East London; 12th – 13th February 2016
By the time the Formula Junior cars arrived at East London, most of us had already been in South Africa for over two weeks, some longer. We had enjoyed superb weather, breath taking scenery and, most importantly, wonderful friendship and hospitality. Like so many before us, we were simply in awe of the place.
It seemed hard to believe that we were about to embark upon our final race meeting after the two previous great weekends at Zwartkops and Killarney. Both of those had their own special character and history but the anticipation of the old Grand Prix circuit at East London was, especially for those visiting for the first time, quite mouth watering. Many of us will remember or will have read about those halcyon days of the early 1960’s when the likes of Jim Clark, Jack Brabham and Stirling Moss raced there. Nothing however prepares ‘first timers’ for just how spectacular the circuit is with its mix of both tight and incredibly quick sweeping corners with its views over the Indian Ocean. Many of those who know the circuit well acknowledge that it really shouldn’t work. It has seven right hand corners of varying degrees but only one long left hander but despite this oddity it is a fantastic circuit and provides a real challenge both in terms of high speed and handling. The added bonus is that, apart from some track width alterations, the circuit is exactly as it was in period.
The containers were there by the time we all arrived on the Thursday however the means to unload the upper deck cars provided a challenge. One of those cars was the Stanguellini of Richard Pugh which sadly stayed in position as he and Liz had decided to pull out of the meeting. The car had suffered a head gasket problem at Killarney but worse was the fact that they had both gone down with a bug and were feeling under the weather so understandably decided to sit it out.
With much appreciated help from Mike Gregory, a flat bed lorry was sourced locally and by late afternoon the cars were in the pit garages, some requiring urgent attention following a number of mishaps at Killarney.
The Autosport Mk2 of Richard Bishop-Miller had suffered a clutch failure towards the end of the last race at Killarney but, thanks to the help of local car racer and car preparation expert, Dave Alexander, he had sourced a new clutch and it was ready to fit. It was all hands on deck and, with some clever improvisation, the car would be ready for practice on the Friday. The Lotus 22 of Greg Thornton and the Lola Mk3 of Hans Jörgen Krag had both suffered gearbox damage and required work but the greatest challenge sat with the Elva 300 of Chris Drake who had collided quite heavily with the back of the Thornton Lotus after it suddenly and unexpectedly came to a halt on the Killarney start line giving Chris Drake nowhere to go.
The damage to the Elva was confined to the front end and required a great deal of work between meetings. Radiator and suspension aside, the greatest challenge came from reinstating the nose section of the car. The solution was to be a much photographed ‘Miss Molly’ washing basket. When I asked Chris why he had chosen a wash basket the answer was clear. “I have plans to clean up!” With the car back together, the troubles were not over as there were brake issues which, at one point took him onto the infield Karting track! Never a dull moment for the Elva!
It goes without saying that each and everyone had routine work to do, but, as a Formula Junior team, everyone helped out. Iain Rowley constantly seemed to be working on all six of ‘his’ cars at once while our other resident experts, Tom and Bob, were never far away from the action – a fantastic effort.
By Friday morning the public road which forms much of the circuit had been closed and, as the sun came up on this largely unaltered circuit, it was rather like transporting yourself back in time.
A major highlight was the presence of the magnificent Lotus 21 Grand Prix car of Alex Morton. This car not only raced at East London in 1962 but the period driver, Neville Lederle, was due to be present on race day and so, to keep it together was crucial as this was inevitably going to be a major highlight of the weekend.
Friday practice clearly showed the out and out pace of the Lotus 22 of Greg Thornton with his extensive knowledge of the track paying dividends. Despite fuel evaporation issues (or did he just forget to put some in?) David Innes was showing good pace in his iconic Lotus 27 as was Andrew Beaumont in the Lotus 22 and Alex Morton in the Lotus however, despite the challenges, the drum brake Elva was always going to be the one to watch. The front engine cars were in for a good battle with the U2 Mk2 of Erik Justesen setting the pace with Jac Nellemann in the Volpini, Duncan Rabagliati in Alexis HF1 and Richard Bishop-Miller in the Autosport chasing hard.
