The Bic Healey Trophy
AC v Austin Healey 100 Team Challenge
The Bentley Drivers Club, Silverstone, 6th August, 2016
Abecassis Hones Racecraft
The reason and roots for this race were provided in the preamble for last year's race, when it was first run.
Despite the relatively low turn out last year, the BDC saw a future in this race and kindly allowed me to put it on again this year. Peter Healey, on behalf of the Healey family was also good enough to give the race its blessing again and on this occasion was able to join us at the meeting. There was an increase in grid size; last year just 12 cars started; this year it was 15, not much but actually a 25% increase. Although still not enough, I have reason to believe that BDC still see this race as an area for development, so we may have done just enough to secure it for 2017. Certainly the grid, combining FISCAR eligible Austin Healey 100s and AC Aces with the smaller but generally more modified slightly later special bodied Austin Healey Sprites, and the occasional suitable invitation car, provided a distinctly different looking field and as it turned out one of the best races for the lead that I have witnessed in 50 years of spectating at historic racing. It was disappointing that once again no Healey Silverstones were entered.
One notable absence from this grid was Allan Cameron, who sadly lost his battle with cancer at the beginning of the year. However, he was very much with us in spirit as his sons, Neil and Drew had entered the race and they were also going to present The Allan Cameron Award for the Most Interesting Entry.
The regs for this race requires Dunlop L's but an element of pragmaticism creeps in when trying to build a yet to be established grid for the meeting organisers. So, I hold my hand up, in acknowledging that I had agreed dispensation for 3 of the entries; I did so on the mistaken assumption that none of them would be challenging for the lead; Robin Pearce, who wanted to wear out the Avons on his AC Ace, Tony Wilson-Spratt running on Dunlop M's and Drew Cameron whose Speedwell Sprite was similarly shod. It was the latter who completely caught me out since, in my ignorance I had pictured the entry as the car his brother Neil had driven the year before, the Ashley Sprite GT. My error was compounded by the fact that I was unaware of Drew's ability behind the wheel. Thus it was I turned up at the meeting to find Drew on pole with a car that was new to me. As it turned out, unfortunately for Neil Cameron, gearbox problems on his Frogeye Sprite meant that it couldn't start and I was then able to ask Drew to transfer the L shod wheels from Neil's car to his own which he did without quibble. I calculated that the Ms had given him between 1.5 - 2 seconds a lap advantage, and that without this his time would have slotted him in around the qualifying times of Gordon Elwell and Richard Woolmer in their Speedwell Sprites, starting 4th and 5th respectively. His tyre advantage removed, Drew nevertheless still had the benefit of starting with a clear track ahead of him although an engine oil leak into the footwell was sufficient to suggest that the car might not make it to the end.
Alongside Drew was Jonathan Abecassis in his left hand drive Austin Healey 100/4 with, on the second row, Nick Matthews in his similar right hand drive version. Jim Mackie qualified his lovely little Sprite 6th alongside Richard Woolmer in the historic Sebring Sprite (and last year's winner) providing possibly the prettiest row (the cars not the drivers!!) in what was already a very good looking grid of cars, but then I am biased. The fourth row was occupied by Tony Wilson-Spratt's WSM MGB, and the first of the AC Aces, that of Robin Pearce, the times of the two cars suggested they would be closely matched, and the top ten was rounded out by the Austin Healey 100/4s of Jim Campbell and Jason Harris.
As the lights went out, Drew Cameron took off like a scalded cat in the Speedwell Sprite, but Jonathan Abecassis, starting alongside, made a poor one and was passed on both sides by the second row, Gordon Elwell to his right in the Sebring Sprite, who slotted into 2nd place and Nick Matthews, to his left in the 100/4 who grabbed 3rd. Behind Richard Woolmer and Jim Mackie occupied 5th and 6th as per their qualifying positions with the field stringing out behind them.
Towards the front, out of Becketts, Jonathan Abecassis got a run on Nick Matthews down the National Straight, and eased passed going under the bridge to take 3rd, managing to hold onto that place going into Brooklands despite being on the outside. As they crossed the line for the first time Drew Cameron had 1.6 second advantage over Gordon Elwell, the 'littluns' at this stage showing a clean pair of heels to the bigger cars. Behind, two good battles were brewing; that for 7th between Tony Wilson-Spratt's WSM MGB and Robin Pearce's AC Ace, and for 11th between Matthew Collings Austin Healey 100M and Mark Morgan's AC Ace Bristol. Between these two dices, the 100/4s of Jim Campbell and Jason Harris sandwiched the 100M of Graham Robson, Graham having moved ahead of Jason on this opening lap and latching onto the tail of Jim.
