Sunday, 29 April 2012

Aintree Sprint

Aintree Sprint - Saturday 12th April:

At last, the Academy competition has started for real! I set off for Aintree on Friday lunchtime and spent the next 5 ½ hours crawling through traffic wondering if the trip would be worth it. It would!

Upon arriving at the glamorous Liverpool North Premier Inn I set about cleaning the car which was still filthy from the Castle Combe Test Day and the trip up to Liverpool. The old girl certainly looked much better after a good wash, so even if I wasn’t quick I rationalised that the car would look good. A few of the other guys were staying at the same hotel and I had organised dinner for us, which was a great way to start the weekend. In the end there were about 20 of us, some taking it very seriously and avoiding the booze and others, myself included, partaking in a few pre-match beers. I am not sure it was the best idea (the vodka chaser certainly wasn’t) as I only had 5 hours sleep, but it was a great evening full of banter and bravado.

After a few hours sleep it was off to the track for a 7am sign-on and scruitineering, then quite a lot of hanging around. I checked and re-checked my kit, fitted my go-pro camera and pumped my tyres up to 33psi, more for something to do than for any scientific reason. At 8am the Clerk of the Course met us and took us on a track walk, which was useful and helped add perspective to the You Tube videos I had been watching. We then had a briefing from the Clerk of the Course before going back to our cars and waiting to be called. At this point I was surprisingly calm and enjoying the atmosphere of the event and banter with my fellow competitors Jason, Paul and Zoli.

When the call came for our first practice run I started to panic slightly and took an age to get myself settled in the car and belted up. I hadn’t really learnt my lesson from the handling day! After gathering in the holding area we were funnelled to the start line for our runs. My first practice run was OK, but there was plenty of room for improvement and I stopped the clock at 56.88 seconds (anything in the 54 seconds is reckoned to be very good for a Sigma engine Academy car).

It was then back to the paddock for a 45 minute wait for the next of our practice runs, which I was ready for in much better time. During my second run I attacked the course much harder and was rewarded with a time of 54.86 seconds, which I was really pleased with. I still felt there was room for improvement on my starts, my braking points were too cautious and my turn-in too early, so I was confident I could achieve a quicker time, possibly even something in the 53 second range.

Before our first timed runs I took a stroll around the paddock and chatted to a few of the guys, including the course record holder. I asked for hints and tips, but to be honest there was little that I could gather from him given his car was crossing the finish line at 160mph plus, whilst we were doing well to top 110mph. Still, everyone was incredibly friendly and the atmosphere relaxed. There were also some very beautiful old Lotuses (Loti?) competing in the Paul Matty championship which I spent plenty of time dribbling over.

My first timed run yielded a slight improvement in time, but perhaps not as much as I had hoped for. I was still getting too much wheel spin on the start and was perhaps not as brave on the brakes as I could have been. My time of 54.53 was enough to give me first in Group 1, but I was approximately a second behind the fastest guy in Group 2, showing just how much scope for improvement there was.

After lunch and much banter with the rest of the guys it was time for our second timed runs. I attacked the course harder again on this run, but actually went slightly slower , losing too much time to overseer in the first and third corners, crossing the line in 54.78 seconds and being bumped into 2nd in Group 1. I still felt that there was plenty of time to be gained and hoped to find it on my third run.

My third run was my best yet and resulted in a time of 54.42 seconds, but unfortunately (for me) a couple of other guys in our group went quicker still and I ended up a frustrated 4th in Group 1. It had been a fantastic day and I felt that I had driven well, but that I still had more to give. Those of you that sprint regularly will probably recognise this feeling and it is very easy to see how sprinting could become very addictive as you chase the perfect run. I wanted more time to play around with my tyre pressures a little to see if I could find more grip and to try some different lines/approaches, but the 5 runs we had were great fun and a fantastic way of easing into competitive motorsport.

The guys in Group 2 were quicker still, with two of them breaking the old class record and the fastest finishing in 53.24 seconds which was a stunning time. Both have done over a 1,000 track miles in their cars with tuition, one even had his instructor there with him on the day, so it is easy to see why they are quick (at least that is how I rationalise it in my mind). This is the beauty of the Academy for me. You have guys with instructors and great big motorhomes with mechanics, right through to those who drive their cars up and sleep in tents at the circuit. I guess I sit somewhere in the middle as I tow and stay in hotels, but I am definitely behind the curve in terms of track time and tuition having only done Castle Combe un-tutored. It would be nice to get more time on the track and get some tuition to give myself a chance of being right at the pointy end of the grid, but given my family circumstances I can’t really see that being a possibility this year. I will have to keep trying as hard as I can at the events themselves and focusing on enjoying them, which if Aintree is anything to go by, will be very easy indeed.

