Stars are out in entertaining Brands season opener
There was plenty of star quality present for the MG Car Club’s 2023 season-opening race weekend on the Brands Hatch Indy circuit. This star quality was there with the drivers, and in the wide range of cars represented from the pre-War machines in the Triple-M contest right through to the modern racers in MG Trophy and MG Cup.
And the drivers and cars alike lived up to their star billing with entertaining, high-quality and spirited competition across the two days within the intense Indy circuit bowl, on a bill the club shared with Equipe Classic Racing.
MGCC MG Trophy Championship
Two-time MG Trophy champion Graham Ross bounced back from a tricky 2022 by winning both of 2023’s season-opening races at Brands Hatch in his left-hand-drive ZR 190.
Ross dropped to third on the opening lap of race one but by lap four had claimed first place, where he stayed. He finished though just 1.8 seconds clear of Fergus Campbell in his Class B ZR 170, who hung on gamely and won his class, ahead of Tylor Ballard who closed in on him late on. And Lee Sullivan – who at Brands returned to the Trophy for the first time since 2016 when he came second overall and won Class B – led the race overall early on and was leading the Class B charge behind Ross but dropped out with a broken gearbox.
Jack Chapman, who rose from the back to finish fifth overall, got driver of the race.
Ross’s race-one win was aided too by that Class A rival Doug Cole got stranded in the collecting area as a broken alternator resulted in a flat battery. He returned for race two and early on climbed from fourth to second, then he closed in on leader Ross and attacked him for the place.
Cole got alongside Ross several times at Paddock and Druids, though Ross was the stronger at Graham Hill Bend, and he managed to resist Cole for the rest of the way to win.
Sullivan again led the race early on – this time from pole – and was leading Class B when he again retired with a repeat of his technical woes. That left the battle for the class win between Campbell and Ballard, and Ballard got by for victory with a magnificent pass, hanging on around the outside of Druids then getting the inside line for Graham Hill Bend. Ballard also got driver of the race.
“[The weekend was] more successful than I thought,” Ross said. “I was happy to come here [and] not go away with any damage.
“We’ve tinkered a bit with suspension settings and stuff like that just trying to get an advantage. We’ve got ourselves in a rabbit hole going the wrong direction, I think we’re going the right way now. It still isn’t quite right. Compared to Doug it was really good at Graham Hill, everywhere else it was not as good, so it was a race spent defending. But we’re getting there.
“[Race one] was a bit lonely, good to boost the confidence, but if Doug had been on the track I doubt I would have won it. I didn’t think I would have defended to keep him back for that whole race [in race two], but I managed it.
“Two wins: chuffed to bits. Also it was my first pole at Brands. Couldn’t have gone much better.”
MGCC MG Cup
The MG Cup races at Brands Hatch had a fresh look. Race-one pole was taken by none other than Lance Ellington, the Strictly Come Dancing singer and former 1990s’ Dunlop Rover Turbo Cup racer in a Daily Mirror-sponsored Tomcat 220 Turbo. This Brands event – back in a Tomcat – marked his return to competition after a quarter century away.
Ellington also led race one early on, but it was another notable new entry that soon moved past to lead, in Steve McDermid in his brand-new ZR 190 that he had only just completed and had spent an intense last few months preparing. McDermid moved clear for a comfortable win.
“It’s a new car, just built, and it’s phenomenal,” McDermid said. “It came out [at the meeting] and just left the field for dust.
“I haven’t worked for the last two months after I decided to build a new car. There’s eight week’s work there; seven days a week the last six weeks. And I finished it at 9:30 on Friday night.”
Ellington was second home on the road but got a 10-second penalty for starting just ahead of his grid slot, despite his efforts to reverse into place. This let Ashley Woodward, whom Ellington pipped to the line, claim second place after all in his ZS 180. Woodward also got driver of the race.
Reigning class champion Ian Boulton, fourth home, won Class B in his MG ZR, helped by that Iain Dowler ran across the grass at Druids on lap one trying to get the lead from Ellington.
Race two looked very similar to race one as McDermid again moved up quickly from fourth place to lead. However this time Woodward, who’d led the first four laps, remained close to him. Then the race got turned on its head when the lead pair made contact at Druids, putting McDermid out.
Woodward continued in first but was hobbled by his resultant suspension damage and Ellington eventually passed Woodward’s understeering car to win. Ellington was awarded driver of the race as well.
Boulton inherited the Class B win as third home overall, when Dennis Robinson, who took the place on the road, got a 10-second track-limits penalty.
Ellington was delighted. “I just had the best weekend back,” he said, “and it’s everything I remember, especially the Tomcat, which is just a great car. [Car owner and Castle Combe champion] Gary Prebble’s set it up beautifully, and the racing was such fun out there. Absolutely chuffed.