On lap 2, with Drew easing away a little, Gordon Elwell's Sebring Sprite was coming under close scrutiny from the Abecassis 100/4 and was reeled slowly in, again on the National Straight, Jonathan getting alongside under braking, at which he was notably good at this meeting, into Brooklands, this time on the inside to regain his 2nd place starting position. At the end of the lap, Drew's lead was just under 2.4 seconds, and there was some hard consistent driving for Jonathan to accomplish if he was to make any impression on the front running car. All the other places behind remained unchanged, although at this point Nick Matthews 4th place was briefly under threat from Richard Woolmer's Sebring Sprite, whilst the dices mentioned earlier were getting into their stride.
Positions remained unchanged during lap 3, the lead creeping out by a further tenth to just under 2.5 seconds, and Richard Woolmer, in 5th, put in an uncharacteristically slow lap which allowed Nick Matthews to ease away and start to focus on his challenge of 3rd place Gordon Elwell.
The lead Drew Cameron had over Jonathan Abecassis was at its greatest at the end of lap 3. Thereafter Jonathan started to chip away at the gap, it coming down to just under 1.9 seconds at the end of the following lap, as they both gradually pulled away from the 3rd place battle in which Nick Matthews had closed to within a second of Gordon Elwell. Richard Woolmer was safely established in 5th whilst still losing touch with them but holding off Jim Mackie who was warily checking his mirrors to ensure the Robin Pearce AC Ace was not getting too close. The best dices behind the leading 4 remained those of Robin and Tony Wilson- Spratt for 7th and Matthew Collings and Mark Morgan for 13th.
Jonathan Abecassis chase of Drew Cameron was consistent and relentless. Drew did his best lap on lap 8, which was only 1.3 seconds slower than his best qualifying lap on the Dunlop M's. His driving on the slightly narrower L's displaying a determined competitiveness but he was occasionally locking up under braking as he adapted to the earlier and slightly less grippy tyres. However, it was not enough, as the gap back to Jonathan's 100/4 became visually smaller as each lap passed, confirmed by the timings. Between laps 5 and 10, the gap became progressively smaller from 1.4, then 1.3, 1.2, 1.1, down to 6 tenths on lap 9, finally arriving firmly on the leaders tail on lap 10 just over a tenth behind.
Just a few seconds back, Gordon Elwell was holding off the attentions of Nick Matthews whose tyres had seen better days and were to catch him out in the later FISCAR Inter-Marque race, but Nick is nothing if not competitive and remained undeterred. Richard Woolmer still had the pair in sight and was now over 7 seconds clear of Jim Mackie, who in turn was clear of the great battle between Robin Pearce and Tony W-S. Robin was finally able to get ahead on lap 9 but unable to shake the WSM MGB off, this terrific dice, which Tony suggested could have gone on all day, only came to an end when the head gasket on the MGB engine blew. The race for 11th was also hotting up as Graham Robson brought his 100M into striking range of Jim Campbell's 100/4 and Jason Harris with his 100/4 was also in touch. On lap 6, Graham attempted to overtake Jim going into Copse but suddenly lost all power. He had to cruise gently around for almost a complete lap in order to pit, where it was established that the airbox tubing had delaminated and a strip of it was sucked, snakelike, into the front SU carburettor, a previously unheard of eventuality. It was extracted and a temporary airbox constructed around the carb and Graham was able to return to the track. Unfortunately, the delay meant that although he took the flag, he had only completed 14 laps and was not classified.
There is an imperative in racing that says that when you chase a car down, you should maintain your forward momentum by overtaking immediately before you get sucked into a battle which slows you down to the pace of the car that you have caught. Easier said than done, of course, especially when as here, the lap times of the two leaders were closely matched. Nevertheless, on lap 11, Jonathan took the lead on the brakes, going into Brooklands, Drew giving him room to do so but then diving back on the inside to draw almost level on the outside going into Luffield, and this was to set the pattern for the next 9 laps to the flag, as Drew dug in and we had a superb duel between the 100/4 and Speedwell Sprite which was as good as you will have seen anywhere at any level. The bigger car had the edge on acceleration and top speed but also, it would seem, on the brakes, but the Sprite was able to carry greater speed through the corners and time and again got alongside and even briefly got its nose in front on occasion but Jonathan's positioning of the 10o/4 through and out of the corners was exemplary; defensive but fair and he always finished the lap ahead. His best lap, on lap 8, was 4 tenths quicker than Drew's best (lap 9) but the gap at the end of each lap was never more than that and usually less. In fact, on lap 19 it was less than a tenth, and when the flag finally fell after 21 laps, Jonathan took victory by 0.142 secs . It had a been a truly memorable and breathless battle and both drivers were clearly exhilarated by it, after. I can vouch for the fact that both the footwell and engine bay of the Speedwell Sprite was well covered in oil after the event so Drew's initial concerns appeared well founded.
