Birmingham Superprix

Streetwise racing in Brum and the south of France

Dipping into one’s long-neglected photo archive it’s amazing what comes to the surface. This time it was a picture reminding me that in my 30-year-plus career, I’ve only ever been to three meetings on street circuits – and two of them were in Birmingham…

Birmingham Superprix 1986

Racing cars, traffic lights and 40mph signs – this was the Birmingham Superprix…

Run between 1986 and 1990, the Birmingham Superprix was something very different on the UK racing calendar and when the debut 1986 event was announced this young motorsports photographer knew he had to be there. At the time all the racing I had experienced had been at Brands Hatch and a brief visit to Lydden.

Having held a media pass for Brands Hatch circuits for just three seasons and not having a permanent outlet I knew I wouldn’t get a pass for Birmingham, which was an international event topped by a round of the FIA Formula 3000 Championship (for younger racing types, F3000 was then to F1 what GP2 is today – the final rung of the ladder to Grand Prix racing). So me and my mate John Newton went as punters on a grand day out.

Birmingham Superprix 1986, crossing

“Oi, you can’t park on the zig-zags…”

Arriving at a race circuit by Inter City train was novel, especially this was only my second time in Birmingham and the previous visit took me only as far as the NEC to see Genesis in 1983. John and I made our way to the circuit wondering what to expect – our only experience of street circuits was watching Monaco and US tracks such as Long Beach on the TV.

Well, Birmingham was no Monaco! The circuit was based largely around a dual carriageway, the cars charging down one side, around a roundabout and up the other side. It then dived through some tight roads hemmed in by towering offices and housing, bringing the cars back to the start line, opposite a pit lane in the frontage of a car dealership.

86 Birmingham Superprix, deck chairs

Get the deck chairs out, racing cars are on…”

Walking around, even in the public areas, it was incredible how close you were to the track, the cars powering by just the other side of a debris fence. But if you took too many steps backwards, you risked falling into the pocket-handkerchief-sized garden of a local resident’s council house, and they were hanging out their bedroom window getting a grandstand view of the action. Others were sat in front of their houses in deckchairs – there were tales of marshals being kept supplied with tea from the nearest locals, it was all very British.

F3000, Birmingham Superprix 1986.

For the F3000 boys the race was more about staying on the track than challenging rivals…

John and I found a great spot for the racing, sitting close to the top of a grass bank directly opposite that hairpin at the end of the dual carriageway – and then the rains came…

All those who were there remember how the tail-end of Hurricane Charley let rip on Britain that August bank holiday weekend, and it wrecked race day. The deluge was so torrential that John and I kept sliding down the bank on the mud. The F3000 race was stopped halfway through and a result declared and while they tried to run the saloon supports, we were so sodden and dejected we dragged ourselves to the train and home.

Rain-sodden 86 Birmingham Superprix

Conditions too sodden for even the saloons dampened our spirits…

Thankfully, the organisers didn’t let that put them off and a year later the meeting happened again, and this time in glorious weather. I went on my own to this one, still without a press pass, but being at Brands Hatch almost every weekend I had by this time got to know a lot of marshals. During the morning practice sessions my friends on the post just after the start line let me go trackside for a couple of sessions.

Birmingham Superprix 1987 Fiestas

One not very tall armco barrier, and racing cars, going rather quickly…

In all my time as trackside photographer I was never quite as inspired – and yes, mildly scared – as I was then. I was standing almost touching the inside of an armco barrier that only came up to just above my knees, and on the other side was the track – no grass verge or gravel trap, just tarmac, and racing cars going full pelt on it.

I became a huge fan of street circuits that day, and I would be disappointed that commitments elsewhere prevented me going back to the Superprix in any of the three more years it lasted. In fact it would be another 20 years before my next street race, and that was in the south of France.

1987 Birmingham Superprix F3000

F3000 cars make for the airport…

By the time I went to the round of the 2007 World Touring Car Championship at Pau, my trackside days were behind me, in fact I was no longer primarily a photographer but a writer, and at the time writing more about road cars than race cars.

WTCC Pau 2007

Pau – the traditional idea of a street circuit.

In fact it was testing road cars that got me to the meeting – Pau was at that time familiar to us, a favourite launch venue for the German brand’s performance road cars due to good roads in the district, a very nice hotel actually bordering the street circuit, and a proper race track just a few miles outside the city for us to try out the latest BMW M3s and M5s.

So a select few of us road testers with motorsport credentials were invited as guests of BMW to Pau – at the time the brand’s WTCC team was led by Brit Andy Priaulx who would claim his third successive title in 2007. I certainly had the motorsport credentials – on car launches to Pau I never needed a second invitation to show any driving partner who hadn’t visited the city before “where the race circuit goes…”

Priaulx WTCC Pau 2007

Andy Priaulx, the man to beat in 2007.

Now this was much more like a Monaco-style street track – really tight, climbing and descending its way between impressive architecture, and with the kind of weather one gets in a location much closer to the Mediterranean than is Birmingham. The only thing missing was a harbour with bronzed beauties sunbathing on mega-money yachts.

The track itself was everything I expected, especially as the World Touring Cars still climbed over every kerb they could find and constantly grazed the barriers. It was impressive stuff, but the dangers of street tracks were highlighted in no uncertain terms when Augusto Farfus rolled his BMW into a tyre barrier in qualifying, causing my mate Ian Lynas to dive for cover in a way a man of his years really shouldn’t be doing. It was sobering to think that had the Beemer been a foot or so higher it would have missed the barrier and kept on rolling…

Farfus, WTCC Pau 2007

A fellow journo got rather too close for comfort with the Farfus BMW…

We had a great weekend, especially on Saturday evening. The racing went on into the night which encouraged one of my fellow journos to stage an unofficial party in his room – beer, food and a grandstand view from his balcony! And on Sunday Alain Menu, one of my favourite acquaintances from BTCC Super Touring days, won the first race in his Chevrolet.

So yes, I like street circuits, though I don’t get to them very often. I still haven’t seen a race at Monaco, though I’ve walked the circuit and I’ve driven it – in the traffic jams of a typical Monegasque weekday morning… And to be honest, I’d be happy to go back to another Superprix in Brum, especially as now I live in Wales the city is at the other end of a direct rail line…WTCC at Pau, 2007

Pau WTCC, 2007

All photos in this piece by me! Andrew Charman

I like Lexus – and I don’t care

Just a few days ago, I had to give up the Lexus, and that made me sad.

Now I have always generally enjoyed the products of Lexus – and sometimes, talking to other motoring journos, and reading certain comments, I feel like I’m not supposed to. I get the impression that this Japanese upstart shouldn’t really be expecting to have its cars considered as premium machines, truly an alternative to Audi, Mercedes-Benz and dare we say it, BMW.

I sometimes wonder if potential customers feel the same way. Lexus sold around 9,000 cars in the UK last year, up seven per cent on 2012. Audi shifted 142,000, up almost 15 per cent, BMW 135,500, yup, less than Audi, and up a mere six per cent. Mercedes – 109K, 19 per cent up. Even the considered very upmarket Jaguar clocked up 16,000-plus – like Audi knocking on 15 per cent growth.

1402Lexus02So judging by the cold hard numbers, Lexus is very much a premium bit player, one that has to be honest, struggled in recent times. And I wonder if buyers test driving a Lexus get out of the car, think that was truly impressive, but think too that as they are earning enough to buy a premium car, it should have an Audi, BMW or Mercedes badge…

Well I admit that on the all-too rare occasions that I drive BMWs, they have to work harder to convince me. I’m also uncomfortable with the fact that they are a premium car that seems to appear around every corner. There’s just too many of them around…

Okay, Audis are getting a bit like that these days, but I do find a lot to like about the Audis I drive – and I drive a lot of Audis. Mercedes? Really on the up – they never used to do much for me, they do a lot more now. Jaguar? Classy, simply classy.

Yet still I can’t get away from the simple pleasure I get from slipping behind the wheel of a Lexus. Mind you it has to be a reasonably-sized Lexus – I’ve never really got on with the CT200h hatchback, to me an oddity in the line-up.

1402Lexus04The Lexus I’ve been driving most recently is the IS300h – and the h is important. Lexus simply does not get enough credit for the several years now that it has pursued the hybrid route. Hybrid is good – it does help with the wallet, which is important for this journo who doesn’t earn nearly enough to justify actually owning a premium car… But it also helps with the power – and in this market you expect a reasonably impressive response when you depress your right foot. In the Lexus, such depressing produces instant electrically generated extra grunt.

And – despite having done it so many times now, I still get an odd thrill from letting off the handbrake in my driveway and gliding up to the main road in the total silence of electric propulsion. Smoothness and power, the perfect combination…

The tech is impressive – and it’s contained within a package that is put together as well as any of its German rivals. The shut lines on the panels, the feel of the surfaces, the general plushness, are up to what I’d expect from the Germans – and to listen to some of my colleagues, you’d believe Lexus isn’t allowed to do anything as well as the Germans…

1402Lexus03I’m happy to admit Lexus doesn’t get everything right. The brand was late to the party with one knob central controls, playing catch-up to BMW’s I-Drive and Audi’s MMI. The Lexus solution, which looks a bit like some form of aircraft joystick, is simply too imprecise, making it easy to miss the function you are looking for. But it’s a minor point in a highly contented driving environment.

So yes, I’m always a little sad when I hand back the keys of a Lexus test car. But with the IS300h it’s been particularly hard – because I’ve had it for too long. Generally us journos have a car on test for a week, which is long enough to get a true impression of what it’s like to live with, the kind of day to day grind that you simply can’t replicate in the rush of a launch event.

1402Lexus05Due, however, to circumstances that I had nothing to do with, I’ve had the IS300h for two weeks, and that’s too long. In that time it went from daily test subject to daily companion, a car I got very accustomed to, very comfortable with. So when it came to giving it back – well the fellow journalist who took it from me is a very nice guy but he was, through no fault of his own, by no means my favourite person that day…

My name is Andrew Charman – and I’d like a Lexus, thanks very much…