Autosport International 2014 previews a great season of racing
Birmingham’s history of active motor sport may be limited to the short-lived Superprix around the streets during the 1980s. Every January, though, the city opens its doors to the country’s leading exhibition dedicated to the sport. The show is never less than remarkable in terms of its breadth and reach. From karting to F1, historics to drag racing, radio controlled cars to GT monsters – every taste is given due attention. It’s a vivid reminder of the scale of the industry in the UK.
This year, there was evidence of on-going diversification within the sport and the wider automotive world. Drifting is clearly finding a foot hold and wild off-roaders also drew bigger crowds than ever before. The influence from Japan and America – the Fast and the Furious effect – made itself more evident than previous years. That many exhibitors still feel the need to drape partially dressed ladies over stands highlights that some things will never change, even if the days of the ‘Marlboro Girls’ handing out free smokes are long gone.
In recent years, the show has given additional space to the ever-growing track day and performance road car markets. A tie-up with Pistonheads and Autocar has added a new dimension to the show with a fine display of high performance road cars from the slashed and bewinged TVR Sagaris through to Peugeot 205 T16 Group B homologation special via short-nosed Jaguar D-Type and myriad others in between.
Flanking this display were representatives from the more committed end of the owners’ club sphere with impressive displays of Nobles, Porsches and Nissan GT-Rs, among others. These were complemented by the usual dizzying array of accessories, tuning and cleaning products to keep that track day weapon in fine fettle.
The manufacturer presence reflected this leaning towards track use and there were bold stands from Lotus, Caterham and Porsche. Lotus used the show as the first opportunity to reveal its new Elise Cup R racer to the general public. Following in the footsteps of big brother, the Exige Cup R, this is a turn-key customer race car which can see immediate service in Lotus-only race series across the UK and Europe.
Right into Lotus’s back yard step new boys Zenos. The nascent manufacturer’s address is Chapman Way, Hethel and its first car, the E10, is a roofless sports car in the 2-11 mould. The management team comprises former Lotus and Caterham senior staff and, on the basis of the E10, looks to be a credible contender in the market immediately. Outwardly similar to the new Caterham Aeroseven and Vuhl 05, it deliberately eschews doors and windows due to their inherent complexity. Construction involves an extruded aluminium central spine, carbon monocoque and tubular steel safety cell.
Weighing just 650kg and motivated by a 200bhp Ford engine, performance promises to match the dramatic exterior. Marque founder, Ansar Ali, is at pains to stress the car’s affordability as an ownership proposition. Rather than the large composite clamshells of some rivals, the E10 wears 18 separate smaller panels, considered sacrificial in the event of a shunt. Similarly, major components like the steering rack are well protected to reduce big bills in the event of minor incidents. Going on sale later this year with prices starting from £24,995, the quality, finish and sculpted good looks will cause rivals some anxious moments, even if Zenos only intends to sell 90 E10s a year.
Elsewhere, the show had the atmosphere of a sport enjoying a period of solid consolidation, rather than revolutionary change. The BTCC has recently fielded huge grids to equally huge crowds and its stand was busy, with reigning champion Andy Jordan’s Honda Civic proving a particular draw. The major championship organisers used the opportunity to share their 2014 race calendars, though there weren’t many new series being launched – evidence of that consolidation after a period of uncertainty in the face of straitened financial times. Honda’s new estate-bodied Civic caused a stir and promise to be redolent of the infamous TWR Volvo 850 tourers that wowed the BTCC 20 years ago.
The BTCC’s most successful driver and best known personality, Jason Plato, was in fine voice in his role as KX Academy ambassador. The five young hopefuls the academy is backing this year were revealed and Plato spoke about the troubles facing racers trying to climb the fixed-roof ladder as well as its single-seater equivalent. The success of Sam Tordoff during his debut BTCC season adds credibility to the academy’s selections, while Tordoff himself remains on the programme and will mentor younger members.
Historic racing remains one of Europe’s good news stories, with new events to celebrate the sport’s past seeming to appear almost every year. The Historic Sports Car Club (HSCC) always lays on fine display and this year was no exception. From dainty FF2000 to lairy Lola T332 F5000 monster pausing at more modern Alfa Romeo 156, the variety of the HSCC’s stewardship was acknowledged. The highlights of the club’s bulging calendar look to be the annual visits to Thruxton, Silverstone and Oulton Park evoking memories of days gone by – and adding new ones.
Classic Team Lotus, meanwhile, stopped traffic with the naked chassis of Emerson Fittipaldi’s gloriously patinated Type 72 which last saw active service during Fittipaldi’s 1972 F1 title-winning season. The evergreen 72 was campaigned for six seasons from 1970-1975 and this chassis joined sister cars driven by legends Jacky Ickx and Ronnie Peterson on the stand. Black and yellow cigarette sponsorship never looked so good. As CTL boss Clive Chapman explains, Fittipaldi’s 72 was lucky to escape being scrapped on a number of occasions and even served time in the ‘piggeries’. It has been reunited with its original Cosworth DFV motor and will be sympathetically restored by the CTL team between customer projects in order to allow public appearances once more. Let’s hope for an emotional reuniting with the great Brazilian soon.
Another world champion, uniquely on two wheels as well as four, was celebrated in light of the 50th anniversary of his F1 title with Scuderia Ferrari. John Surtees was the preeminent motorcycle rider of the 1950s who only turned to cars in 1960 when his contract with MV Augusta precluded racing for other motorcycle manufacturers. A fine display of cars and bikes marked the Brit’s remarkable career as rider, driver and team boss. Star of the show was the delicate Ferrari 158 in which he tasted F1 title glory. Now resident in the USA, the 158 will see a tour of duty around Europe raising money for the Henry Surtees Foundation over 2014. Surtees himself remains a welcome public face as support in the racing community grows to help earn him the knighthood his remarkable achievements surely deserve.
Behind the headlines, though, every conceivable facet of the industry was given space within the NEC’s vast halls. Vendors little and large sold all manner of merchandise and clobber, while specialist engineering companies took advantage of their most important shop window of the year. While the show offers the opportunity for punters to plan the coming season, Autosport International is a reminder of the sheer scale of the motor racing industry in the UK and the number of people whose livings depends upon its good health. On the evidence of this weekend the season ahead promises to be another thriller.
[Images – LAT/Autosport]