Racing is what the Autosport International Racing Car Show at the NEC complex in Birmingham is all about. As it does every year, ASI in 2012 showcased a mouth-watering line-up of cars that, given the resources, you could be walking out of the show holding keys for (or at least having the right to press the starter). This is very much a commercial show as much as it is for the fans, and a huge amount of business is done over the four days of the show.
On the central stands in the main hall, current manufacturers showed off their latest toys. There was plenty of bang about for people with bucks.
Not all of the cars are for sale per se: some are displayed just to advertise the series that they compete in. If you've got a Group C sportscar hanging about, for instance, then why not take it to the Silverstone Classic in July?
I'll start off with a look at some of the older tourers on display at ASI. This Jaguar XJ12 from the early '70s runs in the Post-Historic Touring Car Championship, and was loaned by driver David Howard to the BARC stand. The stand was showing off the plethora of touring car-based series you can choose from.
It's the 25th anniversary of the mighty Ford Sierra RS500 this year, and there are bound to be numerous celebrations of the turbocharged, be-winged Ford all round the world. This RS500 is a faithful ground-up build that took the owner over 18 months – it's decked out in the #4 CALTEX livery used by Colin Bond and F1 driver Alan Jones in the 1988 Toohey's 1000 at Bathurst.
Ross has already shown off the Steve Soper M3 at the show (Soper coincidentally drove a Sierra in the same race as the original car that the above RS500 is based on), but another classic M3 was also here: Roberto Ravaglia's E30. This 375bhp, 2.5-litre M3 was raced by BMW Italia in the Italian Superturismo series in 1991 (five-times Le Mans winner Emmanuele Pirro also raced the car), where they won the title. Subsequently sold to a collector, this M3 became a successful hill-climber in the hands of its new French owner before being restored back to its original touring car spec in 2007.
Moving back to the Silverstone Classic stand is a 1994 Ford Mondeo Supertourer, originally campaigned by New Zealander Paul Radisich in the British Touring Car Championship. This Mondeo was built by BTCC specialist Andy Rouse Engineering in 1993 – two cars were built, but the second was famously written off by F1 champion Nigel Mansell in a spectacular and car-destroying special appearance at Donington Park!
I loved the Supertouring era – rep-mobiles they might have been, but they were low-slung, be-winged, fast and sounded great. And the racing! Amazing. FIA touring cars have never been the same since. More and more Supertourers are being run out either as grid-slayers in scratch national series or in post-historic series. Derek Hale's Honda Accord falls into the latter category: the car was originally built by Prodrive for Gabriele Tarquini's tilt at the 1997 BTCC – it's another one I hope to see at the Silverstone Classic this year.
There were several contemporary teams also showing off their latest cars, such as this Arena Ford Focus ST. Arena International Motorsport have been tasked with developing a Global version of the Focus which can be tweaked to fit national touring car rules as necessary, and means there's the possibility of a Ford team back in the World Touring Car Championship.
Chevrolet's Cruze was tucked away in the Engineering hall on the Capricorn Automotive stand. RML ran a trio of 1.6-litre turbocharged Cruzes in the 2011 WTCC, sweeping the top three positions and destroying the privateer opposition. This is Rob Huff's car, which he raced to a close second in the championship.
In the British series the Cruze went up against local rules S2000 and NGTC opposition: Matt Neal took the title in this S2000 Honda Civic after a season-long battle with his team-mate Gordon Shedden and Chevy rival Jason Plato.
Whilst you have to be pretty hardcore to follow the WTCC at the moment, the British series has seen something of a rebirth with its retention of S2000 regs alongside the introduction of new NGTC-spec rules. AMD Milltek ran this Mk5 VW Golf to some success in 2011, particularly at the start of the season with Tom Onslow-Cole behind the wheel.
Racing doesn't have to be expensive though, and ASI also caters for the budget and amateur racer. It doesn't get much more value for money that the VW FunCup, a seven-event series in the UK for GRP-bodied Beetle silhouette racers, held on some of the best tracks across Europe and with races that last between 4 and 8 hours! A second-hand car prepared and warrantied by the series organisers can cost as little as £10k… Amazing!
There are a huge number of series around, covering anything and anything that can be raced: national meetings sometimes have some unexpectedly great cars turn out, so it's always worth paying attention to your local circuit's racing calendar. That cold spring morning might be worth facing after all…
The 750 Motor Club has a long history of supporting grass-roots motorsport in the UK. They currently run over a dozen different race series for entry-level contemporary, one-make and historic racers. The 750MC is one of the oldest racing clubs in the world – it was founded in 1939!
At the other end of the price scale is this long-nose Jaguar D-Type displayed on the AutoGlym stand. This D was capable of sprinting to 0-60mph in 4.7 seconds and could reach a top speed of over 190mph at Le Mans. That's faster than the breathed-on modern Jaguar XK-RS in the background! And the price is bigger too, much bigger: £6 million.
As one of the most beautiful cars in the world, there isn't need for an excuse to show another shot of this pristine 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO.
#22 is owned by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason, and it's worth an eye-watering £20 million. Or, in other words, over 2,000 VW FunCup cars. That would be quite some grid though.
If the GTO is the height of rare racing elegance, the Lotus Elan was designed by Lotus' Colin Chapman to be the light-weight sportscar for the masses. The Elan marks its 50th anniversary this year, which was celebrated on the Classic Team Lotus display.
Racing something like an Elan – or even a GTO to be honest – I can understand as a concept, as they're relatively simple (if expensive) cars. But a Group C cars of early '90s? These are Formula 1 cars in all but bodywork: enormously fast and powered by technology. Even turning one on requires a science degree, so maintaining and running one privately must be a stunningly expensive labour of love…
The Peugeot 905 above is due to be run out at the support race for this year's Le Mans 24 Hours, as is this iconic Rothmans 956LH originally driven by Hurley Haywood and Al Holbert in 1982.
