Do you ever get a sense of being overwhelmed? Everywhere you turn, more and more clambers for your attention. Its an assault on your senses, an invitation to run around wildly and ultimately leave a tinge of reflection and regret seeing all that was missed. I’d felt that way before, namely at Worthersee, but to have all this confined into a roofed space was a step up on the exciting factor. As many may know, I am a racing car geek, almost obsessive, and as such, any event that brands itself as THE racing car show, it was about time I ticked it off the list. Autosport International, it seems, is something I really wonder how it hasn’t been on my calendar before, as it is truly mega!
Starting long before dawn and ending close to the early hours, it was vital to give a day trip to Birmingham the maximum amount of time. To have done things any other way would have been criminal, as ASI is soo packed full of visual goodies and opportunities to get up close and personal with cars and motorsport technology that even spending over 9 hours on site I was left with thoughts of cars that went unseen, and in one case a car I caught a glimpse of in passing but couldn’t find again!
The largest draw personally this year was the opportunity to cover the official 2018 Launch of the World Rally Championship. With the action kicking off in the snowy mountains surrounding Monte Carlo in late January, the NEC brought the vast WRC community together to kickstart proceedings. All the Drivers, Teams and more importantly Cars were presented to the masses, every move surrounded by a media scrum from every corner of the globe.
Once the covers had been pulled off the four be-winged stage rally rockets, the drivers became the attraction, with a litany of cameras and microphones following their every move around the show floor. I have idolised the WRC and its stars my entire life, so to be in the presence of some of history’s greatest drivers was an incredible opportunity, even more so when a chance stroll into the media centre to grab some refreshment coincided with the arrival of the various teams into the most informal setting imaginable. Chats and tea atop a selection of sofa’s, this was the human side that is often un-seen once the helmet goes on at stage start.
While the WRC was the largest draw, elsewhere the success of rallying was to be seen elsewhere dotted around the various halls. Now numbering over 250, it was no surprise to see quite a few M-Sport built Ford Fiesta R5’s in attendance, promoting everything from WRC2 campaigns for the factory built car, through to British Championship backing. Other R5 machines decorated the Rally GB stand, but it was the first public sighting of the VW Polo R5 that certainly drew the most admiration.
No mention of rallying at Autosport International could be made without mentioning the surprise none of us had an idea of expecting. To a certain generation of Irish Rallying fans, Eugene Donnelly is a name synonymous with success. A five-time Tarmac Champion, The Genie was our hero wrestling the glorious Toyota Corolla and later the Skoda Fabia WRC cars around the lanes in a way nobody else seemed able to match. Over the past 10 years, Donnelly has left the sport bar the odd run in a McGeehan MINI, but here, 20 feet from the new 2018 WRC cars, a beaming Eugene stood next to a white Hyundai i20 R5, and proclaimed his return. Nobody, save a very small handful, knew of the plan, but The Genie is on for a return, aiming to contest the ITRC over the next 3 years. Start dusting off the Jackets!!
While the Rally world was represented well from a cutting edge and modern standpoint, the crew from Den Motorsport made sure to remind us all that there is truly no more special a car to attack the stages then a properly built MK2 Ford Escort. The Northern Ireland based preparation company has become a go-to spot for anyone serious about building the Ultimate Escort, and the pair on display offered two differing ideas of Ultimate. Both red, making it harder to distinguish, the first car is the epitome of a Class 14 car that is the highest level available in Irish Rallying. Powered by a 2.5L Millington Engine, pushing out roughly about 350 BHP, these cars are built solely to deal with the unique demands of bumpy Irish Tar. The be-winged Escort is on another plain though. Designed to be used for Hillclimbing where the rules are a little more relaxed, the powerplant pumps 650 BHP to the rear wheels, while an abundance of aero add-ons aim to keep the car as planted as a wild beast may be!
Moving from my little rally world, the BTCC stand celebrated 60 years of men in Touring Cars crashing into each other at a variety of British Circuits. In terms of Circuit Racing, it is nigh-on impossible to beat decent Tin-Top racing thanks to the close action and sheer variety of cars involved in the action. To celebrate the anniversary, Touring Cars of yesteryear such as the Rover SD1 and Alfa Romeo 155 sat side-by-side with the 2018 crop such as Rob Austin Racing’s all new Alfa Romeo Mito.
As if having an official stand wasn’t enough for Touring Car junkies, dotted around the show were some other notable vehicles. Many may have missed it, but down in a rather cold corner, pretty much as far away from the main action and amongst an owner’s club gathering sat a proper legend, a BMW E36 SuperTourer. Complete in a beautiful Bastos livery from its attack on the 1995 Spa 24 Hours, this car is from an era of Touring Car racing unlike any we may ever see again. Production looking vehicles were turned into track weapons, costs were extortionate (think about £1m per car per year) and the action was incredible. The modern-day equivalent of this philosophy of Extreme Touring Cars is the DTM series in Germany. Rather typically for a show like ASI, a brace of cars sat in the middle of the floor, as if just left for us to stare at. No stand, no advertising and no ropes, just 2 stunning race cars sitting for us to come and look in awe at.
Drifting is the largest growing Motorsport in the last 10 years, and its only natural that the sport would find a home at a show like ASI. What may seem surprising to those looking in from the outside, is that much of Europe’s drift scene is spearheaded by a crew of Irish, led by Dave Egan. Starting with the IDC, and following on with the BDC and Drift Masters, the Zeigen crew have brought drifting to a level of professionalism it always strived for, and the plans in place for 2018 are testament to the bravery of Egan and others to push the envelope continually. We’ll discuss the 2018 season at another time, but if you want to draw attention to your stand, few cars sucked in the masses like Aidan Walsh’s V8 AE86 Corolla. This thing is barbaric on full throttle aimed at concrete walls, so to see it gleaming under show lighting is a testament to the build. Next to it, Baggsy’s air-ride S14 was there to represent the BDC, although it was Baggsy’s other toy than was catching more eyes. Built by Abbey Motorsport for a Monster Energy video, the Skyline GTR has a presence already, but the addition of large fenders, a V8 and a turbo the size of a small child is sure to draw attention.
In the live action arena, it fell on local drifting talent to truly put on a show for the masses. Coming off without the year of his life, James Deane was using ASI to debut the latest incarnation of his Falken Nissan Silvia S14, and he had company from one of his many Protégé’s, 14-year-old IDC Semi-Pro champion Conor Shanahan, debuting his all new Link Energy livery for 2018. Rubbing walls, spitting flames and hitting limiters, this was a chance for many new faces to experience exactly what many of us know is the spectacle of drifting!
To go into detail of everything on display at ASI would take too long, so I’ll leave with a collection of images. Anyone with even the slightest interest in race cars seriously needs to make the trip at least once, and with the NEC within a 5-minute walk from the Arrivals area at Birmingham airport, there’s no excuse not to make the hop across in 2019! There was another side to the show though, and don’t worry, I’ll be looking at the Performance Car Show in time. Expect wild paint, over fenders for days and strong opinion in that post!