It’s 8.30 on an unseasonably filthy Friday morning and I’m sat in an acid-yellow, 300bhp bathtub travelling on the southbound A1(M) at 60mph. Lorries are butting through the rainstorm like a scene from Deadliest Catch, huge sheets of spray shooting into the air before splashing across the visor of my crash helmet. Hunched next to me, doing his best to shelter from the maelstrom, is my co-driver Nathan Blewer, a sergeant in the Second Royal Tank Regiment. We met for the first time just 36 short hours ago.
As we skim our way through thick spray and rush-hour traffic, commuters peer at us in our Radical SR3 SL from their cosy, air-conditioned Insignias and Mondeos like we’re aliens, or lunatics. Or both. We’re soaked to the skin through our Nomex race suits, ice-cold rainwater trickling into places I’d rather not mention in print. With ten hours of almost non-stop driving ahead of us and no prospect of getting dry, it’s going to be a long day. And yet, as an impossibly wide Martini-liveried Porsche 911 3.0 RSR pops and crackles its way by in the outside lane, closely followed by a rumbling Shelby Mustang GT350, I know there’s absolutely nowhere Blewer or I would rather be. Welcome to the surreal world of Tour Britannia.
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What’s Tour Britannia? In a nutshell it’s a three-day motorsport tour for pre-’81 road-legal competition cars. First run in 1973, and won by James Hunt in a Chevrolet Camaro, Tour Britannia was revived in 2005 after a near 30-year hiatus by Alec Poole and Fred Gallagher and has run every year since. Targa Britannia – the section we’re doing – is a new initiative created to enable drivers of contemporary sports and GT machinery to experience Tour Britannia’s action-packed formula. So long as the car is road-legal, complies with MSA safety requirements and can carry at least two occupants, you can take part. The track-biased but number plate-wearing SR3 SL should be the perfect tool for the job.
A fledgling category compared to the established Competition and Regularity groups that form the bulk of the entry, the Targa class for this year’s event is modest to say the least. Nevertheless the breadth of machinery hints at its potential – and accessibility on a modest budget – with our Radical SR3 SL competing against a mk1 996 GT3, a mk3 Mazda MX-5 and a rather special factory-built Renault 5 Turbo prototype car that’s fitted with a 1.8-litre 16v engine that would ultimately find its way into the nose of the Clio 16v. These cars, plus a few Sevens, Atoms and perhaps a sprinkling of modern 911 RSs and Aston V8 Vantage GT4s, would make for an awesome competition.
The event gets underway with a mass gathering in the leafy grounds of the Rudding Park Hotel on the outskirts of Harrogate. It’s here you get a true sense of Tour Britannia’s appeal and the sheer variety of cars entered. As you’d expect, the sight of the Radical amongst classics from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s causes something of a stir. There’s plenty of banter from other competitors and officials but it’s borne out of curiosity and good-natured. At least I think it is.
I contemplate getting to know the SR3 SL for the first time on the short, tight and – as one competitor will soon learn to their cost – horribly unforgiving prologue stage held in Rudding Park’s hotel grounds. Meanwhile, poor Nat Blewer is busy disassembling the thick road book and inserting it page-by-page into a waterproof Nyrex folder that last saw action in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. There’s nothing quite like having a tank troop sergeant alongside you to boost your confidence, especially if the bearded classic car contingent decide to get hostile. Still, he’s never done anything like this before and the arcane challenges of in-car admin, especially managing our arrival and departure from the pesky time controls, are not to be underestimated. I’m glad I’m just driving.
After the sunshine of scrutineering, the rain predictably arrives just as we’re preparing to start the first of two runs through the Prologue stage. Lined with iron railings, trees and large boulders, and surfaced with a mix of damp, shaded tarmac and loose, fine gravel, it’s a real nerve-jangler. Three corners in, I lock the Radical’s front brakes and slither, as though caught by a tractor beam, straight towards the railings. All is silent in the car as we glide towards the scene of a humiliating accident, but the front wheels miraculously find some purchase and we skate past the fence by inches.