Behind the two leaders, although never completely safe, Gordon Elwell, seemed to be able eventually to contain Nick Matthews, the gap, at one stage very close, settling between 1.5 - 2.5 seconds with Richard Woolmer also stabilising the gap to Nick ahead at around 3 seconds although it also fluctuated slightly. The three cars appeared to be connected by a long elastic band. Richard, last year's outright winner, by his own admission after the race, felt that he had not driven quickly enough and it is true that his best lap time was 1.5 secs down on his best last year. However, I believe that some of that is down to the fact that track conditions this year may have been a bit more slippery. The race was more competitive this year as 8 cars finished on the lead lap compared with just 2 last year. However, the elapsed winning time this year was just 5 seconds slower and whereas last year both Richard and Martyn Corfield got under 1.13 in the race, this year no-one did. Make of all that what you will and it maybe only of interest to anoraks like me!
Behind Richard Woolmer, Jim Mackie had a rather lonely race once he had lost touch with Richard, finishing 6th, 7 seconds ahead of Robin Pearce in the first of the AC Ace Bristols. After Graham Robson pitted, Jason Harris had taken up the chase of Jim Campbell, eventually passing him on lap 8 to finish 8th. David Cottingham also had a rather lonely race in the gloriously sounding AC Ace to finish 10th well clear of Mark Morgan in a sister car, who had finally overcome Matthew Collings stalwart early defence to pull away and finish 12th. David Bennett was the last of the classified finishers, he too, not having much company.
This year the Austin Healey 100s reversed the tables on last years winners, to take the AC v Austin Healey 100 Challenge. Neil and Drew Cameron chose the WSM MGB as the most interesting car entered in the race and Neil duly presented Anthony Wilson- Spratt with the award.
Comment and Summary
The matching of the FISCAR regulated Austin Healey 100/4/M/S models with the slightly later, smaller, but uprated to 1380cc, Sprites with special bodies, provided the latter comply with the regs drawn up both for this race and also for Jo Cox's HDI races, has worked well. This has been borne out by both the Bic Healey races run so far when the faster cars from each model have contested the lead. There are those who would restrict the Sprites to 998cc, for which there is a separate class, overlooking the fact that, as far as I know there are only a couple of these racing and that the majority of cars are now running with bigger engines. None of the 1380cc cars that ran in this race are modsports or indeed hotrods within my definition of the words and I've been around long enough to have watched the real things in period when flared arches, wings, fat slick tyres with all sorts of added performance gizmos were the order of the day. The truth is that the quicker 100/4s are producing pretty much double the power output that they came off the production line with. The smaller cars have merely achieved their power increase by a different method - by increasing capacity. Whilst a case could be made for pegging their engine size to 1293cc, I don't see that as an absolute imperative. The fact is that their outright performance is contained by the way the regs have been framed and includes the restriction to the use of Dunlop L tyres. It is also one of the aims of this race to provide a showcase for all those special bodied Sprites from the late 50s early 60s.
The AC v Austin Healey 100 team challenge within this race creates an extra dimension and is surely worth developing. Whilst it gives the FISCAR compliant Aces (and Acecas) a second race at this meeting, it also enables those with the later 2.6 litre Ford engined examples to run as well if they wish to. The team award is based simply on the placings for the first 4 cars of each model home. Last year the ACs, which also have their own class, won the team challenge but were fairly convincingly beaten this year by the Austin Healey 100 team.
I am grateful to Peter Healey for agreeing on behalf of the Healey family to lend his father, Brian 'Bic' Healey's name to this race and for presenting the Trophy. Peter clearly enjoyed his time at this meeting and I am delighted to say that he readily provided his approval for the future running of this race. Whilst it is only provisional at this stage, I believe the BDC also look favourably upon this race, and noting the increase in grid size over last year and the increased competitiveness of the race, they see development potential, so on first soundings, I have positive feelings about the race being part of their meeting content for 2017. A further increase in the number of entries is, of course, required to ensure its continuity.
I'm also grateful for the support and sponsorship of Paul Woolmer, Sharon and Richard and all the Woolmer Classic Restoration team. I think that for both Paul and I, it was quite a full on and stressful day but I believe ultimately this race was a real success and that we can look back on it with some pride and move it on to even better times ahead.
If, as I hope, it is to run next year, I think it likely that the race will be a bit shorter at 20 minutes and there will be no tyre dispensation for classes 1 - 6. An exception may be made in class 7 since the cars in that will be individually invited and selected to ensure that they will not be quick enough to contest for outright victory.