The SKOPE Classic – Mike Pero Motorsport Park, Christchurch, New Zealand 3/4/5th February 2017

Following hot on the heels of the previous weeks’ successful event in Taupo, the FJ circus migrated South to Christchurch, in the Canterbury district of South Island, NZ. For many of us visiting from Europe, Australia and North America, it was our first visit to the city since the devastating earthquake six years previously and a timely reminder of how resilient our Kiwi friends are. As I write, wild fires have recently been raging in the suburbs and the residents of Kaikoura further North are still wrestling with the after effects (and after shocks) from their own natural disaster. It was against this backdrop therefore that over forty entrants from seven nations descended upon the Ruapuna Park circuit determined to put on a good show and enjoy our interaction with the large, knowledgeable and appreciative crowd that supported the event over three days.

So, we’re in New Zealand with forty-five entries from seven countries, sixty years on from our formula’s inception. Consider that for a moment…

The F1 and F5000 drivers present may have been in the fastest cars but judging by the promotional material, programmes, sponsor speeches and comments, it was the International Formula Junior contingent which topped the bill at this prestigious event.

Although initially listed as one race, the FJ cars were subsequently divided into two groups as before. The front engined and smaller capacity/slower rear engined cars (based on earlier performance assessments) were in group 1 with the faster rear engined cars in group 2. Although a bit arbitrary, these groupings worked well and gave roughly equal grids with close, safe racing. However, less satisfactory from the perspective of your Lotus 20/22 mounted scribe here (for some inexplicable reason considered eligible for the quicker group), was the fact that the practices, qualifying and races, all eight of them, were run consecutively – so it was impossible to watch group 1 whilst preparing to compete in group 2. What follows therefore is an approximation of what went on, with some creative race reporting which I hope will give the reader a flavour of the event rather than a blow by blow account of the on track action. For those forensic enthusiasts, keen to establish the facts, I recommend slipping on an anorak and studying the website where all the details of the races can be found along with lap charts and, probably, tyre pressures.

As a final piece of context, it’s worth remembering that for most of us this event formed part of a grand tour of New Zealand, a holiday with some motor racing every weekend for four or five weeks on the trot. The social side was therefore important too and lasting friendships evolved over the course of the adventure with impromptu barbecues and Saturday night functions forming an integral part of the proceedings (as did the consumption of alcohol, I hear). Of course, this event was also part of the Denny Hulme Trophy leg of our World Tour and with individual event and series points at stake, some took things more seriously than others. Luckily, we had some adult supervision in the form of Howden Ganley who participated actively and lent gravitas to the occasion.

So, at long last, onto the racing…

Group 1 – Races 8a, 17a, 27a and 37a

It was clear from qualifying, that despite the different characteristics of this circuit, compared with Taupo, Jac Nellemann and Tony Olissoff would resume their battle for supremacy at the front of this group in the Alfa Dana and Emeryson Elfin respectively. Barring mechanical maladies that is… The next grouping in performance terms comprised the Autosud of Paul Halford and the Geminis of Michael Sexton, Graham Barron and Max Pegram. In qualifying at least, Vernon Williamson (Lynx), Mike Rowe (Koala), JR Mitchell (Lotus 18) and the similarly mounted Colin Nursey took turns to head up the rear engine participants.

Several competitors had carried out a great deal of work to make the race – none more so than Richard Bishop-Miller who sourced a new (well, very old actually) Triumph Herald engine, fitted a re-machined piston to his original block and with a ‘recycled’ cylinder head was able to join in the fun with the unique Autosport. He was hampered by overheating initially but eventually ran reliably. Less fortunate was Walter Findlay whose two stroke pistons had failed thus excluding him for the rest of the series. A great shame as we all enjoyed the rasping exhaust note of the DKW. Erik Justesen missed the first race as he carried out a diff change on his trusty U2 and Colin McKay suffered a damaged starter ring gear which plagued his Gemini for the rest of the races and gave a few willing helpers plenty of exercise at the start of each event. Vern Williamson had a torrid time in the races as he tried to sort various clutch, chassis, engine mount and brake problems on the Lynx which limited his track time considerably. Fellow Lynx owner Andrew Wilkinson was also down to race the car but the back to back nature of the two FJ groups meant he had to enter the Vintage Car Club races, which coupled to the mechanical dramas meant he too had limited running.

The efficient Canterbury Car Club had scheduled 42 races (!) over two days and adding further complexity was the adoption of the ‘progressive grid’ format whereby grid positions for each race changed based on best lap times during the course of the event.

Typically, Tony O would sit spinning his wheels at the start of each five or six lap race, the front wheel drive Emeryson offering little or no traction, Jac would set off (although in race one he too made a poor start with a misfire) into an early lead and the rest of the pack would pursue. A front hub failure for Tony was an early setback followed by a collision with Colin Nursey in race two and a throttle cable failure in race three which collectively ruined his chances of overall honours. Jac also had a snag in one race with a detached fuel filter but it was evident that as the races progressed, his earlier speed advantage was being eroded as Michael Sexton in particular found his form and placed the highly polished Gemini at the front of the field on several occasions – winning two races and finishing second in each of the others. In fact, this was a great circuit for the Geminis it would appear, as Graham Barron finished second overall in race 2 with Max Pegram just behind Paul Halford in fourth. Three Geminis in the first four places overall – I wonder when (or even if?) that has occurred previously. Had Colin Mckay’s car been on top form and John Chisholm’s similar car been on the track rather than in the container, it could have been quite an unprecedented Gemini-fest.

