Hillclimbing in itself is a niche sport with a hardcore following. However, this mother of all end of term bashes go to demonstrate what a broad church the sport is. The biggest names in national and European hill climbing will descend on the Ecce Homo hill in Sternberk near the border with Poland in the north east corner of the Czech Republic. It hosted it’s first hill climb 111 years ago and in 2016 the national champions from Britain, France, Austria and many other countries will join in the leading participants from the European Hillclimb Championship and the FIA International Hillclimb Cup for one last hurrah.
The Hill Climb Masters is a bi-annual event and was first held in 2014, in Eschdorf in Luxembourg, and has gained a second running at a venue that has been in regular use in a longer form since 1905.
European and British Hill Climbing have a very different culture and background. Rooted in the tradition of settlement in Europe’s mountainous areas and the grand European road race tradition, European Hillclimbing has always had the sense of grand theatre. The British scene, alternatively, has always been away from the big mountains (the UK’s idea of a big mountain and Europe’s being rather different anyway), and towards the more gentle rolling hills of the west of England.
It is on these rolling hills that the British culture of hill climbing was formed. Narrow private roads – racing on public roads historically illegal -, gave birth to a unique culture of steep, narrow lanes one car and a half wide. The hills are, at their longest, less than 1.5 kilometres.
Whereas the European Hillclimbs take place on wide sweeping roads, with many medium and high speed corners and long straights. The courses are much longer, with the European Championship mandating a course length between 5 and 18 kilometres. They are much shallower as well, given the type of roads they are.
It is these European hills that the bi-annual FIA Hillclimb Masters is held on. In 2014 the inaugural competition was held in Eschdorf in Luxembourg. The first meeting of the European and British scenes ended up with the fastest time being taken by the dominant forces in Hill Climbing at the time with 5 time French champion Nicolas Schatz triumphing over 5 time British Champion Scott Moran.
Moran arrives fresh from securing his sixth title and Nicolas Schatz has added two more French titles to his name also. However, only the former will be making the trip to the Czech Republic, with the Frenchman not returning to defend his Masters title.
Instead the French entry headed up by national championship runner up Sebastian Petit in
the Norma. Other serious challenges will be mounted by the Italians, including hill climbing legend and 9 time European Champion Simone Faggiloi and Christian Merli, who only missed out on a debut European Title this year by a whisker.
Faggioli is the favourite for the Category 2 victory, despite a shock defeat in 2014 when he finished second to Eric Berguerand. Also, despite the deficit in displacement you cannot discount the Italian from taking the fastest time overall (Though there is no specific prize for this).
Scrutineering and paddock actually lie in the small town of Sternberk itself, with the cars moving through the pretty gothic town square to the start at the edge of the town, which heads into the mountains. The course used in the European Championship is over 7 km long. However to appeal to the breadth of runners invited the course has been shortened to run over the first 3.3 km of this. It is comparatively shallow, with the average gradient running at less than 5% (1 in 20 in old money) – compare that to the 11% Average at Shelsley Walsh (1 in 9). The hill also presents a very consistent gradient without any sharp changes.
There is a combination of medium and high speed corners on the course, with the only highly technical offering being two open hair pins to the top of the course. Prescott, it is not.
This means that power and aerodynamic downforce will be King,, rather than torque and traction, which arguably will play into the hands of the extravagantly be-winged single seaters, which whilst creating more drag than the prototype sports cars favoured by the European Championship contenders, will work the air harder.
The Cars and Format
The wide variety of cars is split up into three categories, broadly based on the European Championship System, with Category 1 being for production type cars (GT and the venerable Group A andN rules) and Category 2 being based on competition cars with an engine capacity of up to 3 litres. This latter entry draws a mixture of sports prototypes from the likes of Norma and Osella and former Formula racing cars made by the likes of Lola and Reynard. The use of sports prototypes especially marking a distinct separation from British hill climbing culture.
A final category, Category 3, has been introduced for the event. This acts as a catch all open class for cars that do not meet the European regulations, but comply with the various national championships – including all of the British entry with the exception of David Warburton in the Caterham 7. At Eschdorf in 2014 the Category 3 cars were the fastest, but only marginally as the top 20 times were a truly shuffled deck of 7 Category 3 cars and 13 Category 2.
There will be a gold, silver and bronze medals available for drivers in each of the three categories. For those interested in national pride, there will also be the Nations Cup to compete for.
The Nations Cup
The nations cup will be awarded to the team with the greatest consistency across the times of their 4 nominated drivers. This will allow all drivers in all cars, regardless of class, to compete for the outright victory. With Moran, Willis, Menzies and Hall all left to be contesting for individual honours alone, national pride will be resting on the shoulders of Dave Uren, Darren Warwick, Colin Satchell and Dave Warburton – the 4 nominated team members..
The challenge that lies in front of the British entrants is both a physical and cultural one. The hill is considerably longer and quicker than any British hill, which will stretch concentration and pull the drivers into areas of their cars performance they rarely have the opportunity to exploit.
Given the technical regulations, the balance of probabilities leans in the direction of the 4 domestic Class L British entrants to be the ones fighting it out for the honours in Category 3, and potentially the unofficial honour of the fastest overall driver.
Scott Moran has virtually nothing left to add to the trophy cabinet should he secure a Gold medal and given his performance in the season so far, he surely takes the mantel of favourite. However, he hasn’t had it all his own way as the final round of the domestic season showed, as fellow British entrants Wallace Menzies snatched another victory and Will Hall finished second, with all three men one hundredth adrift of each other.
Trevor Willis has been one of the most consistent performers of recent seasons and the 2012 champion (the OMS driver the only man to break Gould’s decade long monopoly on the title) has a clutch of records to his name after a rapid 2016 season. Dave Uren in the forced induction Force has also broken his Top 12 Run Off duck in 2016 – giving the entry a tremendous strength in depth.
All these men are run off winners and the entry shows the ‘on the day’ unpredictability of the sport, and how each competition still provides each driver with an opportunity for a shot at glory.
The nations cup team features Dave Uren, who despite relentlessly punching above his weight in the run offs of 2016 may find himself out-muscled by the big V8s on a long fast hill. He will combine with Gurnseyman Darren Warwick in a F399 Dallara Formula 3 car. Darren secured a top 20 finish in the last competition, and has a stellar record on the Channel Island hill climbing scene, securing him a wild card entry.
The remainder of the team for the nations cup gives a nod to the British Hillclimbing
heritage of Roadgoing and modified production cars. Colin Satchell will be competing in his familiar and beautifully engineered Peugeot 205, which has provided him with the 2016 British Hillclimb Leaders Championship (ahead of Dave Uren). The under 25 entrant that completes the team will be David Warburton, in the specialist roadgoing Caterham 7. It is fitting that this absolute stalwart of the British scene is represented, the only example of its kind in the entire Masters. David managed a top ten in category last time out – against some very significant opposition.
The team will be looking to improve on 7th from the last edition of the nations cup.
The competition takes place this weekend (8th and 9th October) and will be broadcast live on both days. Streaming will be available on YouTube and via the FIA Hillclimb Masters Facebook page on the following link:
I will be making a brief entry on each day and we can also be followed on Twitter: