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Hillclimbing is one of motorsport’s biggest challenges | Thank Frankel it’s Friday

02nd June 2022
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

I remember sitting on the line, waiting to take my first ever run up the Goodwood Hill as if it were yesterday, even though it was, and my eyes widen as I write this, very nearly 30 years ago. Sunday, June 20th, 1993 to be precise. I was in a Honda NSX, wearing what appeared to be a blue boiler suit issued by Honda for these purposes, and surprisingly nervous.

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I shouldn’t have been. I should have been a Hillclimb specialist, not least because I near enough grew up next to one. I spent my salad days on Jersey, so close to the Bouley Bay hillclimb course you could always hear when there was an event running. So I’d clamber onto my bicycle and head over to watch Escorts, Ginettas, Porsche 911s and so on slither up to the top. It was and remains a brilliant climb: steep, laden with hairpins with plenty of good viewing space.

My father owed a particular debt of thanks to Bouley Bay, where he competed on and off and very informally for a number of years, in pretty much whatever was lying around at the time. And it was to Bouley Bay he turned when finding himself in his 2.2-litre 911S with my mother’s sister sat next to him. To say they had their admiration for each other under quite close control is putting it mildly. In particular she took exception to his style of driving, and never lost an opportunity to make her feelings clear on the subject. So, on this particular occasion, he thought he’d take her home the scenic route, via Bouley Bay.

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He was never quite clear about precisely what happened next, other than as he turned into Radio Corner, he lost control of the car, my aunt aghast at his side. Hands flailed, the wheel twirled and then things suddenly got a whole lot worse. He forgot how much correction he’d applied and the Porsche, having an essentially symmetrical wheel where 180 degrees of opposite lock looks much the same as 360 degrees, wasn’t helping. So in total desperation, resigning himself to a fate he’d never be allowed to forget, and entirely without realising it, he did exactly the right thing. He let go of the wheel.

Legendary 911 racer Nick Faure will tell you it was in very similar circumstances that he learned how to master these notoriously twitchy machines. For my father, the car instantly self-centred, snapping straight as they rocketed away up the hill. Clearly now thinking he was some kind of genius, the aunt never criticised his driving again.

Yet to this day, I’ve still not tried to post a competitive time up Bouley Bay and, when offered a drive at the Festival of Speed, am always quietly relieved when I’m told it’s ‘demo only’. For the truth is, and I should probably whisper this, but I’m rubbish at hillclimbing. Put me in some big old race car, with a big old engine on some big old race track and I’ll skid happily about, put on a reasonable show and usually end up coming somewhere respectable. Put me up a hill, where it’s all about millimetre-perfect precision and I’m as far from my natural environment as a walrus on a dog track. What I find strange is that I still manage to enjoy it so much.

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Last weekend, for instance, I toddled off to Shelsley Walsh in my old Caterham, where a very informal day was being held where anyone on the list could turn up and run whatever they’d brought. Which, in this case, meant everything from an 8C Alfa to a minute original Fiat 500. It was one of those delightful days where everyone is relaxed and happy, no one’s blowing whistles at you or saying ‘you can’t park there’. Within five minutes of arriving at the venue, having done no more than scribble on a piece of paper and jammed a helmet on my head, I was in the queue to the start. Sandwiched between a C-Type Jaguar and a Blower Bentley, I felt like something of an imposter, not that I was going to allow that to stop me.

My turn came. Now, when it comes to motorsport, I usually need about half an hour just to get into the rhythm of it, which is why whatever modest results I’ve had in racing have tended to come in long distance events. At Shelsley Walsh, as at Goodwood, I had less than a minute. But when no-one’s timing you and so long as you don’t stick it in the hedge – which I wasn’t going to do because I needed the Caterham to take me home – it simply doesn’t matter. I scarcely know the Shelsley Hill but still managed to have a hoot skittering my way to the top, delighted not to know how slow I was.

When I got home and started watching YouTube videos of hillclimb specialists ascending in their purpose-built cars and what they do is absolutely astonishing. Could such a machine break the outright record up the famous Goodwood Hill? I have absolutely no idea, but I’d certainly like to watch one try.

  • Thank Frankel it's Friday

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