Second time through I avoid making the same mistake, but the sight of a once-beautiful Viper Green 911 wrapped around a boulder just yards from the finish is sickening. The crew is fine, but the car is wrecked and their Tour over almost before it has begun. Perhaps due to our own near-miss, it transpires we checked in far too early for our second run, resulting in a massive time penalty. It’s a severe punishment for an innocuous mistake, but rules is rules. Nat is not happy, but gains solace from the fact our closest rival – the boys in the GT3 911 – also made the same mistake. Rueful of our novice error but thankful that we survived our lock-up, we head to the bar for a swift pint.
The next morning dawns grey, but mercifully dry. Our first stage of the day is just down the road from Rudding Park on the access roads that criss-cross the Harrogate Showground. As is the format, we do the stage twice. It’s much more enjoyable than the Prologue stage, although there are still plenty of opportunities to come a cropper. We don’t have intercom in the car, which coupled with the open cockpit and raucous induction noise that comes from the air intake behind our heads, means Nat has to guide me with a combination of basic hand signals and an ear-splitting holler honed on the battlefield. It’s a surprisingly effective combination and we fly through the stage without mishap.
After the Showground we take a road section to Tockwith, a bleak kart track apparently in the middle of nowhere. The runs through Tockwith are a real blast and we’re both buzzing when we emerge ready for the next road section, which leads to Croft race circuit.
It would be great to have a bigger and more competitive Targa Britannia entry, but one major blessing of the small grid is the fact we’re combined with the main Competition group for the two circuit races. As this group includes AC Cobras, an abundance of snorty 911s, assorted Ferraris, Astons, Mustangs, Minis and all manner of other classic saloon, GT and rally cars, it promises to be brilliant fun.
The format is simple. All the cars file out onto the circuit for 15 minutes of qualifying and after the shortest of breaks we’re all lined up on the grid. We elected to put the Radical on Dunlop Direzzas rather than a set of more rain-friendly Kumhos, and predictably the SR3 feels mega in the dry conditions, scything round the track like the race-bred road car it is. To be honest it feels a bit unfair, but it also feels great to share the front row with the magnificent Martini-liveried RSR. Actually I’m still admiring it when the lights go green and am completely left for dead. Still, the turbocharged, paddle-shift SR3 manages to compensate for my tardy start, and we nudge through the first corner in the lead.
All is well until the rain sweeps across the circuit, drizzling at first before falling with more insistence. I’ve been nursing a decent lead, but as the track gets slippery, the lightweight, semi-slick shod Radical becomes harder and harder to drive. All that turbo-fed torque easily breaks traction on the straights, while the stiff set-up, minimal mass and lack of bias adjustment makes the brakes very easy to lock into the corners. Phil Hindley has been closing in, lap by lap, in his beautiful Tech9-built 911, and with five minutes of the race left he’s right on my tail. Thanks to some judicious track positioning and an unintended sphincter-puckering tank slapper going through the Clark Esses, I manage to fend him off into the last corner, then just out-accelerate him to take the flag. It’s a win on paper for the Radical, but a moral victory for the expertly driven Porsche.
From Croft we head to Raby Castle, where we have lunch followed by two flat-out runs through the beautiful landscaped parkland. The weather is predictable only in its unpredictability, but thanks to the Croft race I feel I’m getting to know where the Radical’s limits are, and both Nat and I are really getting into a routine. I’d initially been a bit worried that he might be perturbed by being driven at high speed by someone he barely knows, on stages lined with some scary things to hit if I make a mistake. Then I remembered he gets shot at and blown up for a living. It puts ‘Warning - Motorsport Can Be Dangerous’ into a fair bit of perspective.
By the time we return to the Harrogate Showground for the last timed runs of the day, it’s peeing it down. We cast envious eyes at the rest of the cars with their windows, doors and roofs, but you can only get wet once and at least we don’t have to worry about a misting-up windscreen. After a scruffy first run, in which I manage to lock up (again), run wide and get stuck on the grass, we complete the second dash through and clock-in to the final time control to complete the day.Friday doesn’t even afford us the courtesy of a dry start. As I pull back the curtains and look out of my bedroom window, the rain is coming by horizontally. Severe weather warnings are being issued for Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, which is where we’ll be spending the final day. Great.
We start with two runs through the famous Harewood hill climb stage, although as we’re running the course in reverse, it’s technically a hill descent. It’s really narrow and hellishly slippy, which is my racing driver’s excuse for why I go off and do some more grass cutting. A timid second run does little to restore my confidence, but there’s no time to dwell on it because after Harewood we face a 95-mile road section, heading south-east to Cadwell Park.