“The MG Cup, what a great place to come back to. I’m excited to be out again with them at some other circuits this year, work permitting. Especially after this weekend, now I’ve got the bug back with the Tomcat I’m probably going to stick with that [rather than race elsewhere].”
MGCC Lackford Engineering Midget & Sprite Challenge
Stephen Watkins made a welcome return to the Midget & Sprite Challenge in his MG Midget, and won both Brands Hatch races from pole. And for the first of them he got the Steve Everitt Trophy, an award Watkins was delighted to receive as he raced closely against Everitt for two years.
Neither of Watkins’ Brands wins were straightforward though, as he got a strong challenge from a host of Class E cars, particularly as they got heat into their tyres more quickly than Watkins could with his slicks, in often-cool conditions.
In the first race Watkins had to resist three chasing foes, led by an effervescent Richard Bridge – now in a Class E Austin Healey Sebring Sprite – who attacked Watkins throughout. Watkins though got an early reprieve when the race ended ahead of time with a red flag with four minutes left. Bridge reckoned he might have won without the early conclusion.
The red flag came about as Hugh Simpson’s MG Midget was stuck in the Paddock gravel. He was disputing the Class D lead with Dean Stanton’s Austin Healey Sprite and Simpson spun just after a small touch with Stanton entering the Paddock turn. Stanton therefore got the class victory.
Reigning champion Pippa Cow meanwhile started both races from the back, after spinning out of a wet and tricky qualifying. But in both race encounters she rose quickly and impressively to get with the lead group. In race one she was third home, and second in Class E.
Bridge was unable to take part in race two, as a cylinder head cracked when making his way back to the paddock after race one. Watkins in race two looked more comfortable in first in Bridge’s absence, but then he had the spanner in the works of a red flag – due to a couple of cars pulled off and plenty of oil deposited on track – and a subsequent five-minute sprint for the spoils from a re-formed grid.
And at the restart Cow got the lead from Watkins on the outside of Druids first time through. But two laps later, at the same turn, Watkins with his slicks heated up and the oil cleaned off them retook first place and stayed there. Cow was second home and got the Class E win from James Hughes. Stanton again beat Simpson in Class D, and was awarded the Midget & Sprite Challenge’s driver of the meeting.
Watkins said: “There were no real problems [in race one] aside from the fact it was cold, and I think the Class E cars their tyres they work a lot better in the cold. I still managed to stay in the front just about.
“And [race two] being a bit warmer I thought it might be a bit better, it was going quite well, I was keeping a distance to the Class E cars this time. And after [the red flag] again I was being fairly cautious. With the bigger tyres if they get a bit of oil on it they do tend to slip a bit more until it wears off again.”
MGCC Baynton Jones Historic Motorsport Triple-M Racing Challenge
The Triple-M Racing Challenge had a significant double winner as Charles Jones, the head of series sponsor Baynton Jones Historic Motorsport, returned to race his MG L Magna for the first time in four years, and won both of Brands Hatch’s pre-War contests from pole.
In race one Jones was briefly headed by Andrew Long’s MG KN, but Long almost immediately dropped out with supercharger manifold problems.
From there Jones was unchallenged and won by 12 seconds from comfortable Class B winner Mike Davies-Colley in his MG PA Special.
Tim Sharp in his MG PB was fourth home and the clear Class A victor, and he was just ahead of equally clear Class D winner Steven McEvoy in his MG Magna F1, and McEvoy was also awarded driver of the race.
Jones then won race two, moving clear to win this time by 36s, while Long had more mechanical woe as he retired on lap one with fuel pump failure.
Mark Dolton in his MG PB got past Davies-Colley at mid distance to finish second overall and win Class B. Dolton was awarded driver of the race too. Nicholas Powell’s MG LA Special beat McEvoy for Class D victory, while Sharp – this time eighth overall – made it a double win in Class A.
“It’s been a relearning job for me,” Jones said of his meeting, “so this morning was a bit of a catch up and it was a bit slippery and things like that.
“The first race was good, was starting off to be quite close but both the two frontrunners we both had a little problem and I had to nurse it through that really to take the first one. But the car was perfect in the second race and I managed to get back to the lap times I was doing four years ago, so that was very pleasing. It’s nice to be here with everyone enjoying it.
“[The car’s] been in the family since 1972 and dad and I have both driven it all over the place, all over Europe. It’s a sort of travelling advert for us, doing quite a good job today.
“We’re very much looking forward to the Silverstone GP circuit in June with the rest of the car club, and hope we can put on a decent show there with all the Triple-M cars, which is nearly where it all started.”
