Monday
Mar142011

The 2011 Season Starts Here

Click On Image For Full GalleryThe Autosport International show, held every year in the cavernous halls of the UK’s National Exhibition Centre (NEC) in Birmingham, has long been the traditional ‘curtain raiser’ for the European motorsport season – a chance for old friends to catch up and new acquaintances to be made. It’s also a favoured location for manufacturers, drivers and teams to finally lay the winter rumours to rest and confirm their plans for the season ahead.

One of the highlights for show visitors this year was the massive McLaren Heritage display, featuring a broad selection of cars manufactered and raced by the storied English team, which normally reside in the clinical (and very much off-limits to the public) surroundings of the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking. Formula 1 World Championship-winning cars abounded, of course, but for sportscar fans there was a special treat in the form of the McLaren F1 GTR, chassis 01R, better known as the overall winner of the 1995 Le Mans 24 Hours in the Ueno Clinic livery of Kokusai Keihatsu Racing. Perched alongside the F1 was McLaren’s all-new supercar for the 2010s, the MP4-12C, a car which should be replicating its illustrious forebear’s success on the racetrack very soon. Of course, no display of historic McLaren machinery would be complete without Can Am representation, and it was a thrill to see the 1970 M8D in the metal, even standing still in an exhibition hall. Further historic delights could be found on the stand of the Group C Racing organisation in the form of a 1991 Mercedes C291, a 1990 Nissan RC90K and a 1987 Tiga GT287. These and more glorious Group C machinery will be gracing historic meets at UK and European racetracks once again this year, so hopefully this isn’t the last you’ll be seeing of them on SCi in 2011…

Turning from the past to the future for a moment, and the Porsche stand was proudly displaying Stuttgart’s headline-grabbing 911 GT3R Hybrid racer, the car that came so close to a historic victory at the Nürburgring 24 Hours in 2010. It would be a foolish man indeed who would bet against this technical marvel topping the podium at a a major international sportscar race in 2011. Elsewhere, although the big-budget GT1 and GT2 classes are struggling in the current climate, the more affordable GT3 and GT4 classes are thriving, with numerous works, semi-works and customer campaigns announced by the likes of Nissan (with its 370Z), Ginetta (with its G55), Chevron (with its GR8), Aston Martin (with its Vantage) and Lotus (with its new Evora GT4, which recently had an eventful but ultimately successful debut in the increasingly important Dubai 24 Hour race). Caterham stole the show in terms of new launches, however, with its stunning new SP/300.R. Developed in co-operation with renowned racecar builder Lola, this Ford Duratec-engined beauty will form the basis of a one-make race series in the UK in 2012, and should begin to challenge Radical’s dominance of the lower reaches of prototype-style racing in years to come. Any car that has had its gearing set up specifically to reach maximum rpm at the end of the Kemmel Straight at Spa-Francorchamps is alright in our book.

There was one car on display at the show, however, that stood head and shoulders above anything else. Presented in absolutely flawless condition and sporting the most evocative of period racing liveries, Martini, was the one and only ‘Baby’ model of Porsche’s 935 that was ever built. The story of this car, like many of the more interesting racecar histories out there, has its roots in a quirk of technical regulations. In the late 1970s, Porsche was campaigning the 935 in both the international and German domestic Group 5 racing championships. At home in Germany, Porsche faced little opposition in the over-two-litre class, but in 1977, Porsche Motorsport brass wanted to be in the under-two-litre class in order to earn the kudos that would come from beating BMW and Ford there. With the equivalency formulas that were in place in the series, the Porsche would not be permitted to run a six-cylinder engine with a displacement of any more than 1425cc. And so they did what was necessary. Using a single-turbocharger setup, the 935 was made eligible for the under-two-litre class, putting out a very respectable 380bhp in this trim. Who says small-capacity, high-power turbocharged engines are a recent innovation? The 935 ‘Baby’ raced just twice and won once, with Jacky Ickx at the wheel both times. Porsche was satisfied that it had proved its point, and the car was retired to the manufacturer’s museum collection, making occasional public appearances since then.

Although it may not have looked as spectacular as the 935, there was another display car at the NEC with an even more fascinating back story. Lined up alongside Skoda’s latest Fabia vRS performance road cars and factory rally cars was a modest-looking, faded orange racing car that came out of the same factory many years previously. It was one of only two Skoda 1100 OHC sports racers ever produced, and it’s a miracle it survived to appear at the show, so close did it come to destruction on several occasions. Although the 1100 OHC was an elegant, refined, aerodynamic and extremely lightweight car, with a tubular space frame, a five-speed gearbox and inboard rear brakes, political realities meant it never got to prove itself in international competition. The two cars made successful appearances in minor Eastern Bloc events shortly after their construction, but were soon doing little more than gathering dust. In 1968, Martin Svetnicka, a young Czech student who was studying in London, bought this example, which by now was in need of restoration. Over Christmas 1968, he set out on a desperate trip to get the ageing car out of his homeland in the midst of the Soviet invasion. In snowy conditions, and without a roof or a windscreen, Svetnicka began his perilous journey back to London. He was delayed at the German border, where customs officials temporarily seized the car, and then stranded in Weisbaden after the car broke down. A garage owner there promised to house the car for a month, but warned it would be sent to the scrapyard if Svetnicka hadn’t collected it by then. Fortunately, the young man was able to come back from England with a friend and tow his prized possession home with him. As so often happens when idealistic enthusiasts take on a challenging project, Svetnicka found that a full restoration of the Skoda was beyond him, and so he sold the car on. It spent some time in the hands of a small motor museum in England that never got around to restoring it either, before finally finding its way into the hands of Duncan Rabagliatti, who, in 1989, was at last able to arrange for the Skoda to get the full restoration it had needed for so long. Then, in 1998, Duncan got an offer he couldn’t refuse from Skoda UK – £47,000 – and it has remained in their hands since. One wonders whether, in these post-credit-crunch times, a manufacturer would still be allowed spend that amount of money to save a piece of its heritage.

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