Further down the order, there were some great tussles for the spectators to enjoy and some of the cars attracted particular interest. Notable among these were Doug Elcomb’s extraordinary Canadian Dreossi, Nigel Russell’s Stanguellini fresh from its’ ten year rebuild and Tony Pearson’s Bandini which suffered a diff failure in the last race. Tony incidentally, won the award for the loudest shirt at the Saturday night party. On the subject of colours, special mention must be made of Brian Searle’s very pink Pink Panther which was visiting as part of the strong Western Australian contingent.

So, as the collective results of all four races were analysed and grouped into our regular classes by Duncan (whose trusty Alexis – now with matching orange sun brolly – had run reliably in midfield throughout the meeting), it became clear that overall honours in class B1 had gone to Michael by a scant one point over Jac with Graham in third. In class A1, a popular winner was Alan Cattle’s attractive Volpini, four points ahead of Nigel Russell who beat Paul Halford into third place after Paul suffered a diff failure in one race.

Group 2 – races 8b, 17b, 27b and 37b

The sharp end of this group was always going to be contested by the hitherto unbeaten Greg Thornton (Lotus 22), Marty Bullock (Lotus 27) and Noel Woodford who was easily the fastest of the drum braked class in his well developed, Gemini Mk3A which had a strengthened gearbox input shaft following Taupo. Qualifying confirmed this with Marty on pole for the first race by 0.012secs!

Robin Longdon (Lola Mk5A), Grant Clearwater (Cooper T59) and yours truly’s Lotus 20/22 (which was considerably quicker than David Innes’ Lotus 27 – well 0.069 seconds quicker, anyway) completed the top six. Mechanical problems afflicted a few cars with Peter Boel’s Lola Mk5 suffering an electrical fire, Robs Lamplough’s Brabham was misfiring badly as his team struggled to set it up to run on Avgas and Lance Carwardine was wrestling with a myriad of problems on the lovely looking Lynx Lowline which had been hastily completed just before the shipping date and needed sorting before it was truly race ready.

So, on four occasions as the Group 1 or FJ race(a) cars came off the track, the FJ race(b) cars were ushered out onto the circuit for our warm up lap in an effort to maintain the programme (which was timetabled around one combined race remember).

The first Group 2 race was shortlived after Robin spun on lap 1 on a tight infield section and the race was red flagged as Grant Clearwater, Bruce Edgar (Elfin) and David Kent (Lynx) became entangled in the ensuing melee. Each required some damage to be rectified before competing again. At the restart, the first of a series of great battles between Greg, Marty and Noel commenced with place changes aplenty.

Behind the top three, Dave Innes raced through the field to fourth position in three out of the four races despite a shaky start on one occasion after engaging second gear when still approaching his grid slot as the lights went out. John Delane had a very close view of this in his immaculate Lotus 18 “…it’s put years on me!” said John afterwards.

Greg won the first two encounters (albeit by a scant 0.4 secs in race 2) but the tide was turning as Marty got to grips with the circuit and began lapping a second faster than he’d achieved in qualifying. This enabled him to secure wins in races three and four but not the overall victory as we’ll come to shortly…

Noel had a rude awakening when the rear of the Gemini caught alight following a fuel line failure but it was quickly put out with only bodywork damage. This brought out the safety car for a few laps in race 4 and elevated David I to third followed by Messrs Longdon, Anstiss and Delane.

Phil Foulkes was going well with his ex Chris Atkinson Lotus 20/22 and despite an emerging oil leak, he raced closely, in several of the events, with both John D and Jim Blockley in the Caravelle which was now running strongly following engine dramas at Taupo.

Neil McCrudden lost drive in one race but the resourceful WA contingent soon sorted out the failed Lotus driveshaft but (I think) the only other notable retirement was the Lotus 18 of Nick Grewal who had his preparer and fellow competitor J.R Mitchell on hand to effect a speedy repair in time for the next race.

As with Group 1, it was left to Duncan to compute the overall and class positions using his tried and tested methodologies. With two wins apiece between Marty and Greg, the total elapsed race times (excluding the aborted first part of race one) were used to determine the overall winner and it went to Greg by 1 second! David Innes was third making it an all Lotus top three in class E.

In the drum braked category, Noel Woodford just pipped David Watkins and Jim Blockley for first place despite his one non-finish.

For many, this was already the third consecutive weekend of racing (the fourth for a few) and despite a total of twelve races and nearly twenty track outings (including practices and qualifying sessions), most cars were bearing up well. It was hot – 30+ deg on occasions – and dusty at Ruapuna but despite this, the strong sense of team spirit that is engendered by such a travelling circus on a bit of an adventure still prevailed. “Now, whose turn is it to go into that oven of a container to do a spot of strapping down…? While you’re doing that, I’ll see if I can find some cold beer”.

Peter Anstiss