MGCC BCV8 Championship
Neil Fowler in the BCV8 curtain raiser kept in with what seemed two themes of the Brands Hatch meeting, of being a double winner, and of charging through after starting from the back.
Fowler in his fine-running MG B GT, having seemingly sorted the reliability problems that blighted his 2022, had a lot of pace but he missed qualifying as his fire extinguisher was accidentally set off, and Fowler couldn’t fit a replacement in time.
Reigning champion James Wheeler, this time racing his dad’s Class C MG B as his Class D car wasn’t ready, took pole. He lost the lead to Ian Prior on lap one, but was back ahead a lap later. But Fowler rose quickly and at half distance passed Wheeler to lead.
Fowler won, but just as he crossed the line to take the flag he got a five-second penalty added for passing a car before the line at an early safety car restart. He was just 1.7 seconds ahead of runner-up Prior in the classification.
Wheeler was third home and a comfortable Class C winner, while Russell McCarthy’s MG B won Class B and Jordan Spencer in his MGB Roadster won Class AB.
Fowler, again from the back, rose even more quickly in race two and got the lead from Prior at one-quarter’s distance. And again he stayed in first place, strengthening his margin to 22.8s over Prior by the end.
Wheeler was again third home and the Class C winner, though this time he was only just ahead of Andrew Young’s MG B Roadster after Wheeler conspicuously backed off for a couple of laps at mid distance, to ease his temperatures.
Guy Samuels in his MG B Roadster was a clear Class B winner, with McCarthy this time pitting at the end of the formation lap. Spencer again won Class AB, though only by a second from David Strike’s MG B GT.
“It was enjoyable working my way to the front,” Fowler said. “I borrowed a fire extinguisher out of someone’s broken car, and it’s an electronic one so we had to replumb that in and run the cables to it, then we had to do three laps at lunchtime to allow us to start at the back of the grid.
“I didn’t expect to be at the front as quick as that [in race two], I thought it might be the last two or three laps.
“The car’s running well – at last. I had enough problems last year with gearboxes. Everything’s good.”
Tom Smith won the restarted Equipe GTS opener in his MG B Roadster, taking the lead early then keeping a scrapping pack at arm’s length behind. Smith was aided by that poleman Oliver Pratt in his Morgan Plus 4 had a poor start and dropped to mid-pack. Pratt then clawed his way up to finish in a close second place, just 2.5 seconds shy.
Pratt got better launches in the also-restarted race two, and got the lead from Smith at the restart then kept him out of reach. Smith, unsure of his handling, had made changes to his MG B between races but admitted they may have been counterproductive.
Pratt said: “I knew if I got the start right the rest would be plain sailing; [in race one] I had two awful starts. We’ve made some changes to the engine, when it’s lower down it’s a big groggy.”
In Equipe’s new 1970s contest Andrew Wenman was a late replacement for his unwell father David driving their Morgan, and in the opening race he moved clear in first place from pole. But at two-thirds’ distance Wenman Jr spun at Surtees and lost first place to Stephen Winter’s Porsche 911. Wenman trimmed the deficit to Winter for the rest of the way but Winter remained ahead, and was put out of reach when Wenman lost time by sliding at Graham Hill Bend’s exit late on.
Wenman kept it on the straight and narrow to win race two however, taking the lead at the start and stretching his advantage much as he had done in race one. He was 14.2 seconds clear of Winter at the end.
Equipe Pre 63 / 50s
Nigel Winchester in his elegant and powerful Shelby had to start the opening Equipe Pre 63 / 50s race from 11th as he was circumspect in damp qualifying. But in the dry race one he rose to second place on the first lap, and at one-third’s distance passed Joe Willmott’s Austin Healey 3000 for a lead he didn’t lose.
In race two Winchester – now starting from pole – led all the way. But this time he had a group of close chasing cars, and had to resist an attacking Nick Finburgh who in his Lola rose to second place for the latter part of the race.
Winchester’s superior straightline speed kept him ahead, but as he crossed the line at the end he lost the win via a five-second track-limit penalty. This meant Finburgh prevailed.
Chris Beighton’s Sunbeam Tiger, which will race at Le Mans Classic this summer, led all of the opening Equipe Libre race from pole to win by 5.6 seconds from Rick Willmott’s AC Cobra.
Beighton looked on course to repeat the feat in race two, but suddenly lost the lead at half distance with a Clearways spin. Soon he had climbed back from fourth, and eaten up the 6.4s gap in doing so, to retake the lead from Gerard Buggy’s Lotus Elan.
But Beighton’s Sunbeam not long later started to smoke and he dropped out. It transpired that it was due to a dipstick tube problem leaking oil onto the exhaust. Buggy got the victory.
Report by Graham Keilloh. Photographs by Dickon Siddall.