A slightly later 962KH was on show back on the Silverstone Classic stand: the #33 Tic Tac car from 1990 originally driven by Derek Bell and Henri Pescarolo (amongst others) and run by the Konrad operation in the World Sportscar Championship. Chassis #141 was originally built in 1989 by Jochen Dauer, and is equipped with a 3-litre, twin-turbo, water-cooled engine producing 680hp.
ASI is an occasion to see all the specialist British racing car manufacturers in one place: Caterham are making a concerted to step up to the next level off the back of their new Formula 1 tie-in. On their stand, this year's Lotus-Renault F1 car was flanked by the SP300R track-day weapon and a hot Seven.
The SP300R is a joint development with prototype specialists Lola, and is one of a number of mini Le Mans style-racers produced by different companies for the ever-popular track-day market in recent years. F3 wheels, a carbon rear wing, AP brakes and an appropriately busy steering wheel certainly make it look the part.
The ever-popular Lotus Seven-based Caterham continues to be the bread and butter of the firm: five standard variants are sold, from the £15K Classic to the £44K Cosworth-powered CSR.
There are few cars that deliver you the joy of driving like a Seven: and certainly none that give you a more direct connection between the car and the road. Never turn down the chance to drive one.
Another emerging force in the British motorsport industry is Ginetta. A minnow from the 1950s, the company was reinvented in 2005 when the company was bought by LNT Automotive. Since then the range has been carefully expanded year by year from the small G20 for debutant drivers through to the thoroughbred G55 and now includes a full-blown GT3-spec G55 racer. The 'regular' G55 has a 3.7-litre Ford V6 producing 380bhp.
Their latest addition is the new GT3-homologated version of the G55, which has a 4.3-litre V8 and a full carbon aero pack.
It's a mean-looking car: even the wide-bodied G55 it was based on seems slight in comparison, and from the rear I think it has echoes of the GT Viper. Which in my book is never a bad thing.
The renaissance for British marques continues with Chevron. The company was founded in 1965 and enjoyed its heyday during the late '60s and into the '70s, when it produced some stunningly effective small sportscars and single-seaters. The company went into liquidation in the '80s, but a recent buyout has led to a reinvigorated outlook for the popular racers.
The new GR8 has been raced to class victory in the British GT Championship, and the company are aiming for FIA international homologation this year. It's great to see the company name back on the grid.
Lotus, another historic marque, have always produced cars – but only just… Bankruptcy and financial problems haunted the firm through the '90s, damaging its reputation to all but the faithful. But, the faithful are just that: luckily the Lotus name still resonates even now, and the F1 ventures are doing no harm to the firm.
The Elise is the car that saved Lotus: now it just needs to make at least some of the new cars that it's promising – and demonstrate profit to prove that it can survive another 50 years. I certainly hope it does.
It's not all Union Jacks at ASI: the UK distributors for many other manufacturers had plenty of other material on show. I've always had a soft spot for the KTM X-Bow. Better known for their bike endeavours (particularly on the Dakar rally), to me the X-Bow feels like a modern version of the Seven: all about a pure, open driving experience. It's strange to see them on-track racing against 'proper' GT cars in the FIA GT4 series, but they do have a great, sci-fi look about them.
Porsche's enormous hospitality and business area took up a large acreage of the main hall: here the German brand were signing up drivers for their popular Carrera Cup series, selling GT3 and Cup-spec race-cars – and maybe even talking to the odd would-be purchaser for a 918 RSR…
Saker are a Dutch manufacturer producing a new prototype-style racer in coupé and spider guises. I loved the K&N livery on the Sniper, the open-topped version. Very old school.
Around the other side of the stand was the accompanying RapX coupé – both are a huge step forward from the rather basic looking GT I've seen race in Dubai. A car to look out for.
The Praga R4S from Slovakia was another interesting car – it has a 3-litre V8 pumping out 630hp in a body weighing only 790kg. The car is based on the K-1 Attack – and last year a 16-year-old girl, Beitske Visser, used one to win in a Dutch Supercar Race against strong mainstream GT opposition!
So, we've looked at the past and present. What about the future? Whether we like it or not, electric-hybrid motors will become more and more important over the coming years. And rather they look like this, in my opinion… Drayson Racing, led by an ex-UK government minister, has already run Aston Martin GTs and a Lola LMP1 in the American Le Mans Series and at Le Mans, but after taking a year-long break from mainstream racing their next programme has broken cover at ASI.
It's back to Le Mans for Drayson – or that's the target at least. The Lola B12/69EV produces 850hp from the four electric motors packed into the engine bay, pushing the car to a 200mph top speed, and the package includes inductive charging, moveable aero and electrical regenerative damping. Lola and Cosworth are major partners in the venture, and the challenge is now to the get the car race-ready, to decrease the weight (it's about 100kgs over the LMP1 target at the moment) and to increase the effective range.
A second car that could banish fears of faceless, silent electric hell is the Noao, developed by a consortium of 20 French companies primarily for the race school at the Magny Cours circuit.
The Noao hybrid can currently easily complete a full 100km race distance on its batteries, with a top speed of 200kph. It has a 1-litre petrol engine supplemented by a twin-rotor EVO Electric unit sourced from the Toyota Motorsport Group (which also might give away something about that company's upcoming Le Mans programme…). The car weighs around 990kg, and the motor operates at a fixed 4,500rpm of constant power delivery. Maybe the future for racing is bright and green?