Run Number 1 - 54.53 Seconds

Run Number 2 - 54.78 Seconds

Run Number 1 - 54.42 Seconds

Race Preparation, Handling Day and Test Day (Playing Catch-up)

With a mad few months at work and a growing family I have neglected my blog recently (this is being written the day after the Aintree Sprint), but I am desperate to keep the diary going and record everything I have been doing, so have tried to compressed everything between the Set-up Day and the Aintree Sprint into the one update:

Race Preparation (Take 1) - Saturday 10th March:
After the Set-up Day at Caterham it was clear that there was still a lot of work to be done to our cars to get them ready for competition, so I took mine back over to my parents garage to start on the list of things to do. As usual, most of the jobs took much longer than expected and I didn't get anywhere near as much done as I had imagined, but it was a good start.

At the Set-up Day I had bought some competition brake pads and the thicker front anti-roll bar (the red-bar, rather than the orange bar the car was supplied with). I fitted both of these quickly and without any great trouble. I then moved onto the grill which requires the 7 be in front of the mesh, whereas the IVA requires these to be the other way around. Again this was a very straightforward job and done in a matter of minutes. After these small jobs I set about draining the gearbox oil and changing it for a different grade. I had used Comma 75-90 GL5 and had been unhappy with the gear-change from new, so was recommended Redline 75 – 90 GL4 as an alternative. This was a pretty unpleasant job to complete, but made much easier by the loan of a transfer pump from a fellow Caterham 7 owner (Ian - SM25T) and a much better understanding of how to fill the gearbox after the original build. The transfer pump enabled me to suck all of the old oil out of the gearbox and by using a small oil can with a thumb pump and a long thin nozzle, filling took a matter of 30 minutes rather than the 2 – 3 hours during the original build. The next job on the list was to fit the side intrusion bar, which mounts at the front of the cage, behind the drivers seat and at the front A-frame mounting point. Whilst not a difficult job, it took quite a lot of jiggling and heaving to make everything line up properly and get the bolts in and torqued up properly. The final job I completed was to fit and connect the rain light, the hardest part of which was making the p-clip that it mounts to stretch far enough around the roll-bar to get it mounted correctly.

That little lot took me the best part of a day and I had only just made a small dent in the to-do list. It was at this point I realised how horribly time consuming race preparation is!

Flat Floor & Race Seat - Thursday 15th March:
After the Set-up Day I had decided to take advantage of the Caterham flat floor option, which they are doing as deal for £50 for all Academy drivers. This is really impressive given the time involved (at least 3 hours) and is done to try and help avoid Academy racers getting taken advantage of by people blinding them with set-up science and large set-up bills. I have heard mixed things about the Caterham set-up, but decided to give it a go and see how I get on with it. Some they aren’t very accurate, but the set-up morning and Simon’s Lamberts explanation of the basic parameters showed that in theory it should work just fine. Whilst my car was back at the factory Caterham had offered to change the rear callipers, which needed replacing as part of a parts recall, and I had decided to have a foam race seat made at the same time as I didn’t have enough leg room with the Tillet seat and I was worried that I would be too close to the roll bar with my crash helmet on to comply with the regulations.

I set off for Caterham at 6am and arrived at the factory just after 7am - an early start to give the guys the best possible chance of finishing everything in a day. My car was taken off around the back of the factory to have the callipers changed and my drivers seat taken out, which took a good couple of hours and gave me plenty of time to sit in reception watching videos of previous years Academy racing, drink coffee and eat biscuits. A little later I was called around to the back of the factory to start my seat fitting which involved me sitting in the car on top of a large plastic bag as the technician, Mark, pored expanding foam in. This process was repeated three times for the different parts of the seat and took a good couple of hours as we chatted waiting for the chemicals to set. After the seat had been formed Mark got to work on the suspension; toe, camber and ride heights, which he found to be quite a long way out from where they needed to be, particularly at the rear where the ride height was very low.

After lunch and a long wait back in reception as Mark wrapped the seat in tape and fitted it to the car, I got to pay (£300) and take the car back. I drove it down the road and immediately brought it back as the steering wheel was off-centre. Mark sorted this in a matter of minutes and we were off again. The car certainly felt a whole lot better to drive home than it had on the way there, with none of the bottoming out I had experienced from the basic factory set-up, feeling much more fluid and planted on the road. I felt much more comfortable in the car too, sitting much lower and with all the legroom I needed, so whilst and expensive trip it felt like money well spent. I really enjoyed the drive home, especially as it had turned into a beautifully sunny afternoon.

Handling Day - Sunday 18th March:
The next event on the calendar was held on Mothering Sunday (not the best day when you are short of brownie points) and was the “Handling Day” at Silverstone. I actually joined Group 2, as the Group 1 guys were doing theirs on the Saturday, but I was at the England/Ireland game watching the Irish front row collapse with was a tough weekend :-)

The Handling Day was our first taste of (semi-serious) competition and was brilliant fun in a hooligan sort of way. I left home early for Silverstone, driving through freezing fog with the hood down along the back roads and arrived to a bleak and chilly Silverstone frozen to the core but happy. After quite a bit of waiting around we were given our briefing and started the day with a Le-Mans start, sounding our horns when fully strapped into our cars. Ten minutes after the starter had sounded, most of us were still fiddling with our wrist restraints/crotch straps! Whilst slightly bizarre the challenge had brilliantly highlighted just how long it takes to get properly strapped into a Caterham and it was a lesson well worth learning before the first competitive event.

