The long wait for Alfa racing to resume has been a strange time for all our drivers, preparers and supporters – as indeed it has been for all categories of racing – but when it did resume at Snetterton last Saturday what a great day’s competition it proved to be, with 8 different Alfa Romeo models plus 3 Punto Abarths and a Lancia Delta Integrale gracing paddock and track. 24 cars were entered, the highest for a long time and over 40% more than the number we had at our first 2019 meeting. .
It was also our first race meeting as part of the 750 Motor Club, an eagerly awaited event in itself, and we felt genuinely welcomed and valued as an addition to their roster. I was forewarned a year ago that 750 MC paddocks are very crowded due to their popularity as a racing club and so it proved on Saturday: with 250 race cars across all categories present, paddock space was at a premium and there was an overflow of cars in the adjacent fields. However, by early Saturday morning we were all settled into the spaces we needed, albeit a little more spread out than usual.
Barry McMahon had warmed up for the event racing in the Britcar Championship at Croft the previous weekend and lapped in an impressive 1m 31s there on control tyres, so his appearance in the green and white 1750 engined 156 Turbo was eagerly awaited. Barry and I had had 2 sensational races early last season and we were back in the mighty Lancia Delta Integrale to renew our rivalry again. Over the past 18 months Jamie Porter at Alfa Workshop has been building a new modified Alfa MiTO featuring a 4C turbo engine bored out to 2.0 litres. Reports of the car in testing were extremely impressive, Ted Pearson lapping within 1 second of Barry McMahon’s lap record in a shakedown test on a chilly day in February. Unfortunately Ted was admitted to hospital for surgery 2 days before the meeting but a phone call from Jamie to Ricky Losselli bore fruit and thankfully Ricky agreed to step into the breach, having also tested the car previously.
2015 Champion Graham Seager was back in his well known supercharged 3.2 litre black GTV looking to add to his impressive tally of race wins against some tough opposition. Last but not least Scott Austin was making a welcome return to the Championship after a 12-month absence. The installation of a Fiat 20-valve turbo to replace the well worn 3.0 litre V6 in his black 155 meant a move from the Power Trophy into the Modified class. The presentation of the revised set up was first class but Scott had only driven the car for the first time when loading it onto the trailer to come to the circuit so he was going to be taking it steady initially to make sure everything on the car was working as it should.
The pit lane was busy during the qualifying session with drivers coming in and out to have things checked or a problem to be investigated before rejoining. Sadly, Martin Jones was an early casualty, completing only 3 laps before a blown engine ended his participation in the meeting – very disappointing. You may remember we had slipping clutch issues from the previous seasons race at Snetterton. Well, we turned up to the first race of 2020 confident of a new Helix clutch with all the hope and dreams of a new season. Comming straight out of the pits it was clear we still had a problem, Integrale is normally at or very near the head of the time sheets but instead we were at the opposite end. We had suffered clutch slip in testing prior to the event so all the seals around the engine and gearbox were replaced to ensure no oil leaked onto the clutch. However, the clutch was still slipping. After 4 very slow laps we returned to the paddock to investigate.
The start of Race 1 featured one of those teething problems sometimes encountered when Regulations change and, in our case, when a new racing club takes over a Championship that has unusual start procedures. Without going into unnecessary detail this led to a problem with the grid formation and the pole sitter in the Twin Spark Cup erroneously starting with the Modified/Power Trophy cars. This was all resolved in consultation with the officials and the start in Race 2 went to plan.
After qualifying it was discovered that Jamie Thwaites’s brand new V6 engine had blown a head gasket making him a disappointed non-starter, joining Martin Jones on the sidelines. When the red lights went out Barry McMahon made an excellent start and soon began to pull away from the rest of the field. On lap 1 he was 7 seconds clear of Tom Hill in 2nd (!) and steadily built his lead, lapping consistently around the 1:20 mark and in the end won the race by a stunning 56 seconds. It was a showcase of power driving by a top class driver in an absolutely awesome car – a joy to watch.
Scott Austin had started on the back row after his careful qualifying session but the black 155 was soon flying, picking up one or two places on every lap until he was 3rd overall at the end of lap 5. At one point he reduced the gap to Graham Seager ahead of him to 3 seconds but after that Graham steadily pulled away to finish 2nd some 22 seconds clear of Scott in 3rd. Nevertheless it was a very impressive performance by Scott in a car that was straight out of the box, and bodes well for his pace as he continues to develop the car. Vincent Dubois finished 4th, the last unlapped runner – a good result as he was now missing a number of gears; he had lost clutch fluid and wound up having to change gear without the clutch before finally leaving it stuck in 3rd gear. So where were we and Riccardo Losselli? With his clutch slipping alarmingly we had been contemplating packing up but elected in the end to go out and try to manage the problem as best he could. Using only 15% throttle we tiptoed round (in relative terms) lapping between 1:24 and 1:30 and finished 7th overall, a fine effort in the circumstances. Ricky was circulating with lap times around 1:35 and clearly in difficulties. He pitted and rejoined but continued to the end and finished 3 laps down. It turned out that the wastegate actuator rod had broken. Jamie Porter joked that he could now remember why he hadn’t built a race car and taken it racing since around 1992…
It came as a surprise to some drivers that the grid for race 2 was to be formed from the second fastest laps recorded in the qualifying session rather than the finishing order in race 1, which shows how many actually read the regulations! By race time at 16.25 a hazy heat throughout the afternoon had raised the track surface temperature. Unfortunately we lost 2 more drivers before the start; Barry McMahon had no friction linings left at all on his rear brake pads, a problem compounded by leaking brake fluid, and decided it would be too dangerous to race, and Vincent Dubois’ sequential gearbox had a star cluster of bits of metal inside the casing where it definitely was not supposed to be, so 19 cars took the start.
t the lights, Tom Hill got a characteristically fast start to take the lead and was still leading at the end of the lap until the more powerful GTV of Graham Seager took over. Ricky Losselli’s MiTO was 4th at the end of lap 1, but passed Dave Messenger on lap 2 and Tom on lap 3 to go second. He was maintaining the gap to Graham at 4 seconds up to lap 7 but Scott Austin was lapping quicker than either of them and squeezed past Ricky at Murray’s to take second place. Ricky, however, was now in difficulties; the engine kept cutting out and he crawled around lap 8 to retire with a terminal fuelling problem. He wasn’t the only one experiencing problems either – very unusually the Abarths of Simon and Chris McFie were also out of the race. Simon’s gearbox seized on lap 4 and Chris’s front offside suspension collapsed on lap 8 putting both out on the spot, and 3 laps later Jeremy Chilton’s 147 Twin Spark pulled off on the outside of the start/finish straight to retire with a mechanical problem, a disappointing end for him.
Meanwhile at the front of the field Scott Austin was matching Graham Seager for pace, keeping the gap at 4 seconds, but on lap 12 Scott was delayed lapping a group of cars and the gap grew to 7 seconds and then to 9 seconds by the end as Graham took the win. Nevertheless it was a superb drive by Scott from the back of the grid – neat, tidy and very quick. Further back we was getting into our stride. The slipping clutch meant he was slow off the line and he was 10th at the end of lap 1. However, what followed was a master class in finding ways to minimise the effect of a major problem – by lap 7 we were circulating in the 1:25s, a pace he kept to the chequered flag to record a brilliant 3rd place in the circumstances. Our helper with the car, John Shields of JJ Performance, was blown away by how well we had driven and rightly so.