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Racing the legend at the Revival - Ferrari 250GTO

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In-car Commentary: Join Octane in-car, on-track at the Goodwood Revival, as Martin Brundle and Mark Hales campaign Nick Mason's Ferrari 250GTO in the RAC TT race.

Martin Brundle summed up the situation perfectly. He was coming out of Madgwick and up towards Fordwater when the thought suddenly dawned on him: ‘I’m in a GTO, at Goodwood.’ And then, with perfect timing, a Spitfire banked overhead to land. Spend enough time in the public eye and some people become professionally cynical, so it was refreshing to see Brundle still has so much enthusiasm for the grass roots.

Goodwood coincided with a rare gap in the Formula 1 calendar, but it was almost by chance that we were there at all. With a month to go, I wasn’t doing anything at this year’s event. It has become such a high-profile show that people build cars specially for the weekend, so not only is an empty seat rare but, when it happens, Goodwood has celebs waiting, helmet and overalls at the ready. I’ve raced at every one, but have never seen it as a right.

Then, joy of joys, Nick Mason decided he would enter his Ferrari 250GTO after all. The launch of Passion for Speed, our newly rebranded opus about the cars Nick owns, was to be launched at the Revival and the GTO that forms an essential part of the narrative would make a nice counterpoint. Book-signing duties also provided Nick with the perfect excuse to sidestep the ‘rather alarming prospect’ of driving his priceless possession with me. His words, not mine.
Last year, I had Marino Franchitti – brother of Indycar champion Dario, American Le Mans prototype driver and Nick’s son-in-law - as a partner, but this time his professional commitments in the US meant he couldn’t do it. I suspected Mark Webber might have other things on his mind but I emailed him anyway. Mark thanked us both for the offer but said team manager Christian Horner wouldn’t even let him drive a kart at the moment. (I noticed that both Horner and Red Bull designer Adrian Newey were due to drive at Goodwood, so I guess that means they are expendable.) Then I called Martin Brundle. I hadn’t seen him for a while so there was the danger that TV exposure might have turned him into Clarkson, but no, Martin was confident yet charming and modest, exactly as I remembered. He had been looking forward to a rare weekend at home but on the other hand he’d never driven a GTO. Once a petrolhead… There was then the all-too-hurried task of getting the
car ready for the race.

Nick’s GTO, you see, is not a race car. That might sound a daft thing to say about a Ferrari that finished third at the 1962 Le Mans, and second the year after, and which has competed somewhere every year since – including several Goodwoods – but in the modern context it’s true. Historic race cars today might look much the same as the ones in the black-and-white pictures, and most conform to the specifications set out in obsessive detail in the homologation papers, but they don’t drive like they did. Most have been built from a bare chassis and are lower and stiffer, which changes the suspension geometry, and the brakes are usually better. In most cases the engines have more power, too. American V8s and Jaguar sixes have been developed a great deal over the years, mainly because they are plentiful and relatively cheap, but that much is definitely not true of the Italian exotics, which usually boasted more camshafts and spun to higher revs but are now even rarer than they were, not to mention more expensive.

 Nick has owned his GTO for more than 30 years and the body has never been separated from the chassis. Apart from a few layers of paint and a bit of body filler, the body is original and so are the chassis and the interior. And it still has its original seat, the black leather covering perfectly worn to brown by the slither of so many distinguished backsides. In the early years of the Revival Nick and
I raced the car several times, but it soon became clear that each year we had to drive harder to be further back in the results and I couldn’t help noticing that, while I could keep most of them behind from Fordwater to Lavant, they would simply pull out and pass between there and Woodcote. Yes, I know all drivers say that, but it is definitely the case that, by comparison, the GTO has a little engine. Three litres is a lot less than the 4.7 of a Cobra, or even the Jaguar’s 3.8, and it hasn’t had the development in-between.

A couple or more years ago, Nick decided that not only was the struggle a one-sided one, it was too risky as well, added to which the celebs apparently no longer wished to drive the car. Gerhard Berger – who shared the driving duties with Nick one year – is on record saying that, yes, he was willing to drive at Goodwood again, so long as they didn’t ‘give him a shit car…’ He may have been talking in general terms of course, but in the meantime, I’m happy to say, Nick has changed his mind. The original engine (which has been with the car from day one) was removed and stored and another was assembled from parts but with the benefit of a few logical race tweaks. Apparently Hill and Co used to rev them to 9000rpm all the time, whereas we had stuck religiously to 7500. That is now 8000 and the difference is startling, at least three seconds round the lap, and another 15mph into Woodcote. The chassis and suspension, though, would – and should – stay exactly as they were.

