With careful throttle application – there’s lots of power, not much weight, treaded tyres and no sign of fancy electronics here, thanks – and a deft, complementary touch on the steering wheel, writer-turned racer Richard Meaden attacks the majestic Spa-Francorchamps aboard a Ford GT40 during qualifying for the recent Six Hours historic extravaganza.
SEP 30th 2016
Video: On board Richard Meaden's GT40 Spa 6 Hours pole lap
Meaden, who’s become a dab hand in the historic-racing world, thanks to impressive pace aboard a variety of machines, backed up by wins this year at the 74th Goodwood Members’ Meeting and the Silverstone Classic, is strapped into the ex-Brian Wingfield, Paul Lanzante-prepared V8 and he’s on a quick one.
“Spa’s a magic place,” Meaden confirms before talking Goodwood Road & Racing around his lap of the Ardennes rollercoaster.
“The car’s fab, too,” he adds. “It was built by Brian Wingfield in the 1980s, using an original unnumbered GT40 chassis and original parts from the remaining stock of parts from 1965. It also has a DVLA registration document and period registration, so we could drive it on the road!
“The car's present owners placed it with GT40 guru Lanzante last year for full restoration and preparation for this year's Spa event. Where parts were found to be fatigued or unsafe for racing they were replaced with parts supplied by acknowledged GT40 experts, Gelscoe Motorsport. And it was during this restoration process that the car was treated to its fantastic period white-and-green Comstock Racing livery.”
As an added thrill for first-time GT40 racer Meaden, who tested at Goodwood and Blyton ahead of the Belgian classic, he was sharing the car with 10-time Grand Prix winner Gerhard Berger and former Le Mans 24 Hours winner and Minardi F1 racer Paolo Barilla.
“They were great guys,” Meaden says. “No ego at all, and keen to learn more as they went on. They must’ve wondered who on earth I was! They were swamped all the time, particularly Gerhard, but were happy to chat to everyone and sign endless autographs. One of the Historic F1 racers had even bought a full-size replica Berger helmet for Gerhard to sign!”
For qualifying, Meaden was sent out first, to bag that all-important banker lap.
“It was that usual qualifying thing: ‘we have to be at the front of the queue’, but there were so many cars that they were still filing out of the pits as the early-starters come back round to start their first flying laps. We decided instead to wait five minutes before heading out.
“As you can see as I come out of the Bus Stop to start my first proper lap, there are a couple of Alfas heading into La Source. I managed to dispense with them pretty easily and was then pretty lucky with where the traffic popped up. It’s always a concern about catching cars in the wrong place.
“The only heart-in-mouth moment came exiting Stavelot and heading towards the kinks before Blanchimont: watch the chap dicing with the Mustang who moves over on me as I charge between them! And I gave the move on the glorious – and ultra-valuable – Ferrari SWB at Blanchimont a bit of extra thought, too!”
The lap put the #16 machine on an early provisional pole, where, to Meaden’s surprise, it stayed.
“We’d done a good time in testing, so I knew the car was there or thereabouts, but I was surprised to have set the pace so early on and not be bumped down the order as the clocked ticked down.
“I didn’t feel that I had my eye in at that point. It felt OK but not super-quick. I’d focused on not making mistakes. What do they say? ‘Drive better, not faster’. It’s easy to get too sideways or outbrake yourself – especially at the Bus Stop at the end of the lap. The gearbox, which does have synchro, needs to be treated with care, too, so there’s a lot going on. On the narrower tyres we have to run at Spa, the GT40 feels more like a road car. There’s not much grip but at least it’s fairly progressive. As with all GT40s, It’s tricky to extract the maximum from them without breaking them.”
Asked how it felt to team up with a couple of racing legends, and to set a quicker time around such a challenging and famous circuit than both, Meaden replied, modestly: “Form is temporary and class is permanent. I was on form and they were classy!”
Sadly a front-right suspension problem at the Les Combes esses about half an hour into the race while Berger was driving pitched the Austrian gently off and into retirement.
“Gutted!” was Meaden’s summary of the incident that precluded him driving. “I was pacing up and down between the toilet and the coffee machine waiting for my turn. It was a shame for everyone, especially Paul, who’s being working on the car for a year.
“We’ll be back, that’s for sure, even though Paul claims he’s retired. Hopefully we’ll have the same driver line-up again. Imagine standing on the podium at Spa with Gerhard Berger. That would be very cool!”
Photography by Richard Meaden.
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