gear and another opportunity to make up time before the car started to drift wide in the tight bends. Through the hairpin, second gear is needed and the car goes from massive understeer to massive oversteer and anyone close behind would be all over me like a cheap suit. Not to worry though, because the cars around seemed very reluctant to try to stick a move on a waggly Escort on three wheels so as soon as it straightened up and they stuck a nose up the inside, the Escort squatted down and sprinted down Wellington straight opening a sizeable gap which would become useful as the car slithered through the third gear Luffield complex with an arm full of understeer. Once the car was pointed in the direction of Woodcote and some loud pedal applied, any sprint to the stripe would have been won by the Escort.
As the race panned out, I found myself in a gap a few seconds adrift of a pair of very racey MX5s and steadily eked a gap behind so set about the chase. I caught and passed the Ma5das and with a couple of laps to go, started to close the gap on fellow MR2 protagonist Arron Pullan but his pace was sufficient that I got no closer than a couple of seconds away and a very respectable 13th overall.
Race 2 and my nerves were jangling again. From the 7th row on the grid, if I got a rocket start similar to race 1, then this could put me in amongst some proper quick machinery who would then be be quite agitated about being held up by an old Scrote. As it turned out, this sort of happened. I ended up back at the side of Arron and snapping on the heels of the MX150s and just outside the top 10. The first lap was spent side by side with Arron. He’d out manoeuvre me in a corner then I would out drag him on a straight, then we’d do a corner side by side, inches apart with absolutely no paint swapped. We were actually in a 5-way fight which also included the two racy Ma5das from race 1 and a much quicker MX5 who took a sneaky dive up the inside of Luffield and apart from me having a look up the inside into Copse, was never really seen again. Arron got tangled with the racy Ma5das and swapped quite a bit of paint with one and when I exited Luffield on lap 2, I was alone with a half a dozen second lead over the trio.
The rest of my race was spent chasing down a white Mazda which was lapping at a similar pace so once I’d established that the chase was futile and the gap behind was safe, I started to experiment with different driving styles. By this, I mean that I was letting the Escort do what I had been fighting to stop it doing all day. Vale was a perfect example where I left the braking late and allowed the back end to step out to the right, then planted the loud pedal and held the drift for long enough so that when it snapped back in, I allowed it to step out to the left and powered through the right hander with half a turn of opposite lock to the appreciation of the marshals.
Despite my increasing exuberance behind the wheel, the gap in front diminished and the gap behind increased but I held station at 10th overall but took the 2 litre class honours.
The verdict is that the races in the Escort were thoroughly enjoyable and I had a lot of positive response to taking it, but being realistic, the car is not suitable for regular circuit racing and I am not prepared to modify it when it will need returning to forest spec for the next rally.