Star Cars, Star Drivers at SKOPE Classic
There is little doubt that the SKOPE Classic at Mike Pero Motorsport Park (Ruapuna) is the highlight of the South Island classic racing scene and has been so for the past 25 years. Normally at a classic race meeting, the cars are the stars but for the 2016 edition, we were also treated, thanks to the Historic Touring Cars, to four former touring car aces, three of whom were back behind the wheel of cars which they used to great effect in the day.
Jim Richards has been a regular visitor to SKOPE, piloting Pete Sturgeon’s Group A BMW 635CSi, the car which Jim drove to such great effect in the Australian Touring Car Championship, but this time it was just a little different. This chassis was the first of Frank Gardner’s Group A cars, but it was also the very last Group C 635 and after a massive effort, divided between Pete (the owner), Jim (former driver and project manager) and Pip Barker (JPS BMW Chief Mechanic and the man who built the car originally), the Skope Classic was the New Zealand debut of the newly rebuilt Group C 635. Looking far more aggressive with massive flared wheel-arches, the major change is under the bonnet, with the addition of a 24 valve head and an extra 150hp. The roar from the 3.5 litre inline six is amazing but is it fast? Well, by the end of the weekend it was right on the tail of race-winner Brett Stevens in his Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500.
Fellow former JPS BMW pilot Tony Longhurst was also back behind the wheel of a Frank Gardner BMW for the weekend. Lindsay O’Donnell had handed over driving duties of his B&H BMW 318i 2 litre super-tourer, a works car which was run by CiBiEmme to take out the 1993 Italian championship in the hands of Roberto Ravaglia before going to BMW Australia for Tony to win the 1994 Australian championship. The opportunity to see the former teammates, Richards and Longhurst, both names worn proudly on the side of the 635CSi, siting together in the Historic Touring Cars marquee, signing posters for the huge number of appreciative fans present was one of the highlights of the weekend.
Making a rather longer journey was the Italian, now resident in Brazil, Gianfranco Brancatelli. The 1985 European Touring Car Champion (in a Volvo 240T) made his first Kiwi appearance in the 1987 World Touring Car Championship round at Wellington, driving a works CiBiEmme BMW M3. Branca returned to New Zealand to drive Mark Petch’s “Peanut Slab” Ford Sierra Cosworth in 1989 and 90. At the SKOPE Classic he was reunited with the 1987 M3, a car now owned by Pete Sturgeon and recently (the final details added the day before the race meeting) returned to the CiBiEmme livery of Bathurst 1987 when Branca was sharing the car with Venezuelan motorcycle ace Johnny Cecotto.
The fourth of the international drivers was not racing, but did put in some demonstration laps in the type of car which he finished his long and illustrious career. Colin Bond was nothing if not versatile, winning the Australian Rally Championship three times, Bathurst once, plus in 1975, the overall Australian Touring Car Championship. At the SKOPE Classic, the amiable Australian was in Brett Stevens’ Group A Ford Sierra Cosworth, recalling the days of the ATCC and the Caltex Sierra claiming Bond’s wins, in 1990. When Group A came into force in Australia, Bond initially ran an Alfa-Romeo GTV6 with great success in the small car class before switching to a car which on paper looked to be a winner. Sadly the Alfa-Romeo 75 Turbo never quite delivered what it promised, either for the factory or privateers like Colin Bond, necessitating a switch to a more competitive car, hence the Sierra.
It is not often that such a line-up of top quality international drivers can be found at any classic race meeting, and the Historic Touring Cars marquee was the destination of many of the race fans at the SKOPE Classic as they got their posters signed by some of the greats of our sport. Great cars and great drivers combined for a fantastic weekend!