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

Rekindling my passion for a raucous pocket rocket

More car manufacturers these days are staging drive days for journalists, not attached to the launch of a specific model but instead gathering all the most recent new cars together for the invited hacks to drive as many as they need, or wish, to.

I like these events, because from one day out of the office you can get a lot of potential copy, and sometimes you get some major extras too…

1405VX220cSuch was the case with a day organised this month by Vauxhall. Tooling all the way down from mid Wales to Luton doesn’t exactly excite me – it’s a long way to travel to drive in a part of the country where there’s too much traffic on generally unexciting roads. But this day was to be based at the heritage centre – I’d never been there, and it sounded interesting.

A half-million pound car...

A half-million pound car…

As indeed it was. Vauxhall clearly takes its history seriously and crammed into an innocuous building are many historic cars and just as much memorabilia. PR Man Simon Hucknall clearly loves talking about the heritage centre, and he eagerly pointed out the pre-WW1 Prince Henry (“that’s a half-million pound car…”) and the 1913 30-98, described as the first 100mph production car – not sure I’d like to go 100mph in it…

Possibly just as exciting for many of us was the fact that outside, lined up with the current Cascadas, Mokkas and Merivas, were a host of heritage machines for us to drive. Not the really old stuff, but stretching back to the 1950s with names such as Cresta, Viva and the like…

1405VXR220cFor me, however, the big attraction was much younger – I remember writing about its launch, and I’m not THAT old… It’s called the VXR 220, and the various incarnations of Vauxhall’s go kart on steroids have over the years given me some very distinct memories.

The original VX 220 was launched in 1999. Vauxhall intended to get away from the dull image conjoured up by such cars as the Vectra, and mercilessly stoked by that man Clarkson on Top Gear. The answer was a stripped-down roadster, developed and built in Norfolk by a firm that knew all about building such cars – Lotus…

1405VX220a

The VX 220 – first of a memorable line…

I loved the VX 220 the moment I drove the thing. It had almost 150 horses but weighed just 870 kilos. This was an adult go-kart and even Clarkson admitted it was a better bet than a Lotus. When, around three years later, I was invited to the launch of the Turbo version, I was seriously excited. Closer to 200bhp, 4.7-second 0-62mph time, what was not to like? And the launch was to be held in Spain, with track driving on the Jerez GP circuit, and British Touring Car Champion Jason Plato there to offer speed tips…

And then the day before the launch I was driving to work and the phone rang. It was Maureen from Vauxhall. “Are you nearly at Luton airport?” “But it’s tomorrow…” “No, today…” I – was – seriously gutted…

And then the stories began to emerge. Stories of accidents, wrecked VX Turbos. Several wrecked VX Turbos, into double figures. Even today Vauxhall’s brand guy Stuart Harris appears to shake a little when recalling the firm talking to he had to give the gathered journos. And I had missed all this…

Then just a year later, Vauxhall launched its performance sub-brand, the VXR that we have come to know and enjoy. And the first VXR model was a special edition version of the VX Turbo, dubbed the VXR 220 and just 60 examples of it built. It had another 20bhp, shaving that 62mph sprint to 4.2 seconds in something as stiffly suspended and corner carving as a race car. I had to have one on test…

It was delivered to my office in Orpington. Vauxhall’s delivery driver departed with a cheery “Have a fun week, they all come back crashed…” And I proceeded to drive it home.

1405VXR220bFive miles from my house, there was a Focus in the mirror, manically flashing its headlights. Must be something amiss I thought, so I pulled into a layby and Focus pulled in behind. Out of it stepped a young female who proceeded to run over to my car, bend down and gush excitedly; “I’ve got one of these! I thought mine was the only one in the south of England…”

In the ensuing explanation and conversation, it transpired that she and I actually lived only a few streets from each other. Eventually bidding a cheery farewell, I escaped and drove home, parking the car out the front of my house and thinking no more of my encounter.

Half an hour later and Rosemary, Mrs C, was calling me, with a suspicious expression on her face. “There’s some woman at the door asking for you…” Said woman had gone home, got her VXR 220, and brought it round to show me. You couldn’t make this up…

I did have a fun week, and I didn’t crash it, so several years later, back at the Vauxhall drive day, rekindling my relationship with this particular car was a must. I did all the work-related duties, driving the modern stuff, in the morning, deliberately leaving the expected pleasure to close to the end of the day…

1405VXR220eInitially, it was humbling. It’s not that long ago since the VXR 220 was a production model, and I haven’t got that much older, but getting in and out of the thing, across the wide monocoque sills, is not at all easy, and very undignified. Too much good living in Wales? Possibly…

I briefly forgot how to start the thing, until I remembered that this car was one of the first to have an adrenalin-fuelling start button, rather than a turn key. Said button is an an innocuous little chrome dot on the dash rather than the big ‘Engine Start’ moniker we see on cars today. Still, at least I didn’t set the alarm off, unlike an esteemed national newspaper colleague…

Out on the road, and the car was everything I remembered – basically evil. Its throttle was point, squirt. Braking was face squashing, the ride bone-jarringly stiff. The fat tyres followed every bump, mound or indentation in the tarmac, ensuring that one’s hands stayed very firmly gripped to the squat little steering wheel just to keep the thing pointing in a straight line – this was not a car you could cruise in, concentration needed in large amounts at all times.

1405VXR220dBut you know, it was every bit as much fun as I’d remembered, and I’m only disappointed I’ve never had a chance to drive a VXR 220 on track – there it would no doubt be even more memorable, and I promise I wouldn’t crash it…

No matter – if ever I get my dream garage, there will always be space in it for Vauxhall’s pocket rocket…