Fletcher flies to commanding FIA Masters Historic Sports Car win at Paul Ricard

Henry Fletcher made up for his Formula One setback earlier on the day by taking a commanding FIA Masters Historic Sports Car win at Paul Ricard. On the opening lap, the Chevron B26 driver grabbed the lead from poleman ‘Mr John of B’ in the Ligier JS2 and never looked back.

The race was denied a fight between Fletcher and rapid ex-F3000 driver Soheil Ayari in the Ligier, as the French car remained stuck in gear after ‘Mr John of B’ came in for his mandatory pitstop.

The beginning was a bit busy”, Fletcher said, “but finally, after this morning’s setback when a plug lead failed in the Formula One race. I wanted to race properly, and this was a good race. I needed to make a break to account for a safety car – no, not for Ayari, I’m sure I could have handled him!

The Gonçalo Gomes/James Claridge Lola T212 had risen to second in the hands of Gomes, but Claridge had to give way to Andy Wolfe in the Lola T70 Mk3 started by Jason Wright, with Charles Nearburg in the Osella-Abarth PA1 also finding a way past to take over third place. But when the American pulled off on the final lap, the Lola was back to claim the final podium spot.

I only had second and fourth gear from about two laps into my stint”, said Wolfe about being unable to make any inroads into Fletcher’s lead. “And third is a gear that you need pretty much everywhere here! So that made life a bit more difficult…

Chris Jolly and Steve Farthing (Cooper Monaco T61M) came out victorious in a tense pre-65 Hulme class battle, as Farthing passed the Cooper Monaco King Cobra shared by Billy Bellinger and Keith Ahlers with six minutes still on the clock. The Graham Wilson/David Pittard Lola T70 Mk1 never quite posed a threat, Wilson spinning on lap 2 and Pittard retiring halfway into his stint while closing on Ahlers and Farthing.

Chris had built a good lead on Billy”, Farthing said, “but then we had a seat-belt issue during our stop, which lost us a good 20 seconds. So I just had to claw back the difference!

An eventful few opening laps saw Henry Fletcher storm to the front in his Chevron B26, grabbing the lead from ‘Mr John of B’ in the pole-sitting Ligier JS2 on the first lap. Behind them, Gonçalo Gomes rose to third in the Lola T212 at the expense of Jason Wright in the Lola T70 Mk3B. Further back, Charles Nearburg dropped a few places at the start but the tall Texan’s Osella-Abarth was back up into fifth by lap 4.

Meanwhile, Graham Wilson spun his Lola T70 Mk1 Spyder on lap 2, and found himself last and a lap down as soon as he got the Lola going again. Wilson’s mishap handed the Hulme-class lead to Billy Bellinger in the Cooper Monaco King Cobra who in turn was harried by Chris Jolly in the Monaco T61M. Julian Thomas was even worse off than Wilson, though, as his Chevron B8 grounded to a halt on the Mistral Straight on lap 3, prematurely ending a potentially great battle with Mark Owen in the other B8.

15 minutes into the race, Fletcher had stretched his lead to 16 seconds over the Ligier whose owner was now working to keep Gomes in the Lola T212 behind. The Portuguese driver got by on lap 9. In fourth, Wright was dropping back into the clutches of Nearburg – the Americans indeed swapping places on lap 8 – while Marc Devis in the Lola T70 Mk3 Spyder was fighting Martin O’Connell in the Chevron B8 to remain in sixth, a battle the Belgian lost on that same eighth lap.

The pre-65 battle was equally raging, as Jolly passed Bellinger for the class lead on lap 10, 21 minutes into the race. Mark Owen was leading the Bonnier class while John Sheldon was in front in the Siffert class in his Chevron B16.

As the pit window opened, Jason Wright was the first of the stoppers, the Italian American handing over to his preparer Andy Wolfe. The leader was up next. Fletcher held a 20-second lead over Gomes and ‘Mr John of B’, the latter coming in on the same lap to hand over to Soheil Ayari. However, drama ensued in the Frenchmen’s pit, as the Ligier-Cosworth appeared stuck in gear. This sadly disallowed us to see what the very rapid Ayari was capable of in the ex-Patrick Depailler car. ‘Mr John of B’ and Ayari were not alone, as Marc Devis’ Lola T70 Mk3 Spyder also failed to reappear after the stops.

With less than a minute left in the pit window, Gomes came into the pits from the lead to have team mate James Claridge strapped into the T212’s seat. As the order shook out after the stops, Fletcher was back into the lead, 33 seconds in hand over Claridge, with Wolfe a further nine seconds back. In fourth, 52 seconds away from the lead, Nearburg was the last man on the lead lap, well ahead of Sandy Watson in the invitational Chevron B8 started by O’Connell.

After a slow stop for the Jolly/Farthing pairing in the pre-65 Hulme class, Keith Ahlers was back into the lead in the Cooper Monaco King Cobra taken over from his young co-driver Billy Bellinger. In sixth overall, Ahlers had Andrew Owen’s Chevron B8 and John Sheldon’s Chevron B16 in between himself and class rival Steve Farthing in the T61M. David Pittard in the T70 Mk1 started by Graham Wilson was gaining quickly on the pair of them, though, lapping ten seconds than the top-two Hulme-class runners. It was all over for Pittard on lap 18, though, the car coming to a halt on the second part of the Mistral Straight. This handed third place in class to Nikolaus Ditting’s Ford GT40.

In second place, Claridge was falling back into Wolfe’s clutches at a rate of knots. On lap 17, Wolfe was past but not making an impression on Fletcher in front. Three laps later, as Claridge continued to drop back, Nearburg took third away from him. Fletcher ran out an easy win, ahead of Wolfe and Nearburg – or so it seemed, because Nearburg’s Osella ground to a premature stop on the very last lap, handing back third place to the Gomes/Claridge Lola T212.

I felt very sorry for Charlie”, said Claridge about passing the hapless Nearburg on the final lap. “He really deserved third place. Then again, it has happened to us before, so we were happy to take it. Also, Gonçalo absolutely flew during his stint, so if he had done a solo drive he would have deserved third place too!

In the pre-65 class the sting was in the tail as well, as Farthing nipped past Ahlers with six minutes to go. John Sheldon won the Siffert class in sixth overall while Mark & Andrew Owen took Bonnier class honours in ninth overall.

“I just didn’t get on with the track”, Ahlers concluded. “I have a weakness with slow corners, and there are a lot of those here. It never really clicked for me.”