I mentioned all this to Martin before the event and said that we were unlikely to win the race but I promised we would have a test, which we did. Maybe I forgot to mention that it was rained off before Charlie, Tim, Ollie and I could fully prove any of the changes to the set-up, or work through a sufficiently large pile of Dunlop L-sections until we found some that were all the same. Maybe too, we were seduced by the fact that the car was definitely quick. I could lap easily at last year’s winning pace, a seductive detail that sometimes switches off the analytical part of a test driver’s brain. Whichever it was, Martin’s eyes were definitely out on stops after Friday’s qualifying. ‘Two words,’ he said, ‘very, scary’ – having nonetheless set a time good enough for sixth.

There was then the slightly depressing detail that the second-per-lap advantage from the test day would only move us one place on the grid. Last year’s pace was exactly that and the E-type that had blitzed the pole last year in the hands of Bobby Rahal had repeated the time but was only fifth.

Martin wasn’t happy with the Ferrari’s brakes so, rather than beat up the car trying to close a gap for no benefit, we decided to try some different pads for my session on Saturday, only for me to find the rears locking like crazy every time I squeezed the brake pedal. That wasn’t normal – it was akin to yanking on the handbrake just as you eased into the corner. As for the rest, well, maybe I have become used to it and even if I can see how someone looking through modern eyes might find the car scary, the fact is that’s how they were and that means it’s how Nick’s car is. Modern cars are much more planted, sit closer to the ground and, as much as possible, do all the work at the front. They let the driver brake hard and late, keep the weight on the nose, pin it down and aim for an apex with confidence.

A GT of the early ’60s rode high and soft on its suspension so it was always floating. You sit the car down to add traction for the slow corners with judicious use of the accelerator, and take extra speed towards a fast corner like Fordwater, then ease the car in so that the roll sits the weight on the left pair of wheels and adds the grip you need to get through. Then you just balance it with the right foot against minimal tweaks of reverse lock. The problem is that, once you’re committed, it’s very difficult to change the line, added to which, if you don’t get the weight transfer right, the car will either wash out towards the grass, or the drift will become a tailslide that needs collecting pretty smartish.

As Brundle observed, you can’t just send one up the inside and sort it out, and because you have to start braking from such a long way out, if whatever it is up ahead wanders into your path you are taking to the grass or worse. It’s then that the 20 million (oh, yes) reasons for doing it a different way sometimes tend to flash into your mind.
In 1963 it was different. The car was just a tool, expendable just like the engines, and that’s why so many of them in the pictures have dents and scrapes. Surtees eventually said he didn’t want to drive a GTO any more because the potential to hit an Elite or an MGA was too great and he needed to concentrate on his Formula 1 duties. Back at Goodwood nearly 50 years on, we didn’t have quite the same detachment so I suggested some logical changes to the set-up and we put the best set of tyres on for the race, which Martin was to start.

He could have been forgiven for wondering exactly what we had achieved at our test day but his refreshing level of enthusiasm remained intact and details of the opposition’s problems gleaned over supper on Friday night had been promptly sent via text, along with a suggested strategy to take advantage. And this from a man who could outrace Schumacher and drove in 158 grands prix.

The start of the race was as frantic as ever but, even if we had
agreed that a couple of places lost at the beginning was better than a shunt and potential retirement, there was no doubt that Martin had lost a couple of seconds a lap or more. I knew it couldn’t be him and, since he hadn’t pitted, my immediate concern was that my changes had screwed up the handling to such an extent, or maybe he had lost
a gear. He had mentioned that it had popped out a couple of times during qualifying, after all.

Then it was my turn, and the pit stop practice that had provided so much entertainment for Brundle fans paid off, the pace car came in and out at exactly the right time, and we gained four places. The good news, then, was that the balance of the car was back to scary-normal, and so were the brakes, but I could see what the problem was. The engine just wouldn’t pull above 6000rpm and the rev counter was dancing about. Given that the rest of the needles were all where they were supposed to be, there was nothing for it but to get on and, well, maximise what we had.
Which netted us a fifth by the end. Turns out that a plug lead had come off and, since one out of 12 barely sounds any different, we had done the entire race on 11 cylinders. It made the car feel exactly as it did before the engine was freshened. Such is the way it goes, but it’s hard not to be disappointed with what is the car’s best ever TT finish. Looking at the lap times turned by this year’s hot rods, if the racing gods had offered us fifth on a plate before the event, we’d probably have taken it. As it was we felt robbed of an easy podium. Ah well, the better news is that we are to start testing straight away for next year’s event. And if it rains, we’ll have time to go back again.