We then moved on to scruitineering, where our cars were checked over for race readiness. I had completed a few of the jobs on the list, but was far from ready, so was issued with a list of all the jobs I needed to complete before the first event. Luckily I wasn't the only one (some guys hadn't even got their cars yet), but it still made me realise quite how much work I had left to do.

As the day went on we practised standing starts, slaloms and a sprint around the cones, all of which were timed and taken very seriously by everyone there, even though we pretended we weren’t that bothered. My standing starts were exuberant, but slow and I struggled with understeer on the handling course, but came a respectable 5th overall. Some of the guys have been doing serious track mileage, so whilst slightly disappointed I didn't feel as though I had done too badly. The day wasn’t very representative of any future events, but was an excellent way to practice some of the skills that I know I will need and get to know my car at and beyond the limit in relative safety.

Race Preparation (Take 2) - Monday 16th & Tuesday 17th April:
I had originally planned to complete the remaining race preparation on the weekend of the 14th April after our family holiday, but the early (by 4 weeks) arrival of Henry William James Gurr on Wednesday 11th April put pay to that plan. Once home from hospital my ever patient wife let me spend a couple of days trying to finish off the last of the jobs on my list.

I started on Monday by fitting the roll-bar padding, fitting a wide angle rear view mirror and convex door mirrors (which I had bought to replace the horrible standard items), fitting the fuel sampler, sealing the boot floor and changing the engine oil. All of these jobs were pretty straight forward, with the only problem being a leak on the fuel sampler which was quickly fixed with some PTFE tape.

Most time consuming of all was fitting the racing decals, which took me a couple of hours and a lot of swearing to get just right. This was a job worth taking time and pride over as it would be very easy to do a shoddy job, but I was pleased with the end result, despite the persistent air bubble persisting. It was also one of those jobs that was highly satisfying as the car finally looked like a proper racing car.

What I have rapidly become aware of, apart from the cost of motor racing, is the amount of time you spend getting the car ready. With the build finished I had naively assumed that there would be little else to do but climb in and drive it, but I have probably spent an extra week on the car getting it ready for the first event. Time has always been a constraint for me with a young family, but has become even more so with Henry arriving. Apparently paternity leave is not “a great time to work on the car”, so with one more job to do (fit the oil breather tank) I handed the car over to Chris Wheeler at the 7 Workshop to do this and fit the timing strut for the sprints. At this point I really appreciate why some people use race teams to support their efforts, but thankfully for my very limited bank balance, these are not permitted in the Academy.

Test Day - 18th April:
The final event before the first competitive sprint was held on the 18th April and thanks to my ever patient wife I was able to attend the “Test Day” at Castle Combe, despite Henry only being a week old. This time I decided to trailer the car down to the circuit, which turned out to be a great idea given the biblical weather and my severely sleep deprived state. Because of the expanded family we had been out and bought a new family waggon (a Volvo XC60) which very conveniently came with a removable tow bar and I had borrowed a trailer from a friend of mine (Wes Fox, who won the Academy in 2010). I had never trailered before, so it took me a good hour to load the car and get it strapped down properly the night before. The drive down was uneventful, but I stopped at least twice within the first couple of miles to check that everything was still tight and that I had actually taken the handbrake off the trailer (it is amazing the tricks your mind can play on you)!

The Test Day itself was an exclusive track day for the 2012 Academy guys and a great opportunity to spend time on the track with my car. Many of the other drivers have done a number of track days already, a couple doing up to 1,500 track miles already, but with a busy client project and the birth of baby Gurr number 3 I simply hadn’t had time to get out on track until this point. Before setting off at 5.30am I was feeling tired and generally not in the mood, but by the end of the day I was elated.

Our cars were noise tested and scruitineered in the morning, but after that it was a case of enjoying our 20 minute sessions and sheltering from the unrelenting rain. The track was unbelievably wet and slippery and our first session was started behind a course car, which I thought was going stupidly slowly until I started sliding and wheel spinning just trying to keep up. I was at the front of the group and could see virtually nothing, but built speed up slowly and started to leave the other guys behind. During our second session I got more confident and started trying different lines and looking for grip off line. I also started overtaking a few of the slower guys which felt fantastic. By the end of the fourth session I felt I was really getting on top of the car and the conditions, overtaking plenty of cars and not getting overtaken myself. I know it wasn't a competitive event, but it helped give me confidence in my driving. It was by far and away the most fun I have ever had in a car and a fantastic opportunity to practice very delicate car control. Visibility at points was near zero, with my screen misting up badly and the only way of telling where the track went being to follow the rain light of the car in front, but it was unbelievable fun and a good gauge of who will be quick in our coming races. I was pleased with the way I had driven and left the circuit late that afternoon with some really positive feedback from the tutors and my car still in one piece, which put me on a real high. If our races are half as much fun, then it is going to be an incredible year.