What am I doing here – the Historic Six hours of Spa. All of the cars that fill the paddock were created before my Dad was born, let alone 17 year old me – am I in the right place ??
With an entry list of over 100 pre-1966 sports cars just for the Six Hour event, plus hundreds more for the other supporting classic events, this must be the busiest paddock in the World. What is more, the vast array of different machinery is mind boggling with everything from the big 7 litre V8 Ford Mustangs right down to the small but mighty original 1960’s Mini Coopers. Classic Formula 1 cars fill the upper paddock, sharing garage space with and historic Touring Cars (ya don’t see that in a modern F1 Paddock !), there is going to be plenty action for spectators. This event has the makings of one of the biggest race meetings in Europe. Best bit of all, I am here to experience it all first-hand as Topcats Racing begin a new chapter working in the Historic Racing Arena.So my race weekend starts on the Thursday morning, arriving at the track ready for a day of testing. After a briefing with the drivers and the team, everyone is nervous since the whole environment and car is new to everyone except regular driver and car owner, Neil Huggins, so a steep learning curve for all the team. This weekend, I am in charge of the pit board and helping with fuel calculations. As these cars are all historic there are no in car radios, so the only way to get information to the driver is by the good old fashioned pit board hung over the wall as the cars rush past , I am thinking I might have got the short straw here !
Testing gets under way, and as is often the case at Spa, the weather is overcast and the track a little greasy from the overnight rain with some standing water in places. The drivers are all told to take it easy and just shake the car down as there are lots of new items that need to be bedded in. By the time the afternoon sessions come around, the sun is out and the track dry, which means we can now get down to some proper work and lap times. Well that is the theory anyway, but with red flags being shown just about every 15 minutes, progress is not exactly rapid. The day eventually ends and the drivers happy with a decent amount of track time under their belts. The rest of us put our heads together and start number crunching to put together some fuel calculations and a race strategy.
Friday dawns, and with no actual track action for us until late afternoon and everything is a little more relaxed than the previous day. The sun is out and the spectators start flooding the paddock. During the day the car is set up and prepared and I get wheel cleaning duties! This task I quickly dispatch which leaves me time to look around the paddock and watch some of the racing. With such incredible examples of historic engineering and on track action all day there is plenty to seeAt 5 O’clock we start to get ready for action. The drivers suit up and prepare for qualifying and there is a definite atmosphere buzzing along the pit lane for the 90 minutes of qualifying that lies ahead. After I have a quick conversation with the drivers on what they want to see on the pit board, I am positioned on the wall and qualifying gets underway.
Rob Wilson is first out on track for us, with instructions to pick up the pace from where he left off in testing and start to push the car a little more. Laps completed, he pits to hand over to Neil Huggins. However, on his first pass down the pit straight he gives clear signals to the pit wall the there is something wrong with the car. I quickly relay this back to the team and we prepare for him to come into the pits next time around. When the car stops and he pops the door open, Neil is complaining of smoke inside the car. A brief 5 minutes in the pits we think we have sorted the problem and send him on his way – wrong, the car is back in two laps later.
Neil is still reporting smoke in the car, so Brian and Tom get to work. However, it is soon clear that our qualifying is over before it properly begins as Brian diagnoses a blown head gasket. This means a long night ahead to not only repair the problem, but figure out what had caused the failure after so much preparation work had been done by the team prior to getting to Spa.
There is considerable head scratching and questions asked of those also burning the midnight oil along the pit lane, and an alarming number of cars appearing to be suffering the same fate as ours ?? Decisions are made, and the top end of the engine rebuilt with a spare head from the backup engine, new gaskets fitted and everything reassembled. Shortly before midnight the engine is fired up and gently warmed. We are back in one piece and ready for action!
Race day has arrived, and there is a good feeling in the team Garage. After solving the issue with the car the previous night, everyone is optimistic for the race ahead. The Race starts at 4.00pm, so once again we have plenty of time to prepare. After some more cleaning and polishing of the car, we roll it out to the pit lane for the spectators to enjoy.
4 O’clock comes around quickly, the afternoon sun is out and the cars start to line up on the grid, with our first driver Andy Race belted into the car and sent out on the parade lap began. When Andy fails to come round however, we fear the worst and that our efforts the previous night have come to nothing. Andy appears at the top of the pit lane, making his way slowly down, past our garage and down to wait at the pit exit – it looks like we are starting from the pit lane, but at least we are starting !
Andy settles down into a rhythm and starts to pick his way through the traffic and is making good progress. As the first hour mark approaches suddenly the car hasn’t come round when due. With no car radio, various team members jump on bikes and head out to try and locate the car wherever it may be on track. We locate the car just over the top of Eau Rouge, and it would appear that we have blown another head gasket. With no recovery truck available to rescue stranded cars, Andy needs to get the car back to the pits. An exchange of instructions through the fence with the team, and Andy restarts the car and limps it back to the pits.
Once back at the pits Brian and Tom quickly diagnose a failed core plug in the engine, which has resulted in all the water being lost. Having to drive the car back to the pits with no water has damaged the head, and blown yet another gasket !! We can swap the head, and replace the head gasket, but without a core plug the car isn’t going anywhere. The never say die attitude of the Topcats Team kicks in and Tom comes up with an ingenious solution to the core plug problem. We have lost about an hour, but with the repair in place, the head changed and yet another head gasket installed, Rob Wilson is strapped into the car and sent out back out on track and into the Belgium dusk.
Nerves are fraught as the car reals off the laps, but after 20 minutes, the car is back in the pits and the worst is feared. However, as a result of the constant attempts to start the car earlier, coupled with Robs need for lights now the darkness has set in, the stress on the alternator recharging the battery has proved too much and it has failed. After the events so far this weekend, replacing an alternator is a minor job, and 10 minutes later, Rob is sent back out on track, and into the night. With no way to tell the team if everything is ok with the car, all I can do hang out the pit board with lap times, and assume that while he is still going round, all is fine with the car. .With 50 minutes of the race remaining, I give Rob the PIT sign to bring him in. After the events so far this race, the driver changeover is almost mundane as Neil replaces Rob in the drivers seat and takes to track, reeling off the remaining time on the clock with some competitive lap times and brings the car home .
After the ups and downs of the weekend, it is a relief to make the chequered flag, and although not a race win, the team celebrate the achievement.
Historic racing is certainly different from what I and the team have been used to. The pits are packed with some of the most exotic, not to mention most expensive cars anywhere in the world. That said, these cars get raced and raced hard, and they don’t come much harder than six hours of the famous Spa race track.
I may not have been born when all of these cars were made, but my experience of the Historic Spa Six hours was a great one, and one I won’t be forgetting soon !
I look forward to our return, and next time we will be fighting for top honours I feel sure ….Lloyd Huggins