From the cockpit: Martin Brundle

"With the intensity of the 2010 Formula 1 season along with other commitments in the diary, I wasn’t planning to drive at the Goodwood Revival this year. Then an invitation to pilot Nick Mason’s glorious Ferrari 250GTO along with Mark Hales quickly changed my mind.

A few years back I made a golden rule never to race anything I hadn’t tested beforehand, but my travel schedule put that out of the window. At some point I also agreed to drive an Austin A35 in the St Mary’s trophy, so the ‘rule’ would be broken a second time, and I’d have two rather different cars to drive.

I knew the 250GTO to be very valuable but when I told friends what I was driving their first comment was always ‘Don’t crash that, it’s worth a fortune’.

I had dinner in Monza with David Coulthard and the Franchitti brothers, Marino being Nick’s son-in-law, and the banter was ferocious: ‘So long as the chassis plate is not bent you’ll be OK!’

At a lovely dinner in Goodwood House, sharing a table with Nettie Mason, I realised I was racing a car worth nearly £20m. I joked with Nettie that I was thrashing round in her pension fund, although I suspect if I had rolled it into a ball they wouldn’t go hungry.

The 250GTO is beautiful and purposeful from every angle, stunningly turned out by Charles Knill-Jones and his crew. The enormous tailpipes are the perfect advert for the mesmerising V12. It’s easy to feel overawed by it, even though I have driven some spectacular machinery in my career.

Sitting in the car for the first time it was immediately noticeable how big the steering wheel and gearlever and gate are. Everything seemed oversize although there’s not much space. I’m 5ft 7in tall so it was made to measure for me, although the gearlever was a stretch for my right arm. Mark is taller than me and has to fold himself in.

As I’m more used to carbonfibre survival cells, the single rollover bar above the driver’s head seemed minimal. The main crash protection on the driver’s side appeared to be my left shoulder and hip.
Leaving the assembly area for first qualifying, I revelled in the power and sound as I negotiated my first ever 250GTO corner at Madgwick. Just then a Spitfire flew through my field of vision, seemingly just over the bonnet. It doesn’t get any better than that.

The car was nicely balanced, with a keen tendency to power oversteer in a controllable way. Being a pretty standard car, especially compared with some of the rocketships in the Revival TT, it is reluctant to slow down from high speed and happily wags its tail in a disconcerting way as the barriers loom into view. The engine revs so easily that blipping needs care on downshifts.

I struggled with the gearlever initially but eventually settled into a time that put us sixth on the grid. It’s a car that you need to creep up on, understand its strengths and weaknesses, and then let flow. I found it’s best to approach corners gently on throttle to settle the rear after heavy braking. I don’t understand why they liked such big steering wheels back then as it’s not heavy at the helm and faster corrections would make life less stressful.

I started the race having not driven the car since Friday practice, but having practised and raced the brilliant little Rae Davis A35 in the meantime. I felt rather unprepared, with a total time in the GTO of just 25 minutes to that point.

It leapt off the startline only to end up hard on the brakes, boxed in with some slow starters. With a full tank of fuel, the car provided some nasty surprises in the first few corners on cool tyres.

Down Lavant for the first time I was getting mugged; it felt like I was carrying a 150mph Da Vinci and everybody was trying to steal it. Each time another driver stuck his nose up the inside I jumped out of the way. Being responsible for this important and valuable car was playing heavily on my mind.

I couldn’t work out why the handling was so different, and why I was being passed on the straights. It turns out we were down on power for a relatively simple reason but it would remain so for the race. Yet it still felt like a rocketship compared with the A35.

We pitted under a safety car and a well-rehearsed driver change worked beautifully, so that after an hour of racing Mark crossed the line in a very respectable fifth place. It could so easily have been a podium but at least the car was in one piece.

I absolutely loved driving this beauty, but I didn’t enjoy racing it wheel-to-wheel so much. Full respect to Nick and all the other owners who so generously let these cars race, with all the associated risks."


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