Saturday race day arrived, it was a hot and sunny morning although the forecast suggested the possibility of an afternoon thunder storm. The Juniors had an early wake up call and were first out for a warm up session. No time to lose, immediately after the warm up we were in for a driver briefing and then straight into qualifying.
True to form, the rear engine Lotus of Greg Thornton was on pole with Chris Drake, Andrew Beaumont, Alex Morton and David Innes chasing but it was clear that there would be battles all the way down the order with Hans Jörgen Krag in an impressive 6th position. Pierre Plannthia in Justesen’s Lotus 22 and Chris Merrick in the Cooper T59 were destined to enjoy the series long battle as the cars were lapping within a few tenths of one another. The Lotus 18 of Colin Nursey and the Deep Sanderson of Chris Wilks were split by only one second with Mike Gregory in the beautifully turned out De Tomaso and Jac Nellemann in his Volpini within the same second. Roger Woodbridge in the Ausper T4 had been picking up speed as the series progressed and then his secret was spotted. He was wearing ‘Speedos’ under his overalls after suffering some water pipe burns at Killarney and this is what he attributed it to! The front engine cars continued to be led by Erik Justesen in the U2 with Duncan and Richard battling behind.
Race one was not far away but not before the Alex Morton Lotus 21 had been reunited with Neville Lederle and family. It was a wonderful moment and it was difficult for emotions not to run high. There were a number of older spectators who had witnessed the Grand Prix of the early 1960’s and to listen to their versions of events and how it was then was quite a privilege.
Unfortunately, the first of the Formula Junior races was to be marred by another gearbox failure on the Thornton Lotus, spinning it around and bringing it to a sudden halt on the line. Fortunately no one collected it this time but it did bring out a red flag to allow the car to be removed. The restart saw Chris Drake take the lead followed by Alex Morton, a flying Dave Innes, Andrew Beaumont and the Merrick Cooper. Those positions were maintained with Erik Justesen taking 6th overall and first of the front engine cars. Colin Nursey came next followed by Mike Gregory, Jac Nellemann,, Duncan Rabagliati and finally the spectacular and sideways Autosport of Richard Bishop-Miller who was having a great time.
Unfortunately, Roger Woodbridge and Hans Jörgen Krag were sidelined with clutch issues and Pierre Plannthia with a broken gearbox. Chris Wilks, who had made a tremendous start, had a problem with an upright and sadly had to retire the Deep Sanderson.
Due to some very impressive work in the Thornton camp, Greg was able to start race two, albeit from the back of the grid as he was lacking an effective first gear. His performance was outstanding and he came through the field to take the win in race two followed by the hard charging Elva of Chris Drake. Alex Morton and David Innes continued their series long close battle with the Grand Prix car just having the edge. Andrew Beaumont was next followed at a distance by Chris Merrick. Erik Justesen was again the first of the front engine cars followed by Colin Nursey, Jac Nellemann, Mike Gregory, Duncan Rabagliati with the still wounded Deep Sanderson of Chris Wilks following on. The Autosport of Richard Bishop-Miller suffered a differential failure early in the race which caused a drive shaft to break and the suspension to collapse. After a heart stopping moment he was out of the car and safely watching from behind the Armco.
No sooner had the Formula Junior race finished than the promised thunder storm came. Heavy rain was to have a serious impact on the last of the races but we were lucky to be back in the dry to prepare the cars for the long journey home.
Great hospitality was provided at the prize giving and Duncan handed out trophies and class awards to the FJ competitors.
The good guy cup for the South African sector, could only go to one person, Chris Drake. His speed and commitment in the drum brake Elva has to be seen to be believed.
With the Overall South African sector Trophy, the Howard Robinson Trophy, going to Jac Nellemann.
The South African sector was only run with 3 Classes, Front, Drum and Rear, but with a generous supply of trophies, the following awards were presented for the aggregate positions over the two races according to the European FJ Class system;
1st Jac Nellemann
1st Erik Justesen
2nd Duncan Rabagliati
1st Colin Nursey
2nd Mike Gregory
1st Chris Drake
1st David Innes
2nd Andrew Beaumont
3rd Chris Merrick
This saw the end of a fantastic FJ tour in South Africa. Thanks must go to all those who made it possible and to those who went the extra mile to ensure the cars were safely back in the containers – you know who you are!
Report by Chris Merrick