It’s a miserable drive, but Nat’s determination is infectious. Besides, given the choice between driving this outrageous car in the pissing rain and a regular nine-to-five job, I’d take the sodden option every time. We arrive at Cadwell early, along with everyone else, but whereas they can sit in the shelter of their cars while maintaining the charade of going through the time control on their allotted minute, we have to sit shivering in the wind and rain. Still, a race on Cadwell’s long circuit beckons, and that’s always worth getting pneumonia for.
Our car is now on the Kumho tyres, which are slightly better than the Direzzas but in truth don’t really find us significantly more traction or braking ability. The qualifying session is pretty hairy, with lakes of standing water causing all sorts of problems for the SR3. We skitter and aquaplane from one side of the track to the other, as the flyweight car with a heavyweight punch fails to push itself into the water. Still, we don’t crash, which from where I’m sitting feels like quite an achievement.
For reasons I’m not entirely sure of, I’m put to the back of the grid for the start of the race, which means I’m staring at the tails of two dozen precious classics. When the race starts it’s bloody scary trying to pick a path through the spray, short-shifting to minimise the risk of spearing left or right as we hit the standing water. Amazingly everyone manages to funnel down and negotiate the first few corners and we all find some space as the race settles into a rhythm.
With all the rain, the Radical’s otherwise huge performance advantage has been largely negated. I’ve got to mix it with the other cars, and it’s great fun to see them being driven on and often over the limit, slipping and sliding their way through the corners. I’m extremely conscious of not clattering into anyone, so I try to pick my moments to pass. Naturally as I get further towards the front, each overtake is that bit harder, and for a great couple of laps I’m locked in a battle with a beautiful Alfa Romeo Giulia Sprint GT. It’s being driven brilliantly by its driver Till Bechtolsheimer, the bark of its revvy 1.6-litre twin-cam engine rising and falling with mid-corner wheelspin as Bechtolsheimer balances it in long drifts.
We catch some slower cars, and it’s while trying to follow the Alfa past one of the other cars that I lock the brakes (there’s a theme emerging here) on the downhill approach to Mansfield. The Alfa turns in and, in a sickening crunch, I harpoon its left-rear wheel. We both spin off onto the grass and I sit with my helmeted head in my hands. Fortunately the Radical’s glassfibre nose has borne the brunt of the impact and the Alfa looks virtually unscathed. Still, I’m a little more circumspect in the remaining laps, eventually passing the Alfa and a handful of other cars as the track begins to dry, finally taking fourth place at the flag. After finding Bechtolsheimer and apologising, Nat and I wait for Will and James from Radical to patch up the SR3 with gaffer tape before sending us on our way to the Newark Showground for lunch and a couple more stages, followed by Blyton Park and Harewood to complete the day and the event.
The brilliant thing about the Tour (and Targa) Britannia is its relentlessness. The frequency of the special stages and the importance of covering the road sections on time gives each day an addictive impetus. This does mean each road leg is tinged with that feeling you get when you think you’re going to be late for a flight, but the constant pressure on driver and co-driver alike brings both crew members some tremendous satisfaction when things go absolutely right.
We round off the day with three fastest stage times, bringing our tally to nine for the event, on top of the race win at Croft. Our final two runs at Harewood (in the correct uphill direction this time) raise smiles from the crowd as, apparently, Nat’s bellowed course directions are clearly audible above the SR3’s whistling, turbocharged EcoBoost motor as we storm up the hill climb! Who needs an intercom?
Despite the killer time penalties gained in the Prologue stage, we win the Targa Britannia category. It’s no more than we should achieve given the pace of the car, but in such terrible conditions it would have been all too easy to bin it and retire. Without Nat’s tireless efforts and indomitable spirit I have a shameful feeling that I’d have been reluctant to take part in the final sodden day, but instead we got stuck in and loved every mile. Well, nearly every mile. But ultimately a win is a win, and we were proud to accept our embarrassingly huge trophies.
Blewer’s life changed last year when an Improvised Explosive Device detonated beneath his Warthog armoured vehicle. The blast threw him out of the turret with such force that several vertebrae in his back fused together, but as Nat is quick to point out, he’s one of the lucky ones.
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