Friday, November 16, 2007

Park Life

Over at Fastest Lap a while back, Neil asked an interesting question in a post on his recent trip to Bathurst. How many of the online motorsport community actually go to see races in person?

In my case, the answer is not nearly as often as I would like to. For the last eleven years, I have lived in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh. It's a wonderful city in many ways, and despite the appalling weather, sky high property prices and countless other minor niggles, it regularly tops UK quality of life surveys as the best place in the country to live. It is not, however, very conveniently located for watching motor racing. Only the 1.3 mile Knockhill circuit, over the water in Fife is within easy reach.

That said, I have been to a good proportion of the UK's racing circuits over the years. At first, when we lived in the south east of England, my father used to take me to regular trips to Brands Hatch. Later, when we moved north, we would substitute Silverstone, Donington Park and Oulton Park. I've also been to a couple of race meetings at Croft. Do I have a favourite?

Yes, I do. The two and a half miles or so of tarmac that snakes its way through the Cheshire countryside at Oulton Park. For those of you who have never seen the place, Oulton is a relatively short, narrow circuit in the north-west of England, not far from the Welsh border. There's plenty of gradient change, some really tricky corners with odd camber changes and a pair of really big stops (although, yes, one of them is a chicane). Though on a much reduced scale, there is a certain resemblance to the majestic Road America circuit, as numerous graduates of the British Junior Formulae who have gone to ply their trade in the States have noted.

Older afficionados assure me that the place has been ruined by the appendage of ungainly chicanes at Foulstons and at Knickerbrook. I can't comment. I don't remember what the place was like before these chicanes were added. Though I went to several race meetings in the mid-1980s before Paul Warwick's tragic death led to the insertion of the Knickerbrook chicane, we usually watched the action from Old Hall or Lodge, and so I don't actually know what Knickerbrook used to be like. Whatever, much as I often moan on here about the bastardisation of great racing circuits, I think the essential features of Oulton Park have survived more or less unscathed. Old Hall, the downhill sweep of Cascades, the tricky blind corner at Lodge that leads into the dip at Deer Leap - they're all still there.

Too small to host major international events, the place is instead the ideal venue to watch F3 and the multifarious categories that make up the UK club racing scheme. The Blue Riband event was always the annual Oulton Park Gold Cup. This started out as a non-championship Formula 1 race - I understand that F1 journalism's eminence gris Nigel Roebuck's first taste of motorsport came from a family trip to such a race in the mid-1950s - but by the time I was a regular at Oulton Park, the Gold Cup was a round of the British F3 championship. This might sound pretty uninspiring, especially when compared to the kind of machinery that Nigel Roebuck would have seen on his first trip, but while an F3 car might look rather tame and unexciting on the wide expanses of the Silverstone GP circuit, it's ideally suited to the more confined Oulton Park. It helped that in the years when I was there regularly, British F3 was enjoying one of its strong periods, with Mika Hakkinen, Mika Salo, Alan McNish and David Brabham amongst the front runners. (There was also, as it happened, a guy by the name of Steve Robertson who hasn't done badly as a driver manager in the intervening years....)

Many of the races I saw at Oulton Park were minor club events, but were none the less entertaining for that. The Slick 50 Budget Saloon Car championship guys could always be relied upon to put on a show with their Rover SD1s, Hillman Avengers, Talbot Lotuses, et cetera. The Star of Tomorrow FF1600 races were always pretty hotly contested. Amongst the front runners there was a certain Louis Di Resta, whose son hasn't done badly of late (actually, Louis still races at Knockhill himself, as it happens). These, of course, were the days before single-make uniformity overtook the club racing scene. One of these days, I will get around to writing an article explaining exactly what is wrong with single make racing from a spectator point of view, but take it from me - it's less entertaining (although there was a certain surreal 'what the fuck?' factor to be had from watching people racing Ford P100s...)

Every now and again, there is talk in the press that Oulton might be sold off to housing developers. From a distance, it has looked in rather better health since Jonathan Palmer's Motorsport Vision people got hold of the place. I only hope I am right. It's a place I would miss more than any other circuit in the UK.

Endnote: Regular readers may know that this week's column is a little late because of my participation in the madness that is 'national novel writing month'. It is to that which I now return.

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Blogger Nicebloke said...

Not been to Oulton, but have very much enjoyed watching BTCC and even moreso British Superbike events from there.

The other British track I'd like to see but haven't is Cadwell.

11:11 AM  

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